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
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
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
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
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
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.]