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OtherView: Orson Scott Card

Born in Richland, Washington, Orson Scott Card grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He lived in Brazil for two years as an unpaid missionary for the Mormon Church. He received degrees from Brigham Young University (1975) and the University of Utah (1981).  He is the author of such popular books as The Tales of Alvin Maker, Ender’s Game, and The Homecoming Saga. He also has written books on characterization and writing science fiction. He teaches aspiring writers, as well. Back in 2000, he participated in a Q&A interview with the players of OtherSpace.

Sheridan asks: Mr. Card, where did your inspiration for Ender’s Game come from?

Orson Scott Card answers:
A combination of things:

As a child, I was given a copy of “The Army of the Potomac,” a three-volume history that opened my eyes to what war is … how armies are created, how and why they fight, what difference leaders make … and in the sequence of commanders of the Army of the Potomac, as Lincoln searched for a good commander, I got some idea of what a struggle it is to find someone who knows what to do with an army when he has one.

Then, in my teens, I watched my older brother volunteer for the army and heard him talk when he came home on leave about what worked and what did not work in his training. Then, his soon-to-be-fiancee gave me Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I had been away from science fiction for a while, and these books seemed revelatory to me. They made me want to write science fiction. So … as my father drove me to high school one morning, I tried to think up some futuristic idea.

Thinking of my brother’s military training, I thought, how would you train soldiers for combat in space? The immediate answer was the battle room – a place that is contained within walls, so you don’t lose soldiers off in space during training; but still in null-G so they can get used to combat techniques.

A related question, though, was: How would you commanders to deploy and use them properly in three dimensional space with no down and no important gravity?

Here I drew on another book that I had read, after the Catton but before my brother joined the army – a book about the Lafayette Flying Corps of World War I, by Nordhoff and Hall. In this book, Nordhoff and Hall made a point of how hard it was for the early aviators to stop thinking in the horizontal plane – to look for danger coming from above or below. In thinking about three-dimensional combat, I realized that it isn’t just learning to think out of the horizontal. Instead, you have to learn to think without the standard up and down, because you can be trapped into that orientation and think of things as “below” or “above” that simply aren’t. I realized that the most useful way to think would be to conceive of the enemy as below you. Psychologically, this makes gravity-oriented humans think that charging is “easier” than retreating (grin).

Anyway, those ideas were all in place before I turned seventeen. But I wasn’t ready to write a story about it yet – a setting is not a story! Instead, my early sci-fi stories were those that eventually became The Worthing Saga. But when Ben Bova, then editor of Analog, rejected one of my Worthing stories in 1975, saying, more or less, I like the way you write, but this story is fantasy, and we publish science fiction. Well, I knew it was sci-fi, but I understood what Bova meant: It didn’t FEEL like science fiction. It needed hardware and rivets. So I thought again of the idea of the battle room and wondered who my character would be. It was only then that I realized that the time to start training people so they don’t have bad habits of thought is … as young as possible.

Sheridan asks: I have read of the current books in the “series.” Are you planning any more books in the series?

Orson Scott Card answers: There is one more Shadow book: Shadow of the Giant. Then there will be another book that takes place after Children of the Mind … but deals with Bean’s descendants coming together with Ender’s children. Sort of a wrap-up of both strands of the series.

Sheridan asks: Who did you base Ender’s character off of in your daily life? (if anyone)

Orson Scott Card answers:
I don’t base my characters on living people. That’s because we never really know what’s going on inside real people. So even the “real” people we know are only our mental constructs of them, and they are always wrong, to some degree. So I construct characters as I need them to advance the story. Then, as I devise their reactions to events in the story, I draw upon my knowledge of many possible responses to the situation and gradually, out of those decisions, my picture of the character begins to come clear. The one exception to this is the novel Lost Boys, which is based in part upon my family’s life during our first year in Greensboro, back in 1983. Even then, I took liberties as the story required.

Volskywalker asks: One of the things that keeps me rereading the Ender’s Game series, especially the middle books, is the realistic and in-depth handling of the characters’ internal lives – the emotion and the internal dialogue that makes them entirely believable despite the fact the world-changing ‘supergenius’ nature of their abilities. Of course you can’t act on this, or there would be no story, but I wonder if you ever feel somewhat ‘possessive’ of these characters, and find yourself wishing you could ‘protect’ them from the harmful things that come along in the course of a book?

Orson Scott Card answers: Not really. What I care about is not that bad things should not happen to them, but rather that when bad things happen, my good characters respond believably but well. Good people find joy (if not immediate pleasure or happiness) even in the midst of trial and grief, because the true source of joy is building bonds with other human beings and creating things together with them. That is possible even in the midst of desperate sorrow, and therefore joy and nobility are possible then. And heroism comes from making (or risking) great sacrifice in order to serve the genuine good of others – my heroes could not BE heroes if they did not face terrible dilemmas. I am never confused about the fact that I’m writing fiction. These characters are not real people. I am not “creating” them on the page. I am creating a text that will help READERS create them in their minds. In the minds of the readers the characters will be, in fact, as real as their constructs of the people they know in “real life.” So the readers will care about them as if they were real; I, however, am not a reader and they are not as real to me as they are to the reader. That simply can’t be helped. It’s the way the process works. So even when I become emotionally involved, it never occurs to me to “spare” them some suffering. There is no person there to rescue, only a story to tell as effectively as possible.

Volskywalker asks:
Could you offer any advice on developing characters in such emotional depth as you did Ender, Valentine, Quing-Jao and Peter? I’m specifically impressed by the way that though they had these incredible abilities and exerted an amazing amount of influence on the world in various ways, it is the personalities that I remember when I close the book; the focus is somehow not on what they did, but on how everything effected them internally.

Orson Scott Card answers: That’s why my books are so hard to adapt to film….Nobody has just one reaction to things that happen, and nobody has just one motive or cause for each behavior. I try to show what they believe they are doing, what they MEAN to do, and then what they discover about themselves and what they think others are meaning to do … in short, I think through THEIR mental constructs of the world around them and of the people in it. Since this is what the human brain naturally does in real life, in effect I give you a faint image of the kind of world-picture that makes YOU real to yourself. However, it’s not just a matter of piling on details. I show only the thoughts that are relevant to the character’s main decisions and the obstacles keeping him from what he wants. Everything in it has to feel important and true. Plus, I have to organize those thoughts much more clearly than our thoughts are in real life. Many of our most important thoughts are never verbalized, but they have to be verbalized in a book.

Alf asks: First off, I love your work, Mr. Card, and I’ve been reading it since 6th grade when I picked up a copy of Ender’s Game (my fav. book all time), and the last time I read it was for my Sci-Fi class here at college. I’ve also at times worked my way through one of your books on writing and found it intriguing…but anyways enough fan ranting. In your foreword to the book Ender’s Game, you spoke about being a sort of Military History buff, and I’m wondering what your favorite era of history to study is? Any favorite leaders, themes, ect, and why. 😉 (I’m a history major so I’m always curious about this kind of stuff). Next, whose writing do you say has inspired you the most over your career? And thirdly, would you ever consider making Ender’s Game into a feature length movie? I know I’d shell out $8 to go see it. Thank you.

Orson Scott Card answers: Whatever I’m reading about right now is my favorite; whatever period has the best information, leading to the most complete books is my favorite. Years ago I realized that whenever there was a gap in my knowledge of history, my storytelling suffered because of that ignorance. So I began a process I still continue – whenever I find a theme or period or culture I know little about, usually because I wasn’t interested in it, then that is precisely the area I HAVE to study. That’s how I break down the walls in my own mind, forcing myself to study that which was NOT interesting to me.

Wes Platt asks: How did you first get into writing as an occupation? What jobs have you held in the past, and how have they influenced your insights?

Orson Scott Card answers: I worked for a few months in the scenery construction shop in the Brigham Young University theatre department. I was fired because I wasn’t dependable about showing up for my shift. I learned my lesson – I needed a job where it didn’t matter all that much whether I always showed up on time or not. (One thing that was not going to change was my inability to maintain a routine.) When I came home from my service as a missionary in Brazil, I started a theatre company, raising the money for it by selling season tickets to our six-show season. During this time I lived at home and mooched off my parents. (I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet, so they had to drive me wherever I went.) After our first season, I got a parttime job at the Brigham Young University Press, as a proofreader. Since I had proofread for my mother back in my childhood and early teens (she earned extra money by typing dissertations for doctoral candidates), I had the skill for it. I soon applied for and got a job as a book editor. A year later I moved to Salt Lake City to work at the Ensign magazine as an editor and staff writer. Eighteen months later, I quit to work fulltime as a writer and freelance editor. Gradually the freelance editing faded as I priced myself out of the market (deliberately) and my writing of books and audioscripts brought in more money than editing ever could. But in the recession of the early 80s, I dropped out of a doctoral program at Notre Dame in order to take the job – as book editor for Compute! Magazine – that brought me to Greensboro. That job lasted 9 months, until was able to sell the Alvin Maker series to TOR. I haven’t looked back since.

Kalouri asks: Which of your series have you felt least “forced” to write, and more emotionally “compelled” to write? Why?

Orson Scott Card answers: Writing is my job. I have to force myself to work, always, every time. No series or book has been emotionally more or less compelling than the others, because my motive for going upstairs to the office every day is to make a living. During the actual writing, of course, I become quite involved in the project and care about it very much. But … I’d rather be teaching.

Kalouri asks: How concerned are you that a film adaptation would do justice to your stories, which are beloved by many readers?

Orson Scott Card answers: What is “justice”? The best I could hope for is that a story of mine might be made into a good film – but that will always require that different aspects of the story be stressed. After all, the earlier questions in this interview referred to how much my stories depend on the internal reality of the characters – and that is one aspect of storytelling that is almost completely impossible to accomplish in film. So obviously any attempt to be utterly faithful to my books or stories would lead to very bad movies. There are readers who are quite angry when they realize how much of Ender’s Game, for instance, has to be left out in order to fit it into a two hour movie, and how the shape of it has to change in order to use the strengths of the art of film to best advantage. But my answer is: The film will not erase the books. In fact, it will bring more readers to them. So if I make a good movie, even if it isn’t faithful to every detail of the story, then the book will also be more widely read. As far as I can tell, that would be doing more than “justice” to my books – it would be more like mercy (grin).

Wes Platt asks: What benefit can young and aspiring writers get from attending your writing classes or “literary boot camp?” Do they get to work with you? What can they expect from the experience?

Orson Scott Card answers: In “Uncle Orson’s Writing Class,” I lecture and respond to questions, and I direct the class in exercises for two solid days. It’s quite a workout. In the Literary Boot Camp, the participants (much fewer), having just finished the writing class, write stories on the spot that are then critiqued by me and the other members of the group. They learn far more from critiquing the other writers’ work than from the critiques of their own stories. And the contact with me is so continuous that most of them are quite happy never to see me again (grin).

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