Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a new film by director Arwen Curry, examines the role of place in the fiction of bestselling author Ursula Le Guin, and explores how the prolific writer never ceased going boldly into new territory.
The documentary, replete with tributes by other writers and scholars, will be screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 5 and 8. The filmmaker will also be in conversation with Berkeley author Michael Chabon at the Litquake literary festival on Thursday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco.
One insight from the film is that the worlds Le Guin created were influenced by the places she grew up exploring — namely Berkeley and Napa Valley. Le Guin was born in Berkeley on Oct. 21, 1929, and graduated from Berkeley High School. Her family, which included three brothers, lived in a Bernard Maybeck-designed house on Arch Street.
Le Guin moved to Portland, Oregon in the late 1950s with her husband, Charles Le Guin, but her Berkeley home remained important to her. She brought her three children down to Berkeley almost every summer to visit.
“She kept a little watercolor of the house on Arch Street for years in the bathroom, next to the mirror, and then on her desk near where she worked,” said Theo Downes-Le Guin, Le Guin’s son, who is a gallerist and her literary executor.
“It was a great house to be a kid in,” said Downes-Le Guin. “It smelled good. There was a servants’ staircase off the kitchen. Bits and pieces had been added on over time. From one balcony, there was a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Le Guin also loved her family’s 40-acre ranch in Napa, which she called “heaven for an introvert.” It was the place that was closest to her heart, the wilderness that brought her childhood back to her as an adult, said Curry.
“Being a Westerner was intrinsic to her work and to her self,” said Downes-Le Guin, and it was indirectly reflected in the landscapes of her writing. “She had a lot of time to roam both the physical and imaginary landscapes,” he added.
When Le Guin wrote, she started her stories by imagining the setting and then picturing the people who grew up there. When she was writing A Wizard of Earthsea, she imagined an archipelago, and that became the setting. In the book, the protagonist, Ged, discovers that he has the magical power of knowing the true names for things.
Naming things is a writer’s power as well, and not one that Le Guin took lightly.
“I’m a writer, I use words. Knowing the names of things, I do magic,” she says in the film. “I do make up things that didn’t exist before. I call it ‘Earthsea,’ and there it is! It exists.”
Le Guin was able to imagine and write about fantastical worlds in part because she was exposed to many cultures while growing up, according to the film and those who knew her.
Alfred Kroeber, who was the first professor appointed to UC Berkeley’s anthropology department in 1901, studied the Native American cultures of California. The family hosted Native Americans at the ranch, which Le Guin talks about in an essay called, “Indian Uncles.” Kroeber also studied Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe, who walked out of the wilderness in 1911 and spent the next five years as a custodian at the U.C. anthropology museum, which was located in San Francisco at that time, said Ira Jacknis, a research anthropologist at the Phoebe Hearst Museum. (Le Guin’s mother, Theodora, would write a biography of Ishi in 1964.)
The Kroebers socialized with scholars in varied fields and, after World War II, refugees from Europe came to Berkeley and spent time in the Kroeber home, speaking different languages, Curry said.
All of that “gave [Ursula] a very expansive view of the world,” Curry said. Further, though the youngest of four children and the only girl, “she was treated with much more respect for her intellect and imaginative play as a young girl than were many girls of that time,” Curry added.
Le Guin started writing stories as a child and continued through college and after her marriage to Charles Le Guin in 1953 and the birth of their three children. She persevered through numerous rejection letters before her first novel was published in 1966.
Le Guin’s first big success came with the publication of A Wizard in Earthsea in 1968, although she had published a few novels prior to that.
Her next book. The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula prizes. Le Guin would go on to win the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, and World Fantasy Award, each more than once.
Le Guin was disciplined about writing but took care to also spend time with her family.
“We were her center of gravity,” said Downes-Le Guin. “Her career changed dramatically in the course of about 10 years.”
Le Guin preferred to write in the morning and do housework in the evening, but if her children needed her she would switch her schedule around and write at night, said Downes-Le Guin. She was happy to talk to her children about her work if asked, but she did not regularly bring it up around the dinner table, he said. She did not want her work to intrude on family time any more than necessary.
Not only did Le Guin have to manage her own work as it evolved, but she had to keep up with the changing lives and needs of her growing children. “She had to learn or figure out how to navigate fame and family life,” Downes-Le Guin said.
Like Le Guin, director Arwen Curry had to juggle the demands of her young family while fundraising for, directing, filming, editing, and producing Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.
“I had two kids along the way,” Curry said. “Ursula and I had that in common. We talked about trying to work while raising kids.”
Curry knew from early on that she wanted to make a documentary about Le Guin.
“I actually had this in the back of my mind when I went to journalism school [at the U.C., Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism],” Curry said, where she studied documentary filmmaking and graduated in 2006. “I had always been a fan of her work,” Curry said. “[Le Guin] had been in my personal canon.”
Curry first started to correspond with Le Guin around 2007 or 2008. Getting Le Guin to allow Curry to film her “did take some persuading,” Curry said. “She was not comfortable being on camera.”
“I don’t think it was the camera itself,” said Curry. “I think it was more the potential for not being able to express herself as thoroughly as she might want to, or for being cut in ways she might not have anticipated.”
“She was extremely thoughtful about her choice of words. She never thought of words as throwaway things,” Curry said. “She understood always that words matter.”
It took ten years to complete the film. Securing the funding for a feature-length documentary was a major reason it took so long.
Curry’s first grant came from Cal Humanities; she also got support from the Berkeley Film Foundation. After multiple attempts at applying for grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Curry eventually secured first a development grant and then a production grant, which became the bulk of her budget.
Still, the NEH would not release the funds until Curry could show that she had secured funding for the rest of her budget. So Curry set up what turned out to be a whirlwind Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $230,000 in a month. “That showed me how enthusiastic and how eager people were to see the film,” Curry said.
After seeing an early cut of the film, Downes-Le Guin said that he was struck by the extent of his mother’s interactions and collaborations with other artists and writers. In addition to Chabon, other writers who discuss Le Guin’s influence in the film include Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Neil Gaiman, whose most recent book was American Gods, and David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, among others.
“I read A Wizard of Earthsea, and, things rearranged in my head!” David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, says in the film. “That’s when I most powerfully, hungrily, more than anything else, wanted to be a writer.”
“It’s certainly a remarkable writer who can meet you when you’re 10 years old and give you something wonderful to read, and still be there for you when you’re 45 years old, and everywhere in between,” said Chabon in the film. He will interview Curry at the Litquake event. “I think she’s one of the greatest writers that the 20th-century American literary scene produced.”
Working with Le Guin, Curry said, “I was surprised at how deeply she holds true to who you think she would be” from reading her essays and other work. “She was a phenomenal person as an individual — warm, funny, generous, thinking on many levels at once.”
Le Guin died on Jan. 22, 2018, at her home in Portland at the age of 88.
Director Arwen Curry will be on hand for a question-and-answer session after both showings in Mill Valley. The film will also be shown at the Balboa Theater in San
Francisco on Oct. 25, 7:30 p.m. as part of a science fiction lecture
and screening series.