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CARD'S GAME:
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.


Question
Word is out that ENDER'S GAME is in the works as a movie. Are you at liberty to talk about that?

OSC Answers
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 modifications, though.


Question
How far along is the script?

OSC Answers
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?


Question
What are some of the other problems writing the script versus the novel?

OSC Answers
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 the book.

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 my copyright.


Question
Whom do you visualize in the lead roles?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
ENDER'S GAME obviously has commercial appeal. Why didn't you ever take the easy way out and just sell the film rights?

OSC Answers
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."


Question
Okay, time for a stock author-interview question. Where do you get your ideas?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
You seem to have a great interest in religion, and not just that of the Mormon Church.

OSC Answers
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 embarrassing myself.

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.


Question
Your books seem to contain moral lessons. How intentional is this?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
Did having success early in your writing career give you creative freedom, or did it become a burden to live up to high expectations?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
How did you get started in writing?

OSC Answers
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 approval.

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.


Question
You've rewritten some of your early work. How come?

OSC Answers
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 given moment.


Question
Do you think interactive media will supplant print media?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
You are renowned for playing Sid Meier's "Civilization" computer game.

OSC Answers
"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.


Question
Since you're such a prolific writer, how can you justify taking time out to teach workshops?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
Your family is obviously important to you. How do you balance the demands of writing with family?

OSC Answers
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 free.

I play "Civilization," I write, I do dishes. That's my life.


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