Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Imagining a different world with Ursula K. Le Guin

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As Oregon authors go, few are better known or beloved than the late Ursula K. Le Guin. A list of her awards alone would probably fill the space of this column. Most famous for her fantasy and science fiction works, including A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin died last January at age 88, only months before a documentary on her life, 10 years in the making, was finished.  

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin will show at the North County Recreation District theater in Nehalem — presented by Hoffman Center for the Arts’ Manzanita Film Series — at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21. Tickets will be available at the door for $5.

I spoke with film director and producer Arwen Curry about the documentary and her relationship with Le Guin.

Filmmaker Arwen Curry (left) worked with author Ursula K. Le Guin over a period of 10 years to
make the documentary “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.” It will be shown Dec. 21 in Nehalem.

Where does this begin? How did you decide you would take on the subject of a celebrated, world-renowned author?

AC:  I read the books for children or young adults and then I read the grown-up novels. She was a known voice to me. She was a figure in my internal bookshelf from my childhood. Seeing writers talk and the experience of seeing them in person can be so powerful and tell you so much more about the experience of being a writer. Who it is that became Ursula K. Le Guin? I wanted to share that experience of being in a room with her.

When I first decided to do that I didn’t know how to make films at all. I was writing for a magazine. I enrolled in a class on making documentaries at Berkeley with this project in mind. That was kind of a crapshoot.

Was it difficult to get Le Guin on board with you to make the film?

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Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

It wasn’t till after I finished and made one dissertation film that I came to her. I wanted to have one film under my belt. First, we had a correspondence asking to let me do this. She sort of agreed tentatively. Then, she sort of backed off. I convinced her to let me come and meet her. She invited me to her house. We talked about my vision for the film. After that point, she agreed to do it with me and stayed with me the entire time.

The film includes interviews you filmed with a number of well-known authors — Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon. Was it difficult to get them involved?

I did, in some cases, have Ursula’s help. I did with Margaret Atwood. Margaret knew I was making this film with Ursula’s permission. In most other cases, I just pursued the normal routes. I contacted their agents and made my pitch. In general, these writers wanted to talk about her. She is well loved, particularly among those younger writers she influenced.

You started this journey as a journalist, switching your focus from writing to filmmaking. How did this impact your life?

My career as a documentary filmmaker was shaped by this project. Certainly there are lessons I learned from working with Ursula herself that I will always carry with me. About being willing to own your mistakes, to be able to honestly and courageously look at where you made missteps and continue moving forward, not allowing it to discourage you. To not be so rigid you can’t continue to evolve. Lessons about decency, intellectual rigor, I got from just knowing her.

Did you ever disagree about the direction of the film?

There were moments where she thought I wasn’t going about something the right way. She understood that I had the editing control, and yet it was a film about her life in which she was participating, and she did want to watch it and have a say. We did sometimes argue about it. I always took what she said extremely seriously. I did try to be flexible. I tried to be as honest as possible at every turn with problems I was having, with things I didn’t know, paths I was uncertain about taking.

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Why is Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin important?

I think people need to hear the voices in her 2014 National Book Award speech. She said we are going to need writers that remember freedom. She is at the top of those writers who remember freedom. Unless we can imagine a different world, we’re not going to be able to build one.

It’s a very discouraging time to be a person in this world. You look at the political world, the natural environment. It can be a very a shadowy place. Her work reminds us that our job is to be rigorous and brave and even playful in reminding us how we can do this better.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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