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Ursula K. Le Guin's family and agents share memories of the legendary writer

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Jan 25, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin was a literary giant, but before she became a giant, she needed a leg up. That boost came in the form of her agent, Virginia Kidd.

Kidd was a literary agent whose name commanded respect in the science fiction publishing world for decades, until her death in 2003. Le Guin was in her early days as an author, having written several stories and the first Earthsea novel when she and Kidd formed their partnership. They would work together for 35 years until Virginia’s death (and Le Guin continued to work with the Virginia Kidd Agency for another 10), making literary history in the process.

"[Kidd] nominated one of my early novels for a Nebula. When I began to realize I needed an agent, of course I thought of her," Le Guin recalled in a remembrance she wrote about her agent and friend upon her death in 2003. "Very tentatively and with some embarrassment I wrote and asked her if she'd be at all interested in trying to find a hard-cover publisher for a book I'd already sold to Terry Carr as a paperback Ace Special. I said probably that couldn't be done, and anyhow it was a strange, wintry kind of book that would probably annoy people, called The Left Hand of Darkness. Virginia wrote right back: 'Yes, I will handle it, but I want to represent all of your work, not just some of it.'"

Agents from the Virginia Kidd Literary Agency, Vaughne Hansen and Christine Cohen, spoke with SYFY WIRE on Wednesday about the relationship between the two icons of science fiction.

"I think it's a matter of fact that not a lot of women in science fiction [at that time] were writing and editing and agenting as they are now," Hansen said. "And they were perfectly aware of this, but they just kept on going. I think that's how they broke boundaries, by just putting one foot in front of the other, not accepting that people aren't buying stories from women. Ursula wrote so well that they had to buy it."

"I don't know that they woke up and said, 'Today, we're going to break down some barriers,'" Cohen added. "They just did it. It didn't occur to them that they couldn't do these things."

Hansen, who has been an agent with the agency for 28 years, said that Kidd sold the second book in the Earthsea series, The Tombs of Atuan, at the same time she was trying to resell the book A Wizard of Earthsea.

"Ursula had sold [the first book in the Earthsea series, A Wizard of Earthsea] to Parnassus Press. It was a typical unagented contract of the era: everything but your firstborn," Hansen said of Le Guin's unfortunate first deal as an author. According to Hansen, Kidd played hardball, telling Parnassus Press that she had the second book and wanted better terms then Le Guin had received on the first book.

"Parnassus then told Virginia, 'No, you'll have to sell it to us anyway, because nobody's going to buy it.' Virginia said, 'Watch me.' She sent [the manuscript] to Margaret K. McElderry at Atheneum [Books], and Margaret snapped it up like that. It took Virginia two weeks to sell it elsewhere, because already she knew what she was going to do."

Cohen, who has been an agent with the agency for 20 years, said, "Virginia [agented] everything of [Le Guin's]. She did stories, she did foreign, she did poetry, YA children's books, all of those. Ursula said later in her career, she found out a lot of agencies don't bother with those things, but Virginia was pleased to get anything that Ursula would send her."

But theirs wasn't just an agent/author relationship; together, they co-edited the anthologies Interfaces: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction and Edges: Thirteen New Tales From the Borderlands of the Imagination, both in 1980. "They had an excellent rapport ... Their letters are about the kids and the cats. Their letters have a sweetness to them."

I had the privilege of interviewing Le Guin once, and the adjective that doesn't spring to mind is "sweet." I'd say she was sharp as a scythe. That straightforward attitude that Le Guin and Kidd shared served them both well, particularly in the days when the few female science fiction authors tended to write under pseudonyms or initials. (Le Guin herself wrote the novelette "Nine Lives" for Playboy under the name "U.K. Le Guin." It was her only pseudonymed story.)

I asked Le Guin's family if Le Guin was particularly proud of one particular work. In an email, her niece Katharine Kroeber wrote, "I don’t think there is any one book or genre or such-like she would want to be remembered for; she had breadth of thought and writing, and like most good writers, was baffled and frustrated by the obsession of publishers/book sellers/readers with wanting to cram art into limiting pigeonholes.

"What *was* important, vital, to her, was to be an independent voice on whatever topic; to be able write whatever came from within without limitations imposed from outside. And she wanted that not just for herself, but for all artists."

Her ferocity of spirit comes across in Kroeber's following family tale:

"My grandfather, Ursula’s father, bought a piece of property in northern California with an elderly house and a few decrepit outbuildings back in 1929, half-way up a hill. For decades there were only 4 or 5 families on the road up this hill. Then in the early 1980s, wealthy folks started flooding in. One such person was a man, Mr B, who was a multi-millionaire from Texas. He built a big McMansion down at the base of the hill, where the battered old mailboxes leaned, and tried to buy up large chunks of property, and was very boastful and arrogant ('I’m going to own this whole hill!'). One summer day, Ursula was down picking blackberries from around the mailboxes. Mr B came rampaging out from his estate, large and angry. 'What the hell d’you think you’re doing here?'

"Ursula drew herself up to her full (5' 4") height, gave him a Withering Glare (Category F5), and retorted in tones of venomous contempt, 'MY family has been picking berries here for SEVENTY-FIVE years! How long have YOU been here?'

"Mr B shriveled up like a punctured balloon and scuttled away like a bug."

Le Guin had a tremendous impact on anyone who has read her writing, characterized by a simplicity yet depth of prose. As fans of her books — and her sadly overlooked poetry — know, she could do more in a page and a half than most writers can do in an entire chapter. She made writing look effortless. Kroeber said, "People will be reading her work for a long time to come, I have no doubt."

But will fans be reading any of Le Guin's unpublished works in the near future? Kroeber said, "I don’t know if she will have anything new coming out post-mortem, but likely so."