The Cloud Atlas author and Earthsea devotee reflects on his encounters with a formidable and pioneering novelist
I only met Ursula K Le Guin the once, and her first words were a sly, “Oho, David, so this is an assignation!” She had a wicked smile and, as the Irish say, a face full of devilment. It was 2010, and we’d been left in a nondescript office of a bookshop in Portland, Oregon. I was in town to give a reading at the end of a US book tour. Quite how my American publicist had persuaded the unbiddable Ursula – who, doing the maths, was 80 – to give up a perfectly good evening for the sake of a passing British novelist, I have no idea; yet there she was.
Meeting your idols is a risky business – as Flaubert notes, the gold paint tends to come off on your fingers – but my 90 minutes chatting with Ursula only convinced me that the gold was genuine. She was not a glad sufferer of fools, it was clear, and you’d not want to cross her, but her graciousness that afternoon was unflagging. I gushed, of course. I told her how her Earthsea books had, as a boy, shown me how I wanted to spend my life – crafting worlds as real, as full and as irresistible as hers, or die trying. (Ursula observed that you could get away with princes and wizards in the 1960s and 70s, but by the 21st century they had become “cute”.) I told her how The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness struck me not merely as classily written novels where nuanced characters explore worlds both like and unlike ours, and survive not by force but by wit, cooperation and sacrifice. More than this, they dream into existence new ways for people to live. In old money, they are visions. (What could any author say to that except: “You’re welcome”?)