Books

Ursula Le Guin: she got there first

daniel hertzberg for the boston globe

For the past 54 years, one of the most original imaginations ever to grace American letters has lived in a hundred-year-old house built from a kit.

“You could order it out of a catalogue,” says its owner, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, 85, standing on the porch, peering out at a light Portland, Ore., drizzle. “They probably even sold you the lumber, too.”

It is here, down the hill from Pittock Mansion, one-time home of Oregonian newspaper publisher Henry Pittock, that Le Guin launched a career that changed American writing.

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In the 1960s realism dominated American letters. Science fiction was the bastion of engineer geeks. And then Le Guin emerged with a series of books that challenged the way we think of not just technology, but civilization.

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Chief among them was “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Le Guin’s 1969 novel set several thousand years in the future on an ambisexual planet, where men and women take on male or female sex characteristics depending on their relationships or desires.

Le Guin wasn’t just ahead of the curve in contemplating the social construction of gender. While science fiction zoomed toward the technological future, she wrote about anarchist movements, the way societies create aliens within themselves, and climate change.

“Of many present day memes,” Margaret Atwood wrote in an e-mail, “well might it be said; Ursula got there first!”

And she did so by writing about characters with profound inner lives and terrible dilemmas. Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” read her books in elementary school and found them far more than escape pods.

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“What interests her the most, it seems in my opinion, is the hard art of human wisdom, how desperate we all are for it and yet how it can only ever be learned by confronting suffering and loss and responsibility — by, in other words, growing up,” Diaz wrote in an e-mail.

Through decades and scores of books, the genre Le Guin made her own has itself grown up — writers from David Mitchell to Salman Rushdie have walked through the door Le Guin opened. In tribute the National Book Foundation has awarded her its 2014 medal of lifetime achievement, one of the nation’s highest literary prizes, an honor that has previously been awarded to Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Joan Didion among others.

“It’s more important than I thought it would be,” Le Guin says in her sitting room, a tidy shelf of books by Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, and Virginia Woolf nearby. A grandfather clock ticks through the quietude.

“After it was announced I got feedback from people and realized that it’s really cool because it’s acknowledging a genre writer for one of the first times with a major award,’’ she said. “So that makes me very happy that I can get up there and say, ‘I’m accepting this for all of us who were considered outside literature for so long.’”

Le Guin did not set out to write science fiction or create fantasy worlds. She simply did it because the forms did not restrict what was possible. “I wrote within the genre because I sold within the genre, but I also wrote what I wanted to write. I think, actually, by writing in the genre I was freer than other writers who tried to be successful in the mainstream.”

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To sit and talk with Le Guin is to engage a powerful mind that has responded to ideological entrapments or career bumps by carpentering a new space for itself. She is brisk and funny, but unsparing when asked to comment on something which, in her mind, does not measure up — such as Doris Lessing’s late work.

“She got so grumpy!” Le Guin says, laughing.

Le Guin was schooled in this independence young. She was born in Berkeley, Calif., in 1929, where her father Alfred Kroeber launched the anthropology department at the University of California.

Le Guin’s mother, writer and anthropologist Theodora Kroeber, wrote a hugely influential account of the life of Ishi, the last remaining member of a tribe of the Yahi people in California.

“When he was the last of his people he just came out of the hills in Northern California to a little cow town to die because he figured they’d shoot him,” Le Guin says. “Instead of which, the times had changed. It was 1911. I think, and [someone] notified the anthropologists at the University of California. ‘We got this wild Indian!’

“They asked my father to write the story, and he said ‘I don’t write books about my friends.’ ’’ Le Guin’s mother wrote the book instead.

In her childhood home, books were everywhere. Nursery rhymes were read to Le Guin and her siblings, all of whom have become professors or writers, so a literary awakening never happened because reading was like breathing. Le Guin’s parents’ friends were a walking demonstration of the power of diaspora.

“Berkeley was very welcoming to refugees of Hitler, so it was full of exiled intellectuals, mostly Jewish. It was an amazing place in the ’30s and ’40s.”

Le Guin began submitting science-fiction stories to journals at age 11. Among her classmates at Berkeley High School was another future great in the genre, Philip K. Dick, whose novels “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall,” and “Minority Report” have become enormous successes as films. “No one knew him!” says Le Guin now laughing. “No one in my class has any memory of him being there. There’s no picture in the yearbook. He was the invisible boy. I don’t know if he was sick a lot or what. I can’t figure it.”

It was in high school that her own direction coalesced. “I just wanted to write books. And my father talked to me about it when I was 15 or 16 and said, ‘It’s going to be very hard to make a living as a writer. You need a union card.’ And I said. ‘I love studying languages. I could teach language.’ And he said, OK!”

Le Guin traveled east to Radcliffe College in the late 1940s, where she studied French and Italian literature, and her classmates included the late, great poet Adrienne Rich.

She continued on to Columbia for a graduate degree in literature and sailed to France on a fellowship for more study. A life in academia, it appeared, awaited. Then she met her husband, Charles Le Guin, a historian, on the boat. “Most of [the students on the trip] were undergraduates. We were graduates. So he was the only other person who wanted to get a drink after dinner, so we met and went off to the bar.”

They married shortly after landing and have been together ever since, raising three children. The pram in the hall did not psych out Le Guin the way it has done so to male writers, for whom parenthood felt like the enemy of ambition.

“I used to write between 10 and 12 at night with three kids. [Parenthood] pretty well takes up the day. And I couldn’t have done it if Charles hadn’t been completely in on it too. One person cannot bring up three kids and write full time. No way. But two people can do two full time jobs and kids.”

Publication did not come easily for Le Guin. Her first five novels were rejected by publishers as were countless short stories. She didn’t stop. She’d even resorted to asking one of her father’s friends, publisher Alfred A. Knopf, whose authors included Albert Camus and Thomas Mann, to read a manuscript. He did — then rejected it too.

“It’s funny how there’s a kind of freedom in being shut out,” Le Guin says now. “You are outside the gates. OK, well then, you do what you plenty well want to do.” In Le Guin’s case, that meant inventing a middle European country called Orsinia, and an entire civilization to go with it. (She later collected them in “Orsinian Tales”.) At some point Le Guin began to play around with science fiction, and her stories were accepted. “The Left Hand of Darkness” was Le Guin’s fifth book, a massive success, selling well over a million copies in English alone.

With visibility came prominence and a new power to her ideas. Le Guin admits she was late to feminism, hurtling then into its noisy second phase. “It was a real mind shift. And I was a grown woman with kids. And mothers of children were not welcome among a lot of early feminists. You know there’s always prejudice in a revolutionary movement. It took a lot of thinking for me to find what kind of feminist I could be and why I wanted to be a feminist.”

Le Guin’s feminist breakthrough didn’t happen until the late 1970s when she published “The Eye of Heron,” her first novel with a female heroine. “I was able to write from the female point of view instead of essentially writing as a male the way almost all writers did. Atwood was ahead of me there probably. She was a more conscious and outspoken feminist earlier than I was.” Atwood and Le Guin met not long after this period at a conference and have been in touch ever since.

If on some fronts she took her time to join the present, on others the world lagged sadly behind. “It haunts me when people tell me how incredibly farsighted I was to be talking about climate change and climate destabilization and the degradation of the natural world back in the ’60s. I wasn’t! I was just listening to the scientists.”

In a world suffused by climate-change blockbuster films and zombie-apocalypse TV shows, Le Guin feels we are playing out our fears, but still giving ourselves a pass. “I think we’re afraid of what’s really happening. And [in these films] it really isn’t real so we can enjoy all the violence and destruction without facing what we’re doing. I think this is just how human beings are. I don’t mean it as a judgmental statement about other people. We just have a lot of trouble being realistic about what we do.”

The biggest frontier of fantasy is, she finds, right in front of us: old age. “There’s plenty of good writing about being in your 60s and 70s. That’s easy. Because you still have the energy and the stamina.” But beyond that, where she finds herself now, Le Guin feels she is standing on wide-open terrain.

“I’m 85 now, and in doctor language I’m old old. And it hasn’t been written about much. Partly because some of us are dying, and some of us are sick. So it gets written about by people who aren’t old, and they imagine what it’s like to be, and they don’t get it right.”

As Le Guin approaches her ninth decade, she has been doing what many writers without million-copy bestsellers do to get work done.

“I’m in a little group, eight of us, that write for each other and read to each other.” Thus she shows that stories that stand the test of time can come from something as simple as fellowship: like a family, like an extraordinary body of work, like a house built from a kit, standing proudly on a hill, more than a hundred years later.

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”