Seven bestselling authors will gather with readers in Cannon Beach on the second weekend of April. Saturday evening my wife Jennifer and I will walk over from our scruffy secondhand bookstore to the Surfsand Resort Ballroom, where we’ll cheer for Ursula K. Le Guin. Word has it she will be honored at the keynote banquet of this “Get Lit at the Beach” event.
The salute would make sense in any cosmopolitan setting. Le Guin has written enough literary-grade novels, short stories, poetry, essays, children’s books, and translations to fill a section of any good bookstore. Yet the idea of honoring her in Cannon Beach feels especially fitting, and a little whimsical. Sort of like the mayor of Delphi giving the oracle a key to the city.
My friends Ursula and her husband Charles are deeply connected to Cannon Beach, and they’ve kept a cottage here for decades. She agreed to answer a few questions in advance of the gathering.
Q: Last year Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published a collection of new and selected poems you wrote between 1960 and 2010. The title poem — “Finding My Elegy” — speaks to both human mortality and the mortal harm we’ve done to the world. What role do you think the art of elegy plays in the health of our culture and planet?
Le Guin: An elegy as I understand it is a poem of both praise and mourning – a lament for something good that is passing or has passed. An elegy sings of loss.
Well, I’ve lived a long life, most of it at a kind of high tide time, when we human beings acted as if it would always be high tide, and we could use up the natural wealth of the world and spend it forever on making ourselves comfortable. All along, it didn’t take much looking to know that we were borrowing from the future, impoverishing the earth, spending our capital…. but we wouldn’t look at what we were doing, what we were wasting and endangering and changing — what all our profit meant in terms of loss.
Now we’re beginning to look, to know that we, and our children, must live with great loss. We have diminished our world. A lot of good things are passing away. Things worth singing about.
Q: Your collection includes the poem “At Cannon Beach,” first published in 1991, which ends with the words “silence, solitude,/peace.” In what ways has this coastal village contributed to your work?
Le Guin: Our little house is a wonderful, quiet place to work. Also a very good house for dreams, many people who’ve slept there have told me that. Dreams and the kind of writing I do have some connection. One morning when I was waking up in our Cannon Beach bedroom, the whole idea of one of the “Earthsea” books came to me as the light grew. When I got up, it was daylight and I had a novel to write.
I wrote most of “Searoad,” and the first “Catwings,” and large parts of many other books, and many, many poems, here in Cannon Beach. The sound of the sea is a good sound for a poet to have in her ears.
Q: Searoad includes one of our all-time favorite stories – “Texts” – and I’m glad it’s part of your new two-volume collection of short fiction. The story describes how a visitor to the coast is deluged with messages from her surroundings. Her overwhelming urge to transcribe the significance of the world feels deeply familiar.
Since “Texts” was written, our society has been flooded with hand-held gadgets that enable us to transmit written messages. How is this trend influencing the relationship between writers and our environment? Do you think texting is making us more apt, or less apt, to see words in the sea foam?
Le Guin: I don’t text, so I can only talk about it from the outside. Clearly it’s convenient as a sort of telephone-in-writing, and I can sympathize with its importance to adolescents at the stage of needing to be in constant verbal contact with their friends. But it’s disturbing to see texting replace conversation, or people out walking so absorbed in electronic communication that they’re indifferent to the actual, shared world. It’s funny how the “social media” lead to asocial behavior. As for reading what the foam writes on the sand, I honestly don’t think you can do that on a mobile phone. You have to be there on the beach, unplugged.
Q: Our family loves “Catwings.” In your 2009 book of talks and essays, Cheek by Jowl, you defend children’s literature against “maturismo” critics who write it off as immature. Do you see any signs of change on that front?
Le Guin: I think the daddy of “maturismo” is literary machismo, and its mommy is literary snobbery. Well, mommy’s probably immortal, but daddy really isn’t quite the bully honcho he used to be.
Q: The Tolovana Arts Colony was founded by old-school bohemians to help connect creativity with the community. How can local folks continue to strengthen that connection for the written word?
Le Guin: Cannon Beach was full of crazy artists in the 1960’s, when we first knew the town – when the sculptor Joe Police was mayor. Glory days! The range and quality of talent in this town was amazing. Gradually it began to price itself out of the living range of most artists and young writers, people who aren’t already successful. But it still has everything else that drew them in the first place, including the galleries, the Library, and the bookstores. If you make artists and writers welcome, they’ll come. The Library and Tolovana Arts Colony are doing a great job at that.
Q: You were a core part of the Haystack Arts Program — a spree of weeklong workshops held for 35 summers in Cannon Beach. Some of us dream of reviving the program for the off-season. Could you share a memory of the program to help stoke our imagination?
Le Guin: Portland State University’s Continuing Education program ran Haystack. It was a great summer program – music, art, and writing workshops, fifteen or eighteen people working together with a leader for a week at a time. People stayed in various houses around town, and met at the school. Our workshops always started with a wiener roast on the beach, and a lot of them ended with lifelong friendships made during that week of hard creative work.
Q: Like many people I’ve become addicted to online communication. I think you shine as a blogger at ursulakleguin.com. What are your thoughts about the blog as a written form?
Le Guin: Blogs were a mystery to me until I read a collection of them by the Portuguese Nobel Prize novelist Jose Saramago, written when he was in his mid-eighties. They’re short, informal essays about anything he felt strongly about. So I thought — I see! Hey, I’d like to try that too…
— “Get Lit at the Beach: A Gathering for Readers” will be held April 12-14 in Cannon Beach. Featured authors will include Ursula Le Guin, Erica Bauermeister, Terry Brooks, Chelsea Cain, Phil Margolin, Garth Stein, and Willy Vlautin. For more information go to tolovanaartscolony.com or call 503-368-7222.