(Frequently Asked Questions)
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People write me nice letters asking what order they ought to read myscience fiction books in — the ones that are called the Hainish or Ekumen cycle or saga or something. The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones. And some great discontinuities (like, what happened to "mindspeech” after Left Hand of Darkness? Who knows? Ask God, and she may tell you she didn’t believe in it any more.)
OK, so, very roughly, then:
Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions: where they fit in the “Hainish cycle” is anybody’s guess, but I’d read them first because they were written first. In them there is a “League of Worlds,” but the Ekumen does not yet exist.
Then you could read The Word for World is Forest, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, in any order. In Dispossessed, the ansible gets invented; but they’re using it in Left Hand, which was written fifteen years earlier. Please do not try to explain this to me. I will not understand.
Then in the collection of stories A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, the three last stories are Ekumenical, and we even finally find out a little about Hain, where it all began. The story suite Four Ways to Forgiveness is part of that universe, and so is the novel The Telling. But I have to warn you that the planet Werel in Four Ways is not the planet Werel in Planet of Exile. In between novels, I forget planets. Sorry.
The Eye of the Heron may or may not be set in the Hainish universe; it really doesn’t matter. As for The Lathe of Heaven and Always Coming Home, my Terran science fiction novels, they definitely don’t exist in the same universe as the Hainish or Ekumenical books.
While we’re at it, Earthsea really does go in order, because it is all one story: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other Wind. (My British publisher insisted on doing the two last in the wrong order, and I’m very sorry about that, since “Dragonfly” in the Tales makes the bridge between Tehanu and The Other Wind.)
Catwings goes: Catwings, Catwings Return, Wonderful Alexander, and Jane On Her Own. (Since the publisher, Scholastic, seems to have some deep metaphysical objection to ever letting anybody sell the four books in the same place at the same time, go for the four-volume set — if you can find it.)
How do you pronounce the names and words in your books?
You the Reader have Reader’s Rights. One of them is to pronounce made-up names and words the way you want to.
But people do like to know how the maker-up pronounces them. And since this does affect the sound and rhythm of a sentence – and since names are magic in Earthsea – here are some guidelines. In my invented names and words, usually:
A is ah
E is eh
I is ee
O is oh
U is oo
EY rhymes with they
AY rhymes with either they or high
All the E’s are pronounced, including final e: Meshe = mesheh.
You have to take your chances with G, but usually it’s G as in get, not G as in gem. So Ged is Ged not Jed, Ogion rhymes with “bogey on.”
(A couple of names in Left Hand are pronounced as if in English: Tibe is not tee-beh, but rhymes with bribe. Karhide sounds like two English words, car-hide.)
Where to put the stress? No general rule. (Yeowe is yeh-OH-weh, not YOWie!)
Don’t worry about it. Say things they way they sound good to you.
Or you could get one of the audio recordings of the book. As a rule the producers and performers take great care to check the pronunciations with me.
(But in an early British recorded reading of Wizard, well honey, sure enough, there was Jed the Kentucky Mountain Man. And in the American film “based on” A Wizard of Earthsea, Ogion became oh-JYE-on. But that wasn’t the the worst by a long shot. He became the only non-white man in the whole Archipelago – they’d poured Clorox on all the others.)
What is your policy on fan fiction set in your worlds and using your characters?
It’s all right with me — it’s really none of my business — if people want to write stories for themselves & their friends using names and places from my work. But these days, thanks to the Web, “stuff for friends” gets sent out all over the place and put where it doesn’t belong and mistaken for the genuine article, and can cause both confusion and real, legal trouble.
As for anybody publishing any story “derived from” my stuff, I am absolutely opposed to it & have never given anyone permission to do so. It is lovely to “share worlds” if your imagination works that way, but mine doesn’t; to me, it’s not sharing but an invasion, literally — strangers coming in and taking over the country I live in, my heartland.
This applies, of course, to fiction only. I have given permission to all sorts of script writers, playwrights, musicians, dancers, etc. to use my stuff for performance pieces, and collaborated happily with many of them. That’s different. That’s a gas! Collaboration is one thing, co-optation is another.
What were your childhood & youth like — was it happy — were there any significant influences on you?
My childhood was what is called “happy.” My parents were loving, kind, and intelligent; I had an extra mother in my great-aunt; I had three big brothers to tag around after (and to have fights with the youngest of them); and everybody in the family was glad I was a girl, which made me able to be glad to be a woman, eventually.
My father was a university professor and we were well off, even during the Depression of the 1930’s. We lived in a beautiful redwood house in Berkeley, and summers on an old ranch in the hills of the Napa Valley. I went to public schools, where I got a good education (although I was shy and malingered a good deal in grade school, and high school was three years of social torture.)
There were lots of visitors, lots of talk and argument and discussion about everything, lots of books around, lots of music and story-telling. The life of the mind can be a very lively one. I was brought up to think and to question and to enjoy.
During the second World War my brothers all went into service and the summers in the Valley became lonely ones, just me and my parents in the old house. There was no TV then; we turned on the radio once a day to get the war news. Those summers of solitude and silence, a teenager wandering the hills on my own, no company, “nothing to do,” were very important to me. I think I started making my soul then.
What inspired you to be a writer?
Learning to write, at five.
Who helped/hindered you in your early career?
My parents never encouraged me in the sense of making a fuss about what I wrote or praising my determination to write. They encouraged me greatly in the sense that they believed that if a gift is also an obligation – it’s given you to work with, and work for. And such work is the most rewarding of all.
I grew up when male supremacy was built firmly into every aspect of society, taken for granted, and very seldom challenged, but within my family I was never made to feel that I was expected to achieve less than my brothers, or that any path, intellectual or aesthetic, was closed to me because I was a girl.
When I was getting near college age, my father talked with me about getting a ‘salable skill’ — learning a trade that I could live on. Because most writers don’t earn enough from writing to buy catfood, this was wise advice. I loved languages, so I studied French and Italian literature, and went on for higher degrees that would qualify me to teach.
The woman’s college I more or less accidentally went to, Radcliffe, though a mere thorn in the giant manly flesh of Harvard, taught me what women as a group could do and be, when not shamed and badgered and crowded out of it.
Then when I got married, my husband never questioned my right to write. He’d do his work, I’d do my work, and we’d do our work (house and family) together. This was rare, in the 1950s. My advice to any young writer is still: if you can’t marry money, at least don’t marry envy.
When I was young, the few older writers I met were personally and professionally encouraging. The authors who are my friends now are generous people with a strong sense of community. I shy away from writers who look at art as a competition for fame, money, prizes, etc. What matters is the work.
How do you feel about your life now? What would you change or wish had been different?
I love living almost as well as I love writing.
It was tough trying to keep writing while bringing up three kids, but my husband was totally in it with me, and so it worked out fine. Le Guins’ Rule: One person cannot do two fulltime jobs, but two persons can do three fulltime jobs — if they honestly share the work.
The idea that you need an ivory tower to write in, that if you have babies you can’t have books, that artists are somehow exempt from the dirty work of life — rubbish.
What themes and ideas recur in your writing?
This is a question for critics not for the author. Two obvious things often pointed out by critics: Taoist thought runs quite deep in the structure of many of my fictions. And many of them put the viewpoint characters into a different society and culture, where they have to figure out what’s going on, how things work. (Since all of us as children are in this situation, it is a reliably interesting and relevant one.)
Do you have a writing philosophy?
I guess it is: Write. Revise. If possible, publish.
Writing is my craft. I honor it deeply. To have a craft, to be able to work at it, is to be honored by it.
Do you weave events from your real life into stories or rely on imagination?
Of course everything one writes about comes from experience. Where else could it come from? But the imagination recombines, remakes.... makes a new world, makes the world new.
I seldom exploit experience directly. I do what the poet Gary Snyder calls “composting” — You let everything you do or think or read or feel sink down inside yourself and stay in the dark, and then (years later maybe) something entirely new grows up out of that rich darkness. This takes patience.
One of my favorite things the poet Shelley said is, “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination."
And while I’m quoting quotes, Socrates remarked, “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.” That’s a good one to remember when listening to a politician or reading an advertisement.
Do you do research, visit places, when you are writing your books?
Stories and books have grown directly out of places that I happened to visit (my first trip to the Eastern Oregon desert led straight to The Tombs of Atuan.) If there is science in a science-fiction story I’m writing and I need to check my facts, I do. But most of my research is into the geography of my own imagination, where Earthsea, and Gethen, and Orsinia, and all my other subworlds are.
Do you keep a journal or diary?
Used to. Don’t now. Just a poems notebook.
Do you revise many times?
As many times as necessary. With one story or novel, this may be five false starts and six or eight or ten full rewrites, beginning to end. With the next, it may mean just going back through it and over it fiddling details until I think it’s as good as I can get it.
Rewriting is as hard as composition is — that is, very hard work. But revising — fiddling and polishing — that’s gravy — I love it. I could do it forever. And the computer has made it such a breeze. (Once I learned how to keep the computer itself from “correcting” my grammar, that is. Hey, butt out, Bill Gates, this is MY syntax.)
Are there any events in your life you would not want included in a biography?
If there were, would I tell you? Is this question an oxymoron or an Irish Bull?
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