By Stephanie A. Smith
If she could, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin would, I believe, come back into this world she so graced and enriched during her lifetime as a stunning, Cheshire-cat-like sphinx because she loved cats without limit, and usually had at least five in residence, most of them long-haired, graceful, aerial creatures who used to regard me during the early 1980s as the human-who-will-do-in-a-pinch, whenever Charles and Ursula went out of town. As a freshly-graduated Boston University English-Latin major, I had been accepted to a three-week Portland State University Haystack summer writing SF/F workshop on the Oregon coast team-taught by Ursula, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Elizabeth Lynn, after which I moved from Boston to Portland, to be near my teachers, and to write. I was 21. I had nothing other than college debt, a Smith-Corona manual, youthful intensity, in other words, more or less just another ambitious kid.
But Ursula put me in touch with her daughter, Caroline — Carly’s — friend Harriet Beeman, another recent college graduate. Harriet was renting an old, fairly run-down and un-insulated, but dirt cheap, Victorian house in Northwest Portland and needed roommates; we cobbled together what we soon called the “women of the Red House,” four twenty-something’s just staring out, shivering through the wet winter months; Ursula helped me find a job as a typesetter — work now made obsolete by computers —through a friend at Willamette Week, Portland’s alternative paper. I worked a night shift, so during the day I’d haul myself up the hill to the Le Guin’s house; Ursula would meet me at the door, and then she would go off to her study, which had a grand view of Mt. St. Helen’s or what was left of it; I would go off to a spare bedroom and we’d both write all morning (by hand or on portable typewriters). Around lunch, we’d meet for a pot of tea in the spacious, cozy kitchen, and then I’d go catch a quick nap and shower at the Red House, before taking the bus downtown to my night-shift; sometimes, as I’ve said, I would house-and-cat-sit for the Le Guins; when they couldn’t or didn’t want to use their opera subscription tickets, they gave one to me; if they saw me walking home as I sometimes did to save bus fare, they’d give me a lift; later on, I joined some private tai-chi lessons with them, in their living room; Ursula lent me books, talked with me about those books, and literature, music, art; when I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, she wrote a letter of recommendation, then put me in touch with Margaret, an old friend of her mother, Theodora Kroeber, from whom I rented a room in a beautiful old redwood home in the Berkeley hills.
Stephanie A. Smith, on the left, with Ursula Le Guin in the Red House in Northwest Portland, April, 1982. Photo taken by Harriet Beeman.
In other words, Ursula was much, much more than merely generous to this budding writer; to me, she was the absolute epitome of humanity, the best of the best, both a powerful goddess (okay, she’d wince at that) and akin to a mother or a sister, a cherished cousin or a favorite aunt, offering encouragement, warmth, caring, and support. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say Ursula K. Le Guin was a most deeply talented artist, focused, a feminist through and through, demanding, opinionated, funny, wry, angry and completely dedicated, unstoppable, a power, truly, of nature for when she walked into a room, any room, the entire atmosphere would shift. I loved her like a mother, with my whole soul.
When I finished my first novel, she read it, gave me suggestions for revision and then passed my final manuscript on to her own, richly talented editor at Athenaeum, Jean Karl. Snow-Eyes was published in 1985; Ursula wrote a pull-quote for it, and after that, as a writer, I was on my own. She would always help launch a young author, but the rest was up to you. Writing is, she would say, 98 percent hard work and 2 percent luck. So even if I’ve not enjoyed the 2 percent of luck and popularity has never been mine, I have never stopped writing precisely in the same fashion that I did in her gracious, encouraging, demanding presence: every day, I get up, I write until lunch-time, and then I go about the rest of my life, for, as Ursula used to say, a writer writes. The only way a book gets written is if you put your butt in a chair and write for four or five hours; after that, the mind is more or less emptied and you need to give it time to refill and refresh. Without her radiance, life has become all at once terribly impoverished but her voice will carry on the work of love she so generously gave to her readers, her fans, her family, and to young authors, who will continue to follow her radiant lead.
After attending the PSU Haystack Writing Workshop with Ursula K. LeGuin, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Elizabeth Lynn, Stephanie A. Smith took her PhD in English from UC Berkeley and now teaches American Literature at the University of Florida; she is the author of The Warpaint Trilogy (Thames River Press, 2012-14); Other Nature (TOR/FORGE, 1995, short-listed for the Tiptree Award), The-Boy-Who-Was-Thrown-Away and Snow-Eyes (Atheneum/DAW 1985/87); has had short stories in New Letters, Asimov’s and SF&F and has held fiction residencies at the Writer’s Colony, the VCCA, Noepe Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, Norcroft, Provincetown, and Dorland. In 1998 was an NEH Scholar at UCLA with N. Katherine Hayles, and she is the academic author of Conceived By Liberty (Cornell 1995 short-listed for the MLA first book prize) and Household Words (Minnesota, 2006).