Huzzah for the king of Sci-Fi fiction writing! We at AudiobookSTORE.com were lucky enough to score an interview with Orson Scott Card, one of the most popular and prolific fantasy writers to date.
Card dominates in every literary arena he enters from screenwriting to news articles and everything in between (in terms of fantasy anyway). We couldn’t have been more excited to learn more about his creative process and find out how even after all these years, he was able to find the inspiration to create new worlds for his legions of fans to explore.
Eager to pay it forward in the literary world, he also dedicates his time to various writing workshops and has penned several books on the act of creative writing, because he is a better person than we could ever hope to be.
We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did and encourage you to have a listen to any/all of Card’s body of works available at AudiobookSTORE.com. Nothing makes cleaning the kitchen go by faster like a galactic battle to deter a hostile interstellar takeover.
You got your start in creative writing doing scripts and seem to have dabbled here and there over the years. Aside from formatting (obviously) what’s the biggest difference in writing screenplays vs. books? Which do you prefer?
Actually, I got my start writing poetry. My fourth-grade teacher, Fran Schroeder, sent a poem of mine to a California teachers’ newsletter, which published it. And poetry was all I cared about writing till I got to college and discovered that it was fun to doctor bad scripts. I began adapting history and scripture stories into plays. That led to my work with audio plays for Living Scriptures in Ogden, UT — many dozens of half-hour scripts. In the meantime, I got some rejection slips for science fiction stories, and I realized later that what I was really doing was writing plays — stories that consisted of dialogue and action. Almost no description. People talked, and people thought things, and then people did things. I had a teacher give me a C on a story — until I read it aloud in class. Then, because I was a good narrator/actor, he changed the grade to an A. He shouldn’t have, because you shouldn’t have to read your own story aloud for people to respond to it positively. But hey, at least I finally learned to tone down the playishness of my stories.
I write in a linear way. I can’t write chapter 3 until chapters 1 and 2 are working well. And movies aren’t written that way. Screenwriters are always shifting scenes around, and everything is planned in advance. For me as a novelist and a playwright, that’s a nightmare. If scene X suddenly comes right after scene P, instead of scene W, I’d have to rewrite it completely, because nobody would say the same things or do the same things at that point in the story. I watch movies and see where continuity was broken, where a scene was placed out of order — in the screenplay, not in the editing room. I have to flow with the story in order to know what my characters think, want, say and do.
One of your most famous adaptations from book to screen was Ender’s Game. How involved were you in that process; what was it like to be a co-producer?
I had no involvement in the script that they filmed. Producer was a negotiated title, not an actual job.
You boast quite the body of works: why do you think Ender’s Game was the breakout book that made Hollywood take notice?
Before the movie, somebody pitched one of my other series to the Sci-Fi Channel. The guy in charge said, “What’s his bestselling book?” When he was told that it was Ender’s Game, he said, “Then that’s what we’ll do.” But since I was determined to sell it as a feature, and to a company with the budget to do the special effects right, EG was simply not going to a low-budget cable channel. If HBO had wanted to give it the Game of Thrones treatment, that would have been different.
But that was long before GoT.
When I was writing the novel Ender’s Game, I didn’t realize that it would be the standout book of my whole career. But as I’ve returned to Ender’s story again and again, and as I worked through many drafts to try to get the character of Ender Wiggin into a screenplay, I had to analyze it and see why it worked. I got as many letters from kids who were bad at schoolwork as from child geniuses saying, “I am Ender Wiggin.” All kinds of people identified with him. I thought I had written better novels before and after, but readers didn’t care about art, they cared, quite properly, about Ender Wiggin.
Why? I finally realized. It wasn’t about Ender vs. the teachers, or even a buddy movie about Ender and Bean (though we tried both approaches). It wasn’t even about Ender vs. the Hive Queens. It’s about Ender Wiggin the leader who has only two concerns: Preparing to be ready to take part in a war for the survival of humanity, and helping other kids right along with learning things himself. He never tried to advance himself; he never tried to be boss. He didn’t rule, he served, and the other kids either hated him or loved him for it. The readers love him for it. When a film or limited series is made of EG in the future, what matters is that the audience feel: I would follow that boy because I trust him.
That’s not easy to bring off in a two-hour movie. But I did write a script with that approach, and it worked. Nobody on the production team or at the studio ever looked at that script, though I submitted it to them. Why? Because you can lose your job by deciding to film the author-written screenplay <grin>.
Many reviews mention your faith coloring your impressive body of work. Is this intentional?
I don’t insert messages into my fiction without subverting them. Shakespeare is my guide in this. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” in the midst of a lot of wise advice: But he put that advice in the mouth of a buffoon, and that is clearly not the message of Hamlet. And Shakespeare had Hamlet kill that buffoon not long afterward.
I served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Brazil in the early 1970s. That’s when I preached and taught. But my fiction would be ill-suited to that purpose, and it would serve my fiction badly, too. Any message a writer consciously inserts in his work will be consciously noticed and rejected by any reader who does not already agree with him. It’s useless.
On the other hand, fiction inevitably is informed by what the author really believes. Not what he believes that he believes, but what he believes about the causal universe at a level so deep he doesn’t even notice that he believes it. It goes into his storytelling quite unconsciously, because the author thinks that this is part of how the world works. So every writer confesses his secret creed without realizing it. I am only relieved, in retrospect, to analyze my early work and discover that what I believe at that deep level isn’t too far from the moral and causal universe of my fiction. At least I’m not at war with myself.
How do you feel about the criticism of graphic violence and sexual content in your publications? How do you reconcile being an author and a man of faith?
I’m always surprised by such criticism because I’m not a descriptive writer. There are violent acts, but I don’t describe dripping gore or horrible cruelty to make a kind of horror-porn. Nor are my characters’ sexual activities ever depicted in such detail that any naive reader could learn the facts of life from my writing. But because I write characters in such a way as to engage the emotional identification of at least some readers, they themselves supply, in their imagination, images and events that I do not describe or depict at all. Their imagination is certainly triggered by powerful moments in the story — but the sex and/or violence are brought to the story by the readers, not spelled out by me.
In science fiction books, world-building is crucial. How do you find a balance between establishing a fleshed-out setting with more action or plot-driven scenes?
World-building is fun. The temptation is to then give the readers a guided tour of all the cool things the writer invented. I resist that temptation as best I can. Almost always there are aspects of the world that I worked on for hours that are never used at all within the book. I show only the places where the characters need to go, and my concentration is on the characters, not the world. The world-building only shows up when the characters use it or depend on it.
When you’re writing a series, do you know it’s a series? If so, do you have the entire arc mapped out, or do you see which way the wind blows?
With Ender’s Game and books in the same universe, I had no idea of a series. It happened accidentally when I realized that the novel Speaker for the Dead would work a lot better if the title character were Ender Wiggin. So I talked to Tom Doherty, my publisher, and told him I needed to write a novel version of the story “Ender’s Game” in order to set up Speaker. He agreed on the spot and I set to work writing Ender’s Game only to create the backstory to Speaker.
Then, after I had turned in Ender’s Game and was working on both Wyrms and Speaker, my agent, Barbara Bova, called me and told me she had just sold the Ender trilogy to a British publisher. I was happy, of course, but then I pointed out the obvious: “Usually when a publisher buys a trilogy they expect to get three books, and there are only two.”
To which she said, “Can’t you think of a third one?” So I cannibalized an older project called Philotes and turned it into Xenocide and Children of the Mind. I never planned it as a series. But the universe and history lent themselves to more and more stories; I wrote each one as it came up, without any plans for where it would go. At the end of Children of the Mind I was left with the problem of the Descolada virus — where did it come from? The Last Shadow was written in order to answer that question and other dangling threads from the previous books.
Other series of mine were conceived as series from the start. The Tales of Alvin Maker (Seventh Son et al.) was meant to be a trilogy; I’m writing the seventh and final book now. There was a plan, but it kept growing wider and deeper because of stuff that came up in the writing. More planned than the Ender books, but too chaotic in its construction for me to claim any kind of rational plan.
The rest of my series were all planned to be trilogies or, in one case, five books; and through some miracle, I have been able to wrap them up within the designated allotment of pages. My Homecoming series (Memory of Earth et al.) was laid out as five books; I got only a third of the way through that outline in five books, but I brought it to what I thought was a good, clear conclusion without adding yet another book.
The Pathfinder trilogy was intended to be a series — but when I signed the contract, I had no idea of what the overall story would be. The plan developed as I wrote the first book, and when I started writing the final book (Visitors) I still had little idea how it would end. It had never been my plan to return to Earth, but that’s where the story went and I’m very happy with the outcome.
The Mithermages books (The Lost Gate, Gate Thief, Gatefather) were planned to be a massive series, but when I realized that most of the story needed to take place on Earth, with the mages being the models for ancient gods, it shrank down into the three volumes we have now, and I’m very happy with them.
Now I’m doing a trilogy about a couple of kids who wake up and discover that they are clones of some people who saved the world — but only partway, and they have to do a better job this time. It will end in three books, though a lot of cool stuff has come up along the way.
My Micropowers novels (Lost and Found, Duplex) were planned as an open- ended series. The books all take place in the same universe, and so far they’re centered on Charlottesville and other nearby cities; but each book is a self- contained story, and each has a new set of protagonists. So that one will go as long as I keep thinking up cool new micropowers and stories to go with them.
I also have a lot of standalone books that don’t need sequels. I am very pleased when a novel is completely self-contained. I will never start trying to combine the worlds of various unrelated novels — I don’t like it when other writers do it, and I’m certainly not going to do it myself. Alvin Maker and Ender Wiggin should never share a universe, nor any of my other unconnected protagonists. One of the glories of art is that you can put boundaries on it; and the author will do best to respect those boundaries, and let each story live its own life.
You often make precocious or gifted children your heroes; while this is common in science fiction is there a deeper reason behind it? What do you think could we all stand to learn from children?
I had no idea how to write a novel when I started out, so I thought of them as biographies. I quickly realized that, unlike real-world biographers, I didn’t have to struggle to find any useful information about the hero’s childhood. Since I was inventing the whole life, I could begin in childhood and show how the person developed into the person who could bring off such achievements.
Heroes, of course, are remarkable people. Arthur Miller, in Death of a Salesman, proved that smaller-than-life people don’t make good protagonists. I learned the lesson, and because my heroes will turn out to be capable of great things, I show the seeds of those achievements in their childhoods. But these things are often deceptive. Ender Wiggin is brought to Battle School because of his supposed genius, but that isn’t why he wins the war and saves our species. On the contrary, it’s because of the genuine love and concern he has for his fellow students, especially those assembled into his final team to win the war. He doesn’t care about who’s the smartest; he cares about helping them all do their best. So it isn’t his precociousness, it’s his generosity and trustworthiness that makes him a world-saver.
I have continued to write novels that begin with young protagonists because youth is often the most productive and fascinating part of their lives. In real life, we have good accounts of the childhood of a few great leaders, because their own letters and memoirs reveal them. Winston Churchill’s impassioned letters to his parents begging them to visit him at boarding school (they never did) could have been the original to Allan Sherman’s charming novelty song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” What’s remarkable is that he never stopped loving — no, nearly worshipping — both of them, and eventually, Winston’s mother helped his career immeasurably. No one could have guessed the magnitude of his future achievements, and his lack of ability in Latin and Greek marked him as a poor scholar — but he became one of the most popular bestselling authors of his time, and also the most important statesman of the 20th century. His story is one of the most complete we have of any great man — but only because he wrote so many letters, and so many of them remain.
But for most great figures of the past, we have only slight hints, a scattering of facts, from which to construct a childhood. My novels suffer from no such inhibition. So it’s not that I feel a need to write about children; it’s that I’m writing biographies, and starting at the beginning.
Are you still offering literary boot camps for aspiring writers to attend? If so, when, and where?
I have put my Literary Boot Camp on hiatus, replacing it with Storycraft on Vimeo (we link to it from Hatrack.com), where recordings of my live teaching sessions are available. I also teach writing and literature at Southern Virginia University, where my students patiently put up with an old man’s nattering about writing and life in general.
When you’re not writing books, or tv shows, or graphic novels, or screenplays, or leading seminars to help others write (seriously, you do it all) what are you doing in your free moments?
I have been playing Sid Meier’s Civilization V for many years and plan to continue. I play a lot of nuisance games on my phone or tablet, especially Ticket to Ride. I also become devoted to well-written television shows, from NCIS to Game of Thrones, and my wife and I have a standing date to watch Jeopardy! with clickers in our hands to keep count of our right answers. I used to love gardening, but now it’s physically beyond me to put in the work that a good garden requires. So now we hire our gardeners.
I lead the congregational singing in my local LDS congregation, and for about a decade I also directed lots of young people and adults in community theatre productions. Beyond that, my main hobby is reading constantly and, whenever possible, hanging out with my grandchildren. I can’t keep up with them, but I enjoy them.
I saw the last work you had published was Lost and Found in 2019. Is there anything new on the horizon or in the works we can expect from you?
Since Lost and Found, I have published another Micropowers book, Duplex, with a third under construction. These have been published by Blackstone, which has long published many of my audiobooks. When they launched a print-publishing line, I was delighted to come aboard.
This past December, The Last Shadow came out, and Wakers will come out in February. I’m currently writing Master Alvin and the as-yet-untitled sequel to Wakers.
When will the next book in the Formic Wars series be finished?
My brilliant collaborator in the Formic Wars series, Aaron Johnston, is laboring mightily to bring the Formic Wars series to a conclusion. We have worked on the story and world-creation and future history together, but the actual writing is the result of his particular genius. I have the right to fiddle with his manuscripts as much as I please, but I’m not dumb enough to mess with excellence. When you’re collaborating with a first-rate writer, you don’t mess with his work.
We hope to bring out the final volume by the end of 2022, but TOR and I have long held to the principle that it’s better to get it right than get it fast. Sometimes that wreaks havoc with their scheduling — but that’s why TOR is such a great publisher of fantasy and science fiction.
Special thanks to Orson Scott Card for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to take advantage of the limited-time sale on all Orson Scott Card’s available audiobooks on AudiobookSTORE.com and don’t forget to pre-order Wakers today!