About a month ago, Sherman Alexie swore at me. Tonight I got to shake hands with another of my literary heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin. It's been a pretty amazing time, and it makes me wonder what's next. Will Margaret Atwood slap me? Will Cormac McCarthy kiss me on the forehead? Will the ghost of William Shakespeare appear in my room and command me to kill one of my uncles? I hope not. I love my uncles, but it would be hard to refuse an order from William Shakespeare. At the very least, I would dither, Hamlet-style. For those of you who are unfamiliar with her work, Ursula K Le Guin is probably most famous for her novels Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, as well as her Earthsea fantasy series. She's won the Hugo Award twice and the Nebula Award four times (those are the biggest prizes for science fiction authors). She's won the National Book Award. Tonight I learned that the Library of Congress named her a "Living Legend" for her contribution to American literature. Not too shabby.
She's also an Oregonian, or, at least, she has been since she moved her in 1959. I think that qualifies her sufficiently. She came to the Civic Center in Dallas, Oregon, as part of the Literary Arts & Lecture series. This last year she won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction, and part of the prize if that authors go around and give lectures throughout the state. I could imagine some authors resenting an award that came with an obligatory lecture tour, but if Ms. Le Guin resented it at all, she hid it masterfully.
Ms. Le Guin writes more than just science fiction and fantasy, and she showed off her range tonight by starting with some poetry, beginning with a poem written in sapphic stanzas (a 2500+ year-old form) followed by modern free verse. Then she read us a short story. As much praise as Le Guin has received for her novels, personally, I think her short stories are even more impressive. After the story, she answered questions from the audience. I selfishly asked two, both of which she answered generously, though with a bit less flair than Sherman Alexie. She was funny, sharp, and insightful about the writing process, her tastes, and the industry.
I managed to get a few of her quotes word for word:
- On archetypes: "It's not like you go looking for them. They come looking for you!"
- On her writing education: "I read a lot of good books. You learn what's worth imitating."
- On why she doesn't like complicated thrillers: "I finally learn who done it, and I hardly knew it was done."
After her talk, I made my way to the front and shook her hand before she could get mobbed by people who wanted her to sign their books. She probably thinks I'm a cheapskate, but I would have purchased another copy of Lathe of Heaven just to have her sign it if I'd brought the checkbook or they'd taken credit cards. I fought off the urge to tell her that I do have copies of her books in storage. That would have sounded like a back-handed compliment as much as a desperate defense, anyway. Instead, I just shook her hand. I'm sure she's already forgotten the moment, but I will treasure it and brag about it to anyone who will listen or read a long and frustratingly inconclusive blog post.