Interview with Orson Scott Card

Posted by Goodreads on January 3, 2011
Goodreads Exclusive: Read Card's essay on interstellar travel writing and his favorite space books!

People keep giving science fiction writer Orson Scott Card lifetime achievement awards, but he's still got lots of pages left in him. The author just launched two new trilogies, Pathfinder and The Lost Gate, and still garners thousands of new readers each year with classics such as the 1985 novel Ender's Game. Card has also canvassed such other arenas as alternate history, in the Tales of Alvin Maker series set in the 19th-century American frontier, and historical fiction, in the Women of Genesis series about Biblical matriarchs. His newest book, The Lost Gate, is the first in a planned trilogy about the Mithermages, clans with magical abilities. The story follows Danny, a teenager in present-day Virginia just discovering his powers, and Wad, a mysterious trickster living in the world of Westil. Card chatted with Goodreads about world building and the oral tradition of storytelling.

Goodreads: Mage Danny North is raised in a family of gods, one of many families of beings called the Mithermages. Exiled from the world of Westil and trapped on Earth, these mages wield many kinds of magic and are known to humans as the gods of antiquity—Odin, Thor, Freya. You include references across various cultures, from the Greeks to the Norse to the Phrygians. Did you steep yourself in mythology and legends to write this world?

Orson Scott Card: That's the great thing about writing fantasy. I didn't have to steep myself in anything, beyond looking up a few names. I already knew a lot—you don't study history for 50 years without picking up a bit of general knowledge about most everything. But because it's fantasy, I don't have to match up with the folklore and mythology perfectly. I'm telling the reader what these "gods" and "fairies" really are, and anywhere that human folklore differs from my account, that was because humans just didn't understand, particularly because the Westilians were deliberately trying to confuse them.

Setting it partly on Earth meant that I could fit it into our existing history. I found the magic working to explain not only the gods of all the Indo-European pantheons, but also things like tiny fairies, giants, trolls, ghosts, poltergeists, golems, werewolves, and other shape changers—basically everything but vampires, for the sole reason that I detest them in fiction.

GR: The Lost Gate is a contemporary fantasy that was a long time in the making. You first conceived of the world of Westil in "Sandmagic," a story published in 1979. How have you developed the world over the last 30 years?

OSC: The world and the magic system have been sitting in the back of my mind, surfacing now and then in odd ways. I was tempted, when I started the Alvin Maker series, to use the Mithermages magic system in those books. In a way the Greensong in Red Prophet is an echo of it. The philotic connections from Xenocide and Children of the Mind were also originally developed as being part of the physical underpinnings of the Mithermages system. With each of these "borrowings" from Mithermages, you'd think that what remained would start shrinking, but on the contrary, it grew. Shaving away aspects of the system honed it, sharpened it. And five or six years ago I talked to my editor at Tor [Books] and said, "This series is ready to write."

Weirdly, though, I didn't actually have a story yet. The tale of Wad was there in the back of my mind, yes, and there were lots of stories, but no Story. It was as if I had a very stripped-down Silmarillion, but no Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. (I'm consoled by knowing that Tolkien didn't have Lord of the Rings, either, when he started his Hobbit sequel; he only had Tom Bombadil and a ring.)

GR: What urged you to return to it now in a full-fledged series?

OSC: I had the epiphany that the story should be set not exclusively in the Westil world (I hadn't given the world a name yet; Westil was just one of the prominent countries), but also on Earth—today. Right now. My protagonist wouldn't be a native of Westil at all. He would be one of the Mithermages, but born and raised on Earth. That made this a contemporary fantasy, the one category that I didn't publish with Tor. I took it to Del Rey [Books], sure that I was ready to spin out this story at once.

That was when I added the entire concept of gates between worlds (a sci-fi standby) and how they would affect the Mithermages system (my own stuff). When I realized that passing through the gates should do more than transport you—it should heal you, it should amplify your power for a while—then I knew that all the gates had been closed by a Loki [a Norse archetype that can cause problems for gods], which caused the great weakening of the mythological gods' powers.

While I was in this maelstrom of invention, I also came up with a new story—Stonefather—set entirely on the world of the Mithermages. But now I had a much more mature understanding of the magic. Now I knew that my hero could make a creature of stone outside himself, something that had not been possible when I wrote "Sandmagic."

GR: What challenges did you encounter as you developed the world and its rules?

OSC: [Del Rey editor] Betsy Mitchell was an enormous help as I tried to focus my thoughts and get to the story, but there was so much coming up that I despaired of being able to help the readers figure it all out. I chose an approach that had worked before: Bring in a protagonist who knows nothing, and then let the readers learn the rules as the hero does. I wrote three chapters of the novel using that strategy, in which Danny didn't know much at all, just that he was in danger of getting killed.

And then I stopped, because I knew that what I had simply wasn't working. It was hopelessly confusing. I could hardly follow it myself. (Eventually I'm going to post it in the writers area of so people can see what a massive false start looks like.) Betsy Mitchell was patient, but eventually Del Rey decided it was time to fish or cut bait. I hadn't found a solution yet, and so the project moved to Tor.

Even then it took me half a year to reach the conclusion that should have been obvious. Instead of trying to find ways to go on from the three chapters I had already written, I tossed them out and started over. This time Danny knew everything that the rest of the family knew. I could just flat-out tell the reader how the magic system worked because Danny already knew. He just couldn't do any of it. And then when he could, the things he could do were going to get him killed.

The words just flowed, not like water but like a really creamy milkshake. Thick, sweet—I knew I finally had it nailed. That's the novel you now see: my best magic system, my best world creation, with—finally—a Story.

GR: If you were one of the Mithermages, what kind of magic would you like to wield?

OSC: I believe in the only real magic, which is born of genuine love and service to others. It is astonishing what can be done when people are truly loyal to each other and eager to meet each other's needs. Ultimately that's what all my fiction is about, because that's what life is about. I usually sum it up as "hunger, love, and death"—the needs of the body, the longing for community, the search for identity.

GR: Danny has a rare ability—as a gatemage he can instantaneously open portals to anywhere he chooses. Gatemages are reputed to be nasty tricksters, and Danny struggles with his own mercurial tendencies and sometimes makes choices that skirt morality. Did you worry about losing the reader's faith in Danny? Why this potentially off-putting character choice for your protagonist?

OSC: All my characters are potentially off-putting, because, like all humans, they have the constant temptation to use whatever talents they have in ways that promote their own enjoyment at the expense of others. I've never written a character who didn't have flaws and make mistakes, sometimes quite awful ones; most of my characters wrestle with their consciences all the time (though in Bean's case in the Shadow books, he has to wrestle with not having one, or so he thinks). Danny is no exception, and his most spectacular temptations are yet to come.

GR: You are an extremely prolific writer—not only as a novelist, but also as a frequent blogger and op-ed columnist. Do these two forms of writing, fiction and blog journalism, inform each other, or do you keep the two processes separate? How do you continue to challenge yourself and keep fresh ideas coming?

OSC: I'm the same person looking at the world through the same lens of how I think everything fits together; I don't have a political brain separate from my fiction-writing brain. But I have tried to keep my political opinions out of my fiction. If I want to write an essay, I won't slip it into my fiction. I'll write an essay and publish it openly as such.

On the other hand, my characters have political opinions that are often extremely different from mine. So it's ironic when people read my fiction and, having read a passage in which a character eloquently expresses his views, think they now know what Orson Scott Card thinks. In Empire, for instance, many people assumed that it was a conservative novel because two of my three main characters were conservative. But they were the kind of men who volunteer for the military knowing there's a war on! I know these guys, and most of them are way more consistently conservative than I am. I had to be true to who they were. In reality the whole point of the book, what the characters all agree on, is to try to stop both the Left and the Right from tearing America apart. The novel is neither Left nor Right.

GR: Goodreads member Tom Jahnsen asks, "What do you think about the future of writing with the explosion of eBooks and audio books? Do you still write with the concept of a reader holding an old-fashioned, bound book in hand?" Would you consider writing a book that incorporates new technology, multimedia, or even reader interaction?

OSC: None of the above. I have always written as if I were sitting in a dimly lighted room, or in the flickering light of a campfire, telling the story aloud to a group of people who care about and believe in the same things I do. My books are oral. I'm writing scripts, which I hope readers will then use to perform my books in their own mind. When we read, after decoding the letters, the words are actually processed through the auditory channels of the brain, not the visual ones. We're listening to the books even though we're using our eyes. My books are best, however, when they're read aloud. is, in my view, the ideal delivery system for books. Whenever I can, I download books I intend to read and then keep myself plugged into my iPod Nano as I run errands or exercise or take long trips. I get an enormous amount of reading done during otherwise wasted time. And I get it the right way—aloud.

But reading aloud also exposes writers who are faking it—writers who are repeating themselves or juicing up passages where absolutely nothing is happening. When reading with our eyes, we skip and skim and then forget how much we edited along the way. But listening to an audiobook, you are going to hear every word. The book will take as long as it takes. Bad, self-indulgent, or simply awkward writing is stripped naked in the process.

GR: Goodreads member Jenny says, "My biggest question for Mr. Card: Shadows in Flight has been mentioned off and on for several years as the final book in the Ender's Shadow series. However, a publication date has not been forthcoming. When will Shadows in Flight be published?"

OSC: Unfortunately, they always make me write them first. I'm simply not ready to write it now, having not yet decided what's really going on with the Descolada planet from Children of the Mind. (Shadows in Flight is the direct sequel to both Shadow of the Giant and Children of the Mind, with characters from both books playing key roles.) There are scenes and events that I do know, and when the book is ripe, you can be sure Tor will publish it as fast as I write it!

Meanwhile, though, I'm working closely with Aaron Johnston, my collaborator on Invasive Procedures, to create the vast saga of the Formic Wars, forming the prequel to Ender's Game. We are publishing the stories first as comic books with Marvel. Then Aaron and I are expanding the stories, thickening them into novels. It's adventure sci-fi, but it's also about community and heroes and people who have to redeem themselves. I'm excited about what we're creating together—and I'm glad to be doing it with Aaron Johnston, who is almost frantically creative in his own right. He's bringing great things to the world and the characters, and I'm doing some of my best creative work in the Formic Wars as well.

GR: Many fans wrote in to ask about developments for the long-anticipated Ender's Game movie. What can you share about the screenplay you are writing and the production process?

OSC: I have written screenplays in which I solved most of the serious problems that Ender's Game poses to the screenwriter. Unfortunately, not one of the screenwriters who has been hired has shown the slightest sign of learning anything from my screenplays. In fact, I would be relieved if one of them would simply include an occasional scene from the book, so I can see some evidence that they've read it. I will be bitterly disappointed if a movie version comes out in which Ender Wiggin shows no spark of leadership, no evidence of why other people put their faith in him. I still have hope that we'll get a decent movie out of the current team. But I'll tell you this: I would rather have no movie than a bad one. And if this attempt doesn't come up with a script that is both good and Ender's Game, I'm shelving it for the rest of my life. I've given this time-sucking project too many years of my life already. I have a dozen novels that can be adapted far more easily to the screen than Ender's Game, and I'll put my movie-developing time into them.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

OSC: When I know the story and have a clear block of uninterrupted time in which to bury myself in it, I work many hours a day and finish a novel in weeks. The rest of the time, I don't do anything at all, if I can help it. There is no such thing as a routine in my life.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

OSC: That's a question for some poor grad student to answer when she's writing a dissertation on obscure sci-fi writers of the 20th century.

GR: What are you reading now?

OSC: I just finished a wonderful swim through the Retrieval Artist series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and am currently listening to lectures from The Great Courses, while at bedtime I often hold up my little Nano and watch episodes from the recent reboot of Dr. Who. I'm sick of Daleks, the most pathetic villains ever created, but I do like the writing and the acting, and sometimes the series approaches genius. Still not as good as Firefly was, but definitely worth watching.

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by rivka (new)

rivka From, OSC's official site:
OSC suffered a mild stroke on Saturday 1 January 2011. He is now back home, retraining his brain so that the fingers of his left hand strike the keys he's aiming for. He will not be responding to most emails because his typing time must be devoted to finishing his fiction. But he is grateful for your good wishes and he promises not to die with any series unfinished.

For the foreseeable future, OSC will not make any public appearances or undertake any travel. Since his speech is unimpaired, he will still conduct radio and recorded interviews.

Good wishes can be posted here (Hatrack registration required).

message 2: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Sad news about the stroke, glad to hear he'll make a good recovery!

message 3: by Bobbi (new)

Bobbi I was a classmate of yours in Freshman English at the Y. You probably don't remember me (Bobbi--a short blonde?) but you were prominent enough with your play produced there a few years later that I recalled you. I have read your books with great pleasure over the years.
I consider Ender's Game one of my top 5 books, and loved sharing it with my son. Get well soon, Scott, (we did call you Scott at school, didn't we?). Very best wishes for a complete recovery.

message 4: by Brent (new)

Brent Strandy I'm so glad to hear OSC detests Vampire's in fiction - I agree. Vampires and fiction are like cranberries and juice - cranberries have been infused with almost every flavor of juice.

I'm not a big fan of magic and fantasy so I can't say I'm excited for the new OSC books. But, OSC is easily one of my favorite authors and I've read nearly every other genre he has written.

message 6: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Best wishes to feel well soon!

message 7: by Andre (new)

Andre Sorry to hear about your stroke. Glad it was small, althought the doctor who treated my wife in August for two strokes told me there is no such thing as a "SMALL" stroke. They all are potentially dangerous.
Take care and faithfully take your Plavix. She does.

God bless your recovery. We need you to continue to juggle all those balls you have in the air.

I have Pathfinder and am reading it. Love it. I have The Lost Gate ordered and have read three chapters on-line. Great concept and the ambiguity of Wad makes him an even more interesting character.

My only problem is that with two new series of Card books on the way, I need to clear out another shelf in my SciFi bookcase. I already have 40 Orson Scott Card books.

message 8: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Dehm I am so sorry to hear about your stroke. You are one of my all time favorite authors. The Ender series is a masterpiece and was a big influence on my life. I would be happy to send you reiki for your healing. Blessings, Debbie

message 9: by Brian (new)

Brian Get well Orson, need you to keep writing so my daughter can read you for many years to come.

message 10: by Keith (new)

Keith Plane sorry can't give much sympathy to a blatant racist and homophobe....this man is despicable...

message 11: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Yoho I hope OSC is well on his way to a complete recovery by now. I also think it is sad that people like Keith can't appreciate art as a separate expression from a man's politics. Why is it that the most extreme persons are so quick to accuse others of heinous values? I don't agree with Card's politics, but can still admire him as a writer and a human being. Keith, it is your loss. One day I hope your "tolerance" will extend to others who disagree with you.

message 12: by Andre (new)

Andre I hope each of the commenter's have seen or heard Orson Scott Card's most recent comment where he says the Supreme Court's recent homosexual decision has made any of his previous statements concerning the rights of homosexuals MOOT. It is now the law of the land.

Like Debbie, I admire him as a writer and human being.

message 13: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Yoho clearly the man respects our systems as a reflection of his general respect for all people. it is possible to love a person and also judge her behavior. Failure to recognize this truth is why people have so much trouble getting along.

message 14: by Allen (new)

Allen Van wert What made you decide to 100% change the genre of your Ender Game book for the Bean books? Cause like.. don't do that again

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