In Memoriam Ursulae

I posted a version of this to my blog the morning after Ursula Le Guin died — but the thing is, when you write something that soon, you forget things. You’re so caught up in the weight of the moment that you don’t tell the whole story.

So first, here’s what I wrote before:


Not long after I moved to the Bay Area, I attended the Potlatch convention. Ursula Le Guin was the Guest of Honor that year, and one day as I arrived I saw her walking across the lobby toward the dealers’ room . . . with a videographer trailing along behind her.

Well, crap, I thought. I really wanted to talk to her — but it’s hard enough walking up to URSULA K. LE GUIN out of the blue and saying “hi” without somebody on hand to document the entire thing. And for all I knew they were in the middle of doing something where they wouldn’t welcome a random stranger interrupting it.

A few minutes later, I wandered into the dealers’ room. She was there; so was the videographer. I loitered to one side. I watched as she browsed the tables, and as everybody else in the room eddied out of her way — out of frame, they probably hoped. I’m not sure whether anyone there had any better idea what was going on than I did, but it was clear I wasn’t the only one who felt super-awkward.

I waited. I pretended to browse.

The videographer put their camera down.

It’s now or never.

I drifted over to Le Guin, took my courage in both hands, and introduced myself. And I told her that she was the reason I’d gone to grad school to study science fiction and fantasy.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a laugh.

It’s true, though: her book The Language of the Night was the first thing that made me realize, hey, science fiction and fantasy are a thing you can think about. Like, critically. And not just in a lit-crit way, but in the ways I was familiar with, the anthropological side. I didn’t know at the time that I would wind up writing papers about role-playing games, but I knew that I’d never figured out what I might want to do if I went to grad school in archaeology, and now I had the answer to that question in the neighboring field of cultural anthropology. Or folklore. Or both. (It wound up being both.)

So I told her I was an anthropologist and that I’d heard about her parents, particularly her father, in my classes (which was true). I told her that I deeply admired the way anthropology informed her work, and that I aimed for it to do something similar in mine. We didn’t talk for very long — I didn’t want to dominate her time or, y’know, wind up babbling about nothing — but I got to tell her the impact she’d had on my life. (And may have even remembered to say that the review which compared my first-ever published short story to her work was one of the most flattering I’d ever received.)

And then I turned around and found the videographer was filming us. Of course. >_<

I still don’t know what that was for. Possibly the documentary somebody has apparently been working on for the last decade? I didn’t ask; I just fled. But I walked away glad that I had spoken to Le Guin — even if I was caught on camera doing it — because I haven’t gotten to speak to most of the authors who shaped my life. Frances Hodgson Burnett died in 1924. The D’aulaires, in the ’80s. Diana Wynne Jones died in 2011, and I regret that I never made the effort to attend a UK convention where I might have been able to meet her. (I did get to send a message to her via Sharyn November for her, hmmm, I think 75th birthday?) But I had the chance to tell Ursula Le Guin the effect she had on this particular writer and academic.

We will miss her.


Here’s what I forgot to say:

Without Ursula, I would not be the writer I am today.

I would be a writer, certainly. That became inevitable when I read Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock as a child. But six years of grad school changed me: it opened my eyes, expanded my brain, trained me to take a thoughtful look at ideas that had previously passed under my radar. It put me into a wonderful gaming community that led to me writing all kinds of things. I didn’t finish my degree, but directly or indirectly, grad school left an indelible imprint on my work. Without Ursula’s The Language of the Night, I probably wouldn’t have the Memoirs of Lady Trent.

And I might not be a member of Book View Café. Back when I joined, e-publishing was not quite as mainstream as it is now, and — time for a shameful confession — I harbored doubts about it. I’d been reading the BVC blog for quite a while (lured in by Judith Tarr’s horse posts), and certainly if I was going to do this thing, then this was the place to do it . . . but did I want to go this route?

. . . and then I realized that Ursula Le Guin was a founding member. With all due respect to the other members of BVC — and they deserve a lot! — none of them had the deific aura that surrounded her name for me. If Ursula Le Guin was a founder (and yes, her name is pretty much always italicized in my head, not to mention accompanied by a beam of sunlight and possibly some otherworldly choir singing), then who was I to drag my feet on this ebook thing?

So here I am: part of a wonderful co-op that has, again, shaped my career as a writer. It turns I owe Ursula even more thanks than I knew to give her that long-ago afternoon at Potlatch.



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


In Memoriam Ursulae — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds + tribute at Book View Cafe - Swan Tower

  2. It appears we had similar inspirations, although we went in different directions with them. My local state schools demanded a lot of math and chemistry for anthro, or so guidance counselors told me. (I didn’t know about the illness effecting my ability to perform consistently with math.) So I went into the arts–and still ended up writing.

    Both Earthsea and Left Hand of Darkness effected me subconsciously, metaphorically. Language of the Night taught me what I wanted to write about. That it could be done.

    I never had the nerve to go up and speak to her. Now I will have to do it at the next campfire. . . .