Orson Scott Card Interview February 2005.

 

Orson Scott Card is best known for the Ender's series (which includes "The Ender's Game trilogy" and "The Shadow Saga"). He will be here in New Zealand over the Easter break for 2005, for the Icon Convention being held in Wellington. This interview was done via e-mail. In addition my thanks to Penguin New Zealand and Orson Scott Card, for making this interview possible.

 

1. What inspired you to write?

 

I wouldn't even use the word "inspired."  Writing was like air.  I just did it.  I didn't "want" to do it, any more than somebody who's breathing just fine "wants" to breathe.  Maybe if somebody had tried to stop me, I would have noticed that I wanted very much to do it.

 

 Growing up in Mormon culture, people wrote all the time.  They wrote talks and lessons which they delivered at church.  They wrote twelve- or fifteen-minute musical satires that we called "road shows."  My mother's family had once created a musical play called "The Bradford Girls" which thrived in family memory.  My father had an idea for a story in which the last sight that a murder victim saw was imprinted in his eyes and led to the capture of his killer.  (He thought it was a mystery, but I realize now that it was really a science fiction idea: Capturing retinal images post-mortem.)  So I wrote from childhood on without ever thinking of it as a career.

 

 But I suspect what you're really asking is, why did I start writing for publication.  And there the answer is a little more twisted.  I didn't write for publication - I wrote for production.  I was a theatre student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.  One of the classes I took was on readers theatre, and in order to satisfy class requirements, I adapted a script from the book Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.  Later it was made into a very bad movie starring Liza Minelli, but my adaptation, which I then directed with some very good student actors, had two performances that played to packed houses.  People laughed where I wanted them to and cried at the end and I thought: Maybe I can do this.

 

 "This," of course, was ambiguous.  Was I good at directing?  At writing?  Or simply at choosing somebody else's book to exploit?  So I began writing plays - one-acts and three-acts and, soon enough, five-acts in verse (I was a Shakespeare groupie), all of them intended for production.

 Along the way I wrote some fiction for some writing classes in English, but even those read more like plays - dialogue and stage directions.  Whole pages of nothing but dialogue.  With my fiction, I knew I had a problem when the teacher gave me a B on one story, but after I read it aloud to the class, changed the grade to an A.  I was glad of the improved grade (I was clinging to a scholarship at the time), but I knew he was wrong.  I should have been able to write the story so that the "reading aloud" was present in the reader's head while reading it silently.

 It was only then that I started writing seriously for publication, and almost inevitably the stories I wrote were science fiction stories.  This was not because I was such a dedicated sci-fi fan - I wasn't.  I was a fan of great plays.  But I did read and enjoy sci-fi along with other genres of literature.  I simply knew that science fiction had magazines that paid for a kind of short story that I thought was worth writing.

 So, even as I wrote play after play, I also wrote a few short stories set in the universe that became, many years later, The Worthing Saga.  At the time, the stories were all set in the Forest of Waters (later drafts of these early stories are included in the book). 

My father was an inveterate reader of Writer's Digest, and I had read the magazine as I was growing up.  My mother had even sent off to a publisher a precocious but dreadful story I wrote before I was twelve; it was, of course, rejected.  But I knew already that if you wrote a story, you immediately sent it to a publisher, else what was the point of writing it in the first place?  "Self-expression," as an end in itself, was an incomprehensible concept; indeed, I still wonder: If no one reads what you wrote, in what sense have you "expressed" anything?  Communication needs a listener as well as a speaker.

 

The only magazine I submitted to was Analog, because it was the only one that listed regularly in Writers Market.  Incredible as it may seem now, at that point in my life I had never actually read a sci-fi magazine, and the only time I had even seen one was in junior high school, when I saw a friend's shelf-filling collection of a couple of the digest-sized magazines.

 

Those first submissions were rejected.  Then, when I was a missionary in Brazil, I amused myself in my spare time by expanding the Worthing universe and revising a couple of the stories.  When I came back from my mission at age 22, I started the Utah Valley Repertory Theatre Company (funded by my hand-selling season tickets for twenty dollars each), which broke even during the summer season but foundered on the shoals of an expensive fall season in a remodeled barn.  I could not repay the debts based on my meager wages as a proofreader at BYU Press, or even as an editor when I was promoted to full-time work.  So I dusted off the Worthing story "Tinker," rewrote it, and sent it off to Ben Bova at Analog.

 

 By this time I knew enough about the publishing business to realize that a rejection letter that said, "I'd like to see more of your work," was not a rejection at all, it was encouragement.  In the same letter, editor Ben Bova pointed out that Analog published science fiction, not fantasy, so if I had a science fiction story, I should send it to him.

 

The Worthing stories were definitely science fiction, I thought - at least as much as Zenna Henderson's stories were.  But my Worthing stories, set as they were in a forest with a medieval level of technology, felt like fantasy.  That's when I realized the practical working definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy: Fantasy has trees, science fiction has rivets.

So I dusted off an idea I had as a sixteen-year-old kid, about a battle room where soldiers were trained for three-dimensional warfare, wearing flash suits that hardened when they were hit with laser fire.  It was about space and had metal ships with the requisite rivets.  It was only now, however, that I realized that in order for the training in 3D warfare to be effective, they should be training children.  The first words of the story that I wrote were, "Remember, the enemy's gate is down," and I named the hero "Ender" so I could use the title "Ender's Game."

 So ... what inspired me to write?  My upbringing; my love of theatre; a desperate need for money to pay off debts.  Whatever ...

 

 2. What are your influences, what makes you want to write?

 

I don't want to write.  I want to communicate.  I'm just as happy talking to a classful of students as I am writing, and I'm just as happy writing essays as writing fiction.  And I don't want to communicate for the sake of having people listen to me; in fact, when I talk too much I get sick of hearing myself.  What makes communication worth doing is if I have something worth saying.  And the only reason I ever have anything in my head that I think is worth saying is because of an insatiable hunger to know as much as I can about everything.  I read constantly - history, biography, science, current events, and yes, sometimes fiction - and I analyze everything and I question everything (including my own opinions) and when I have some idea or insight that I think is important and true, I say it.  Out loud or in an essay.

 

Stories are a little different.  I start with a problem faced by a character, and as I invent reasons for the problem to have arisen and ways for the problem to be solved (or to not be solved, despite trying), I draw on all that reading and analysis to come up with things that I think are likely to be the causes or effects of events in the story I'm writing.  And it's precisely that connection with real patterns in the real world that I think gives my fiction enough value to be worth the effort of writing it down.

 

Wanting to write and wanting it badly enough to actually do it are two different things, however.  My fundamental laziness usually trumps any idle thoughts I have of working.  Only when we are in dire financial straits or when I have a true, ironclad, non-negotiable deadline do I actually sit down and work.

 

3. What writers influenced you, if any?

 

They all did.  But the influences that mattered were the unconscious ones, and since they're unconscious influences I'm hardly the one to be able to point them out.  I could list all the writers I read from childhood on, but your readers wouldn't have the patience for it.  And as likely as not, some of the key influences would be books I don't even remember, so the list would be likely to be incomplete.  Someday I may write a "reader's autobiography" and list all those books, but I couldn't possibly do it today.

 

Having said that, I can at least say that the writers whose works I read in early childhood and which had an immediate effect on my thinking and behavior were: Emma Marr Petersen's Stories from the Book of Mormon for Young Latter-day Saints (and, almost immediately, the original, as translated by Joseph Smith), Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg novels, especially Dawn's Early Light and Yankee Stranger, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Louisa May Alcott's Little Men and, later, Jo's Boys and Little Women, Joseph Altsheler's novels about the Civil War and the French and Indian War, William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, Bruce Catton's The Army of the Potomac, a book whose title and author I've forgotten, consisting of stories of great advances in medical science along with biographies of figures like Lister and Pasteur and Jenner, and the World Book Encyclopedia.  Not to mention the standard list of children's classics like Charlotte's Web and The Wheel on the School.

 

This is only a partial list, but I know it includes only books read before I turned thirteen, because I read these while still living in our house in Santa Clara, California.  The only science fiction I read during that era was from a couple of collections of short stories in the Santa Clara public library, and the only stories I remember by title and author were "Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson and "Tunesmith" by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.  But they stirred me as profoundly as any of the other stories I read; science fiction was part of the mix, but only part.

 

4.  What is happening with the movie based on Ender's Game?

Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow are under option with Warner Brothers, with Chartoff Productions Inc. as producers and Wolfgang Petersen slated to direct.  Right now David Benioff, the writer of the brilliant screenplay for Troy, is writing a new draft of the adaptation, along with his writing partner Dan Weiss.  Nothing else will happen, least of all scheduling, until a suitable script is finished and approved.

 

 5. You have written everything from short stories, novels, to plays and self-help books which medium do you prefer?

 

Let's add to the list screenplays, comic books, dramatized audio, animated videos, political essays, reviews, literary criticism, memoirs, and answers to interview questions <grin>.

I do the best I can within every kind of writing, and try to find what that medium allows me to do best.  Whether I succeed in any of them is for others to decide.  But it's not really a matter of "preferring" any of them.  Each reaches its own audience and allows me to say different things, and when I want to reach that audience or say those things, I use that medium.

 

6. How much research do you put in for each story?

 

As little as possible.  My whole life is spent in research, reading all kinds of things and trying to understand everything I run across.  So when I'm writing a story, I draw on all of that without even trying.  Only rarely is there some specific question I have to answer or some specific field of research in which I need detailed answers - like, for instance, Russian and Jewish folktales and Russian language for the novel Enchantment.  For the folktales, I read books; for the Russian language, I sought the advice of a talented young graduate student in Russian.  For Pastwatch, I read biographies of Christopher Columbus and read what I could find about MesoAmerican and Caribbean cultures of the years surrounding his initial voyages.  I keep dictionaries of dozens of languages close at hand.  Most of the time, though, I don't have to do any specific research at all.

 

7. Are you affected in your writings of current affairs, about things that happen around you?

 

I'm not sure what this question means.  If you mean, do current affairs influence my fiction, then the answer is, As little as possible, and never consciously.  My fiction takes place in its own causal universe, and the last thing I want to do is date it and cripple it by tying it to events current at the time I'm writing it.  I've seen several writers ruin their novels by having all the characters in it engage in ridiculous and childish Bush-bashing - even characters who come from a social class where most of their friends would be pro-Bush and so those attitudes would not be so casually and hatefully expressed.  It will make those books look silly and the writers look narrow-minded in five or ten years; they polluted their fiction with contemporary references that denied the reality of the world their characters live in.

 

I do the opposite.  I let my characters say what they would believe, even if it is diametrically opposed to my own opinions; and I try to let them make the best case for their beliefs that I can think of.  People sometimes get confused and think they're reading my opinions.  But what I do is try to get inside my characters so thoroughly that I can faithfully represent what they think and believe without interference from my own views of the world.

 

At the same time, whenever I'm not paying attention, the choices I make as a writer will reveal my unconscious beliefs; not what I believe that I believe, but what I really believe at a level where I don't even question those beliefs.  But that would never reveal itself in some obvious connection to current events, because I'd catch it and remove it.  What happens unconsciously in my fiction is for readers and critics to discover ... or not discover.

 

8. Have you been to New Zealand before, will you get a chance to be a tourist?

I've never been to New Zealand before, and I've always wanted to; that's largely why I accepted the invitation to attend the convention.  I'm bringing my wife and our youngest child (the others are no longer children and no longer live with us), and we're staying a few days after the convention to sample a few of the sights.

 

But we are not going to try to see sites made famous by Lord of the Rings.  We saw the movie, for heaven's sake; why waste precious travel time to visit things we've already seen?  And we are urban tourists.  We like to see where people live and work and shop and play.  At the same time, I'm an American, so I intend to speak loudly and wear strange clothing and complain when anything is different from the way we do it in Greensboro, North Carolina.  One must do what one can for the team.

 

That was a joke.  I hope.

 

9. What other projects are you planning to do?

 

I have a book called Magic Street that is appearing in July, in which magic erupts into the modern world in a black middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles.  I'm writing the Ultimate Iron Man comic books for Marvel and adapting my novel Wyrms into comic books for Dabel Brothers Productions (DBPro).  And starting next fall, I'm joining the faculty of Southern Virginia University to teach the writing of popular fiction, along with more traditional literature classes.

 

 11. What is the perfect day in the life of Orson Scott Card?

 

I get up when I feel like it.  I run in bright sunlight while listening to music I love on my MP3 player.  I drive around and run some errands while listening to an audiobook in my car.  I go to the movies with my wife and, if appropriate, my daughter.  I play a few games of Millipede and Mr. Do on our new arcade machine.  I have dinner with my family and some good friends in a marvelous restaurant.  We play Trivial Pursuit or Carcassonne together after dinner.  And when everyone has gone home, my wife and I sit down in front of the television and watch a new episode of 24 or Lost or Boston Legal or Two and a Half Men.  Then, in bed, I read a great book until I fall asleep.

The incredible thing is that I have days like that all the time.

 

But, unfortunately, sometimes I have to set aside these important activities and sit up in my office and write in order to earn the money that pays for perfect days