“Reading,” Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote, “is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.” Few writers have offered readers a mind so expansive, sharp, and wondrous as did Le Guin, who died Monday at the age of 88. She wrote 10 story collections, six volumes of poetry, 13 children’s books, five translations, numerous essays, and 20 novels, for which she won a number of prizes. But numbers can’t bear the full weight of her influence, which was sweeping and, for a long time, underrated. Like many of her characters Le Guin was an explorer, and a bit of a misfit—at least in the literary scene, which long kept her quarantined as a “genre writer.” To read Le Guin’s most beloved speculative fictions—which include The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed—was to enter new worlds assembled whole from the twigs and stones and flowers she gathered up in her wide intellectual expeditions: bits of history, cultural anthropology, political theory, mythology, Taoism, semiotics, geology. Not everybody was up to it.
You can spend a whole lifetime with Le Guin, beginning with the Catwings children’s series and ending with the poems in her collection Late In The Day, which she described to me as dispatches from “the borderland” between life and death. I met Le Guin after she’d stopped writing fiction, an accedence to age that saddened her. To me, a young(ish) writer struggling to shake self-doubt and the creeping suspicion that nothing I wrote mattered, her insistence on the moral purpose of storytelling and her faith in her own gifts were a balm. So was her warm chuckle, her lack of pretension, and the glass of Balvenie DoubleWood she poured me at her home in Portland, Oregon, on a summer afternoon in 2016. We sat on her porch among potted cherry tomatoes and geraniums, her cat Pard twining around our ankles, a massive redwood towering over us all.
I wanted to know how she did it—how she managed to write so much, and so well, while cultivating what by all accounts was a rich family and social life. The answer is that she was lucky, and she worked incredibly hard, and she was brilliant. “It just was something I wanted to do, and I always felt that’s what I have to do, like a painter paints or a dancer dances,” she explained when I asked why she kept writing despite so many rejection letters in her early years. “I came with a calling.” (She was able to follow it thanks in part to an illegal abortion at 20 and the support of her husband Charles Le Guin, her great love and co-parent.)
Born in California, Le Guin defined herself as a Western writer: She was attuned to open spaces, to landscapes, especially forests and deserts. “I like any desert. I like Nevada, for God’s sake,” she told me. “Is there anywhere in this country that isn’t more or less beautiful?” She fixed that beauty onto her pages, as in the opening passage of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven:
Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the mood-driven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, its will.