Orson Scott Card Interview
By Jeff Duke (1997)
What would you call your specific occupation?
Writer. (I wear other hats, but that's the job title that pays the bills!)
How many years have you been in your occupation?
Fulltime freelancer since January 1978, with nine months of employment in 1983. My employment prior to 1978 and during 1983 was as an editor, variously at BYU Press, the Ensign Magazine, and (in 1983) Compute! Books. (That's what took me to Greensboro NC.)
Please tell me about your work history, the subjects you studied in high school or college, and what work experience led you to your present position? Why did you choose to be a writer?
My college training was primarily in theatre, with an eye to becoming a director, actor, or
producer. I fell into playwriting accidentally, took some classes in it, and also took creative
writing classes, but I really didn't expect it to be a career because I didn't believe there was a way
to make money as a playwright without being lucky and I didn't feel particularly lucky. I also
didn't want to spend my life doing the tough slugwork you have to do, facing rejection after
rejection. So while I enjoyed writing plays for the Mormon audience in college, I thought my
editorial work was what I'd do as a living until, someday (maybe when I was 45), I'd write
something so good it would get published. Who knew?
It must be said, however, that the college training that best prepared me to be a writer was NOT
the creative writing or playwriting classes, and it couldn't have been literature classes because I
never took any literature classes until I entered my master's degree program AFTER having
published several novels and establishing my freelance writing career. The education that
prepared me was my general education classes, which I tried to avoid when I was a stupid
undergraduate, but which gave me the foundation of general knowledge that makes a career as a
writer possible. Creative writing classes helped me only by giving me deadlines and by giving
me a chance to critique and learn from other people's bad writing (you learn from bad writing,
not from good writing) - but I learned more from my work as an editor, having to revise and
rewrite other people's work on topics that didn't interest me.
When I give advice to young writers, I tell them NOT to major in English or any sort of writing
(especially not journalism!), but rather to get a humanities or liberal arts degree with heavy
emphasis on history and general science. The goal, I tell them, is to learn everything about
everything, especially about human nature and the things that people do. Not psychology or
sociology, because there you'll just get a bunch of (generally bogus) theories. Go straight to the
sources and read history and biography and archaeology and anthropology to learn about human
behavior, and physics and biology to learn about the natural world. However, you have to READ
literature - I tell students to steal the reading list from the graduate office of the English
department and read everything on it, but read nothing written about it. Get your own
relationship with these writers, like them or hate them as you will, without reference to whether
they are considered "great" by critics and academics. Also read everything ELSE, at least a
sampling of every genre, because they all have something to teach you, if only to teach you some
of the strange things that portions of the reading public hunger for.
The most important training, though, is to experience life as a writer, questioning everything,
inventing multiple explanations for everything. If you do that, all the other things will come; if
you don't, there's no hope for you. To a writer, everything looks like a story, and every story
looks like a pile of blocks to be studied and, if possible, knocked over and reassembled your own
What initially attracted you to your career?
People told me I was good at it and it wasn't hard work. Since then I've learned that I wasn't all
that good at it and had enormous numbers of skills to learn, and now that I've learned some of
them, doing it right is very, very hard work. But in the meantime I became accustomed to the
writing life and it would be hard to change now - partly because of the salary cut if I went to my
other love, teaching; and partly because I still have stories to tell, even though it isn't all that fun
doing the work anymore.
Describe a typical day on the job. Please include both the things you enjoy and the things you dislike.
The truly typical day consists of doing anything but writing - I eat, I read, I watch TV, I play
computer games, I run errands, I go to great restaurants, I hang out with my family - and all the
time I feel guilty because I'm not working. But on the nontypical days, when I actually write, I
get up, force myself at some point - could be 6 a.m., could be 3 p.m., could be midnight - to
begin to write. Once I start, I go until I reach a stopping place, either closure in the story or
despair because it isn't working. Once I've got a project in my head, everything else is like a
dream - I hear people talking and I answer but little registers. My family knows to avoid serious
conversation with me when I'm "in" a book or screenplay. I print out the result of each session
and my wife (and sometimes one or another of my older kids) reads it and responds. The next
day I revise the previous day's work and then move on. Writing sessions can last an hour or
sixteen hours, depending on how it's going. I write day after day until the book or screenplay is
done. Then I go back to my real life - avoiding writing. A book in a month is the usual pattern;
then three months before the next project is "ripe" enough to go on with. But it isn't just books
or screenplays. A speech or an essay or a short story uses me up the same way, and so any other
project I do removes the possibility of writing fiction during that time. I have learned, therefore,
to avoid distracting projects unless I think they are worth as much to me as writing fiction. I
speak, not of finances, but of "worth" - something that I think matters enough to give up or delay
a book or story in order to do it.
Like? Dislike? It's the job I do. Working is hard and distracts from having fun. But often the
story seems worth it to me, when I hear back from people who found the tale to be somehow
rewarding or life-enhancing. Of course, I also hear from critics who detest what I do, and while
sometimes I feel rather proud of having made various the loathsome people or groups angry, at
other times I wonder why I put up with such grief. The best thing about my job, though, is
stopping at the end of the day and rejoining the human universe.
What does it take to be successful in your field? What type of person could succeed in it?
If you are familiar with the MBTI (Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator), the type that succeeds at
novel-writing is INFPs - introverts who are empathic and intuitive and disorganized in their lives.
Even though the project of fiction consists of giving causal order to a chaotic universe, you have
to thrive in chaos in order to create truly living fiction, and you have to be able to delude yourself
into thinking that you really understand people and why they do the things they do. You also
have to be able to endure long periods of solitude without flinching - and even to enjoy such
On a more practical level, what it takes to succeed is to be self-critical enough to learn from your
errors, but confident enough (arrogant enough?) to decide that what you've got is good enough to
write and, having written, good enough to send out for publication. Many a writer fails because
he never learns any better than his first attempts; many others fail because nothing is ever good
enough to either begin or to finish. It's also easier to succeed financially if you write relatively
quickly, with a fluid style that is easy to read. To succeed with few books, each must be a work
of genius. Fortunately, I am able to produce many books, so I can leave genius for others.
What do you enjoy most about your work? What "personal benefits" do you gain from your career?
I've already answered the first part. Personal benefits? I'm lucky enough that I make a good
living and have leisure and money to do a few things I love - travel to interesting places, all the
books and music I want, and restaurants whenever I feel like it. You know, the basic pleasures
for a lazy fat guy.
What do you dislike about your career?
What would you change about your work?
It's lonely, and even though I'm an introvert, I still need human society. I love teaching for that
very reason, and my ideal situation would be to teach one day a week (several classes, but only
on that day) and on a flexible-enough schedule that I can cancel class whenever I need to be out
of town ...
Are there specific skills that your work requires? What other fields require the same skills?
Facility with language is required in all the writing careers - history, criticism, journalism,
biography. Facility with language is less important but still helpful in politics, science, and
Creativity in storytelling is also vital to my work, but it's important to everybody else, too - look
how much of our time we spend gossiping! But specifically, a storyteller has to know when a
story is "important" - i.e., when it will hold an audience's attention. Without that, no career; with
it, career! But there are people outside of fiction writing who are first-rate raconteurs - again, it's
a skill that's useful in daily life no matter what your career is.
Are the demands of your career offset by the rewards it provides? (social contact, flexibility, money, etc.)
Yes, or I'd have left it long ago.
How does your job affect your home and leisure life? Does the
work take you away from your nonwork pursuits more than you would like?
I think I've already answered that.
What does the future look like for someone in your professional
specialty? Are there new or emerging areas in the field I should know about?
Every writer is his own genre; those who don't realize that and spend their time imitating the
work of others are needlessly hurting themselves. The future? There will always be people
hungry for stories. But whether they'll be hungry for MINE is an issue that only time and chance
will answer. History is full of one-time famous and successful artists who suddenly discover that
their time has passed. So far that hasn't happened to me, but ...
Do you have any specific advice for someone like me who is
considering entering your profession? What courses should I take? What types of work experiences should I pursue to prepare for it? Are there professional journals in the field or local professional organizations I could join to learn more about the profession? How
can I get experience now in this career field?
I think I've already answered that in terms of education - i.e., don't major in English or
journalism; do major in general ed or history or humanities. Don't take literature courses; do
read everything. Whenever you're aware that there's a subject you know nothing about, learn
about it. Learn "daily life" stuff in particular, from every culture and every period. How dopeople live, marry, work, play, fight, etc.
In terms of acquiring experience, here are some basic rules: don't associate with other writers any
more than necessary. What you need are friends who are "real people." Treasure your
membership in the Church - being in a ward will give you a chance to know people from every
walk of life. If you ever find yourself associating mostly with academics and literateurs, your
work will suffer terribly, because your characters will lose their connection with the real world.
That's why you should never stay in a writing group for more than a year, for instance. Get jobs,
if you need them, that are not writerly jobs. My editorial work was all right for a time, but I
learned more from my time as a missionary and working in a scenery shop at BYU. What was
valuable about my editorial work was not the job itself, but the association with people in a
business - I learned about office politics, ambition, backstabbing, incompetence, groupthink, etc.
It was all grist for the mill.
How did you get your first book sold? Was it through an agent, or did you submit it yourself? What did you do to get a publisher to look at it?
My first "sale" was a play production at BYU, and I did it by writing well enough that students
and then faculty wanted to direct my plays. That's where I honed my skills in writing scenes and
dialogue and creating characters and dramatic or comic situations. By the time I turned to
fiction, I had already cleared many of the first hurdles (I had written my suicide story, my
perversion story, etc., and had moved beyond them, as every good writer eventually must).
Science fiction, when I chose to attempt it seriously, had a viable short story market - lucrative
enough to be worth submitting, but not so lucrative that I was competing with the top people in
the field. (The top people were all concentrating on novels, because they pay so much better!)
My first stories didn't feel sufficiently like sf - they seemed to editors to be fantasy, and therefore
didn't sell to the major markets. But I got nice encouraging rejection letters. Therefore I set out
to write an sf story with rivets instead of trees, so it would FEEL like sf. The result: Ender's
Game, in the novelet version. It required some tightening before it sold to Ben Bova at Analog,
but it made enough of a splash that my novels all sold, even when they didn't really deserve to.
Thus I made all my early-novel mistakes in public; but I never wrote a novel that didn't get
published. I got my agent after selling two books. In the sf field, that's the best way - the kind of
agent you can get before you've sold something is not the kind you want. The ideal is to receive
a contract offer from a publisher, and THEN get an agent before you sign the contract. The agent
doesn't get you more money - the agent gets you a decent contract, with reversion clauses and
without giving away foreign and film rights.
What should a writer do to get a publisher to look at his book? Have a damn fine story to tell,
and then tell it clearly.
What do you think makes your books special? Many say that your characters are your strong point. What do you think?
I have no idea why some people like some of my books more than they like books by some other
writers. Some people think my characters are my strong point; other people think that my
characters are utterly unbelievable. In the arts, one never knows why some geese lay golden
eggs. You just try to keep the goose healthy ...
What do you think are the most important principles in writing (style, theme, mood, etc.)?
Style cannot be taught or learned. Everyone has a style already. Your natural way of speech and
your inborn "take" on the world around you will give you a distinctive voice. What you have to
work on is utter clarity and finding stories that you care about and believe in to tell. Style takes
care of itself. So does theme. The writers who work on style end up writing either unreadable
babble or florid nonsense. The writers who work on theme end up writing essays disguised as
fiction. The writers who work on symbolism end up writing puzzles. STORIES are written by
people who are, not surprisingly, thinking about what happens and why, and trying to write it
down as clearly as possible in order to communicate with the widest possible audience of those
who care about that kind of story.
In some of your books, you include some swearing (although it's nowhere near what's in the rest of today's books). As a member of the LDS church, I'm in a quandry about this sort of thing. I realize
that it is hard to make a realistic character without including some of the vocabulary they would use, but at the same time, I want what I write to be readable by an LDS audience. And of course I always have to be true to my own conscience. What are your feelings about this?
There are no bad words - only bad uses of words. The idea that words are "bad" is Victorian and
cultural, not by revelation. I challenge you to find any scripture that will tell you that "shit" and
"piss" are "bad" words while "feces," "poo-poo," "urine," and "wee-wee" are good. In fact,
"piss" is used in the King James version. It's all a matter of convention. So in choosing
language for my stories I try to find a balance between the decorum my audience expects and the
way my characters would really talk. When writing to the LDS audience, my language choices
are squeaky clean. When writing to a general audience, my balance shifts a little in order to
communicate the story most effectively without needlessly limiting the size of the audience.
When I realized that I wanted my writing to be usable with younger readers, I "cleaned it up" a
little, starting with Ender's Game (the novel), but I've felt no need to go back and change any of
the previous novels that had rougher language.
At the same time, it's true that repeated use of coarse words weakens them and takes away their
power, while at the same time jading and coarsening the person who uses them in relationship to
the culture around him. So while I made it a point to learn the music of foul language so I could
use it convincingly, I don't habitually use it in my daily life.
What can I do to make my writing marketable? What areas are
popular right now? What areas are overcrowded with stories?
Do not think about what is "popular" right now, or which kind of story is hot. Today's hot story
will be cold by the time you get your knock-off written. Instead write the stories you care about
and believe in, and then when they're done, market them as best you can. There is no other way.
At the same time, if you have many ideas, and some are more "commercial" than others, there's
no sin in choosing the one with a more obvious market. But the guidelines are broad. Your story
about an obscure historical incident from 1828 may be hard to market -- or it may suddenly be
"Amistad" and have a movie made about it. Who knows? But my decision to write "Ender's
Game" was a decision to write a story that was clearly identifiable as futuristic sci-fi. However,
it was an idea that had been simmering in my mind for almost a decade before I wrote it.
In television and film, you have to be aware of the needs of the form. Just as sonnets must have
fourteen lines, television movies have to be "promotable," because they air only once. So
whatever audience you get for the first showing is the entire audience you'll get - there's no word
of mouth on a tv movie. Thus, if you're trying to sell a tv movie, you have to offer your ideas
that have a hot concept that can be "sold" in a fifteen- or thirty-second promo. So ... in working
on tv movies, I simply set aside ideas that don't fit that requirement, and concentrate on the ideas
that do. In writing novels, however, I have no such restriction. But some of my ideas - some
quiet mainstream novels, for instance - simply have to sit and wait to be written because right
now my publishers only want sf and fantasy from me. Even so, I was able to find publishers for
quasi-mainstream contemporary fantasies unlike anyone else's (not quite horror; not quite
fantasy; not quite mainstream). And these books are doing reasonably well, so the door is open
for me to tell stories that ten years ago no one would have bought from me.
Bottom line: If I don't care about a story, I can't write it. So there are many ideas that I know are
perfectly commercial, but I let them go by (or give them to others) because I'm simply not the
writer for them. That's why you'll never see my version of "Die Hard on a train" or "Die Hard in
a bus." Nor will you see my version of "Alien" or "Terminator." I just don't care. Other people
have to write those - even though they'll make a lot more money than I ever will.
I know you publish as well as write. How does one get into the publishing business?
You find a book you want to publish, and you spend the money to print it. If you're stupid or if
you love marketing, you try to distribute it yourself. If you're smart and hate marketing, you give
a percentage of the earnings to a distributor. It helps if you're trying to publish things that some
portion of the reading public actually wants to read. It also helps if you don't mind losing money
for a while.
I don't pay a lot of attention to odds or I probably would give up
writing, but what are the real chances of my being able to support myself as a writer? How long was it before you were able to support yourself as s writer?
There are no odds. There's no predictability. If you care about and believe in your stories, and
write them clearly, and write a lot and send it out, then you've done all you can do. There's no
"inside track" if you have no talent. There's also no inside track if you're marvelously talented
but the stories you care about only appeal to five other people in the world. IF your stories are in
fact what a large number of strangers are looking for, then you don't even have to be all that
good a writer - look at Edgar Rice Burroughs, for heaven's sake! Everybody knows Tarzan, and
this guy couldn't write to save his life (his writing improved when he stopped writing and started
talking his books to a stenographer). Just remember that you can write many kinds of stories for
many different media and genres, and keep trying all of them until you find one that has an
audience. As long as you're writing stories you care about and believe in, it will be fun.
But don't quit your day job until you're making so much money from your writing that you can't
afford to spend eight hours a day doing something else. Selling one novel is not grounds for
quitting and going fulltime. I went fulltime because I had a contract with Living Scriptures for a
series of audioplays that I knew I could easily write and write well, and I was selling novels and
stories, and I could still do freelance editing and had the connections and experience to do well at
it. That combination continued for years and years - it wasn't until after Ender's Game was a hit
in 1985 that I could afford to give up editing and regular script work.
IF (and that's a big if) my writing's good enough
to be published, how could I get publishers to look at my stories? I hear that it is WHO you know, not how good you are. How can an
unknown outsider get a fair shot? Is it all a matter of networking, or is there a good chance that I could sell my story without contacts? This is why I'm interested about how you got started.
Those who tell you it's whom you know are proving that they don't know anything. Publishers
would go out of business if they published the work of their friends. Even in Hollywood, where
it is in fact hard to get access, talent is the writer's passport. Those who envy successful writers
and say, "Of course he got there, he knew person X or person Y," are simply confessing that they
don't yet understand the difference between professional writing and unprofessional, between
commercially viable stories and stories that don't look like money to a publisher or producer.
Write well, and soon you'll have no shortage of connections. If you aren't finding people getting
excited about your work, then you either haven't sent it to the write publisher/agent/producer yet,
or you still have a lot to learn and should keep writing until you learn it. Remember, most
writers are introverts. Do you think ANY of us would succeed if it all depended on making lots
of friends and shmoozing with strangers? Get real.
Worry about writing. Write first the story ideas that have a reasonable market (i.e., don't write
religious or romance short stories to start out - there's no place to publish them). After it's
written, mail it to a lot of people who are in a position to pay you for it. While it's in the mail,
write something else. Wash, rinse, repeat. Eventually someone gets excited about it, or not.
If it's Hollywood you're after, move to L.A. Write a script. Write another. Submit them to
agents. Submit them to producers. It really does matter whom you know, in the movie and
television business, but not in the way people think. And it's not that hard to get to know people.
Your friends in the drama department today will be the studio executives (or studio flunkies!) of
tomorrow. They are as hungry to find a hot script and get themselves attached to it as you are to
write that hot script. IF YOU WRITE WELL and the stories you tell are COMMERCIAL (i.e.,
aimed at a wide audience), then your script will make friends for you and lead you from person to
person! That's how you get those connections - from your talent. If you don't have a good
script, it doesn't matter who you know; if you do have a good script, you will soon know a lot of
people. So don't be intimidated. If you're good enough and smart enough and persistent (i.e.,
brave) enough, you'll make it. If not, then with luck you'll realize it in time to get on with
another job that will enable you to support your family and have a good life.
There are worse things in the world than not making it as a writer. Not making it as a human
being, that really sucks. Not making it as a writer almost doesn't matter, compared to that.