Author-friends, Meet Arwen Curry

Arwen Curry is a filmmaker and writer. She is an associate producer of the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag and co-produced and directed the 2006 documentary Stuffed. She coordinated the magazine Maximum Rocknroll from 1998 to 2004 and publishes the zine Ration. She talked to us about her current project, a documentary on Ursula K. LeGuin.

How did you get involved with this project?

I am directing a documentary film about the life and work of the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who is best known for her sci-fi and fantasy novels. She is also a celebrated mainstream writer, whatever that means. The film is still technically in the research and development phase, but I shoot whenever I can. I’ll be interviewing Margaret Atwood about Ursula in September, when they’ll appear together in conversation for Portland Arts & Lectures.

I first conceived of the movie about seven years ago. I was talking on the phone with my best friend while pacing around the back patio of Maximum Rocknroll, the punk magazine I was editing then. It was deadline time. We were talking about the debt we felt toward certain women writers of Ursula’s generation (she is 80). Grace Paley and Adrienne Rich also came up. I kept thinking about that conversation, and soon it became clear that Ursula’s story was the one calling to me. It was a few years before I contacted her for the first time and began working on the film in earnest.

What's it like to work with Ursula? Was it intimidating approaching her initially? (We would be sort of terrified, honestly.)

Ursula is a private person (though not in the sense of being reclusive: she generous with her fans, and with the Pacific Northwest arts community, other writers, her friends, etc.). I first approached her with a short letter explaining what I wanted to do with the film, and why, and introducing myself in the most straightforward way I could. I sent her a DVD of my first film, Stuffed, and issues of my zine, Ration. A mutual friend, Moe (of the inspiring Extra Tuf) put in a good word for me, which I believe helped a lot.

Yes, I was intimidated, but not terrified. Because it didn’t feel like my ego on the line; I thought making the movie was the right thing to do, and I just had to make my case. We did have some back and forth about it, and a glass of afternoon vermouth, before she agreed to participate.

Working with Ursula has been great fun. She is kind, curious, wise, playful. Obviously she visits dark places in her work, but she seems to emerge unburdened, and that lightness is a pleasure to be near. We’ve done several long interviews so far, one on an overnight road trip, and the footage is gorgeous. The cinematographers I’ve worked with, John Kiffmeyer and Andy Black, have also gotten on really well with Ursula, which is no small deal.

I received a development grant from the California Council for the Humanities, but funding for the film has a long way to go. The climate for grant money is depressingly competitive now, and while I have high hopes for several applications I have out there, I also hope that a lot of support will come from fans who admire Ursula’s work and want to “meet” her on the screen. In August I’ll be starting a crowd-funding campaign with IndieGoGo that allows supporters to pledge small (or large!) contributions to the film. It will make all the difference, I think.

But hey, if anyone wants to donate now, there’s no reason to wait. Contributions are tax-deductible through the San Francisco Film Society.

What drew you to her work? Was there a particular reason you wanted to make a film about her?

Like many fans, I first read Ursula’s work when I was a kid of ten or eleven: the Earthsea trilogy, her “Omelas” story in an anthology, and her novel The Lathe of Heaven, which is still one of my favorites.

Since I was a little girl I’ve loved reading fairy and folk tales, both for their strangeness and for their eerie familiarity. The Greek or Russian myths were like episodes from my own dreams. So I think Ursula’s work moves me most strongly on that subterranean level of fantasy. Even her “harder” sci-fi is somehow aquatic. In her work, world-shifting encounters often happen in dark, cramped spaces between strangers, at least one of whom is badly hurt. Unexpected tenderness restores dignity, and there’s hope.

Ursula performs important experiments. She asks, what if people had no fixed gender? What if it was almost always winter? What if people never spoke to each other at all? What if the purpose of society was not to progress, but to find balance and hold fast?

I had young parents who divorced before I was three. We moved a lot, and things were pretty scrappy on a material level, but usually not boring. My father refused to keep a television in the house. He was an early Dungeons & Dragons tournament player, when it was still an arcane middle-of-the-night game and not yet dominated by Gary Gygax and TSR. He invented his own world, with detailed maps drawn in colored pencil and laminated in clear plastic shelf paper. In this world were cities, and in the cities were thieves’ guilds, wizards’ universities, corrupt bureaucrats, haunted houses, hidden treasures, fearsome monsters. Transactions were bloody or magical, or both. My brother and I never made it far before we found ourselves splayed on the altar of some nasty orcish god. But my father let us explore this story he was writing, and it felt like a privilege and a great adventure.

So I took that kind of inventiveness—the kind that Ursula exercises so powerfully in her books—quite seriously from early on. I understood that writing can be equal to magic. As Ursula says in one of our interviews, “I do magic. I make things that didn’t exist before. I call it Earthsea, and there it is! So I can draw the map.”

Do you think working with Ursula has influenced your own writing, or how you approach your work?

Knowing Ursula has encouraged me to be braver and more truthful in all my work, and to slow down and try to trust the process. Instead of beating herself up when she’s not working on something, Ursula says that she allows the “compost” of her subconscious to grow richer until something nice and green comes up. I’m paraphrasing. Suffice it to say that if you write, you’ll probably enjoy hearing her talk about writing. You should watch the movie.

It’s funny, because for the past two years I’ve also been working as associate producer on a documentary about Susan Sontag, and in the process of making these films about writers you become very involved with them. It’s almost like being haunted. I’ve spent long hours reading Sontag’s private journals at UCLA Special Collections, turning the pages of the hundreds of little notebooks where she scribbled her wild lists of books to read, movies to see, people to talk to. And at the University of Oregon at Eugene, I’ve spent more long hours reading Ursula’s amazing correspondence with Alice Sheldon (a.k.a. James Tiptree Jr.), Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, etc., etc.

Sontag (1933-2004) and Le Guin were technically contemporaries, but it doesn’t really feel that way. As writers they’re very different, and they reached very different groups of people, which is sort of sad. Sontag left her family and West Coast roots in a cloud of dust to become a dark star of the avant-garde New York literary scene in the mid 60s. She cared about seriousness. Ursula is a self-proclaimed western writer who raised three kids while becoming a bright star of science fiction’s New Wave in the late 60s. She cares about wholeness.

The things Le Guin and Sontag have in common are probably more illuminating to think about, but I’ve said enough about it already. It’s just that sometimes it’s like they’re perched on each shoulder, dark and bright, whispering to me, as I'm bending my neck back and forth, listening.

When is the movie coming out and where can we go see it?

I’m not sure there’s much use worrying about where yet; the distribution landscape is changing so rapidly that DVDs may not be in the picture at all by the time the film comes out (by 2012, fingers crossed). I am aiming to broadcast the film on one of the major public television documentary strands, as well as screening it at festivals around the country. Plus a limited small theater run. As I suggested, the film may be available online, too, but we’ll have to wait and see!

Since I’ve been working full-time in documentary film, I haven’t been publishing much, and I miss it. I’m hoping it’s possible to do that and still make movies. I’m hoping. I’ll let you know: next week I’m starting a new weekly column for mrr.com. You can follow my progress on the Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin film and other projects at arwencurry.com