Ursula K. Le Guin does not look famous. 81 years old, thin but not frail, with enough hair to cover her scalp and neck but not dangle past it, she looks like someone’s grandmother. If you passed by her in the grocery store, you’d think, “What a cute little old lady,” instead of, “That’s the author who won five Hugo Awards!”
Well, Le Guin IS a cute little old lady, quick to laugh (which reaches her shoulders) and smile (which reaches her eyes), but she is also one of the most decorated of authors, one of the most versatile of writers, and probably one of the most interesting people one could meet. I can only imagine how fun an interview must be with her, provided that the interviewer is innately curious, instead of trying to “look” smart.
Le Guin (pronounced Le-GWIN) and photographer Roger Dorband were at the Central Public Library from 7-8:30 last night in Seattle, talking about a book they did together called Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country (the event was sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Company and the Washington Center for the Book). This is the second collaboration between the two, the first being Blue Moon Over Thurman Street, with photographs depicting the street that Le Guin and Dorband live on in Oregon, Le Guin for more than 25 years.
First, a library staff member introduced the introducer of Le Guin and Dorband, who rambled on for awhile about stuff that he probably found fascinating but I didn’t, since half the time I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and the other half I wish I didn’t. One of his problems was that there was no cogent structure to his speech, the other was that he was a bad public speaker. He started off by talking about how they had tried to get Le Guin there last year but couldn’t and then how some famous writer from England whom they had tried to get ended up going to Portland, instead, because Le Guin was there, for which he blamed Le Guin, which I guess was supposed to be funny, but which my nieces could have delivered better. Then again, they have impeccable comedic timing, and they’re not even six years old.
Anyway, once Dorband and Le Guin came out (and Le Guin shooed Dorband away from her chair, which had a pillow on it for her back), all was well. Dorband spoke first (as he put it, he won the coin toss), reading the introduction to the book and explaining how the idea to do this collaboration had come about, and then Le Guin spoke about the project and read some of her poems from the book, as well as from another book which has either just been published or will soon be published. On a few occasions her readings were marred by announcements that the library was closing, or from her microphone being covered up by the edge of her cardigan (she told us to wave at her if we couldn’t hear her, which we did the final time the volume of her voice faded). Her poems, like her prose, use as few words as possible, but while her lines aren’t flashy or ornamented, they don’t sound as if Hemingway had chopped up his prose into poetic verses, either. They evoke the place, without digging deep into symbolism and meaning. In other words, she’s a solid poet, just as she’s a solid children’s fiction writer, sci fi scribbler, essayist, and fantasy figure.
After the reading, the two of them answered questions from the audience. Once again, I thought about some questions I could ask, and once again, I didn’t ask them. The Q & A session lasted about a half hour (ending at 8:15), after which, Le Guin and Dorband stayed behind to sign copies of that book, the earlier book they had collaborated on, or any of the numerous books of Le Guin’s that were for sale. I knew which book I was going to buy. Ever since I read the back cover for The Left Hand of Darkness, I thought 1.) what a cool name for a book title, and 2.) this story sounds awesome. I also believe it was the first book of Le Guin’s to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards ( she repeated that trick with The Dispossessed). I was lucky to get a copy, unless they had more books hidden away somewhere.
The line also went very fast, as the librarian in charge had limited everyone to two books to be signed (considering how many books Le Guin has written, that was a wise decision). In front of me were two hilarious women who, when they reached Le Guin, each asked her a question. One of them asked her about MFA programs for poetry, as her son had an MBA from Columbia but couldn’t get in to any of the writers workshops. The other woman asked her about her translation of the Tao Te Ching (actually, Le Guin had someone who actually knew Chinese translate it for her, while she wrote commentary on it). This woman adored Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Le Guin answered by saying she wasn’t too fond of that version.
Having found out that Le Guin blogs, I planned on welcoming her to the blogosphere as she signed my book for me. That I did, and her shoulders shook and her head bobbed as silent laughter shook her face and body. I also was going to tell her that I was a blogger and ask her my question that I didn’t ask before, which was: which authors do you enjoy reading, and which up-and-coming authors do you think show the most promise (though, to be honest, I hadn’t figured out how I wanted to form that last question until just now. I also thought about asking her what she thought of publishing these days, with blogs, Kindle, and ebooks competing with bound books)? Strangely, my lips decided to stay shut after that initial burst of words. I will say, however, that Ms. Le Guin has great penmanship. The two ladies in front of me commented on that out loud. Le Guin’s response was, “Well, I have been doing this for a while,” or “This is what I do,” or words to that effect.
After I got her signature, I took this photo from the other end of the table:
This picture should be in focus, but I must have moved the camera before I actually took the photo. I tried a second time, but then Dorband and Le Guin were moving, and my “automatic focus” must have malfunctioned, as I don’t remember the table moving, too.
Anyway, I’m glad I went. Minus the money I spent on the book (and money for the bus, despite it being 40 MINUTES LATE on the way there), the event was free, and how many free events allow you to hear from one of America’s greatest authors?
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog (it’s good): http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Blog2010.html