Interview with Orson Scott Card
America Online January 19, 1994
I seem to see your name on everything from "Monkey Island" to "Living
Scriptures" to poetry. How do you account for your variety while other
authors are only novelists?
A lot of other writers do a lot of other things. In my case, though, I didn't
begin as a novelist and it simply never occurred to me to do only one kind
of writing. I wrote plays and poetry in college, and only a couple of short
stories -- which were always really plays in disguise anyway (you know, all
dialogue). I only turned to fiction later and with much trepidation. I've
also written for audiotapes, animated videotapes, plus essays, reviews, and
anything else that I can think of. I'm working on an opera with my
composer brother, and a musical drama with a longtime collaborator, and
will be trying a serious movie script Real Soon Now. Writing in just one
form would be kind of boring after a while.
At the beginning of "Maps in a Mirror," you dedicated the book to
"Charlie Ben, who can fly." Who is this?
Charlie Ben is my ten-year-old son, Charles Benjamin Card, who has
cerebral palsy and cannot walk or, except in the most rudimentary fashion,
speak. However, from earliest childhood -- infancy, really -- he has
delighted in being tossed in the air and caught again. It's harder now that
he's older and far taller, but we still play that game. I think at first he
loved it because at that moment of weightlessness at the top of the toss he
feels the most freedom his body ever lets him feel. And now he loves it as
much because it's something that I do only with him. We call it "flying,"
and so that's what the dedication refers to, on a literal level, at least.
One of the more prominent characteristics of your style is religious
influence. How do critics respond, and do you ever feel prejudiced due to
the religion in your writing?
Some critics think it's a breath of fresh air to see characters who have a
religious and spiritual life and aren't despised by the author because of it.
Others, of course, are sure that I'm trying to sneak my insidious Mormon
agenda into the minds of poor, stupid readers. And a very small handful
are astonishingly hateful toward my fiction (I've been called a "Mormon
baby killer" in one publication because of the children who die in Lost
Boys). For that matter, there are Mormons who hate my fiction for
opposite reasons -- they're sure that I'm trying to sneak some evil satanic
influence into the minds of poor, stupid Mormons. You can't please
everybody. I don't use my fiction to proselytize. I use it to tell stories that
I believe in, that are important to me. Because I'm a believing Mormon,
there's going to be a lot of Mormon influence in my work; because I'm
different from all other Mormons (just as I'm different from all other non-Mormons), there's going to be a lot of stuff in there that other Mormons
aren't comfortable or familiar with. Ain't that the way it goes.
"Ender's Game" is my favorite novel. Its style and pace made it
impossible to take more than two days to read. The rest of Ender's trilogy
are much slower and more philosophical. I even find it hard to picture the
same Ender throughout. What caused this change, and how did you
manage to do it and still manage to write beautiful novels?
It isn't really the same Ender, any more than the adult is exactly the same
person as the child in real life. There are shared memories, resemblances,
echoes -- but I'm not the same person I was in college, or in high school,
or in grade school. Nor is the adult Ender the same person he was in
childhood. For one thing, he's a lot healthier and a lot more in control of
his own life! The differences in the books arose because the books were
not really a series. Both Speaker and Xenocide were under development
without Ender in them before I finally realized that Ender should be a
prominent character in them. The fourth and final Ender novel, which I
will write as soon as possible (after Homecoming is finished and after
Alvin 4, probably), titled Ender's Children, will be different still. [OSC
note: The working title for the fourth Ender book, "Ender's Children,"
was changed to "Children of the Mind." It was published in 1996.]
On the average, how long does it take you to write a novel?
Three or four weeks of solid typing. Three to five years of thought and
development. Both answers are true. Take your pick! I have to write in
one continuous burst because otherwise I forget too much about what I've
said earlier in the book; yet I can't just sit down and write from a new idea
without planning and plotting it considerably first. So I usually have a
dozen or more story ideas under serious development in my mind as I read
and research and jot down ideas and outline elements. Then, when I start
writing, it just flows out -- and, although I transform the outline beyond
recognition, I do depend on that fundamental structure to make that flow
of words possible.
Do you ever struggle writing a story?
Yes. Always, though, it's because I was about to make a mistake, and if I
just hold off and think about it and wrestle with it and think of new ways
of approaching it, I always figure out a way to do it, if not "right," then at
What dollar range can you expect for one of your novels currently?
More than anybody deserves and less than I wish.
I realize that it's essential to the effect of the story, but does it ever bother
you to swear in your works?
It's debatable whether it's essential, frankly. I thought it was necessary
early in my career. Then, when writing Ender's Game, which I was
dedicating to my then-seven-year-old son, Geoffrey, I realized that I hated
listening to the kids in the book talk to each other, the mouths were so
foul. That's how children in such a circumstance really would speak, I
think -- but I couldn't bear to write dialogue that I wouldn't want to read
aloud to my own child. So I cleaned it up -- even though it wasn't
"natural." Since then I've generally maintained language that doesn't
offend me -- though it still offends some, and seems impossibly mild to
others. The major exception was the novel version of The Abyss, where I
had to keep the level of language in the movie. That being the case, I
went ahead and used a level of profanity throughout the novel that is
unmatched in any of my other work. Am I ashamed of that? Not a bit. I
don't think there are any bad words, just inappropriate words for certain
situations. It's not the F word, for instance, that's bad -- it's using it to
offend or hurt or degrade other people that makes it bad. (Words don't
hurt people, people hurt people . . . <grin>). By avoiding offensive
language in most of my books, I open them to a wider audience and don't
lose many people on the other end. If in cleaning up the language I
thought I was harming the story's truthfulness and power, I would simply
sigh a bit about the people who would be offended -- and then put the
words in anyway. Most of the time, though, offensive language can be left
out with no harm to the story. One thing I don't do is use silly
euphemisms. The way NYPD Blue is using "hump" in dialogue as a
substitute for the F word is ludicrous. Better to avoid the word entirely
rather than to put pathetic substitutes in its place.
You have won more awards than I have been able to keep track of. How
do you account for your success?
Success? Am I dead yet? My stories received awards because the people
who give the award liked them in large enough numbers and with enough
enthusiasm to vote for them. That's not in my control, and it means
nothing more than that momentary honor. If I were terribly impressed
with myself for winning awards back in the mid-80s, should I now
conclude that my writing has got worse because I'm no longer getting
them? Should I suppose "Lost Boys" or "Unaccompanied Sonata" aren't
as good as my stories "Hatrack River" or "Eye for Eye" because the latter
two won the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo, respectively? There is a
time in some writers' careers when those groups that give awards take
pleasure in giving recognition to those writers, and it feels very good when
they do it. But it doesn't mean that awarded writers are "better" or will
last longer than those that don't receive awards. Some of my favorite
books by excellent writers were ignored by award-giving bodies, but I'm
not fooled by that.
In your short story "Clap Hands and Sing," you talk of changing your past.
Is there anything that you would change if you were to re-live your life?
Sure. In fact, that story arose out of exactly the experience with a theatre
company that I wrote about in "Clap Hands," though I would not have
relived it as the story showed -- by the time I wrote it, both of the main
characters were quite different from me and the friend involved. There
are a lot of unkind things I've said or done that I wish I could undo; a
couple of young ladies I broke up with in college in quite a heartless
fashion that I wish I could undo. There are times I was angry with my
wife or children that I wish I had kept to myself. There are stories and
novels that I wish I could rewrite -- and some of them I have! There are
times when I rebelled that I wish I had cooperated; times I cooperated
when I wish I had rebelled. I know it's unproductive, but I brood often
about the past and am often overwhelmed with regret. I'm always smarter
than I used to be; I always know now much better how I should have lived
my life then. Perhaps, though, that's encouraging -- maybe I really am
getting wiser as I get older. Maybe sometime before I die I'll get it right.
Piers Anthony writes in a horse pasture and Emily Dickinson never left
her bedroom. Is there anything peculiar about your manner of writing?
I have to get away sometimes in order to get a story started. The new
surroundings trick me into getting down to work instead of hanging out
having fun. I often go to rented beach places or to the home of my friends
Clark and Kathy Kidd in Virginia. When I was in college, I wrote most of
my plays sitting around in odd places in the Harris Fine Arts Center at
BYU -- most often on the steps just inside the northeast door, where I sat
waiting for my Dad to pick me up and take me home (I didn't get my
license till I was nearly 23). In those days, though, I wrote on lined
notebook paper; now, of course, I write on a laptop and can only do my
writing where the computer can conveniently be set up. The only
exception is that I often write hymns and poetry in church. I do listen to
the speakers, but I find it impossible not to have my mind engaged in some
activity, and hymn-writing seems the least inappropriate for long church
Is there any one author that has influenced you most? Who?
If there's one author, it's Joseph Smith. I read the Book of Mormon at a
very early and impressionable age, and his other important writings soon
after; because his writings are the foundation of Mormon thought, they
had enormous weight and importance in my mind. Naturally, as I started
writing I unconsciously began to adopt tropes and mannerisms of his in my
own work, especially at moments that I considered especially weighty or
important. If left to myself, I'd begin most of my narrative sentences with
conjunctions, for instance, a very Smithian thing to do. The influence
runs much deeper than stylistic quirks, however. And now that the quirks
have been pointed out to me (first by Michael Collings, a fine poet who
has also written critical studies of Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and
<blush> me) I generally try to avoid the obvious ones. Besides Joseph
Smith, I must point to Shakespeare -- not that anybody's likely to see the
influence without my help! I read Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and
Mary Lamb early in my life, and along with fairy tales they were very
important to me in those days. Later, I read all of Shakespeare's plays and
acted many scenes and played parts in a few full-length productions. I
loved and love his language, and many passages in my work, especially at
climaxes or conclusions, are written first in blank verse before I spread
them out normally on the page. Most important, Shakespeare taught me
that it is possible to tell a story so clearly that every groundling can
understand it, can care about and believe in it -- and at the same time
write so densely and powerfully that the same works reward many
rereadings and much study. That is my goal in all my works, to write with
every tool I have acquired as a writer that is appropriate to the story at
hand, but without ever making the story unnecessarily difficult for the
untrained reader to receive it. Some elitist critics, of course, conclude that
because my works can be read by just anybody that they aren't worth
reading at all -- but that's fine with me. If I ever won the praise of the
elitists, I'd worry that I had sold old.
Has your writing always been excellent through high school and college?
There are those who would question whether it is excellent now. Let's
just say that in my family, we always assumed that if something needed to
be written, we could write it. I got early encouragement from my parents,
but all us Card kids knew we could write. That's one of my parents'
greatest gifts to us, that language was an easy tool for all of us to use. It
also helps that the Mormon Church provides so many opportunities for
kids to write -- short plays, speeches, and so on. More in my childhood
than now, but the opportunities are still there. So I not only wrote, I also
had an approving audience. Both are essential to a novice writer.
How would you suggest that a high school student could improve his
writing (realizing that you have never seen a sample)?
I don't have to see a sample to tell any writer how to improve his or her
writing. When it comes to the substance of stories, the best way to
improve is (1) Write, and (2) Read. When it comes to the substance of
stories, the best way to improve is (1) Have a Real Life, (2) Question
Everything, and (3) Learn Everything About Everything. What do I mean
by the last three? "Have a Real Life" means to avoid associating only or
even primarily with other artists or intellectuals. Instead, keep close
contact with real people -- people who work for a living, whose worries
are about other people's needs or demands and not about their art and
whether it will be well-received. "Question Everything" means that you
don't believe what you're told until you've at least thought about it,
especially when people tell you what is important or good or why things
happen. For instance, when a literature professor tells you that this book
or that book is "good literature," don't believe it. Read it and decide for
yourself whether it's worth anything. You may read it again later and
decide differently, but no matter. Anything that you believe, you should
believe because you worked out the answer for yourself -- even if it turns
out to be exactly the same answer that someone else told you in the first
place. I'm a believing Mormon, not because I didn't question what I was
taught growing up, but because I did. "Know Everything About
Everything" means that you never stop learning, ever, and any time you
discover some area in your education where you have a gap, you must
immediately labor to learn something about that subject, even if -- no,
especially if -- the reason you know nothing about it is because it never
interested you. Everything you learn will show up in your storytelling -- as
will everything you don't learn.
Do you have any special interests (besides writing and computers)?
My first interest is my family. My kids have grown up into wonderful,
fascinating people who are better company than anybody else I know --
and that doesn't denigrate any of my dear and fascinating friends. My
wife, Kristine, is so much a part of me that I cannot imagine living
without her; and yet she is also infinitely surprising. I am also endlessly
fascinated by the people I work with in my church callings. Right now I
teach Sunday School to a group of 15-to-17-year-olds who are bright and
exciting and just at the age to care about the best questions. After that, I
love to read; I love music (classical, country, rock, Brazilian, Hispanic,
folk, medieval, gospel . . .) and sing and sometimes conduct our church
choir; I love to ride a bike when it's safe and I'm in good enough shape to
do it; I am devoted to movies; I am fascinated by politics and world affairs
(there's a senator inside me struggling to get out) and will talk about them
to any victim who can't get away in time. I say nothing of computers,
because you already mentioned that.
Is there anywhere I could get more information on you or your works?
Michael Collings wrote a book entitled "In the Image of God" which deals
with my writing, especially the religious influences that show up in my
work. Beyond that, my afterwords in Maps in a Mirror are probably the
most that anyone's ever written about my work.
Is there anything that you would like to add or anything that you would
like the world to know about you?
No. I don't think the world is terribly interested in the things I've already
How long did it take you to answer questions?
Two hours, from one to three a.m. on the 15th of January.