Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Posted: January 28, 2018 in Miscellaneous, Writing

In 1980, one of my stories appeared in a science fiction anthology called New Dimensions. I was a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America at the time, and the following year I learned that two people had recommended my story for a Nebula Award.

I never got anywhere in this process, so I don’t know the details, but I believe it ran approximately like this: If you collected enough recommendations, your story was entered in the playoff bracket. There followed a series of competitions, involving singing, dancing, evening wear, swimsuits, and hand-to-hand combat with erasers and typewriter ribbons. The stories that survived the playoffs entered the medal round. One story eventually won a Nebula. It all started with someone taking the trouble to say that she or he liked your story.

One of my two recommenders was Marta Randall. I’ve always appreciated this, Marta, wherever you are today, but since you’re the editor who bought the story for New Dimensions this was not a surprise.

The surprise was the other person: Ursula K. Le Guin.

What? The author of The Left Hand of Darkness, which taught this teenage boy that science fiction could be about something other than rockets and robots and fearless North American white men defeating dark-skinned alien hordes with the help of a few comic Irishmen, liked something I wrote?

“The only sensible ends of literature,” Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and lastly, the solid cash.” Not bad, Nat, but you forgot something: The otherworldly feeling you experience when something you wrote speaks to someone you don’t know.

Eventually I met Ursula and spent some time with her. I’m unsure how this began. Deborah had taken three of her writing workshops in Oregon – in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, on the McKenzie River, and at Cannon Beach; Ursula had a fine sense of place – so it must’ve been in the wake of the first one.

[Note from me in April 2019: The recent death of science fiction writer Vonda N. McIntyre reminded me that it was Vonda, one of Ursula’s dearest friends, who introduced us.]

We had dinner a couple of times with Ursula and her husband, Charles. We met their cats. We stayed overnight at their Cannon Beach beach house, where our dog Emma, who had her moods, totally charmed them. Ursula thought that Emma, racing around us on the beach, looked like Isadora Duncan, her scarf jauntily thrown over one shoulder.

Benjamin Franklin said it best in his Autobiography: “When first you wish to make a favorable impression on a new acquaintance, send in your dog.”

In a discussion with Ursula about writing I referred to my challenges in getting published. I was probably making a joke, but she listened seriously and said, “I’ve never understood that.” She wasn’t being nice. Making nice was not her thing. Ursula could be quite sharp. In her presence, you never wanted to say something stupid (my forte). These four words were enough to make me worship her, but of course I already did.

We never saw them often, and in this century even less. An occasional email. Christmas cards. She drew pictures of funny cats and dogs in the style of Thurber. She called herself “Buntho.” She called Deborah “Gort” because she’s tall. She called me “Dominant Male” (misspelled “Donimant”) because I am. (Shut up.) She was there in the background of our lives, writing another book I want to read (Lavinia, Buffalo Gals), giving another interview or talk.

How lucky we were.

Au revoir, Ursula. Thanks for the vote of confidence in me. If I had gotten as far as the swimsuit competition, I would’ve given it my best.



  1. Mr. Seaside says:

    You have more than once surprised me with the people you know or have known. Just being so close to such creative genius isn’t enough? Why seek your own fame through literature? I’d be “full” merely by your encounters. All I can relate, to point out my flagging in comparison with your close encounters with nobility, is that I once saw (from a distance) Richard Brautigan put his young daughter on a Greyhound Bus in San Francisco (1970). And secondary to that experience, I once painted a bathroom door in a Feminist Studies professor’s house, where the paint took so long to ‘cure’ that Tillie Olsen was trapped in the bathroom for “at least” 10 minutes, several days after I’d finished the painting job (I always used top-rated Alkyd enamel for bathrooms & kitchens). I ‘heard all about it,’ but it didn’t diminish the number of future jobs I performed at that same site. One of which involved painting the kitchen with Glidden Paint Co. colors, whose names the professor had picked out solely based on Literature: Lorna Doone…a soft yellow, for the walls, etc.

    P.S.-nice Tribute to Ursula

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      My favorite story about Brautigan is that after he published Trout Fishing in America, he got invitations from fishing groups to talk about fishing. It probably never happened, but I hope it did….Your anecdote sounds like the beginning of one of his stories.

      But your story about trapping Tillie Olsen in the bathroom is even better!!!! Also, the professor who chose her colors based on literature. When I painted my study, the color I chose was called Blue Point. Whoever heard of a character called Blue Point? It was the blue I liked. If I had spotted a color called Lorna Doone or Madame Bovary or Mr. Goodbar, I would’ve gone with that.

  2. mikener says:

    I had no idea the extent of your and Deborah’s relationship with Ursula.
    I had met her only once, driving her from the airport to her Clarion West teaching gig, where we stopped at the restaurant I worked at the time and my boss thought she was my mom.

    PS – I once tried to be a sc-fi aficionado, but had to quit in shame when I was unable to finish any Asimov or Clark or Heinlein (though I did read many of Ursula K. LeGuin’s work and most of yours.)

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      I can’t claim that we were BFFs, but I feel extraordinarily fortunate that I enjoyed any time with her at all. I love your story about Ursula masquerading as your mother. How did she handle that?

      I read Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein as a lad, but returning to them as an adult was a trial. I loved Andre Norton, but I can only read the ones that I read as a teenager. I’ve been working my way through some old sci-fi anthologies, and though I found some stories I still like, it’s mostly been something like surviving a triathalon.

      • mikener says:

        I once had to follow my wife home from a party in separate cars. In the dark and the rain on I-5, she hit the brakes hard, suddenly coming onto a stalled vehicle in the middle of the freeway. I was following too close. I knew before slamming my own brakes that I was going to be in a collision. Instead of my life flashing before my eyes, 20 different insurance scenarios flashed before my eyes: If two cars from one family are in the same accident do we get a group discount? How would I get to work if both cars are in the shop? If I swerved into the neighboring lane I’d hit somebody else and bring an innocent person into the equation. Is that ethically or morally fair? Then I’d have to talk to a stranger, which I hate. The stranger would probably be angry as well. Awkward? Then I’d have two insurance companies to deal with, but maybe one working car. Etc…

        Having my boss ask if Ursula K. Le Guin was my mom felt kinda like that.

        ‘I wish!’ was the first response that popped into my head, but seemed a little stalker-y.
        ‘You stupid shit! That’s Ursula LeGuin, America’s greatest living science fiction writer!’ also ran across my mind, but having to explain who a famous person is while said person is standing right next to you could be misconstrued as insulting – to pretty much everyone involved.

        Endless other variations had flashed before my eyes in that fraction of a moment, but eventually I stammered out the words, “Uh. No.”

        Ursula, to her credit, said nothing at all, no doubt appreciative of me for not putting my foot into either one of our mouths.

        In the end, we all shrugged and enjoyed a pleasant meal.

      • Run-DMSteve says:

        After reading this simultaneously frightening and hilarious anecdote, my readers (all three of you) will be happy to know that frostybooboo did not end up inside some kind of full-blown insane flying carnage insurance scenario — that is, there was no collision. No one had to talk to a stranger, either.

  3. thecorncobb says:

    I am a scifi aficionado, but never read any of Le Guin’s works (nor yours for that matter).

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      “Literature is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.” (This is actually a quote about chess. It’s supposed to be an ancient Indian proverb, but it turns out somebody made it up in 1947.) All I’m saying is that there are so many books and only so much time. You can read extensively in one genre and never read ’em all.

      When I publish my book, I’ll send you a copy. Or I’ll think about sending you a copy. Or I’ll send you a link to Amazon. Or I’ll have my personal assistant do it.

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