You’re listening to Imaginary Worlds, a show about how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief. I’m Eric Molinsky.
I was halfway through my Doctor Who mini-series when something very significant happened in the world of science fiction. The great novelist Ursula K. Le Guin passed away. And I was contemplating how to address her legacy on my podcast when a listener told me about a documentary that being made called Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.
The director Arwen Curry spent almost ten years with Le Guin, and now she’s in the final stage of putting the film together. Her production office is in Berkeley – and since I was in the Bay Area recently, I wanted to stop by and hear about the film.
It’s funny interviewing someone who is so adapt at doing interviews. She was adjusting her own mic, and she even knew the question I was going to ask to get her sound levels – which the question every public radio reporter asks to get your levels: tell me what you had for breakfast.
ARWEN: I was going to say Oatmeal. You know my question! ARWEN: I’ve done a little bit of radio.
Arwen Curry was raised in Berkeley. She says her father was a big influence on her childhood imagination. Her was an early Dungeons & Dragons player, and he enlisted his kids on adventures that went way beyond the D&D manuals. And his bookshelves were filmed with fantasy novels – books like The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.
ARWEN: I loved the Lathe of Heaven which is one of the books on my father's bookshelf and that's a book in which the protagonist. His dreams change reality. So he wakes up from one of these powerful dreams and the whole world has changed but no one knows it except for him. And I just loved that idea.
Ursula Le Guin was also raised in Berkeley. And even as a kid, Arwen felt there was something very familiar about Le Guin’s voice.
ARWEN: There are things that I have in common with Ursula that have become clear to me over the course of working on the documentary and that may be what it is in this case is that sort of a you know a deeply humane deeply sane kind of
1 2 rational scientific but very you know very measured and poetic approach that seemed familiar to me perhaps because my own father was a scientist and she was being inflected by that in her work. Ursula's father was an anthropologist and mine was a chemist and that kind of conversation about understanding things scientifically about proving a problem approaching a problem in a really open minded and creative way with an eye always toward looking to the truth with something that I was familiar with that voice seemed very in tune with the kinds of voices that I had in my own family.
And it wasn’t just a scientific way of looking at the world. Ursula Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist. Both her parents were academics and experts on Native American cultures of California.
ARWEN: And so her childhood was textured with an understanding of many cultures many voices many kinds of ways of approaching the world and she knew in a way that most people don't. From early on that hers was only one way that the primary way that she lived as a as a young kid in Berkeley in America was only one way of seeing the world and that there were many others out there all equally valid which was the approach of her father's anthropology.
Which was very unusual perspective for an American kid to have in the 1930s and ‘40s. Also:
ARWEN: She was not treated differently in any significant way from her four brothers. She was encouraged to participate in their lively conversations and arguments and to do all the rough and tumble play and to really put herself right in the middle of it. Yeah I remember I read some interviews that you were she was saying that people thing that she's sort of very assertive and suffers no fools and throws her opinions out there but she's like this is this for me that is just starting a conversation is what I had to do with the youngest of all these children just to get myself heard. ARWEN: Exactly. And now that we're talking about it I can say that this was another real similarity with how I grew up and something in her voice which was very familiar to me was just this kind of embrace of the argument as a way of communicating a way of getting to the truth. And then we live in a society that fears that strong opinion being put out there at the dinner table that feels like an argument. It feels like conflict and people back away from it. And in my family and I think also in Ursula's family this lively intellectual discussion was just the way that people spoke.
So when did you have the idea to make the documentary about her? ARWEN: First let's see I first began to think about the documentary probably 2003. The idea first came into my head and in fact remained in my head as I went to get my master's degree at the University of California Berkeley journalism school. Initially I valued her as a kind of feminist godmother and as a reader to find that person in fiction was where kind of my heart went but I didn't know very much about her story. I didn't know how it would be connected to so many other things that I found fascinating and that I cared deeply about. So the more I began to investigate it the more it became clear to me that I really did want to get into that story and that it was a video that it was film. Why did you feel like this is definitely got to be a film? ARWEN: There are many good reasons to make to tell stories in film but I think in this case I wanted to share the experience of knowing her and speaking with her in a way that was more direct and immediate and intimate than happens in fiction – of course fiction can be intimate but it’s not the same as being able to look at someone's gestures and to see their expressions and to of course hear their voice and then to tell the rest of the story as well. So going back to the beginning of the documentary you had to approach her of course. How did that go at first? ARWEN: First I had to go get the training that I got the training Oh the training really? ARWEN: Yeah. You had made some didn't you --? ARWEN: No, when I will when I first had the idea I was working in print. Then I decided to work on this and it was part of the reason that I went to journalism school where I did the documentary program to learn how to make documentary films of this of this scale. Wow. So with that in mind the idea that you would eventually make a film. Oh wow. ARWEN: So it in fact kind of drove my -- the direction of my storytelling and my career.
Right so step one -- go to film school. Step two was to establish herself as a filmmaker. Finally step three: contact Ursula Le Guin. By the way, she had done interviews in print and on the radio, but she didn’t like being on camera – so there had never been a documentary about her before.
ARWEN: Well I had a little bit of help. We had a mutual friend who was a member of a collective of house cleaners who up until the end and I think still cleans Ursula’s house and kind of helps take care of things there. And I knew this
3 4 mutual friend Mo who basically could put in a good word for me so I sent Ursula my only film which was a short documentary about compulsive hoarding and sent it to her and said this is my work. This is some of the writing that I've done. Basically this is who I am in the most simple terms that I can express it. And this is what I'd like to do. And then this mutual friend Moe Boaster put in a good word for me which I think also swayed Ursula to kind of entertain the idea and then at a certain point early on before we had met she sort of backtracked a little bit and was looking like she was maybe having second thoughts. And that's when we met. I said basically let me let me come over and talk to you. What was that conversation like and also where you and him needed to finally meet her? ARWEN: I was a little intimidated to meet her -- but I was more driven to convince her to let me do this, and so that was primarily the energy that that I was bringing there. I wanted to really share with her why I thought it was important and see if I could get her to see that and what she had to overcome on her end is really significant is just her natural kind of shyness and discomfort with being in front of the camera. So we kind of had to cross that bridge.
And that was just the beginning of their journey together. The rest is after the break.
Arwen Curry spent a decade filming Ursula Le Guin. In the mean time, Arwen worked on other documentaries and continued building her career. And as she and Le Guin intersected periodically while living their own lives, Arwen realized that something else kept drawing her back to Le Guin.
ARWEN: As I continued working with her through the years I also realized that there was something basic about sort of how to live your life with integrity and grace and kind of how to make the most of what you're given. That's interesting is she's not. She seems to be someone who had a pretty you know blessed with a lot of great you know great family and all that and not a huge tragedy that she had to work through. So curious what your what it was you're thinking in that regard. ARWEN: Well precisely. She's a person who was very gifted in many ways. She was gifted with first of all her own innate gifts her own incredible talent and her you know her work ethic her stamina. She was gifted with her family that she grew up in which provided not only incredibly interesting ideas but also a framework that was supportive of her own writing and her way of working through
4 5 them. She was gifted of course in the way that many of us are being in this country at this time by coming from a you know well-to-do academic family. So anyway she had a lot of privilege and gifts in her life. And she could have squandered it ARWEN: As many of us do. She could have spent her time wondering how she could make the most of her life while sort of frittering it away doing other things you know. And we all try our best and try our hardest. But she's an example of one of the people who has made almost the most of what she could have done. If you look at how she did it if you examine her life and her approach you can learn many valuable things about how to use what's given to you. And I do all the time. I mean constantly referring to what she might have done -- what she did do in a similar circumstance and you know she's a kind of a guide for how to how to live and by live I mean she's a guide for how to give back. How do you use what you have to make the world a better place in a real way?
It took a long time for Ursula K. Le Guin to become, well, Ursula K. Le Guin as we know her. In the 1950s, she started out writing more realistic novels, but they weren’t catching on. And when she decided to write sci-fi – science fiction wasn’t cool or trendy. It definitely wasn’t considered serious literature – certainly not by the literary establishment on the East Coast. And Le Guin wanted to be taken seriously. She also wanted to write under her own name as a woman – which can be challenging even today. Early on in her career, she was encouraged to publish a story under the name U.K. Le Guin, but she vowed to never do that again.
Her big breakout finally came in 1968. Her novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, was aimed at a younger audience, and there was more precedence of women writing children’s books. But the book was widely acclaimed and taken seriously by critics.
The story was about a boy wizard who goes through a rigorous training at a hidden school for magic where he can learn to master a complicated magical system. And yes, a lot of people have wondered if JK Rowling (ROLLING) was influenced by Le Guin – including Ursula Le Guin.
And the feminist movement grained ground in the late ‘60s, the fact that Le Guin was a woman writing sci-fi began to work in her favor. And like many greats authors and artists, she was in the right place at the right time.
ARWEN: Some of it was it was a happy confluence of when she when she really
5 6 reached her hit her stride and as she says in the film it was a very interesting moment for science fiction because science fiction was starting to kind of open its arms to other ideas beyond the technological beyond the gadgetry and spaceships and you know Ray Guns and silly things like that and ideas about culture ideas about identity ideas about relationships. We're becoming more interesting to the readers and writers of science fiction. And also there were more voices there were more women there were more writers of color. There were different people kind of stepping into the fray and beginning to assert a place for themselves. And this is kind of the community that she stepped into and she took that opening and really made the most of it by exploring very deeply these anthropological ideas in her work and asking people to really question some of the assumptions which they held closest like the idea of a binary gender, for example.
Arwen is referring to one of Le Guin’s most famous novels, The Left Hand of Darkness from 1969, which takes place on a planet where the inhabitants have fluid genders.
ARWEN: And that really blew people's minds to be asked to think about these people who were neither men or women. And even though she was criticized for making them too male. Basically many of the readers were just blown away by that exercise that they were asked to do. You know I think it was a really powerful work that was ahead of its time and it opened up it got people talking.
And that became her signature mode – the so-called “thought experiment.”
ARWEN: A number of writers bring up this idea of the thought experiment and to some degree that's what science fiction does. Most of the time because it takes us someplace else and asks us to be there maybe that's what fiction does in a more general sense. But she really took this to this wonderful level with her acumen system. You know she invented this universe of worlds that are connected by the acumen which is this sort of consortium of loosely organized planets that are connected with each other but each of these planets has people on them but each one of them and in each planet there are different circumstances and different factors and elements which shape those people to being one way or another, and it asks us to explore why we are the way we are and how we could be different.
Which goes right back to Le Guin’s childhood, being the daughter of an anthropologist.
But society was changing fast. And in the 1970s, this Berkeley-raised groundbreaking female author found herself in a strange position as representing an old fashioned way of seeing the world.
ARWEN: It's almost the structure of my film because it's one way to kind of look at her evolution as a as a person as a thinker. She didn't initially think of herself as a feminist and she has said and she says in our film that she began writing from the point of view of a man her point of view of a woman pretending to think like a man I think is what she says when Ursula began reading books as a child and when she began writing and publishing the default voice the default protagonist was a male and the voice was from the point of view of a of a male hero and she wrote that way. She accepted that default as most women writers did in her early works are written from the point of view of these intrepid male heroes and it wasn't until circumstances both internal and external caused her to think more deeply about her own perspective as a woman. That her work began to change and what's so remarkable about Ursula is that she changes in front of our eyes. She allows herself to change.
But change isn’t easy.
ARWEN: The women's movement was happening and initially it was hard for her to be a part of it. She was a mother she was a housewife. When she began writing she was deeply dedicated to her marriage and those things were did not seem to be compatible with the role of a feminist as she first saw it. But when she did begin to read women's writings and to listen to what they were saying she realized that she was going to have to change her own perspective in order to actually speak from who she truly was. So there was a process of becoming and because she is a writer she was a writer through and through. It happened in her work. It was expressed through the things she was publishing and so we can we can actually see that evolution taking place as we read her work and follow it in her fiction. And there's something that's very unusual about that to basically say OK I was wrong about this. This isn't this isn't the only kind of hero we can have women's magic is not necessarily just weak and wicked as it's described in the first Earthsea books. It's also powerful. It's also misunderstood and that's what she comes again later to explore in the later books so she doesn't put down anything she did before. But she looks at it from a different perspective. Which is funny because so often that's what she was so best known for with her thought experiments and our anthropological take that to have so many people from the outside saying you know actually fueling your own
7 8 work you also know that must have been a slight humbling lesson for her. ARWEN: I think it was and I'm sure that you've you know talked to many creative people and they don't often take criticism that well it usually tends to trigger defensiveness and sometimes they come back with the same thing they just did and sort of hit the point home harder. This is how this is my stand. Instead of doing that she was very I think she took it all in. She felt all the defensiveness and then she put it in what she called her compost her creative compost and what came out of it was this other voice that was her real mature self as a writer her real mature presence that comes out in her later work and gives her such depth and integrity throughout her career. She wasn't just the bright spark who was able to write these exciting novels as a young woman. She was also a true master.
A few years ago, Ursula Le Guin announced she would no longer be writing fiction. She didn’t have the energy or drive anymore. But she was still actively engaged with her fans, and gave fiery talks on the shortcomings of the publishing industry. Arwen had expected Le Guin to be there when the documentary was done, promoting the film alongside her.
ARWEN: She had been in poor health for some time before she passed away. She wasn't sick in bed and I don't know the exact circumstances of her dying but I was corresponding with her a week or so before she passed away and she was taking care of business and which for her was communicating being at the computer working on projects working in collaboration working on poetry right up until her death. Was it something that you saw as very much something could happen at any point or were you were you shocked? ARWEN: She had had a spell of poor health in the past year and at that point that was the first time that I you know really started to feel worried like oh she's you know she's ailing then she's going to have some try some problems but it resolved. And it was more like she entered into another phase of her old age where she had less mobility. She got tired more frequently. She had less stamina for life and for work I had adjusted personally to just that new pace in speaking with her and was in denial that it would have you know that that she was close to passing away. So I was not thinking of her as somebody who was going to die at any minute. Not at all.
Arwen went into this project because she believed in the intimacy of a film to really get to know someone. But after Ursula Le Guin died, editing the footage of all day long was tough.
ARWEN: Yeah it's very it's very difficult to look at her face and listen to her voice. There is a period I don't know if this is something that fades over time but right now the sort of shape of her absence is very large and very tactile to me like I can. I can see that the shape of her not being here and it's this huge hole I think it's going to go on for a long time while people it absorbs the magnitude of the loss to kind of the world of ideas to the literary world science fiction world feminist thinkers and just on a personal level having spent you know I've done a lot of evolution of my own while working on this project and she has been a touchstone of kind of wisdom and common sense and integrity and you know creative ingenuity throughout the process. And so there's always that impulse with it when a powerful person leaves of wanting to check in with them about any number of things and them not being there and even about the loss itself you know where if it were someone else who had passed away that I cared about I would be asking her. You know I would be looking to her for wisdom about how I should proceed in the project and in my life and of course she's not here. I mean given that I know that you're the filmmaker and she's documentary subjects but do you feel like she became a friend or mentor. I mean how would you describe your relationship as it evolved? ARWEN: Both of this things certainly, yeah. Yeah I feel like I did have an intimate friendship with her you know and almost like we're family in some way which is not to say that we're family in the way that her real family is. But, yeah, the loss is as personal as well.
Even if there aren’t any more Ursula Le Guin novels coming out – her influence is everywhere. I feel it every time I read new authors delving into speculative fiction with their own “though experiments.”
ARWEN: Ursula Le Guin’s legacy is easiest to see in how she left fiction behind her when she came into it. Science Fiction and Fantasy was something marginal something silly something trivialized. It maintained that status as being kind of laughable kind of not really where real art happens for a long time and it was partly because of her real insistence on being a real artist in that medium in that genre that genre is no longer considered off limits for serious artists. So artists like Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell and Zadie Smith and you know I could go on and on can take fantastic elements science fictional elements and weave them into their work and just be novelists who are have just as much chance of writing a great novel that ends up on the New York Times bestseller list as anybody else.
That’s it for this week, thank you for listening and special thanks to Arwen Curry for providing me with clips from her upcoming documentary, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. The film will premiere at film festivals this summer and it will be on US public television in the fall. It also features interviews with Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and many others.
And I learned one more interesting tidbit. I mentioned to Arwen how strange it was there have been very few good film or TV adaptations of Le Guin’s work. Well:
ARWEN: I think it's coming Yeah? ARWEN: Yeah. And I can't speak about any of the details. I think it's on the way.
I can’t wait.
Imaginary Worlds is part of the Panoply network. You can like the show in Facebook. I tweet at emolinsky. My website is imaginary worlds podcast dot org.
Again, here’s Ursula Le Guin from the documentary.