OSC interview with a French magazine
If you were asked to introduce your books to somebody who doesn't know
them, how would you define them?
I tell stories about good people trying to do good things, even when the
price they have to pay is far too high.
You are writing science-fiction, as well as fantasy and fantastic. What are you
looking for in these different genres?
It is realism that is the recently created subset of literature; prior to the
novel, there was no need for storytellers to stay strictly within the boundaries
of things that happened in the ordinary, observable world. Gods did great
deeds; lesser beings had lesser powers; but strange and magical things were
Even in so-called "realistic" fiction -- the "novel," as a genre -- the
illusion of realism is only skin deep. The reader is still looking for magic.
College students are taught by their professors to decode the fiction they read,
seeking for the treasures hidden there by authors, and the students grow up to
be authors who hide such treasures. Magic is always expected, and always
brings awe and delight when it is found. I hope I will be forgiven, however, for
thinking that the magics in realistic fiction are often quite small, like the prizes
a child gets from a coin-operated game. I prefer more robust strangeness that
is displayed plainly for the reader to receive openly. I call it "public" or "open"
fiction -- it's the kind I write and the kind I value most, when I find it well
written. Nothing is deliberately encoded: It is a plain tale, plainly told. And yet
the events of the story itself will transport the reader into new places and
inside the minds of interesting people -- that is the proper magic of literature,
and it is more available to the writer of science fiction or fantasy, or of
historical fiction, or mysteries, than to those with literary pretensions, who are
limited only to the limited and overspecialized tools of symbol and metaphor.
Could you tell us a bit about the way you build your novels? What are you
I begin most of my stories with two separate ideas that were
independently invented. It is when I decide to combine them (or realize that
adding one idea will greatly enrich the other) that I begin to find the tensions
out of which character, dilemma, and event will arise.
For instance, in my novel Hart's Hope, I had acquired the idea of a
system of magic in which power is obtained from living blood -- from slaying a
creature and using its blood to work spells while the creature is still not quite
dead. The most terrible and irresistible power came from the blood of your own
child -- and so I had the monstrous character Beauty. But I had no world for
her to dwell in, nor any reason for her to have become the sort of person who
would do such a terrible thing.
Quite separately, I had doodled a map of a medieval walled city, with
intriguingly named streets and gates. I thought of the idea that the city you
discover within the walls is radically different, depending upon which gate you
enter through. One of the gates is permanently closed -- it is the magical gate,
and that, I knew, was the one my hero must use.
Only when I thought of combining these two ideas, however, did the story
come to life, with the novel Hart's Hope as the result.
(There was a third, also unrelated idea, which I tossed in at first as a
whim -- the idea of conjoined twins, sisters who were joined at the face, one
with her face turned completely inward, and other with her face partly turned
away. So when they were separated, the one had no face -- no eyes, and only a
gash for a mouth -- while the other looked quite normal in one profile, and
eyeless and deformed in the other. I had tried, and failed, to write a story
using just those characters; but when I added them to Hart's Hope as
enigmatic gods, the "Sweet Sisters," the fun really began.)
Every novel goes through this process, and most of my stories -- and, I
daresay, all of the ones that are most memorable or powerful, with only a
couple of exceptions (Dogwalker, Unaccompanied Sonata -- the two stories I
wrote "whole" in one sitting).
Most of your books or stories have a religious background, or are infused with
some spirituality. What is the place of religion in your life and your work?
All human beings have an intense religious life. Those who think they
don't have a religion are simply those so fanatical that they think their beliefs
aren't a religion, they're simply The Universal Truth. They are the dangerous
To write characters without religion is to lie about how human beings
function in the world.
Do you want to know how to find somebody's religion? Talk with them
and tease them about the things they believe; cast doubt upon their opinions.
As long as they're still laughing, you haven't found it. When they get angry
with you for your skepticism, or for taking their ideas lightly, that is when
you've found their religion -- their set of beliefs so deeply held that they can't
conceive of a universe in which they are not true.
As for the place of religion in my work: My characters have religious
beliefs and a religious life and are usually aware of a community of fellow
believers -- whether they call themselves a "church" or not. But none of them
have ever had exactly my religion, except inadvertently. That is, I never use my
fiction to preach my own consciously held beliefs. That would be a waste of
time. What is consciously inserted into a story is always noticeable to any but
the most naive reader, and will probably be consciously rejected. Instead, I
trust my unconscious choices to reveal what I truly believe -- things that I only
discover myself when I reread the book or story many years later. What comes
out of my unconscious can be trusted to be what I really believe, and now what
I think I ought to believe.
So even though I belong to, and believe in, a definite religion whose
tenets were laid down by others, I do not try to write from the "consensus
reality" of that religious community. For one thing, every individual within a
religious community has a different set of beliefs, however much they might
think that all the members believe alike. And, more importantly, I don't think
religions can be effectively taught in fiction. It's not what fiction is good for,
and when you make the attempt, you have bad fiction and bad preaching.
When I want to preach, I write essays. And when my characters preach, they
are never giving exactly my beliefs and opinions, except perhaps inadvertently.
In my life, however, I am intensely involved in the lives and activities of
my fellow believers in our local congregation, and in the major events in my
religious community at large. But that's between them and me.
The memory of earth, The call of earth? Earthborn seems to be re-visiting the
Bible. What was your goal when you first began this series?
I sold the Homecoming series to TOR as a "science fictional retelling of
the storyline of the Book of Mormon." The editor knew what she was buying --
in fact, Beth Meacham had earlier, when working for a different publishing
company, made an offer for a book that would have consisted of a science
fiction version of the Medieval English romance King Horn. The method was
simple: Change the ocean to space, and it's sci-fi.
That's what I did with the events depicted in the Book of Mormon. I
made no effort to preserve the doctrinal preachings, only the human
relationships and the conflicts and struggles among the people. But I changed
the setting into a separately developed future, so that more than half the story
is stuff I made up. In fact, the second volume covers barely a hundred words
of the history in the Book of Mormon itself.
Nobody will be converted to Mormonism by reading the Homecoming
series. My hope is that people will be intrigued and entertained by the lives of
the people they find there; but that is what I hope for with all my fiction.
You wrote the novelization of The Abyss by James Cameron. Was this work
different from writing your other books?
It's always different to write when you have to use someone else's words.
Especially someone else's dialogue! I took on The Abyss because, even though
the money was lower than I usually got (there's lots of money in movies, but
they don't give any of it to the writer of the novelization!) the script was so good
that I couldn't pass up the chance to try my hand at it. James Cameron, the
screenwriter and director, gave me an extraordinary amount of support, and
the publisher gave me a very late deadline. Thus I was able to wait to write the
book until the rough cut of the film was available -- so I didn't have to guess
how the character would say something, or what his or her actions would look
like -- I could hear the actor speak and see how the action unfolded.
At the same time, Cameron gave me permission to write three chapters
that took place before the beginning of the movie, giving a backstory of the
characters that I invented. He also (reluctantly at first) allowed me to fully
invent the alien society, once I convinced him that what can be mysterious in
movies must be explained in written sci fi.
The result was a book I'm proud of. But I don't want to novelize another
movie. Just like collaboration, it's twice the work for half the pay.
In your fantasy series, Man always has a central point in the story. How do you
build your characters?
I put them in tough situations and think of what they might do and why
they might do it -- and when I think of an action or a motive that fascinates me
or that feels exactly right, that's the one I use. In other words, I trust my
unconscious mind to decide among the alternatives I consciously think up. If
the character fascinates me, I can only hope that the character will also
fascinate at least some readers.
Your novels also study society itself, not only people. Do you think fantasy can
help shape society, and how?
Society is people, as they order themselves according to rules and then
decide whether to keep or break those rules. Every choice that characters
make defines their relationships with the people around them.
But it goes even deeper than that. We exist as human beings only in
relation to other people, as individuals and as groups. Our identity is self-defined and other-defined in terms of the groups we belong to and the ones we
most definitely do not belong to, and according to our relationships with other
individuals. We become a different person with each relationship that we
create, so that to fully understand the mother of six children, for instance, we
would have to see who she is with each child, and with each grouping of
children, not to mention with her husband -- and with each child and her
husband. It's extraordinarily complex ... and that's just the relationships
within the family. When we see her with her mother and her father, we begin
to understand to what degree they have defined for her what she is and what
she definitely intends not to be, and what she expects her husband to be and
profoundly insists that he never be. It is impossible to know a human being in
isolation. And it is only in fiction that the reader can come to know another
person without the relationship between the reader and the other person
intruding into the understanding. In other words, fiction allows us to observe
humans without transforming them into something else because they know us.
Some reviewers think fantasy is a conservative genre. What do you think?
I think that's a meaningless statement, and probably is used as a
pejorative by people who think "conservative" is a bad word. Like all name-calling, it is meant to cause harm, not shed light. What in the world would a
political designation mean in a literary community? Or if "conservative" is used
in the sense of "resistant to change," then it would apply to the authors who
write fantasies that stay firmly within the lines of existing traditions, and would
not apply to authors who strike out beyond the boundaries and find their own
way. Since fantasy includes both kinds of writers, and writers who are one
thing at one moment, and the other at another, how can an intelligent
statement be made about the conservatism or non-conservatism of "the genre."
Silly stuff. Let no one call himself an intellectual who tosses out labels and is
not prepared to explain what he actually means.
Your stories about Alvin or the Valois are built on real historic elements. What
importance, what place do you give to the historical background?
The Alvin stories are set in an alternative America, in which I play games
with American history in order to clarify important issues and to allow room for
folk magic beliefs to be real. The story is about human beings, but along the
way it is also about America -- its good possibilities and its risks and dangers
and evils as well. But whether you care about America or not, I hope that the
primary value of the story is because you care about Alvin and the people
As for the Valois stories -- the "Worthing Saga" in English -- I am
unaware of any particular historical connection, except that in some of the
early stories I link the series with our own near future (though clearly I guessed
wrong about what that future would be). So I can't comment on what the
"historical background" might be, since I invented all but the tiniest shred of it.
With The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, you are studying, thinking
about the history of our world. How do you view the Discovery of
America? And what do you think of the history of the US, past and
Since I have devoted many books and stories (Pastwatch, the Alvin
series, Folk of the Fringe, and many others) to exploring exactly those subjects,
one can only conclude that if I could answer that question briefly enough to
include it here, then I certainly wasted everyone's time writing all those
thousands and thousands of words of fiction....
Your work received numerous awards; are you attached to this type of
It's a good thing that I'm not attached to it! Awards come in the season
when you are new and other people can receive some cachet from discovering
you and excitedly telling other people about you. That's when they give you
awards. Then, after you've got a few, you're old hat and they look for someone
else to be excited about.
If you're lucky, another generation discovers you again and you get
another rush of adulation.
But if you write in order to receive such adulation, you cheat yourself
and your readers, because adulation is bestowed by fad, not by merit. I'm glad
that I have had the benefit of some awards along the way, but they rarely come
for the artist's best work; nor do they come when the author might benefit most
from receiving them. So what? Gratefully receive what is given, and expect
nothing the rest of the time. Any other path leads to frustration and misery.
Besides, the pleasures of praise are fleeting. Anyone who shapes his life
so as to receive praise is selling all that he has for something that is cheap to
give and which evaporates in the moment of receiving it.
What are your current writing projects?
I'm working on Rachel and Leah (the next book about the Women of
Genesis), a book of poetry (which should appear around Christmastime), a
story collection, a new contemporary fantasy novel (in the tradition of
Enchantment, Lost Boys, Homebody, and Treasure Box), and the next Shadow
novel, called Shadow of the Giant.
You must have answered to thousands of interviews. What question were you
There are trillions of questions I have never been asked, such as "Why is
rain pink?" and "Can ducks be emphatic?" and I have no interest in answering
them or listing them here. Questions are only interesting when they come from
the genuine curiosity of another person. Any question I made up myself would
be nothing more than an essay, and not a "question" at all. When I think of an
essay, I write it and usually (depending on the subject matter) post it at
www.hatrack.com or at www.ornery.org.