Ursula K. Le Guin On ‘Starting Late’ as a Writer

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LE GUIN: My mother had always wanted to write. She told me this only after she’d started writing. She waited until she got the kids out of the house, until she was free of responsibility for anybody except her husband. Very typical of her generation. She was in her fifties when she started writing—for kids, which is how women often start. It’s not threatening to anybody, including themselves. And she published a couple of lovely little kids’ books.

She wanted to write novels, and she did write a couple, but they never found a publisher. But what happened was that she got asked to write the biography of Ishi. Of course they asked my father and he said, No way, I cannot handle that story. He’d lived that story and didn’t want to write it. He wasn’t a reminiscer. He said, I think you might ask my wife, she’s a good writer. And they did, and she did it. So her first published adult book was a best seller, which was wonderful for her! She was in her sixties then. I would get letters from people who said, I read your mother’s book and it made me cry! That pleased her enormously. She would say, That’s what it was supposed to do.

It was also interesting because my mother and I were almost working together trying to get published.

INTERVIEWER: What an unusual beginning, for both of you.

LE GUIN: She beat me to it! Which is cool. Because I was late and slow. A slow learner. But not as late as her. I love to tell her story because people—particularly women—need to hear that you can start late. She figured she could put it off, which shocked the strong feminists of twenty or thirty years ago. I don’t know if anybody gets shocked anymore. But a lot of people don’t realize how strong the social pressure was on women.

-Ursula K. Le Guin, in a Paris Review interview with John Wray.

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Photo: laura-kali, Flickr

Longreads Member Pick Named Finalist for Pen Center USA 2014 Literary Awards

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We are very excited to announce that Jessica Wilbanks’ essay “On The Far Side of the Fire” has been named as a finalist for the Pen Center USA 2014 Literary Awards. Wilbanks’ essay was honored in Pen Center USA’s journalism category. The piece was first published in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Ninth Letter and later made its online debut as a Longreads Member Pick in January 2014. You can read more Longreads Member Picks here.

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Photo: Jessica Wilbanks

‘I Did Not Have a Culture of Scholastic High Achievement Around Me’

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Compared with my classmates on the second tier, my test scores were on the lower end. Each week, in my literature class, we were responsible for the recitation of some French poems (Baudelaire, Verlaine, Lamartine) from memory, and each day we had to recite a stanza. This sort of exercise may well be familiar to readers of The Atlantic, but the rituals required to master it were totally new to me. I had never been a high-achieving student. Indeed, during my 15 or so years in school, I was remarkably low-achieving student.

There were years when I failed the majority of my classes. This was not a matter of my being better suited for the liberal arts than sciences. I was an English minor in college. I failed American Literature, British Literature, Humanities, and (voilà) French. The record of failure did not end until I quit college to become a writer. My explanation for this record is unsatisfactory: I simply never saw the point of school. I loved the long process of understanding. In school, I often felt like I was doing something else.

Like many black children in this country, I did not have a culture of scholastic high achievement around me. There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness. The phrase “Ivy League” was an empty abstraction to me. I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed. These observations cannot be disconnected from the country I call home, nor from the government to which I swear fealty.

— The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on his difficulty with learning French, and how he adapted while growing up in a mostly black and poor section of Baltimore that lacked the kind of social and academic capital that can create high achieving students.

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Photo: via YouTube/The Atlantic

The Life of a Full-Time Barbecue Editor

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Weird as it is to say, I understand the morbid fascination with my 36-year-old cardiovascular system. My job requires that I travel from one end of the state to the other eating smoked brisket, one of the fattiest cuts on the steer. And I can’t forget to order the pork ribs, sausage, and beef ribs. Of course my diet is going to raise eyebrows. Including those of my doctor. During one of my semiannual visits to see him, when my blood work showed an elevated cholesterol level, he gave me a scrip for statins and a helpful catalog of high-cholesterol foods to avoid. First on the list? Beef brisket. Second? Pork ribs. When I told him about my role as barbecue editor, he just said, “Maybe you could eat a little less brisket.” I promised to focus more on smoked chicken, but the pledge was as empty as the calories in my next order of banana pudding.

My wife, Jen, also has concerns. My editor, Andrea Valdez, once asked her if she was worried about my health based on my profession. Jen replied, “Shouldn’t we all be?” But to her credit, she’s been supportive of my decision to change careers (albeit a bit less enthusiastic than she was when I was made an associate at the Dallas architecture firm I worked with for six years). Only once has Jen placed restrictions on my diet. Back in 2010, when I was regularly writing for my blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, and doing research for my book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, she declared February “Heart Healthy Month” and banned me from eating barbecue. Suffering from withdrawal, I turned to cured meats. She got so sick of seeing salami and speck in the fridge (I think I even staged a bacon tasting at one point), she let me off the hook three days early. That was the last prolonged barbecue hiatus I can remember.

All jokes aside, I do understand the long-term perils of my profession. I’ve taken those statins religiously for several years, and I’m doing my part to keep the antacid market in business. But I’m usually more worried about the acute health concerns I face. I judged the “Anything Goes” category at a cookoff in South Texas and spat out a submission mid-chew that featured some severely undercooked lobster tails. At a barbecue joint in Aubrey, I took a bite of beef rib that I had reasonable suspicion to believe had been tainted with melted plastic wrap. And the most gastrointestinal discomfort I’ve ever had came from the 33 entries of beans I judged in one sitting at an amateur barbecue competition in Dallas.

— Daniel Vaughn, on what it’s like to work as Texas Monthly’s full-time barbecue editor.

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Photo: Heather Cowper

The Loneliest Whale in the World

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Whales make calls for a number of reasons—to navigate, to find food, to communicate with each other—and for certain whales, like humpbacks and blues, songs also seem to play a role in sexual selection. Blue males sing louder than females, and the volume of their singing—at more than 180 decibels—makes them the loudest animals in the world. They click and grunt and trill and hum and moan. They sound like foghorns. Their calls can travel thousands of miles through the ocean.

The whale that Joe George and Velma Ronquille heard was an anomaly: His sound patterns were recognizable as those of a blue whale, but his frequency was unheard-of. It was absolutely unprecedented. So they paid attention. They kept tracking him for years, every migration season, as he made his way south from Alaska to Mexico. His path wasn’t unusual, only his song—and the fact that they never detected any other whales around him. He always seemed to be alone.

So this whale was calling out high, and he was calling out to no one—or at least, no one seemed to be answering. The acoustic technicians would come to call him 52 Blue.

-Leslie Jamison, in a Slate excerpt of her new Atavist book, 52 Blue.

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Photo: hmj, Flickr

The Mysteries of Phil Hartman’s Creative Genius

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Part of the reason Hartman remains fuzzy in our memories was his own doing. When he joined SNL’s cast in 1986, it was customary for a newcomer to declare he would be the next John Belushi. Hartman had a different ambition. He told the Los Angeles Times he wanted to be the next Dan Aykroyd.

But another part is the unusual nature of Hartman’s talent. Hartman was so good at playing smarmy, air-quoting, golden-voiced sharpies — “20 percent droid,” said the writer Robert Smigel — that it’s difficult to catalogue all the comic notes he left behind in the universe.

You know when Stephen Colbert jogs across the stage and gives the audience a significant look? Or when Ron Burgundy exclaims, “By the beard of Zeus!”? These aren’t quotations, or even conscious homages. But make no mistake. What you’re observing is Hartmanism — the art of being unctuous.

-Bryan Curtis, in Grantland, on Saturday Night Live’s “glue,” the late Phil Hartman.

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Hartman’s original SNL audition: