Orson Scott Card

Nov 03, 2010

Discuss his books, science fiction today, and more with Orson Scott Card.

You write a wide range of genres, not just science fiction. How do you decide when you are going to write science fiction as opposed to writing a Biblical fiction work? Is it your mood, or you get a good idea? What inspires you to write what you do write?

I have a dozen stories that I'm more or less ready to write, but my priority in sorting among these books is definitely influenced by financial priorities - some books pay more when I finish them!  There are also the publishers' priorities.  Right now, for instance, I will be writing a Pathfinder novel and a Mithermages novel every year till both trilogies are done.  Two books a year is a lot!  So chances are I'll not finish any other novels till those are done.  But the other stories are very much alive in my mind.  As long as I'm not run over by a bus, I'll finish them all as soon as I can.

Do you have a set writing schedule? What writing patterns, if any, do you have? Do you have any advice on writing you could pass on to other writers and prospective writers?

I wish with all my heart that I had a writing schedule, but whenever I manage to have such a schedule, I get a bout of insomnia that throws it completely off.

My macropattern as a writer is that when I launch a novel, I get about five chapters or fifty pages into it, then take a break to let all the new stuff that came up gel as I discover how my plans and outlines need to be altered.  After a week or so, I return to the novel and finish it in one intense rush that lasts between three and five weeks, depending on the length of the novel.

My micropattern is that early on, I can only do one writing session a day - three or four hours, however long it takes to write an entire chapter (or a part of a chapter, ending at a climactic moment).  Later on, I will break into a new pattern of two sessions a day, one right after I get up in the morning, and then - after exercise or errands, something to take my mind off writing and get me away from the computer, I come back for a second session.  Usually these "two-a-days" take longer than 24 hours, so that my "morning" session moves into the afternoon, my "evening" session into the small hours of the morning.  Very strange and disruptive.  Fortunately, my family lets me haunt the house like a ghost during those writing periods, knowing that Dad comes back to the real world between novels ...

From your website, it appears that you have a full plate. However, many of your fans (including me!) would like to know if and when we will see sequels to Pastwatch (I know the Flood short story/novella was online) and to Lovelock (Rasputin is mentioned on the website). Thanks so much, and I really have enjoyed reading your books.

I have bought back the contracts on the later Pastwatch novels.  I still know the stories and may write them someday, but the big problem is simply this:  Because the first Pastwatch novel changed the course of time, and the others happen BEFORE that change, everything they learn about the past is erased; very frustrating.  And since the other novels CAN'T change timeflow, it's really just about finding stuff out.  Hard to turn those rules into a satisfying story!

Lovelock, on the other hand, is waiting for me to solve some story problems.  I know the next volume focuses on the cat assassin Rasputin, and that he comes head-to-head with his assigned target, Lovelock.  Beyond that, there's a lot to discover!  Not ready to write it yet.  To Kathy Kidd's great chagrin.

How did your mission affect your writing and the topics you choose to write about?

I wrote my most successful play (to date) while on my mission.  While the other guys were playing basketball on P-Day (preparation day - basically the day we can do laundry, write letters, etc.), I was reading and/or writing.

More important, though, was the chance to get to know the Portuguese language and the Brazilian people and culture.  When you realize how differently other people can do things, you begin to understand your own culture better.  As a sci-fi/fantasy writer, I could draw on that experience to show my characters undergoing similar cultural shifts, and it helped me greatly in creating other cultures.

Mr. Card, This is a question that I know you have approached on different fronts, but I hope to elicit more information this time around. In many of your novels, most notably "Speaker", you detail and then work within deeply humanistic philosophies. They are so beautifully realized and so lovingly lived through the characters, it is hard to believe that the person rendering those philosophies is not speaking through deep, personal understanding of them and belief in them. Yet, in your personal life, you are obviously a devout elder in the LDS church; a seeming conflict of ideas to those in many of your works. You have said in the past, by way of explaining this that, in order to be a good author, your characters can not all be reflections of the author, but must be their own people and their beliefs must be real and fully internalized. However, I can't shake my own belief that the person writing "Speaker" is fully committed to the philosophy contained therein. Would you mind going a little deeper into this issue? Thanks. PS - Went to W&L and am missing BV in the fall. Do you get up here this time of year?

I think the problem here is that you think that "deeply humanistic philosophies" are somehow contradictory to the principles of the LDS Church.  They are not - in fact, they harmonize perfectly.  So the problem here is in your apparent misconception of what the LDS belief system is.  (But this is hardly the place for me to explain my religion!)

As I finish grad school (in a non-technical field), I'd like to get back to reading SF. But I haven't read any in 10 years. Where do I start?

Actually, I don't read that much sci-fi - I reviewed it so much in the 80s and 90s that I burned out.

Fortunately, however, many of the best sci-fi writers have moved to fantasy writing, where they bring the world-creating rules of sci-fi to fantasy world creation.  Thus if you want to read some of the most brilliant sci-fi today, you pick up fantasies like those of Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, and Ken Scholes.  I also am in the midst of reading - well, listening to (thanks, Audible.com!) - the Retrieval Artist series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  These are brilliant sci-fi, first-rate mysteries, and deep novels of character and relationship.  Also, they're good on adventure, world-creation - everything.  Anybody who expects a novel to be just one thing will be annoyed by the distractions - but to those who love all these genres, they aren't distractions at all, they are part of a beautiful, unified whole.  The early novels are out of print, but used copies can be obtained, and Rusch's new publisher is laboring to restore them all to print form as well.  Or you can buy them all from Audible.com.

and don't forget YA sci-fi and fantasy, which is often the best.  Neal Shusterman's Everlost is one of the great imaginative novels of our time.  William Sleator's Singularity stands as a monument of sci-fi.

What's going on with the Ender's Game movie? Will it ever happen?

We're launching into a new draft of the screenplay, and it looks very promising.  EG is extremely hard to write - what makes the novel work is all the material that is inside Ender's head, a place where screenplays cannot go (or at least not easily or all that effectively).  Adding Ender's Shadow to the mix turns it into a buddy movie, which is more do-able.

With Gavin Hood as director, I am optimistic that we are within a couple of years of revving up the cameras.  Not only has the actor who will play Ender been born, I think he's old enough to be starting school about now ...

Mr. Card, I'm a huge fan, thanks for doing this chat. Your faith clearly has an impact on your writing and the stories you tell, but whereas other writers such as C.S. Lewis are branded "Christian fiction" you seem to be considered Sci-fi rather than "Mormon fiction." Does your faith consciously play a role in the stories you choose to write and how you write them or is it more an influence based on your own life experiences rather than a deliberate decision?

I work hard to keep my religion out of the stories I write, with the exception of contemporary stories where it is part of the world-creation - e.g., Lost Boys and The Folk of the Fringe.  Since I wrote mostly religion-centered plays before turning to sci-fi, I recognized that for my work to be accessible to a wider audience I had to follow the core rule of sci-fi - that God cannot be a character in the stories, unless I explain him away as a computer or alien or collective consciousness - you know the devices.  Not that sci-fi lacks god-figures, the purposers whose plans and creations affect the human characters as God does in overtly religious fiction.  Asimov's "God" was Hari Seldon at first, then R. Daneel Olivaw.  Yet Asimov was an atheist.  It's just that sci-fi is by its nature the best place to create religious fiction - as long as you don't tie it to a PARTICULAR religion in our contemporary world.  That is, sci-fi can deal with all the great religious themes, mysteries, metaphysics, etc., as no other branch of fiction can do.  In fact, religious fiction rarely approaches the power of sci-fi to examine these questions, and because sci-fi does not drag in all the problems and paraphernalia of any existing religion, it allows for a "cleaner" examination of the ideas.

When I write fiction, however, I am not writing essays.  So these themes and examinations and extrapolations come naturally and unconsciously out of the problems and dilemmas of the stories.  My characters have their own moral reasoning and follow their own beliefs and desires; only in the unconscious decisions that every writer makes does our true, deep, unquestioned worldview seep through.

C.S. Lewis, for instance, wrote rather terrible sci-fi, marring it greatly with his imposition of a Christian program.  Narnia, which he was winging, is much more successful, while the complicated redemptive story of Till We Have Faces, which is not Christian at all, is his best novel!

I've been a sf fan for almost 50 years, ever since I read War of the Worlds when I was 9. My kids, not so much. When the older was assigned Ender's Game, I told him I'd get a copy and read along. I thought it was great and here's the start of another SF generation. Him, not so much. What's it take?

Why should you care whether your kids like sci-fi or something else?  You have a hunger for world-revising fiction; if they don't, then they must be hungry for different stories.  Maybe they're just hungry for stories that they find for themselves.  Try forbidding them to read sci-fi <grin>.

Would you care to comment on the mid-term elections? I think you have some opinions.

As a Democrat who would love to have my party come back from its long love affair with insanely self-contradictory Leftist ideology, to become again the party that can contain a true liberal like Daniel Patrick Moynihan was instead of the rigid intolerant puritans like Nancy Pelosi, nothing could be better than to crash and burn.  It allows the rediscovery and remaking of a once-great but now-incompetent party.

Meanwhile, I can only hope that the rigid intolerant right wing of the republican party can be contained long enough to allow them to provide the Democrats that great service of showing that intolerant Leftism is a dead end.

The center, the center!  Which party will reach for and achieve the center?  Neither one seems inclined to want to try.

so for now I remain that rare bird:  A Tony Blair Democrat.

After watching Avatar, I felt as though a lot of the ideas and themes came straight out of the Ender's series. Do you get this comment often?

ALL the thoughts and ideas in Avatar came from other people's science fiction, including but not limited to mine.  We all borrow from each other, but most of us give credit where it's due.  Cameron might actually believe he thought of all this stuff, but no one else has to believe it.

Avatar doesn't resemble EG half as much as the first Harry Potter does, though.  Lonely young boy in a miserable family situation is taken suddenly from his home to an academy where he is preternaturally talented at the game that dominates the life of the school.  Then he saves the world.

None of these ideas is original, so it's not that big a deal when we borrow from each other.  It's when somebody is called a genius for having "invented" age-old stories and commonplace ideas that those of us who have gone before can get a little testy about it.

I heard rumors about a sequel to the last of the Bean series, with stories about Bean and the children he traveled with that had all had Anton's key turned - is this possible? Would love to hear about their voyage and time together!

"Shadows in Flight" begins with the death of Bean, then follows his children as they join with neo-Peter and neo-Valentine/Jane in trying to solve the problem of the Descolada planet.  Since I haven't solved the problem of the Descolada planet myself, I have no idea how the story will actually go.  But the book is a series-tying-up sequel to the Shadow series AND the Speaker series.

Hi Mr. Scott -- I have read all of your Enders series, and as an English teacher have recommended them numerous times to my high school students. Love them! I apologize for my ignorance, but how did you end up writing science fiction? Do you have a science background? Thank you so much giving us such wonderful books to read :)

I entered college as an archeology major, but quickly discovered I had no interest in actually doing the work of a scientist - or living under the strictures of a grant-seeking life.  Meanwhile, I was spending all my time in the theatre department, so it made sense (to me as a young idiot) to major in that field.  Fortunately, to become a novelist you don't have to have any degree at all, let alone a particular major (though it helps greatly NOT to have majored in English).  all you have to have is the ability to come up with, and tell clearly, stories that other people will care about and believe in.

Why sci-fi?  Because it had a short story market so I could test the waters before committing to a novel.  Then, after i started selling stories, I stayed with it because the speculative-fiction toolset allows a writer incredible freedom to create.  Plus the sci-fi/fantasy audience is hungry for new worlds and new ideas, so it's not just ok, it's a plus to be different ... and even, sometimes, annoying!

Are you going to start up another big series any time in the future? I am a big fan of Ender and Prentice Alvin.

"Pathfinder" comes out at Thanksgiving.  It's officially YA and is being marketed that way, but in fact, it makes no more concessions to young readers than Ender's Game did.  Fewer, in fact, as the characters wrestle with the logical problems of causality and time travel.  the main storyline feels like fantasy, but there's a "shell" story of a starship captain, Ram, who is preparing to start a colony on a distant planet.  When the stories come together, all is revealed!  There will be two more Pathfinder books.

Also, in January, I'm finally coming out with the first of my Mithermages series:  The Lost Gate.  This is centered around a world (Westil) that I invented about the time I was first starting as a sci-fi writer.  the story "Sandmagic" was set in that world, as also my story "Stonefather."  "The Lost Gate" takes place mostly in contemporary America, among a family descended from the gods of antiquity, but the first volume culminates in an attempt to get back to Westil, which has long been blocked by a long-gone Loki.  I have loved this world forever, but it is so complex that it took this long for me to find my way into it.  Now it's there.

I will be writing these in rapid succession - they will come out one a year in each series, so that both will be finished within three years.

What are your thoughts on science fiction which is "really" set in a remote future (traditional sci-fi) vs. "future fiction", which is set only a year or two in the future and relies heavily on extrapolating from the present? (Your "Ender's Game" might be in the first category, Cory Doctorow's "Makers" in the second.) Are they really separate genres or is there overlap? And... which do you prefer, both as a reader and as an author?

They're just steps along a continuum.  By some standards, Ender's Game IS near-future sci-fi - Earth is recognizable, as are nations, languages, and peoples of our day.  When you read the Shadow series, that really comes home.

Michael Crichton perfected the genre of high-tech thriller which COULD happen tomorrow in our completely recognizable world.  It was not called sci-fi solely for marketing reasons.  In fact, all the genre boundaries are about marketing:  How can we best identify this novel to the audience that would be most likely to buy it?  Thus Ken Scholes's series is marketed as fantasy, though in fact it's sci-fi ... and so on.  James Maxey's "dragon" novels are, in fact, very high-tech sci-fi in an America where biological scientists created dragons which, as in the old robots-take-over-the-world stories, end up ruling over humans and farming them more or less like cattle.  But it's marketed as fantasy.

In short, the boundaries are arbitrary and driven by marketing considerations, and writers shouldn't even think about them.  Just write the story as it needs to be written, and only when it's finished do you find a way to sell the heck out of it.

Do you have a timeline for this series? I feel like I have been waiting forever to get the second part of "Rachel and Leah".

There are two more books - The Wives of Israel and The Sons of Rachel.  My publisher is being incredibly patient.  I will definitely finish them, but not this year or next, alas.

I love SF but find I judge the book by the cover...sorry for the pun. If I see a fantasy female figure on a horse w/sword in hand or any similar variation I pass it by. This style cover graphic must sell books or it wouldn't be used. How much control do authors have over a cover design at publication? Do you see an influence of graphic novel popularity here?

authors have no control whatsoever over covers - with a few rare exceptions.  I am not one of them.  I have always hated the covers they put on Ender, Speaker, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind.  But apparently they sold books - or didn't interfere with them.

A lot of it is about branding.  Certainly when you saw those covers you knew they were part of the Ender series.  and when you see those half-naked sword-wielding women covers, you have been warned.  But people who WANT those books have been given a promise.

The only problem is when the cover promises a book that is not delivered.  That is, they slap a "commercial" cover on a book that does not fulfil the promise of that cover.  The result is that people who might love the book are put off by the cover and never pick it up, while people who crave the story that the cover promises are deeply disappointed and are likely to hate the book.

Such mistakes are not common, but they happen, and they have happened to me (Wyrms and Saints had appallingly wrong covers).  The worst thing is that the publisher invariably concludes that it was not the fault of the cover that the book didn't sell, but that the writer is no good.  Life is tough.

As a publisher myself (Hatrack River Publications), however, I absolutely do not let my authors have a vote on the cover.  Why?  Because I know how to sell the kind of novel that I buy, and I'm write - all the books sold well.  (The only reason we stopped publishing was that we lost our excellent distributor.)

There are only two things that sell fiction:  The cover and word-of-mouth.  The publisher's job is to slap on a cover that will make the audience for the novel pick it up and give it a chance.  The cover designers' job, alas, is often to try to impress their friends by putting on "cool" covers (i.e., artsy things that nobody would ever pick up) or covers that please them - even if they have nothing to do with the book.

Orson, A few years after I finished the original Ender series I bought "How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy" to help with my writing. The advice in it was great...and I immediately applied it to my non-sci-fi writing. I haven't written or read sci-fi in years, other than the odd Greg Bear "Moving Mars" or Richard Morgan "Altered Carbon". But I would like to get back to writing and reading science fiction because it's my favorite way of reflecting the current world. Which writers (besides yourself!) and writing outlets do you recommend who interest you or are helpful to you?

I already recommended some sci-fi and fantasy writers in a previous answer.  I'm thrilled that you found my sci-fi writing book helpful in writing non-sf.  One of the problems with mainstream and literary fiction is that the writers rarely recognize the importance of world-creation in their fiction.  They think they can just say "San Francisco, 1968" and their audience will know it all.  Lazy!  Jane Austen still endures without anybody teaching her work because her stories contain and explain her world - that is, she educates her readers as she goes about the world in which her stories take place, so that 200 years later we can still read it without any introduction other than her own words.  That's what all writers should try to do!  Sci-fi writers know they have to do it, that's all ...

You, Lewis, and I agree that it was his best work. You're showing a lack of understanding of Lewis if you don't see that he creates worlds in which the ideas of Christianity (fall, diety, and redemption) work themselves out without being exact allegories, though. Till We Have Faces is decidedly Christian.

Wow.  You're able to judge my understanding of Lewis from a brief answer in an interview.

TWHF is Christian only in the sense that Lewis truly believed, and so it emerged in his work.  In fact, it has none of the superficial theological explications of Narnia and Perelandra.  It also reflects Lewis's love of ancient literature, which Tolkien shared and which gave shape to LOTR.  The Christianity in Narnia is obvious obvious obvious - no one can claim that Lewis was not aware every second that he was writing Christianity in fictional form (though I never said and would never say that it is allegory - that was YOUR conclusion, and a false one).  And the Perelandra series I find simply cloying - you can see his attempt to create a George MacDonald-like experience in Perelandra, but it fails because he can't stop himself from forcing the stories to follow a Program.  The result is bad sci-fi.  You might still enjoy the novels, but they would teach a new writer absolutely nothing about how sci-fi works.  This is not even a criticism - sci-fi, as a genre, was still aborning in America when Lewis wrote, and did not reach England till some time after.  Lewis was using Wellsian and MacDonaldesque tools to write stories that fascinated him; he used the term science fiction, but never understood or, probably, even knew about the genre as it was invented by John W. Campbell and Robert A. Heinlein.

But what's the problem here, anyway?  You really like Lewis's worst works - that's wonderful.  I'm always deeply grateful to readers who like MY worst novels, too.

What was your inspiration for the character of Ender?

There's no "inspiration."  I was telling a story, and as I had my character respond to the stuff that happened to him, I drew on what I knew about human nature, good leaders, and brilliant thinkers to devise his responses and his proactive choices.  In all of this i was guided, of course, by my unconscious sense of what feels "right" in a story.

One thing is certain, though.  If I had had a PLAN for Ender, some chart of what attributes he must have, I would have done a terrible job and nobody would ever have heard of the story of Ender Wiggin.  We writers must learn all the tools we can master, but in the end, what works is what comes out of our unconscious minds to resonate with the unconscious minds of our readers.

I don't believe in "inspiration" in fiction.  I just believe in honest, truthful storytelling.

You publish an online speculative fiction magazine-- Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. Why did you decide to get into the business of publishing short fiction, and what challenges does IGMS face?

The big challenge is that television is almost completely replaced the short story in our culture.  Forty-five minutes of Dr. Who in my iPod Nano IS a short story.

Yet it's in the short fiction that science fiction is constantly reinvented and recreated.  Creating even the cheapest TV show is very, very expensive; ditto with comics, though it's much cheaper than TV.  Short stories, though, don't require any such expenses.

If the short story market in sci-fi does not stay alive, then we're dependent on novels alone for our most inventive fiction; and since stupid publishers insist that they'll only look at AGENTED manuscripts, and agents only know how to recognize LAST YEAR's bestseller, genuine inventiveness would disappear or at least have a hard time making its way to the forefront of publishing.

Fortunately, there are still smart publishers who do not require the intervention of agents, and there are still a few of us publishing short fiction - even at a loss.

And believe me, we are publish igms at a loss.  My wife and I have decided to regard it as a very expensive hobby so that we don't ever judge it by commercial standards.  That's why we pay (or, to tell the truth, grossly underpay) for illustrations for all the stories.

But i still harbor the hope that readers will gradually come to IGMS in numbers that will allow the magazine to make money, so it doesn't depend on the vicissitudes of my writing career.  I'd like it to be a magazine that continues after I retire or die.

Meanwhile, we publish some of the best traditional sf and fantasy stories ANYWHERE.  It's not limited to hard SF like Analog; I have no patience with artsy stories that are published more as Nebula-bait than anything else; and all in all, I think it's one of the best entertainment values available.  http://www.oscIGMS.com

How detailed are your outlines? I read that JK Rowling had outlined the entire Harry Potter series on 3 x 5 index cards before starting to write the first chapter of the first book. Also, how do you handle computer files large enough for a novel? Is each chapter a separate file? And which word-processing program do you use?

I write lots of outline material, lots of world creation, maps, floorplans, language stuff, whatever.  I know what key events must be and which relationships will matter.

Then I start writing, new character pop up and intrigue me, and everything gets revised.  When you read Pathfinder (in only a few weeks!), you'll see what I mean when you realize that the character of Umbo did not exist in the outline.  you'll say WHAT? when you see how important he is to the story.  And i'll only shrug and say, The outline looked pretty good, but Umbo looked better.

You can't stop inventing just because you have an outline.  The best stuff is what comes up on the fly.  Yet i can't START writing until I have a clear idea of where I'm going to end.  And I never, never change that ending.  I just find better ways to get there.

Sorry it came off so harsh. Thanks for your response. I love your works as well and have deeply appreciated what I've read of yours over the years. Lewis in "Letters To Children" says over and over to his readers that his works are not intended as allegorical parallels.

Exactly.  He says that Aslan is not an ALLEGORY of Christ - he IS Christ as he would be if the world of Narnia were real.  Aslan does not "stand for" Christ in some allegorical one-for-one correspondence, he fulfils the Christ-role in a world with talking animals and other magical things.

In This Chat
Mr. Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead. Card won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, making him the only author to win both of American science fiction's top prizes in consecutive years. He also writes contemporary fantasy, biblical novels, poetry, plays, and scripts.
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