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What's New?
PW Interviews Orson Scott Card
By GraceAnne A. DeCandido
and Keith R.A. DeCandido


"I'm Kristine's husband, Geoffrey and Emily and Charlie's dad, I'm a Mormon, and I am a science fiction writer." Orson Scott Card describes himself in that way and in that order. Card is a compelling teller of tales that insinuate themselves permanently into memory. Deeply moral choices shape those stories, some recently gathered in Maps in a Mirror: The Short Stories of Orson Scott Card, published by Tor/Doherty (Fiction Forecasts, Aug. 17).

PW encountered Card and his wife in New York City on their way home to Greensboro, N.C., from a science fiction convention in Brazil. The Nebula- and Hugo Award-winning author (twice, for Ender's Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead) is a beguiling conversationalist, with a gentle manner and a disarming smile. He is of medium height, shaped rather like a svelte teddy bear, with dark hair and twinkly eyes behind his glasses.

Over dinner at a restaurant in the Little Italy section of the Bronx, Card talked about storytelling as part of the Mormon tradition, adding, "There can't be a community without storytelling. Stories are the genes of the community. They are what passes from generation to generation, from person to person, that which gives the community its identity and allows it to continue. A community can't survive, for example, without the story of how noble it is to give up your individual preference for the good of the whole. If you don't have that story, you don't have a community. I don't want to write about individuals in isolation. What I want to write about is people who are committed members of the community and therefore have a network of relationships that define who they are. I think if you're going to write about people, you have to write about storytelling."

All of his fiction uses moral choices as a fulcrum. Card observes, "It is impossible to tell a story that is not about moral choices. In fact, you can't tell a story that has more than one thing happen in it without somebody having made, at some point or other, some evaluation, some decision to proceed, which will always involve in some way or other a moral choice, an affirmation or negation of an existing community. I deal with nontraditional choices, situations where you don't have anything that's clear-cut. There are no good choices for Ender [Ender's Game], nothing he could do without paying an enormous price." Ender's Game has been called both a militaristic and an antiwar novel. Ender Wiggin saves humankind by destroying an entire race of very alien aliens. He figures out how to do this by empathizing with those he destroys. The book raises disturbing questions -- Does the end justify the means? To what dire uses do we subject our children in the name of good? -- in a riveting story.

In one of the essays in Maps in a Mirror, Card writes that he has developed a reputation for cruelty in his fiction. Does that make him uncomfortable? "At first, it did, because some people seem to think that an author desires everything that happens in his fiction actually to occur. It's a naive viewpoint, as if the sheer act of creating, for example, a world in which women are treated unfairly, means that I must hate women. If a story is interesting, it has people who are struggling. But why was I doing this violent stuff?

"In every single case, cruelty was a voluntary sacrifice. The person being subjected to the torture was suffering for the sake of the community. There are very few cultures that don't have some kind of sacrifice myth. That's one of those stories you have to believe in for the community to survive."

None of the horror in his fiction is graphically described; its intensity relies on suggestion. The eroticism in Card's work also suggests rather than depicts. "I've really written only one erotic story, 'America,' in Folk of the Fringe [a collection of post-holocaust stories with a Mormon cast]. I have to admit I was really tickled when a reviewer in Locus pointed out that 'America' probably was the sexiest story of the year, written by, of all people, Orson Scott Card. Because that's not at all my image, and you'll find that there is no physical description whatsoever."

A fair amount of sexual tension also permeates the Tales of Alvin Maker series. These take place in an alternate-universe American frontier, rich in magic. In Card's fantasy, the Restoration never occurs in England, and the Puritans expel all the witches to America. Card admits that one of the child figures, Peggy, the focus of some of that erotic tension, was not in the original outline. "That's a case where I was seduced by a character. She ended up being important."

Card, whose works span "hard" SF, fantasy, horror and even movie adaptations (The Abyss), first published in Analog in the 1970s, and to date has written 23 novels and story collections -- and he is not yet 40. Born in Alberta, Canada, he grew up there and in Mesa, Ariz. [OSC note: He was actually born in Richland, Washington, and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah.] He entered Brigham Young University at the age of 16 and majored in theater. He is a practicing and committed Mormon (no surprise to anyone who has read Folk of the Fringe, with its compelling Mormon community) and did his missionary work in Brazil (the inspiration for the Portuguese settlement in Speaker for the Dead.

Before becoming a strong presence in the SF field, Card was involved both in the theater -- as actor, director, and playwright -- and in publishing as an editor. "Without capital or common sense, in 1974 I started a repertory theater company in Provo, Utah; within two years I was $20,000 in debt. I was supporting myself on the pathetic wages paid to an editor at a university press -- and BYU's wages were even more pathetic than usual. But the spring of 1975, I knew that there was no hope of paying off my debts through my salary, so I made a serious effort to write fiction as a career."

He sent a story called "The Tinker" to Ben Bova at Analog, who rejected it, albeit in an encouraging manner. "Apparently he saw some reason to hope that I might have some talent. His rejection letter urged me to submit a real science fiction story, because he liked the way I wrote." That short story was "Ender's Game" (later expanded to novel form), which won him the Campbell Award for best new SF writer. Although elated, Card says he was "not so stupid as to quit my job" after selling "Ender's Game." He continued to serve as assistant copy editor at the official Mormon magazine, the Ensign, and to write audioplays on Mormon history for Living Scriptures.

Card's association with Tom Doherty and Tor Books was prompted by his agent, Barbara Bova, Ben Bova's wife. "Tom was doing what everybody told him could not be done," Card says of Tor, "starting a new mass market paperback house without being part of a hardcover conglomerate. It's kind of fun that within three years he was doing what everybody told him was impossible, and is now, I think, the leading publisher of science fiction.

"I had been with Berkley, I'd been with Dial -- Dell's Dial -- and I'd been with St. Martin's, and I'd been with Ace before it was a part of Berkley. Barbara simply wanted to sell Tom something of mine, and he bought my outline for Speaker for the Dead -- which originally did not have Ender in it. I happened to be going to the ABA in Dallas, Tom Doherty happened to be there. I worked up my courage and found him to be absolutely approachable. Here was the head and owner of the company, and he said, 'Of course I want to talk to you!' As if he actually thought writers were worth something.

"Our 'meeting' consisted of walking around the ABA talking. I told him that the only way to write Speaker for the Dead properly was to first write a novel version of 'Ender's Game.' I thought that I was going to have to start persuading or begging, that I'd have to kneel or pray. Instead, he said, 'Sounds good to me.' Without even a handshake, everything happened exactly the way he said it would."

Science fiction permits a context for imagining the unimaginable, and Card believes it is the most supple genre for writing moral fiction. "Most fiction pretends to be dealing with current issues, but is simply politically correct, follow-the-trend fiction. There are exceptions, but by and large, you're hearing the fad philosophy of the last five years, expressed through characters acting it out. That's unfortunate because you're not examining anything.

"In science fiction, we can't help but challenge. Science fiction exists to challenge. The whole point of reading science fiction is to be taken into a world that is different from what you know. In some of the best SF, you move into a universe where all moral bets are off, where you have a group of aliens, or humans in an alien setting, who live by different rules because some key aspect of life that we take for granted as human beings has been changed radically. And because of that one change, everything changes. The moral imperatives of that culture are so different from the moral imperatives for ours that after a while we can see ourselves through their eyes and see how bizarre we are. Then you come back and you question everything."

Card's presence at Brazil's first science fiction convention came about in part because he knows Portuguese, learned during his missionary work. "In Brazil, there is almost no public for science fiction, and most of what they get is American. But a technical books publisher, Editora Adelph, is now risking a great deal to launch a line of science fiction books. It began with Ender's Game, and it is also committed to bringing in new works by Brazilian authors."

Card was very impressed with the SF writers and fans he met there, and he is now working -- at some financial risk -- to arrange for translations of the works of such authors as Braulio Tavares, Robert de Souza Causo (who organized the convention) and Hector Flory. "I've gone to a lot of science fiction conventions in the U.S. -- you have fun, you play, but the world isn't changed. In Brazil, I feel like I actually had a part in changing the world of literature."

Card is rueful when asked about his writing habits. "I wish I were one of those mature, disciplined writers who produce a certain number of words or pages, or who write for a certain number of hours every day. Unfortunately, I have to hold the entire thing in my head all at once. I can't walk away from it and do something else until the book is done. In fact, I can barely do anything else. My friends and family enjoy my company a great deal more when I'm not writing. I'm only half joking when I say I look forward to devoting myself to not-writing as a fulltime job."

About half of Maps in a Mirror are essays about the genesis of the stories, detailing the thinking and the writing involved. Those revelations were deliberate, Card says. "When I did my first story collection, Unaccompanied Sonata, I wrote a one-paragraph afterword about each story. People loved it. At the same time I remember reading Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions collections and anthologies of his own work. I love his writing, but still -- not slighting the stories at all -- the intros were the best part. So I thought I would talk about the process of creating a story and how it connects to my life."

Card is certainly dedicated to his chosen genre -- in addition to the fiction, he has regular columns in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Compute!, Short Form and Science Fiction Review, and also consults and teaches on a regular basis. What science fiction does at its best, he concludes, is "not only change the scenery of the world, but also the moral imperatives."

[Published in Publishers Weekly, November 30, 1990. Copyright 1998. Reprinted with permission of Publishers Weekly.]


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