An Interview With Orson Scott Card
By Scott Nicholson (1998)
Chances are that if you haven't heard of Orson Scott Card, then you just
dropped in from outer space. Card was the first author ever to win back-to-
back Hugo and Nebula Awards with Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. He's
also won four Locus Awards and a Hugo for the short story "Eye for An Eye."
Card is an amazingly productive writer who has written nearly thirty books and
about two dozen plays. He's now trying his hand at screenwriting while
continuing to turn out mainstream and religious novels in addition to his
award-winning science fiction and fantasy. His recent releases include
HOMEBODY from HarperCollins, and the latest installment in TOR Book's Alvin
Maker series, HEARTFIRE. New projects on the table include the contemporary
fantasy Enchantment and another book in the Ender series.
Card is both open-minded and generous of spirit. That combination is part of
what makes him a successful writer as well as a successful human being.
Word is out that ENDER'S GAME is in the works as a movie. Are you at
liberty to talk about that?
Oh, I'm at complete liberty. I've written the screenplay in
conjunction with a producer, Robert Chartoff, who was co-producer of the
"Rocky" movies, "The Right Stuff," and "Raging Bull." But he was out of the
business for awhile, semi-retired, and now he's coming back.
There's nobody with the power to walk in and just get a movie made, but it's
my script, and my deal with him is that I can't be rewritten. Of course, the
studio will have another opinion. When the studio funding arrives, the goal is
to have a script that is strong enough before they can touch it that they'll
agree that this is the script that will be filmed. There are always some
How far along is the script?
I'm happy with the script as it stands, though there are some things
that will drive readers of ENDER'S GAME crazy because you have to adapt it.
The book is written relentlessly from Ender's point of view except for those
brief passages that are quite obscure at the beginning of each chapter where
you don't know who's talking to whom, and you get some of the adult point of
view through dialogue only.
But that's the only way that I could withhold the information about the
surprise at the end. That device was not available to me with the film. I have
to show the adult point of view right along. So in order to keep that
surprise, I would have had to do such a dance that when the audience did learn
what was going on, they would feel outraged at how much had been withheld, at
how many lies had been told to them in the process of the film-- lies to the
audience by the filmmakers, not lies to characters by characters.
The first decision I made was not to pursue the Peter/Valentine subplot with
the Internet, because that's just watching people type things into the
computer. The second decision I made was to give that information about the
surprise at the end from the start. In my script we know who Mazer Rackham
really is and we know what is at stake as Ender plays his games. But Ender
doesn't know, so I think the suspense is actually increased because the
audience knows we're about the business of saving the world and that
everything depends on this child not understanding that. We care all the more
about whether he wins-- and we worry that he might not want to.
As we watch the adults struggle to get control of Ender, we pity him because
of what's happening to him, but we want the adults to succeed. I think it
makes for a much more complex and fascinating film than it would have been if
I had tried to keep secrets. Besides, any secret in a movie will never be
there the second night. When you think about it, the million or so people who
have read the book all know the secret, and they're the core audience. So we
had to have a film that would work even if you do know the ending, in which
case, why not just tell that from the start?
What are some of the other problems writing the script versus the novel?
There's no guarantee that I'll do the movie well just because I'm the
author of the book. I think I've done it right, and even if we have to find
someone else to do it, the writer will still have to make some of those same
decisions. Sometimes the worst job is when people try to be too faithful to
I posted the first section of my screenplay on the Internet, and my
modification of the story has outraged some people to the point that they have
threatened to write their OWN version of the script, and I've had to point out
to them very kindly that even if they have no money, I have to sue them in
order to protect my copyright. If I don't sue, then my work can go into the
public domain, so please don't make me sue you and your university and your
Internet provider and your parents and everybody else, so that I can protect
Whom do you visualize in the lead roles?
The problem right now is there's no way to do ENDER'S GAME so that it
needs a star. Even though we have taken most of what Graf does and given it to
Mazer and turned the character of Graf into a woman, to give good adult
contrast between the ones who are trying to win the war and the ones who are
trying to preserve the humanity of the children. So the ethical dilemmas are
pointed out very well and I think we have good characters.
I can picture several excellent actors as Mazer Rackham. Some actors I
particularly like in the part would be Andre Braugher or Will Smith. And
someone like Janeane Garofalo or even Rosie O'Donnell as Graf-- I can
definitely see that role cast as someone known as a dry comic. I can easily
see it cast with people like that, but I can already hear the studio
executives saying "Well, they can't open a movie." And, of course, that's
laughable, because Will Smith owns "Independence Day." They always say, "Well,
it only works when he's teamed with a white guy." That just makes me cringe,
because, for one thing, it's false. Nobody goes to see Will Smith because they
think, "Whoa, I want to go see a movie about a black man." We go because we
like Will Smith. Black or white, we don't care.
All these things that people know of as "rules" in Hollywood are only rules
until you find something that is the exception to the rule. Everybody knows
all the formulas. Everybody also knows that the great films don't follow them.
ENDER'S GAME obviously has commercial appeal. Why didn't you ever take the
easy way out and just sell the film rights?
I've always had interest from Hollywood in ENDER'S GAME, and they've
always wanted to turn Ender into a sixteen-year-old. And I said, "Look,
there's no way this sixteen-year-old is going to be fooled. Even if they were
telling him the TRUTH, he wouldn't believe them. And when they're lying to
him, of course he won't believe them. Especially if he's bright. You have to
have a certain innocence, the naiveté of a certain age in order to be gullible
enough to be victimized in this way."
They didn't get it. They wanted to cast the next Brad Pitt, so he could have alove interest. They wanted to remake "The Last Starfighter."
I refused to deal with people until they agreed that Ender would be played as
under age twelve. Again, it's these same rules: "But we want the teen
audience." And I would say, "Which would you rather have, the sales of 'The
Last Starfighter,' which had the teen audience, or the sales of a movie like
'E.T.'?" And they go, "But 'E.T.' was a special movie." And I'd say, "Good,
make a special movie out of Ender's Game. That's fine with me."
Okay, time for a stock author-interview question. Where do you get your
The good resource is to read history, and to read competing histories of
the same event so that you get different viewpoints and you begin to find your
own way of understanding human beings. You have to find your own philosophy,
not consciously, but unconsciously, about how human beings work.
One of my favorite books of all time is THE LOST COUNTRY LIFE, which came out
in the early eighties. There was a day-to-day, through-the-year exploration of
what people in a Medieval rural village would be doing with their days and
nights and the skills they had to know. I used this material directly in THE
WORTHING CHRONICLE and HART'S HOPE. I still use aspects of it in the Alvin
Maker books and practically everything I do. Books about how people live are
far more valuable to a writer than books about great events.
STONE TABLES is a religious novel for a Mormon audience, but to create it I
used a "way of life" book about Egypt. It helped to open up the story of Moses
in Egypt. I was writing fiction, so I don't even pretend what I discovered was
the truth, but it was enormously productive in finding what my characters
would be doing and expecting. It let me give them jobs to do, flesh them out.
They were so much more real than they would ever have been without it.
I remember realizing two years ago that I knew almost nothing about Islam
because it never interested me. To my mind, that's the red flag. I immediately
had to buy a big, thick overview of Islamic history just to get my feet wet.
Since then, I've been pursuing book after book. Suddenly Islam has become
important to me.
I realized I knew almost nothing about Slavic history. I recently went to
Poland, but before that I'd been reading extensively in Russian history. I'm
now writing a novel set in the earliest days when the East Slavs were first in
contact with Christianity and St. Kiril and the development of the Kirilic
alphabet to express that language. Those holes, when I plug them, become my
most productive avenues of research.
You seem to have a great interest in religion, and not just that of the
I'm so tired of books that give short shrift to religious people. And
when they even bother to attempt to deal with religion, they always get it
wrong. For instance, whenever anybody who's not a Mormon writes about Mormons,
they just get it so laughably, hopelessly wrong. What this tells me is that
whenever I write about a culture that I don't belong to, I'm undoubtedly doing
the same thing, making so many mistakes that to a member of that culture, I'm
The only thing I can do is study the best I can and try to learn as much as I
can so that I can embarrass myself as little as possible. The result is that,
as I'm writing about other religions and other cultures, the more I know, the
more possibilities of the characters, the more stuff comes out of the culture.
It allows me to plumb my own unconsciousness.
At the same time, I wish other writers would include more of their characters'
religious life in their stories-- and take the time and effort to try to get
it right, even if it is impossible to succeed completely.
Your books seem to contain moral lessons. How intentional is this?
There's always moral instruction whether the writer inserts it
deliberately or not. The least effective moral instruction in fiction is that
which is consciously inserted. Partly because it won't reflect the
storyteller's true beliefs, it will only reflect what he BELIEVES he believes,
or what he thinks he should believe or what he's been persuaded of.
But when you write without deliberately expressing moral teachings, the morals
that show up are the ones you actually live by. The beliefs that you don't
even think to question, that you don't even notice-- those will show up. And
that tells much more truth about what you believe than your deliberate moral
machinations. There are plenty of Mormons who think my stuff is terrible or
evil because I don't preach the Mormon gospel in every book. My answer is,
"Yes, I do, but only to the extent that I believe it so deeply that I don't
even realize I'm teaching it as it comes out."
And, of course, there's a lot of other beliefs from other sources. I'm also an
American, I'm an individual with a certain set of experiences, and I'm a
member of my family, and all of those communities have given shape to my life.
So moral teachings that arise from all of those settings will emerge in my
fiction. At the same time, I'll also reveal the areas where I disagree with
many mainstream beliefs in each of those traditions.
Did having success early in your writing career give you creative freedom,
or did it become a burden to live up to high expectations?
The funny thing is, I've always had complete freedom. I've been real
lucky with the publishers I've had. There are very few projects that I wanted
to do that I didn't get to do. I've never had publishers who ended up
interfering with the stories that I wanted to tell, .
It looks like I've been highly productive because there's so many books out
there, but I've often delivered them out of order and often not as quickly as
my publisher wanted. Tom Doherty at TOR has been amazingly supportive and
patient and has let me write the story that I needed to write at any given
time. I've never had any limitations that were not imposed by myself.
There have been attempts to reshape my fiction. With my historical novel
SAINTS , there were attempts to make it sleazy-- I fought those off. But I was
given a return-the-advance-or-do-it-our-way ultimatum about the structure of
the book. The editor insisted that I had to introduce the character of Joseph
Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, early in the novel. I warned them
that this would make the book feel like a religious novel long before the
readers had a chance to identify with the characters. But they insisted, and I
was not in a financial position to resist. The result was as I predicted: the
book clubs turned down the novel. The publisher then blamed ME for having
written a "religious novel"-- it's always the writer's fault-- and they
published the book under a ludicrous title and with an inappropriate cover. In
essence, they dumped it. But I was able to restore the text as I wanted it,
and eventually TOR bought the novel and republished it under the correct
title. Since that time, I've never had to compromise in any way on the text of
my books, with the exception of collaborations.
How did you get started in writing?
My best training was when I was working as the editor for "Ensign"
magazine, and I quickly evolved my job into being the rewrite man for that
magazine. It was a church magazine, so we had a lot of heartfelt, badly-
written articles from members of the church that desperately needed complete
rewrites. So I would learn how to look at the story, find out what the essence
of it was, develop a lead, from the lead find the structure, use whatever
anecdotes I could salvage from their works, whatever data was worthwhile,
write it as if I were that writer, and send it back to them for their
Almost none of them noticed or at least said anything about the fact that not
one word of their original article survived. Most of them figured that when
the same stories were told, that must have been how they told them. I had
"improved their lead." They didn't realize that from the lead on, it was
entirely my work. That was the best training in the world for me. Because I
learned how to take story after story after story and restructure it into a
more workable form.
You've rewritten some of your early work. How come?
My first novel was published despite its flaws. I was glad to have the
chance to rewrite it and publish it again. My second novel I also wanted to
rewrite completely, but the publisher of that book refused to give me time.
Even at that, I still rewrote the beginning completely and did some
substantial editing in order to bring A PLANET CALLED TREASON out as TREASON
ten years later.
After those first two novels, which were amateurish in some of the choices I
made, I haven't rewritten, even though I know how to write those novels
better. They work well enough, and they were the best I could do at the time.
So I live with the flaws, and they remain out there.
There are plenty of people who like my third novel, SONGMASTER ,despite the
fact that it's structurally flawed. HART'S HOPE also has some terrible
structural flaws that were introduced for reasons that made sense at the time.
Now I know what the problems were and I should have never gotten sucked into
such a trap. But I'm not going to rewrite it. It has its audience. If people
can get through the boredom of the first sixty pages or so, then they find one
of my best books hidden in there. But if they can't deal with it? It's not
worth going back and fiddling. I'd rather spend my time writing a new book.
When I look through the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Mark Twain,
Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, my idols, there are flaws aplenty. There are
scenes in Shakespeare that are obviously there just so a character can change
costumes. Or they're there because you have to have something for the clown or
else he'll get ticked off and leave the company. And there are scenes that
just clunk. So what? Shakespeare was a wonderful writer who learned as he got
older. You do what you care about at the time and do the best you can at any
Do you think interactive media will supplant print media?
In interactive media, the game element is wonderful and there's a strong
storytelling element in it. People keep talking about wanting more and more
interactive games, and there are some that are truly interactive, but they
aren't the most popular ones.
It's like that wonderful story by Alan Rodgers in which this guy is given
these cookies to eat, but they're composed of his own fat. Magically, he's
become thin, but he has to keep eating these cookies because it's his own self
that he's consuming. The cookies are ultimately unsatisfying. That's what
truly interactive fiction would be. It wouldn't feed our need for story.
The reason why "Quake" and "Doom" and "Duke Nuke'm" do feed our need for story
is precisely because they're not interactive. They are simply devices for
telling you how things happen. Everybody has to find the same tricks,
everybody has to find how you beat the level. It's really not about the
ostensible story, it's really about the contest between the game designer and
the players to find the tricks and beat the level. And it always plays the
same-- it's not interactively created at all.
You are renowned for playing Sid Meier's "Civilization" computer game.
"Civilization II" is the one I play. Whether it's because they listened
to my reviews of the first version or whether they're good and wise people,
they've openly made the game more adaptable so that I can play the game I
want. I can go in and fiddle with the "Rules.txt" file. I'm really not
interested in the war-game aspect of that. It's still there, but it's trivial.
I love exploring the right place to build a city, building it and growing it
in the right way, outsmarting all the other computer-driven players and
learning everything my people need to learn. The terrible thing is, I've
learned my system and I'm just repeating it over and over again, so it's
boring, but I'm addicted.
Giving up a game addiction causes withdrawal. When I travel without my
computer, I have this anxiety that keeps me from sleeping because I'm not
playing "Civilization." It's terrible. I don't feel that way about my fiction.
I can sleep perfectly well having written nothing, but if I haven't played my
game that day, I'm anxious.
Since you're such a prolific writer, how can you justify taking time out
to teach workshops?
I do it less and less as time goes on. I love teaching, partly because I
have all these captive people who have to listen to my spiel, and partly
because it's so satisfying when my students get better. I teach them the
teachable techniques. Style is not teachable. The worst writing I've ever seen
is from somebody trying to write with a "good" style.
But I do teach what can be taught. I teach structure. I teach, to some degree,
plotting. I teach rigorous invention. And I teach point-of-view, which is a
set of skills than can be acquired. I've written two instructional books, HOW
TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY and CHARACTER AND VIEWPOINT. Anybody who
wants to take a course from me, everything I know is in there.
Your family is obviously important to you. How do you balance the demands
of writing with family?
Badly. There's no good way to do it. When I'm away from home, I can
concentrate better on my work, yet I can't take joy in it, because I really
want to be with my family. I don't feel at peace enough to work well for long
away from home. Even at home, sometimes I can work with great intensity, then
surface and find that my family has been completely neglected.
But they're understanding. They're kind about it. There are other times when I
don't want to write, I just want to hang out with them, and I do. Because I'm
I play "Civilization," I write, I do dishes. That's my life.