Welcome back to The Burning Hearth for Part III of my interview with David Naimon and our discussion of his interviewer/coauthor relationship with Ursula K. Le Guin. As I write this, I think what an awesome connection these two people had; and, it would appear, still do, based upon the tie between the two that seems to be deepening and expanding now that Ursula’s particular magic has left this realm.
The two words that keep coming to mind when I think of David’s Crafting with Ursula podcast series are presence and exploration. Her presence is omnipresent in his interviews, and her presence seems to be inviting everyone who wants to, to explore her imagination, her life, her writings, and her philosophies. Ursula K. Le Guin, through David’s presence and exploration of her in his interviews, is casting a spell over all who listen, I think. And that spell is one that invites all of us to explore our own imaginations, lives, and philosophies and express them truthfully in whatever form we choose.
David and Ursula K. Le Guin
BH: You told me when we spoke that you first thought about interviewing Ursula K. Le Guin when her craft book Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story was revised and reissued. If I remember correctly, you said her craft books received little attention at the time. How did she respond when you reached out to her for this first interview to discuss Steering the Craft?
DN: Honestly, I have no idea how much attention the reissue of her craft book received. But at the time it came out, I hadn’t read Le Guin since I was a teenager. So she lived in my imagination more as an iconic figure than as someone I was actively engaged with at that point in my life. And from that position I thought to myself “I’ll bet Le Guin is always being interviewed about her most famous novels in science fiction and fantasy. That she probably doesn’t do many interviews about things outside of this. And that if this were true, perhaps she would really want to, would find particular pleasure in doing so.” I had no idea if this were true, nor how true it would turn out to be. Not just with talking about craft, but later about her poetry, her translating, her literary criticism and essays.
So there was a certain matter-of-factness or nuts-and-bolts quality to our first encounter that I think she really liked, as she was used to being asked to play the role of oracle—what is the future of SFF? what is the future in store for us more generally?—that sort of thing. And here we were talking about diagramming sentences or about the meaning found beneath the semantic connotations of words. Because we struck a rapport in this particular way, when her next poetry book, and then her next essay collection came out, with each of them we met again to talk. So I came to know her through the work on the margins of her reputation, work that mattered a great deal to her. The focus on this out-of-the-spotlight material, as well as the fact that I hadn’t read her otherwise for a long time before that, made interviewing THE Ursula K. Le Guin less butterfly-inducing than if I had interviewed her knowing what I know now.
It’s funny looking back on it because what I was really nervous about then wasn’t the first interview with her itself. At that point I had interviewed other SFF luminaries, from William Gibson and Neal Stephenson to David Mitchell and China Miéville. And having a craft conversation as a way to get to know someone was a comfortable thing for me. What made me nervous was that she didn’t drive and she asked if I could pick her up and bring her to the radio station. It wasn’t only or mainly because I had a quarter century old car whose glove compartment would burst open into the passenger’s lap whenever we hit a bump. Really it was worries about what we would talk about in the car. About making small talk as a first encounter and how that would go.
BH: If you would be so kind, please share how that first interview led to coauthoring the beautiful book Conversations on Writing.
DN: At the end of our third conversation together, the nonfiction one, which unlike the others, happened in the reading room of her house, I said something like “I can’t imagine another writer I could have done this with, someone who not only has been writing deeply in all three genres—fiction, poetry & nonfiction—but who has been doing so through their entire writing life (in this case for a half-century each).” And she said “why don’t we make them into a book?” In other words, Ursula imagines and reality delivers.
BH: After hearing your first Crafting with Ursula interview (my initial introduction to you), I told my husband that not since Bill Moyers had I heard such a compelling interviewer. When I read Conversations on Writing a few months later, I was not surprised to find her placing you alongside Bill Moyers. In her introduction, she compares a good interview to a good badminton rally, writing: “…you know right away that the two of you can keep that birdie in the air, and all you have to do is watch it fly.” She then says you were both “…a bit stiff and shy, but we soon got going, and I knew our bird was on the wing.”
I think that bird is still “on the wing.” Ursula is so alive and present in your Crafting with Ursula interviews. She seems to be somehow magically, actively participating. Perhaps, she has become the birdie that flies between you and the interviewee, keeping your conversation “on the wing.” I’m curious, do you feel her presence in your interviews as well?
DN: I didn’t anticipate how different the Crafting with Ursula episodes would feel from the Between the Covers ones. I’m loving the contrast, and the different dynamic the new series has. With BTC the guests just show up, without any preparation or discussion beforehand. This is because they will be talking about something they know very well, their own work. I do all the preparation in order to get myself within their universe of concerns so that we can hopefully have a conversation where we can go deep together. But with the Le Guin series both the guest and I are facing toward her. We are co-creating a conversation, choosing a topic that best captures the intersection between their own writing life and that of Le Guin’s, and choosing texts to mulch our conversation from. So there is always, by design, a third person there, before us and between us, the true guest of honor, Ursula.
BH: In keeping with the theme of listening that appears in the other two sections of this interview, I would like to spend some time revisiting your writing in order to discuss Ursula’s thoughts on the sounds and rhythms of language and finding one’s voice as the two of you discussed in Conversations on Writing.
A simple, or perhaps not, question first. Ursula says: “I hear what I write.” Do you?
DN: Over time I’ve realized there are certain tics or repetitions in language that bring me pleasure. Sentences folding back on themselves and then moving forward again with something new attached. When I’m writing a more traditional short story editors usually want to remove these idiosyncrasies. I’ve found that other forms encourage me to heighten them. For whatever reason a right-justified prose block feels like a playground for me to indulge in my best (or worst?) tendencies around sound. The confinement of that text box feels really liberating, as if anything can happen there, plot or no plot, but always lots of word play and sonic experimentation.
BH: She also states: “But if it’s happening in your body, if you are hearing what you write, then you can listen for the right cadence, which will help the sentence run clear.”
This idea came to me immediately upon reading “Heathen” published in Orion. There is so much one can talk about with you in this piece but for now, let’s focus on rhythm and cadence. A subject I enjoy from both a writing and a dancing standpoint. What’s super exciting to me about “Heathen” is that the rhythm of the language happens in my body. You have created a dance in the language that parallels the dance spoken to in the piece.
“Traditional human dancers still dance the grouse dance that living grouse still dance in leks. The prairie chicken dance is one of the oldest human dances, a pact between the Grouse Nation and the Blackfoot. Breechcloth, feathered bustles, head roaches, and round bells round out the regalia of those who dance the grouse dance.”
This, “human dancers still dance the grouse dance that living grouse still dance” is almost Suessical (I mean this as a compliment.) in its cadence and use of assonance. The sentence has a near palindromic nature to it: “still dance the grouse” followed by “grouse still dance.”
This musicality of “Breechcloth, feathered bustles, head roaches, and round bells round out the regalia of those who dance the grouse dance,” feels almost like a song. This might sound strange, but I could tap dance to this.
Speak about the listening you did to write Heathen, and how that listening helped you find your voice for this piece.
DN: There are just so many improbably true historical things in this piece that I wouldn’t be surprised if people read it as fantastical fiction rather than as a prose poem or lyric essay or whatever it is. But given my interest in word play, discovering the historical confusion between “heath hen” and heathen” became a way to build a piece both narratively and acoustically/semantically. For one, looking at the various connotations of “grouse,” then repeating the word “grouse” as I catalogued the various species that still existed etc. In this case the various meanings of “heath hen” and “grouse” end up having an uncanny conversation with each other before I’m even involved.
Let’s bring into this discussion your story “Worm Song” published by Fireside, which I absolutely love on so many levels but let’s stick with our discussion of rhythm here because you do something quite seamlessly in this story that I think is very difficult to do, which is to repeat a paragraph, much like the chorus in a song or a stanza in a poem, but you expand the paragraph, and therefore the narrative, each time we read it. After the first repeat, I’m looking forward to the next, in part because of the rhythms you establish. What follows is, rhythmically speaking, my favorite end to one of the reoccurring paragraphs. I mean, who doesn’t want to read this out loud just for its musicality?
“Without them, the downward growing is slow, slower than the trees had planned for, slowing. Their roots sprout rootlets but the splitting is lonely. The roots sprout rootlets but the growing is slowing. The roots sprout more rootlets but the rootlets are fraying.”
In another interview, I would love to talk about what you are speaking to environmentally here, but for now, I’m curious as to your thinking behind constructing the story as you did. Did the format inform the way you heard the story, or did the way you hear the story inform the format?
DN: I think it was more that I knew that if a story were going to be told from a nonhuman point of view, from the point of view of trees, that there had to be formal decisions that felt off and strange to a human reader. In Worm Song there is a lot of attention to the syntax of each sentence, almost too much, in order to weird the language, but as you point out it is the repetition, an extreme amount of repetition and accretion, that defines the piece. The story isn’t just moving forward, it isn’t just about progress, because maybe “progress” is part of the reason the trees need to leave, to hide, to bide their time in the first place. Maybe with each step we need to remember all that we’ve done before and be beholden to that too. I wanted the narrative to have that feel of return and repetition that might satisfy a different mode of being and telling.
BH: I have one last question for you before leaving this interview. You were in the process of finishing edits for Conversations on Writing when Ursula K. Le Guin suddenly passed away. What an incredible gift to be able to coauthor a book with her. How did being in conversation with Ursula change you as a person? As a writer?
DN: I’ll start with “as a writer” as it is easier to answer. Because Conversations on Writing was the first book to come out after her death (and one of only a few books she had been involved with still to be published), I was suddenly asked to write about her. A lot. As if I were an expert. Which I definitely was not. But I found an authentic way into this. To talk about the ways the things on the margins of her reputation, the things I did know something about, shined light on, informed and deepened our understanding of the Ursula Le Guin we all know. This isn’t just her poetry, the genre she worked in the longest, or her work as a translator, her decades-long translation of the Tao Te Ching or her translation of the Chilean Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral, or her incredible essays and book reviews. It is all of those things. But also other quiet things. Her support of small, often West coast, presses, feminist presses, anarchist presses, where she published many of her books. Obviously, she could’ve maximized profits but instead she was nurturing bioregional literary ecosystems. Same with her attention to debut women authors and their works, her support of the public library. Her biting, and often hilariously so, letters to the editor to our local paper. And we would’ve never had our conversations together if she didn’t always say “yes” to anything associated with the largely volunteer run, and as she called it “terminally funky” community radio station. I do think her most powerful and visible moments, like her 2014 speech after receiving the lifetime achievement award at the National Book Awards, a blistering attack on the commodification of books by the likes of Amazon (who were sitting at a table just below her) and a call to arms to imagine a future after capitalism, gained their power and integrity from these quieter actions she did every day.
So, on the one hand, as a writer, my own writing for about a year or a year and a half was mainly about her after she died. And some of it, like the piece for the Poetry Foundation, where I was asked to write about how her life as a poet illuminated her much better-known prose writing, were challenging opportunities to create new thinking about her, as her poetry had received little critical attention to rely on or build upon. But, on the other hand, finding myself suddenly writing about her because we had been in conversation, and because of the timing of the book coming out, changed me as a person as well. Simply to witness her as a person, to admire her way of navigating life, to see the small unseen moments in harmony with the large visionary moments was and is inspiring to me. But I wouldn’t still be engaging with her work now, I wouldn’t be doing the Crafting with Ursula podcast series focused on her, if I didn’t discover so many other deep connections with her, ecological, feminist, anti-capitalist, yes. But more than anything her willingness to receive criticism, to evolve publicly, to re-vision her own work in ways that honored the way she felt beholden to her readers, that she writes from and into a community. Her relationship to her own limitations is what I cherish most deeply. Finally, I’ll say, that doing the Crafting with Ursula series with these very different writers, from Becky Chambers to adrienne maree brown to Kim Stanley Robinson, it really is now, today, that I’m experiencing vertigo about who Ursula K. Le Guin is and was to so many people. I have had many moments of vertigo over the last year. “Holy shit!” moments where I grab the nearest piece of furniture to steady myself. It’s been quite a journey.
BH: As this interview has, and I thank you for taking it with me!
There are interviews, and then there is interviewing David Naimon, a stand-alone interviewer. As Karen Joy Fowler stated, “He is extraordinary.” It has been such a pleasure getting to know him through this process, and I’m honored he has added his voice to The Burning Hearth.
For those of you interested, you can support Between the Covers through Patreon and subscribe to the podcast by clicking Here.
You can follow David on Twitter @DavidNaimon.
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment. Enjoy the rest of your summer and I hope you stop back in September.
Click Here to read Part I: David as Writer.
Click Here to read Part II: David as Interviewer