A Conversation With Orson Scott Cardby Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, September 1999
Nobody had ever won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel two years in a row, until Orson Scott Card received them for Ender's Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, in 1986 and 1987. Ender's Game tells the story of Ender Wiggins, a brilliant child who is recruited into Battle School, where child geniuses are trained through game playing for their future role in the upcoming battles between Earth and the aliens who have almost destroyed humanity. Ender's Game was groundbreaking in its premise, and in its compelling portrayal of the brilliant children who were forced into moral decisions that even experienced adults would have found difficult. The third novel in the series, Xenocide, was published in 1991, and the fourth and seemingly final
Card's work is quite diverse. The Homecoming Saga (the novels The Memory of Earth, The Call of Earth, The Ships of Earth, Earthfall, and Earthborn) was a retelling of ancient scripture as science fiction. Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus is an alternate history novel, in which time travelers return to keep Columbus from discovering America -- or at least from returning to Europe after having discovered it. Perhaps Card's most innovative work is his American fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker, whose first five volumes, Seventh Son, Red Prophet, Prentice Alvin, Alvin Journeyman, and Heartfire are set in a magical version of the American frontier.
A dozen of Card's plays have been produced in regional theatre, including the musical Barefoot to Zion (written in collaboration with his composer brother, Arlen L. Card), which played to sold-out houses in Utah as part of the Mormon Church's celebration of the sesquicentennial of the entry of the pioneers into Salt Lake Valley. His historical novel, Saints, has been an underground hit for several years, and Card has written hundreds of audio plays and a dozen scripts for animated video plays for the family market. And his TV series concept, The Gate, was purchased by the WB network for development. Meanwhile, Ender's Game is being developed for film by Robert Chartoff, co-producer of The Right Stuff, Raging Bull, and the Rocky series, with Card writing the screenplay.
Card has written two books on writing: Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, the latter of which won a Hugo award in 1991. He has taught writing courses at several universities, including most recently a novel-writing course at Pepperdine, and has also taught at such workshops as Antioch, Clarion, Clarion West, and the Cape Cod Writers Workshop.
Born in Richland, Washington, Card grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He lived in Brazil for two years as an unpaid missionary for the Mormon Church. He received degrees from Brigham Young University (1975) and the University of Utah (1981). He currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. He and his wife, Kristine, are the parents of five children: Geoffrey, Emily, Charles, Zina Margaret, and Erin Louisa (named for Chaucer, Bronte and Dickinson, Dickens, Mitchell, and Alcott, respectively). A devout Mormon, he believes that all fiction has a strong moral message. He believes that the message should be positive; nevertheless, his choice of subject matter and the amount of violence in his books have led to some raised eyebrows in the Mormon church. Card's characters are usually put in a position of having to make difficult and interesting moral choices. Card believes that it is the character's interaction with other people which makes him interesting. Family is also a central theme in his work.
His fans are devout, and growing in number. His website is a popular stop where fans and students can read about his work, and even get their writing questions answered from Uncle Orson. He practices what he preaches -- a devoted husband and father, he makes family time a priority in his life and is known for his willingness to help writers who are willing to work hard. Orson talks with us about his work and his life, and shares some terrific advice for beginning writers.
I'd like to talk first about your recent fantasy book, Enchantment. How did this story come into being? What attracted you to the story of Sleeping Beauty?
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What was the most challenging aspect of creating this character of Ivan, the hero of Enchantment?
The story required certain things: A reason for him to start a Russian but end up an American; the ability to speak the language of the princess; enough athletic ability to get across the chasm to the princess; a reason to go back to Russia; some ability or abilities that would be useful in fighting the wicked witch. These requirements forced me to move him through an unusual life pattern. To get him from Russia to America, I made him part of the Jewish emigration in the 1970s. To give him Old Slavonic, I made his father a professor of ancient languages who talked shop at home. To get him back to Russia, I made him a grad student -- and to prepare him to understand what was going on, I made him a student of ancient Slavic folklore. And I also made him a lifelong athlete. All these were required by the story, but in the process of making these things fit together into a coherent life with a believable family, I ended up falling in love with Ivan and both his parents -- especially his mother. Ivan's frustration was being misjudged by everyone; but what I admired about him was that no matter what he might wish, he kept coming down on the side of Doing the Right Thing. Not the dramatic battle between Good and Evil, but the quotidian battle between unwillingness and responsibility.
Let's talk about Sleeping Beauty herself -- Princess Katerina. How did you approach the creation of Katerina? Were there any character traits you were specifically trying to avoid?
I wanted to avoid the obvious: Making her anachronistically feminist or modern in some other way. The story only worked if she was a woman of her time. Nor did I want her to be passive, waiting to be rescued. Her people depended on her, and she took her duties seriously in an age when monarchs were not just political but also religious leaders. She had to be in every way the opposite of Baba Yaga -- without being Susan Silverman from the Spenser novels.
Ivan's relationship with his parents is a complex one and, although most people's mothers aren't talented good witches, the exchanges between son and parents ring very true. How much of your family life do you find creeping into your work?
Ivan's parents were very different from mine, and largely unplanned. What mattered to me was simply that they be good parents, in this era when people only seem to write about dysfunctional families -- or erase the family entirely, treating their heroes as if they sprang like Minerva from the head of Jove. So Ivan's parents had to be involved in his life without consuming him with their own ambitions; worried about him but willing to let him make his own choices ... to a point. How do you keep "good parents" from being boring? Well, in truth, the real problem is, how do you keep bad parents from being boring! I've seen the same bad parents in so many books and movies that I'm tired of them. In creating Ivan's family, the "forced conversion" to Judaism was the biggest problem, because it was such a morally complicated thing to do and the level of sincerity in the conversion had to be believable and not utterly cynical. In solving that first dilemma I found the seeds of both parents' relationships with Ivan. In truth, the secret to all characterization for me is expressible in two maxims: Every character is the hero of his own story, and You don't write characters, you write relationships. In practice the first maxim means that you must let characters have their own purposes and agendas, not just do what the plot requires, and the second maxim means that nobody is the same person to everyone -- who they are depends in large part on whom they're with.
How did you approach the research needed for this book? Do you use the Internet for research?
I tried the Internet for research and found it nearly useless. A more experienced friend, D'Ann Stoddard, did manage to find useful information on the manufacture of gunpowder from natural materials. But for myself, I found nothing useful directly. But in an indirect way, the best "find" was through the Internet -- when I got an email from a grad student in Russian studies who was inquiring about my use of Russian words and names in my Homecoming series. I mentioned to her the book I was working on and hired her to read my manuscript and make suggestions. The result was every speck of authenticity on Russian culture and language in the book
Otherwise, my research was really in the folklore: A collection of Russian folk tales and a collection of Jewish folk tales. These gave me the shape of the story, for Russian folk tales make western European tales look cheery indeed. They have a way of going way beyond the "happily ever after." In one extravagantly vile tale (which I loved) the hero wins the girl's hand in marriage -- but then she tries to kill him! Naturally, I had to use a variation of that one, along with some fun Baba Yaga stuff. And the Jewish folk tales had the recurring theme of a marriage covenant broken -- a betrothal denied, and the punishment that comes until the original betrothal is honored. So that, too, became a complicating element in Enchantment. Then I also read extensively in early Russian and pre-Russian Slavic history. Not that there's all that much to read! I cite my sources thoroughly in the acknowledgments, which I treat as a bibliography whenever research is important to a book.
Please tell us about your upcoming release, Ender's Shadow. I understand it's not a sequel to Ender's Game?
Ender's Game is about a kid fighting a war in space. The sequels -- Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind -- take
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Recently there seems to be a trend towards creating and understanding complex evil characters. In some books, the villains seem to be more entertaining than the heroes, in fact! But in your books, the "good" characters are always more interesting. Is that intentional? As a writer, do you find it more challenging to write an interesting "good" person than to write an interesting villain?
To paraphrase Tolstoy: Good people are endlessly fascinating, but wicked people are all weak, cowardly, or evil in the same old ways. I don't find evil fascinating. I find
|"There is a myth that 'expressing' or 'fulfilling' an emotion makes it go away, as if humans were balloons that need to vent these gases or explode...Repression caused us no discernable harm beyond temporary frustration -- and as any good lover knows, temporary frustration is the essence of the art of satisfaction. But massive 'expression' of the 'truth' of violence and sex has caused us great harm."|
Your books always seem to deal with the interrelationships between the main characters and family, friends, foes and others, as opposed to the modern trend in many literary novels of exploring the inner life of one lead character. How is this a reflection of your personal philosophy of life?
There is no inner life of a person in isolation. There is only the life of the individual in relation to others. Inner life is a myth, and a harmful one at that. Studying yourself teaches you nothing about yourself, just as trying to build your self-esteem does nothing for your self-esteem. Only turning outward -- and I mean only turning outward -- gives you a life worth living and a reason for self-esteem and an understanding of what and who you are. I say this as a confirmed introvert (grins). So when I see other writers exploring a person's "feelings," I get impatient. Feelings can be chemically induced; they come and go; they're not any kind of guide to who a person is. Only what a person chooses to do can tell an observer or himself who he is. And since we become different people in every relationship we have, the only way to get any kind of understanding of my main character is by showing him in juxtaposition with many other fully-realized characters. In fiction as in life, we are what we do to others. Jesus was not playing paradoxes when he said that to find your life, you must lose it in the service of others. Nothing is more empty than a person who lives only for himself and seeks to find himself through examination of that empty room.
What has the reaction in the Mormon church been to your work, overall?
There are Mormons who love my work and absolutely get what I'm doing. There are Mormons who think I'm the devil. Oddly enough,
|"It is impossible to write fiction of any kind that does not make powerful moral statements. But in science fiction, you can transform the 'reality' of the story so as to clarify the issues, allowing the moral dilemma to be brought into sharper relief."|
You are so prolific. Have you ever faced the curse of writer's block? If so, how did you deal with it?
I don't feel prolific. I'm keenly aware that if I could ever find the discipline to work steadily, I could write six books a year. My total of less than two a year tells you exactly how unsteadily I work (sighs). As for writer's block, I regard it as my unconscious mind telling me that I'm making a gross mistake in the project I'm working on. It's not a problem, it's a blessing, and the mystery is to find out the mistake, toss out the ineffective section, and write a new version that works. This sometimes means throwing away as much as a hundred pages -- sometimes more -- but I have never found "writer's block" to be wrong. Whenever I'm stopped on a project, it's because I was doing something false or weak, and when I get it right, it becomes more powerful and true.
What did you enjoy most about writing the musical, "Barefoot to Zion"?
Working with my brilliantly talented brother, Arlen, who wrote Broadway-worthy music that made my lyrics sound better than they are.
How important is music to you in your life?
I listen to music constantly, of many kinds, by many artists. I sing whenever people will listen, I conduct a choir from time to time, I love directing amateur musicals because I can help people learn how to sing for performance. I wish we still had the tradition in American culture that my parents had when they were growing up -- of singing as a part of regular social life. Of parties that include singing around the piano. Of piano lessons as necessary to become presentable in society. Today, the proliferation of recorded music has largely killed social music because nobody can compete with a CD with full production values. For most Americans, there's professional music or nothing. Too bad.
What do you love most about teaching writing?
Watching student writers "get it" and seeing the change in their work as they acquire the tools that let them tell their own stories far more effectively -- or to find truer, more important stories to tell.
What are the most common mistakes that beginning writers make?
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What is your advice to the aspiring SF or fantasy novelist?
Don't even think about writing sf or fantasy unless you've read every story in: The Hugo Winners, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions.
These stories are the root of the field. If you don't know them, you will try to reinvent the wheel; and since the readers do know them, it will kill your work. Besides, you can't learn the tools of the trade without being familiar with how they've been used and developed. Science fiction is more demanding than literary fiction, and is harder to do well; the reward is that science fiction and fantasy allow you to tell any story that can be told in li-fi, and far more that can't.
How has your background in the theatre affected your writing?
I already knew how to write a scene before I started. Good thing, because I had no clue how to write a story or novel, and my scene-writing carried my work and allowed me to get published and paid while learning how to do the rest of the job. But the most important thing is the absolute impossibility of ignoring the audience when you write for theatre. Writers who are victimized by li-fi writing teachers often become downright hostile to the audience, making it needlessly difficult for them to care about or understand what they're reading. But even the most audience-unfriendly writers for theatre sink out of sight if they don't entertain the audience. What people forget about Beckett and Ionesco and Pinter and others who seemingly broke "all" the rules is that Waiting for Godot and Rhinoceros and The Birthday Party (if I remember the titles right) are all marvelously entertaining every moment. The writer was aware of the need to engage the audience and keep them engaged, for if they don't, the play closes. Whereas far too many writers of li-fi act as if the reader had a duty to finish the book regardless of how much confusion and boredom and showing-off the writer forces upon them. Nobody buys their books, either -- but they are able to tell each other, and mostly believe it, that the people don't buy their books (or read their poems!) because the audience is a bunch of uneducated idiots. In theatre, you know that it is never the fault of the audience if they hate the show.
I know you are fond of playing Civilization II. What's the appeal of this game to you?
It gives me the illusion of accomplishing something important, but by saving constantly I can undo all my mistakes. This works much better than real life, where most of what I do is not important at all, and my mistakes always bite me.
Do you believe that violence depicted in computer games, TV and films have an effect on teen violence, such as that which occurred at Columbine High School?
Serious studies have shown that for those who are violence prone, depictions of violence can raise their level of likelihood to act violently. This is hardly a surprise -- if our entertainment media did not cause us to be more likely to act in imitation of or admiration for what we see, advertising would not work and so those arts would not pay (grins). However, common sense also tells us that the violence-prone managed to do plenty of mayhem before television or radio or movies or computer games existed. That's because all these are is storytelling media, and before these media existed, we still had stories. Check out Jack and the Beanstalk and the grisly events in Homer. We have stories about hunger, love, and death because that's what we care about in our lives.
|"As to a writer's 'style,' I have no patience with writers who even think about it. A narrative voice matters; a writer's style matters only insofar as it interferes with his ability to communicate with his audience. I find the voice that is appropriate for the narrator and the narrator that is appropriate for the story."|
I understand that Ender's Game is to be made into a feature film. Can you share some details with us as to the status?
I just finished the draft of the screenplay that finally works. Previously we tried to find strategies to childproof the script -- to deculkinize it, if I may coin a phrase. But since then we've had contact with a young actor who can actually carry the emotional weight of a film like this, and so I could write a script that put the emotional center back on the character of Ender Wiggin where it belongs. Now the script, even at 136 pages, stands up and sings. Besides, if Ender's Shadow is a bestseller, Hollywood will take it seriously, since money is the trump card in every trick.
What were some of the challenges you faced turning Ender's Game into a screenplay?
The same challenge you always face finding a movie in a book. Movies are 120 pages long, as a rule. Novels are many times
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How do you handle the conflicting demands of your busy professional life and your commitment to your family? Is it a difficult balancing act?
It's not a balancing act. It's a process of falling off the tightrope repeatedly, now on one side, now on the other. I'm going to miss the whole month of September with my family because I'll be touring for Ender's Shadow. That stinks. But then, sometimes I hang around the house and do fun stuff so much that I don't get the work done, and that doesn't have very happy results either. It's the dilemma that every working parent faces: Do we need the money more than we need me to spend time with the kids? By and large, writing as a career has allowed me far more time with my family than I would ever have had with a nine-to-five job.
As a genre, do you think SF lends itself most easily to writing moral fiction? Why or why not?
It is impossible to write fiction of any kind that does not make powerful moral statements. But in science fiction, you can transform the "reality" of the story so as to clarify the issues, allowing the moral dilemma to be brought into sharper relief.
What projects are you working on now?
A novel about Sarah, the wife of Abraham, for the LDS audience; the screenplays of Feed the Baby of Love and Dogwalker and Pastwatch; several TV series projects, including BorderTown, whose pilot we just filmed on spec in Mexico; the next Alvin Maker book; selling the Ender's Game movie to a director and a studio; a musical film version of my story Pageant Wagon. Lots of balls in the air. Some of it's bound to get done, someday, though I've noticed that by and large none of these things happen till I actually get to work on them.