Welcome to The Burning Hearth and Part II of my “Echoes of Le Guin” series, where once again, William Alexander, Susan Defreitas, Kylie Mirmohamadi, Julie Phillips, Isaac Yuen, and Kyle Winkler join in discussion. Part II: Contemplating Le Guin’s “Killer Story” focuses on one of Le Guin’s most recognized essays, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”
My featured author this month is Susan Defreitas. Susan is an author, editor, and writing coach. (Her complete bio, along with the other authors, can be found at the bottom of the interview.) If you’ve never visited Susan’s website, I highly recommend it. No matter where you are on your writing journey, she has something for you. Susan definitely has a passion for storytelling and helping others to tell their stories as you can see by her responses to my questions.
BH: Your mission statement on your website reads, “My mission is to tell stories that matter and help others do the same.” Would you share with readers how you define a story that matters and how you go about helping others tell those stories?
Susan Defreitas: There’s an argument to be made that all stories matter, because of all the things that even the most basic of novels can do: Distract us from the mess of our own lives, give us a few moments of delight, or even just pass the time on an airplane that would otherwise feel interminable. But I think stories that really matter go deeper, by sharing something of genuine and lasting value with the reader. Generally speaking, that’s something very personal to the author–some hard won wisdom, insight, or truth–and that something personal connects with something larger, something that’s an issue in our culture and society as a whole: issues like sexism or racism, or the environmental crisis.
Those, to me, are the stories that satisfy our deeper longings when we come to fiction. Because deep down, what we’re looking for as readers is insight into the human condition–how to be happy, and how to live a meaningful life, in the face of these larger issues.
BH: I thoroughly enjoyed the anthology you edited, titled Dispatches from Anarres: Tales of Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin. It was a 2022 Foreword Indie finalist, and it is packed with some powerhouse authors. A few of my favorite stories are “The Ones Who Don’t Walk Away” by Rene Denfeld, “Neuron” by Lydia Yuknavitch, and “Wenonah’s Gift” by Molly Gloss. You shared with me once that you not only edited the collection but also worked as an editor with the some of author’s on their stories. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt that intimacy between editor and writer as I made my way through the collection. There is an ineffable tug from one story to the next that seems to be rooted in what is clearly a shared love for the person and author the anthology pays tribute to. What was it like gathering these authors together? Is there perhaps a Dispatches from Anarres II on the horizon? I know I would like it if there was.
Susan Defreitas: Thank you so much for these kind words! This anthology truly was a labor of love, from its conception all the way to the final touches; Le Guin’s work is so exquisite that such care seemed mandatory. And no, there’s no DISPATCHES II on the horizon–but now that you mention it, I think I probably would be open to editing another such anthology, without the constraints of geography I had in drawing contributors together for the first antho (all the contributors are based in or have a connection to Portland, Oregon, Le Guin’s home for over 50 years).
As for the experience of working with all of these talented writers, it was an honor and a pleasure. I went through two rounds of feedback on each story, a developmental round and a line edit (before sending the manuscript on to the publisher, who put it through a copy edit). This is in keeping with my background as an editor: I take the whole process seriously, and I’m never interested in cutting corners, because I know how much more cohesive and professional a book that has been through this entire process winds up reading in the long run. That meant that I was giving pretty substantive developmental feedback to everyone here (aside from the authors who contributed reprints), and that was a little nervy in some ways: Who am I to suggest those kind of story-level edits to big-name folks like Lidia Yuknavitch and Rene Denfeld?
But as it turned out, even our biggest names seemed genuinely grateful to have another creative intelligence really thinking through the story with them, and helping them see how their story connected with the larger themes in Le Guin’s work, and with the flow of stories in the anthology.
And of course, it’s always a pleasure to help to launch the careers of newer writers, and publish them alongside those bigger names.
I’m very interested in how Ursula often shows the ascending of humanity as a descending; and how, in order to truly go forward and evolve, she recommends that perhaps, we look back to a time before our modern ascent when our tools and technologies were less intrusive in our lives and environment. What does it mean to evolve? Is evolution having the foresight and wisdom to walk away from certain technologies? Is evolution placing collective survival above the monetary profit for a few? These questions led me to thinking about both her acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” The two combined led me to the question I pose to my contributors.
BH: I can’t have the six of you in a conversation together and not mention and pull from Ursula’s acceptance speech when she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation in 2014. Please, raise your hand if you were present at the ceremony and share any anecdotes you would like before I ask my question.
William Alexander: I was at the National Book Awards that night. I told her that her speech was amazing. She told me to beware vampiric relationships with publishing. “Don’t let them rush you,” she said.
Here’s a picture I took of Ursula sharing a table with Maria Dahvana Headley and Neil Gaiman.
And here’s one of Ursula and myself.
Isaac Yuen had this to share.
Isaac Yuen: I remember watching her speech a few days later and thinking that it will take on a life of its own. The way she wasted not a word in conveying what she so urgently needed to convey was a skill she mastered in her later years. I wrote about this in an essay/eulogy after her passing:
“Pay attention to words like ‘profiteers” and “deodorant’; words like ‘capitalism’ and ‘inescapable’; phrases like ‘so did the right of divine kings’ and statements laced with ‘resistance’, ‘change’, ‘art’, and the rare and uncorrupted usage of the word known as ‘freedom.’
“Hear how an 85-year old dragon spoke truth and breathed fire.”
Click here to read Isaac’s essay.
BH: Many thanks to William for sharing these pictures, and to both William and Isaac for raising their hands. Onward to the question.
With the conviction of a prophet, Ursula stated in her speech, “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
I want to place this comment alongside the following two passages from her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”
“Go on, say I, wandering off towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Able and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man.”
“It sometimes seems that that story is approaching its end. Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another one, which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished. Maybe. The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it. Hence it is with a certain feeling of urgency that I see the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.”
This “killer story,” it would appear, lives in and is desired by those who have power in our world, and it is propagandized to the rest of us as the best and only way to maintain that power, which doesn’t even belong to us collectively. How do we as writers resist “the killer story” and make “the life story” the more compelling one to be read, and then hopefully, the more compelling one to live?
William Alexander: Fantasy provides all sorts of ways to resist, because telling fantastical stories is the best method we have for reshaping our relationship to foundational myths.
Ghost stories are particularly good at unriddling and re-riddling the world. Most of our ghostly tales—in English, at least—are structured to depend on banishment for narrative satisfaction. Nice ghosts find peaceful rest and then go away. Mean ghosts are cast out via some sort of exorcism and also go away. The story isn’t finished until all of the ghosts are gone. This is a version of the killer story—one that spends a whole bunch of time and energy trying to kill the dead (ghosts, zombies, vampires, etc.) rather than listening to what history and ancestry might have to say. Haunted houses are history made manifest, because whatever happened in that place is still happening. Hauntings are another kind of container, a carrier bag of memory. We shouldn’t be so quick to banish the contents of that bag.
Kylie Mirmohamadi: How chilling are those words, indeed like the sound of a prophet, that ‘we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it’. How they resonate as I contemplate the world and its ways screeding down my screen over morning coffee – whole groups of people degraded, overlooked, endangered; entire societies, nations, complicit in the ongoing damage of colonization and violence and war; the earth teetering on the edge of destruction because of greed, short-sightedness, fear.
But, if I am reading Ursula’s words correctly, while the killer story shouts, the life story also speaks. While the killer story acts in service of power, the life story goes on, subversive in its very existence and insistence, as well as in the ways that it can resist and change power.
The life story, for me, speaks in narratives that explore relationships, that train an unflinching focus onto what we do to each other when we love each other, when we try to live with each other and leave each other, when we are in proximity, chosen and unchosen. And these things are not always pleasant, and the endings are not always happy or ever after, but here is life: with its messy edges, smudged beginnings, uncertain endings. Stories where people live, and act, in the fullness of their humanity, with complex motives which are not always (or perhaps ever) clear even to themselves, when they are grappling with their desires, regrets, decisions, words. Stories in which what people say – and how they say it – matters deeply.
The life story, for me, often lives in what we strain to hear, what takes place in rooms and houses, the domestic spaces that hide, and reveal, so much of ourselves. I think of Virginia Woolf, what she can make of a room, an utterance.
I think of Adriana Cavarero’s ideas about narration: ‘Rather than salvation, the accidental needs care. To tell the story that every existence leaves behind itself is perhaps the oldest act of such care. The story is not necessarily one that aspires to immortalize itself in the literary empire – as Arendt herself would want, when she thinks of Homer – but rather the type of story whose tale finds itself at home in the kitchen, during a coffee- break, or perhaps on the train, when even those who do not want to hear it are forced to listen. In the kitchen, on the train, in the corridors of schools and hospitals, sitting with a pizza or a drink – women are usually the ones who tell life-stories.’
Yes, let us tell those life stories and the life story – let us tell all types of stories, as we always have – and let the quiet ones, the subversive ones, speak as forcefully as any other.
Julie Phillips: Where do the ones who walk away from Omelas go? “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” asks a similar question, and issues a similar invitation.
When she was thinking about the nature of utopia for Always Coming Home, Le Guin wrote, “If utopia is a place that does not exist, then surely (as Lao Tzu would say) the way to get there is by the way that is not a way. And in the same vein, the nature of the utopia I am trying to describe is such that if it is to come, it must exist already.” I’m sure she would say here too that the way to save the world is to follow the Way and look at what is under one’s nose.
For what it’s worth, I don’t agree with Ursula that to do that it’s necessary to abandon the idea of the hero, or that mother and hero are mutually exclusive. I wrote about that in my book The Baby on the Fire Escape: I think a mother can be and very often is a hero in the sense of someone who goes through an experience of profound self-discovery and is changed by it. I don’t like to exclude motherhood and family-making from the narrative arc, from the realm of time and fate.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t keep coming back to “The Carrier Bag” and thinking about the narrative potential of holding, keeping, and bringing home.
Susan Defreitas: I love that question, as it’s one I work with consciously, both in my own creative work and in the work I do with my clients.
“Killer stories” are perhaps easiest for us to recognize as stories: we grew up with them, and we’ve seen them, read them, over and over again. But just “flipping the script” on the killer story, by making the sorts of people who have traditionally been cast as the good guys over into the bad guys, and vice versa, really does very little to change the story at all. Violence is still the language of power—the language that matters—and heroes are still those who wield that language. (I can think of no better exemplar of this principle than the Avatar movies.)
Actually changing the story means changing what a story is, and how it is told. And in this, I believe all we have to do is dig a little deeper, by looking at the roots of storytelling, on one hand, and the neuroscience of storytelling on the other.
The emerging body of neuroscience, for instance, tells us that one of the key things a story must do is arouse our curiosity—and it tells us that when this happens, dopamine is released, the neurotransmitter that makes it so pleasurable for us to learn things.
Now, does a “chosen one” construct arouse our curiosity? Sure: we want to know how that destiny is going to play out for this person, how their free will is going to intersect with their fate. But so could a “life story” in which a sharp look is exchanged between one’s sister and one’s mother while we’re out there gathering wild oats—a look that’s quickly hidden, almost as soon as we notice it, and smoothed over by incidental commentary on the weather.
There are many ways to arouse curiosity. There are many ways to tell a story. And there are many ways to model a future that does not rely on the few benefitting at the expense of the many.
Isaac Yuen: I know the premise of that particular essay but haven’t read it entirely, despite it being so prominently quoted in so many circles. There’s just so much material out there that Ursula produced over her lifetime that I feel it’ll take me my lifetime to get around to everything!
One of my favourite books in recent years has been David Wengrow and David Graeber’s The Dawn of Everything, in which the co-authors point to contemporary archeological evidence that completely uproots what we think around the trajectory of human history and civilization construction. Case after case they highlight a wide range of lifestyles and modes of existence we as a species have experimented with and thrived under. There was never only one way to be in the world, until we found ourselves stuck in this modern trap of our making.
I think increasingly people are realizing this “killer story” we currently live under is not very convincing, and worse, not at all sturdy. The hard part, of course, is to wean off of it when we are repeatedly told that “there is no alternative”. But that has never been true, as The Dawn of Everything points to from a historical perspective, as does Ursula’s work from a speculative perspective. Humans have lived many kinds of stories in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
I think slipping off the binds of power imposed by those in power is perhaps the central challenge of our time. Paradoxically it is both the easiest and the most difficult thing we can do, to walk away, to shed old constructs and embrace other possibilities, to conjure new stories or be receptive to ones that have been systemically silenced, to imagine modes of being that are more aligned with cohabitating with the rest of life on this planet. But human beings have always had the ability to reconfigure, to the point that it may be the defining trait of our species.
Kyle Winkler: This is hard because as humans we enjoy stories that excite. And what immediately stimulates us is, unfortunately, not always healthy for us. We’re often creating stories about destruction because that’s easier to imagine than creation. Which is ironic considering that the making of the story of destruction is itself a creation process. But I digress…I see this type of instinct in early writers. They start a story, get stuck, then kill a character. I always ask: why? Why kill off this character? Yes, death is real, it’s inevitable, but why here? And 9 times out of 10 they do because they didn’t know what else to do. Destruction stopped the need for ongoingness, for futurethought, for procession. That movement is terrifying because we all have to help steer the ship together but we’re all too eager and greedy for the wheel. I know this all sounds trite, but it seems true to me. The “life story” is the one that acknowledges that we can all and will die, but that even in the eventual face of that fact, we can make the world more sufferable for one another. We have to convince each other that making the world more sufferable is an act worth pursuing. It’s a deflationary stance, for sure, but that’s where I am right now. Probably Ursula would not be happy with that, I don’t know.
Thank you for stopping by The Burning Hearth and taking the time to read the generous words and thoughts of these wonderful authors. I hope you stop back in June for Part III which features Isaac Yuen. Until then, please be sure to stop by in May for my summer rotation of Circling Saturn with David Naimon. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.
William Alexander is a National Book Award-winning author of unrealisms for young readers. His novels include Goblin Secrets, Ambassador, and A Properly Unhaunted Place. Additional honors include the Eleanor Cameron Award, the Earphones Award, two Junior Library Guild Selections, and two CBC Best Children’s Book of the Year Awards. He studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at Clarion. He teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
An American of Guyanese descent, Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES. Her work has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, LitHub, Story, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, Oregon Humanities, and elsewhere. An independent editor and book coach, she divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon.
Kylie Mirmohamadi is an author and academic from Melbourne, Australia.
Julie Phillips is the author of The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem, a meditation on maternal identity and creative genius in the lives of several artists and writers who were also mothers. Her previous book was James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. She lives in Amsterdam and is currently working on the biography of Ursula K. Le Guin. (Julie’s photo by Chris van Houts.
Kyle Winkler’s books include the cosmic horror novella, The Nothing That Is, a story collection, OH PAIN, and a speculative novel, Boris Says the Words. He is the host of the podcast The Left Hand of Le Guin and writes the “Swamp Talk” column for Hipsters of the Coast. He teaches writing and rhetoric at Kent State University and fiction in the MFA program at Ashland University. A new novel, Grasshands, is forthcoming in 2023.
Isaac Yuen is the co-author of the essay collection, The Sound Atlas: A Guide to Strange Sounds across Landscapes and Imagination, along with nature writer Michaela Vieser, forthcoming in German with Knesebeck Verlag in 2023. His debut solo nature essay collection, Utter, Earth, is also forthcoming in 2023 with West Virginia University Press. The title piece with the same name, published in AGNI, was awarded a Pushcart Prize.
Isaac’s other creative works have been published at Gulf Coast, Orion, Pleiades, Shenandoah, The Willowherb Review, Tin House online, and elsewhere. He was a 2019 Jan Michalski Foundation writer-in-residence in Switzerland and is currently a Fiction Meets Science writing fellow at the HWK Institute of Advanced Studies in Delmenhorst, Germany.