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Orson Scott Card - A Literary Maverick
By Steven Argyle


Orson Scott Card is one of those rare individuals that has the nerve to love what he does and to do what he loves. This Utah-born award-winning novelist has paid the price necessary to turn his creative drive into a successful income producing career. In some ways, the path that brought him to his present status is as tortuous as those he lays out for his characters.

Card's early aspirations did not include writing as a career. Writing was simply a part of life. "Writing was normal in my family," he says. "It was just something that you did."

Literacy was integral to the Card family life-style. Card says that his sister introduced him to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich when he was ten. He remembers that he was particularly distressed by the chapter on Nazi medical experiments with Jewish prisoners.

"That was the first time I had really confronted evil. I was deeply disturbed by the notion that men could create rational motivations for doing such things."

Other early reading that shaped Card's thoughts was religious in nature. "The Book of Mormon was probably the first adult book I read all the way through. Much of my writing still reflects the cadences of the language in the scriptures. A lot of my sentences begin with conjunctions the way Joseph Smith's sentences did."

By the time he enrolled in Brigham Young University, Card had chosen the theatre as his emphasis. His habit of writing soon proved useful as he found himself adapting plays for the BYU stage. It was just a short step from there to writing his own plays. His five-act play "Stone Tables" premiered at BYU in 1973 and a two-act musical, "Father, Mother, Mother, and Mom" followed a year later.

Flushed with early success, Card founded his own theatre company. He found the going tough. When the venture proved unprofitable, Card found an "honest job" at the BYU Press as a copy editor. This job led to a position as assistant editor at the Ensign. His work at the LDS magazine brought him into contact with Living Scriptures, an Ogden firm, with whom he contracted to write dramatizations of scripture and early church history.

It was at this point in his career that Orson Scott Card decided to try his hand at free-lance writing. He made a deliberate choice to write for the science fiction market. When asked why, he replied, "Science fiction is the only truly open literary market. There are dozens of magazines buying stories. I couldn't see any point in trying to break into what I call the academic literary market. There are just no openings. You have to compete with John Updike for a rare spot in The New Yorker."

Card's first science fiction story, "Ender's Game," was published in Analog magazine in 1977. Ben Bova, Analog's editor, took an instant liking to Card and encouraged him in his writing. While pursuing this career, Card received a Master's degree from the University of Utah and began work on a Doctorate at Notre Dame.

"Then we had a recession," he says. "When the economy is in trouble, publishers won't touch new manuscripts. The money dried up. I had to leave Notre Dame and go find another honest job."

Card received attractive offers from Coleco to design computer games, and from Compute! magazine to edit computer books. He accepted a position with Compute! and moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. He edited books for Compute! Books for nine months. It was not altogether a pleasant experience.

"Except for my short time at the Ensign, I'd always been a small entrepreneur. I was my own boss. As a middle manager at Compute! I got along well with the people under me, but there was conflict with my superiors. I just couldn't handle the 'yesmanship' required in that position. By the time I left we were glad to see each others' backs."

As the economy stabilized, Card returned to free-lance writing. In 1985 he received both the coveted Hugo and Nebula Awards for Ender's Game, the novel adaptation of his original story. The sequel to Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, repeated the sweep of both awards the following year. Card's place among the top science fiction novelists in the country was now firmly established. With nine published novels, contracts for nine more, and four short story anthologies, Card has finally achieved some financial security, no mean accomplishment in the writing business.

"The business end of being a writer is just like any other small business," Card says. "It's hard to live in a monthly world when you never know if your next pay check will come. Like most other small businessmen, you have to pay through the teeth for your own health insurance. I've had my trials with the I.R.S. I've had to threaten publishers with lawsuits in order to get paid. Publishers pay their printers on time, they deliver books to their distributors on time, but they seem to pay their authors on whim. The man who signs the checks always seems to be on vacation.

With his success, Card has become recognized as a master of characterization. Card attributes his insights to his early work in the theatre. "In the theatre, playwrights, directors, and actors are all concerned with motivation. Why does a character do what he does? What is he thinking that motivates him to the actions called for in the script? If an actor hasn't thought through a convincing set of motivations for his character, the performance is flat."

"I approach my characters the same way," Card continues. "I let the reader see what they are thinking. I tell the reader what the character intends to accomplish with his actions. Then if things don't work out as planned, I share the character's distress with my readers."

Writer's Digest invited Card to share some of his methods in a three-part article in 1986. That effort was so popular that Card has expanded the articles in to a book entitled Character and Viewpoint. The book was released by Writer's Digest Books last July. Card is also active on the lecture and workshop circuit, taking time to teach beginning writers about the craft and business of writing.

"I think in many cases we teach writers the wrong things," Card says. "I disagree with the theory that says art should be obscure. If you have a story to tell, I believe you should tell it to as many people as you possibly can. And you have to tell your story in a language that your audience understands."

Card seems himself as something of a maverick in the literary world. He explores ideologies and values that are deeply important to him, but that receive scant treatment in today's literature.

"I still can't feel comfortable with what passes for literary fiction in the English language today," Card muses. "The inward-turning, reflective novel seems to have degenerated into narcissism."

Card states that his characters live in families. They are networked in complex, multi-layered relationships with their fellows. He strives to make his characters, in even the most outlandish science fiction settings, live like real human beings. He notes that most modern American literature, science fiction included, deals with isolated individuals. "If they have a family at all, it's in the process of breaking up. My books don't deal with the adolescent dream of finding yourself without the restraints of parents or the responsibility of dependents. Real people don't ride off into the sunset. When the sun sets, you still have to make dinner and do the dishes."

Another aspect of Card's crusade against the cult of the self has disturbed some critics. Card has explored to some depth the notion of an individual sacrificing himself for the greater good of his society. Some critics have taken Card to task for this calling the actions of his characters unbelievable.

Other critics have complained about graphic violence. Card dismissed their objection. "There are no graphic descriptions in my work. I don't describe anything! There is a lot of psychological tension, but I don't spend time on physical descriptions."

Fame and criticism go hand in hand. Orson Scott Card is one of those rare people who are genuinely successful in the arts. He has achieved national recognition as a leader in his field. But when the sun sets, he still has to do the dishes.

[Published in the Main Street Journal, December 1988. Reprinted with permission.]


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