Orson Scott Card interview - the extended versionby The Listener
"Who could read my fiction and think of it as anything but to-the-bones communitarian in perspective?"
The bulk of this interview - which subscribers can read in a shorter narrative version here - took place via email, with a subsequent phone conversation for follow-up questions. The email and phone transcripts have been edited together as seamlessly as possible, and checked by both parties to ensure the editing process has not distorted what either of us was trying to say. Major spoilers have been removed, until the final few questions, which are closely bound up with the plot of the paired novels Xenocide and Children of the Mind. This section is clearly marked, so people who want to avoid significant spoilers can do so. (People who want to avoid anything that could possibly be defined as a spoiler are reading the wrong interview - we set out to discuss Card's work in some depth, and this inevitably involves getting into specifics to some degree.)
This interview is for the New Zealand Listener, so I'd like to start with a New Zealand-specific question: why did you opt to make Mazer Rackham in Ender's Game half-Maori? The point of making him a member of a relatively obscure minority group - from an American perspective - seems pretty clear, in that he and Ender are both isolated figures within the military hierarchy they serve. This seems a non-trivial thing, both for the novel and for your work in general - so often your heroes come from minority backgrounds, in one way or another. I'm very interested in any comment you have on this as a general theme in your life's work; but the particular thing I want to know here is, why make Mazer Maori in particular?
I honestly don’t remember my specific reasoning at the moment of decision. It was 30 years ago. I do know I was making a conscious effort to get rid of the old “Americans in space” attitude in sci-fi, and to make the IF and Battle School look like the world population as a whole. Since I was already locked in with the name Mazer Rackham from the short story, I sought a way to make the character non-white. New Zealand was a place where intermarriage could put an English name on a mixed-race character. Add to that a lifelong sympathy with Polynesians (although not Maoris in particular) because we had Samoan friends when I was young, and it seems a natural progression.
I am also curious to know how Ben Kingsley was cast in the film, and whether you had any input into the process. Obviously, he's a great actor, and not someone a sensible casting director would pass up. Equally obviously, he's not Maori.
Ben Kingsley is a superb actor, but in looks and build he is obviously not remotely Maori in appearance. Clearly that was not a consideration in casting, but since I was not involved in that process I can’t speak for the thinking that went into that decision. I can say he gives a very good performance, and I hope Maori will forgive the ignorance or unconcern that led to this slight to the very good Maori actors who were available.
Ender's Game is one of several of your novels based on a previously published short story. You've also revised a couple of your earliest novels (A Planet Called Treason and The Worthing Chronicles). Since about 1990, though, I don't believe you've done any more rewriting of your older work. But for many, many years, I've been seeing references to the possibility of an Ender's Game film, and I know you've written or helped write several versions of the screenplay. That means this story, of all your stories, has been the one you've worked and reworked over the longest time period. Has it felt at all confining, working within a structure you created as a younger man? You'd tell it differently now. How is the current screenplay different from earlier ones?
Ender’s Game is the gift that keeps on giving. I had no idea why the novelet worked; I’m lucky that I didn’t wreck it in writing the novel. I used the technique I half-learned in writing Songmaster from my novelet Mikal’s Songbird: don’t add on to the end; instead begin the story earlier and let the events of the original novelet come in at the end to reach the same climax. Of course, that requires a complete rewrite of the original novelet, since by the time I got to those events I knew so much more about the characters and the milieu that not a word of the original work was usable. (Except the sentence: “The enemy’s gate is down.”)
Writing the movie scripts led to a frustrating realisation: I had to fully understand what worked in Ender’s Game in order to replicate it on the screen. Time after time, I would write a new draft, starting in a different place, leaving in or taking out different scenes or sub-storylines, only to find that people who already liked the book praised the screenplay, but people who hadn’t read the book would read the screenplay and have no idea what all the hoopla was about.
So what was the essence, the power of Ender’s Game? Only at the very end, as I created one last draft at a time when it was already clear there was zero chance a script by me would be filmed, did I understand fully what made the story work. It is not that we like Ender because he suffers, or because he’s nice. It’s not his struggle with the adults or his efforts to understand the hive queen. It’s definitely not the battle room or the war in space. What works in Ender’s Game is Ender’s leadership of the other kids. He earns their trust by never pretending to know more than he does, always helping them reach their greatest potential, treating no one as a rival or enemy, and reaching out to include within his community anyone who was willing to come in. These are the elements that make Ender’s Game useful for people trying to learn leadership, in or out of the military. Ender’s friends, and the soldiers who serve under him, absolutely trust that Ender will always use them as wisely as he can, that he will never waste them in order to boost his own ego or avoid looking foolish: Ender’s leadership is about accomplishing a shared goal by bringing together everyone’s best efforts. Those who follow him feel that they are known, as far as any person can by known by another.
So for a script to work — or, rather, for a script by me to work to my satisfaction, I realised I had to bring the audience to love and trust Ender, to want to serve in his army. Not literally, of course, since the story is a fantasy; but at a deep, emotional level, that’s what the audience must feel for the movie to have the same effect as the book.
And I wrote a script that showed great promise in achieving that.
However, I have no evidence it was ever read by anyone beyond a small circle of friends and producers whom I had worked with for years. Certainly, there is no trace of any of my scripts in the Gavin Hood script that was filmed. Hood gave the executives what they were looking for: a script that used elements of the original story within a format that followed the film-school rules that, although they don’t actually work, give executives in Hollywood a warm sense of recognition. Within those paradigms, the film Ender’s Game has been shaped into a tight, fast, hard-hitting film that rockets along at a breakneck pace — the adventure version of Ender’s Game. It is an excellent film of that type; it is, in fact, about as good a job of filming Ender’s Game as anyone could have expected Hollywood to achieve.
Readers who are disappointed at elements of the book that are not in the movie should keep in mind: my own scripts also cut sharply, because filming the entire novel would have taken about six hours. Huge swaths of material had to be omitted, and the movie actually includes elements from the book that I removed!
Your question, however, is about my work in revisiting the same story again and again. My years trapped in the “prison” of the screenplay forced me to examine this work with an intensity and repetition that moved me beyond any concern about the mere performance of the original novel. That is, I had to understand the bones and organs of the story; matters pertaining to the skin became trivial. Of course, I’m a better writer now than I was then; but going to the school of Ender’s Game is much of what gave me the tools I now have to understand stories, not long after the fact, but while I’m still writing them.
While working on the screenplay over the years, I went back to the original story twice, first with Ender’s Shadow, then with Ender in Exile. Ender’s Shadow was supposed to have only a few chapters in Battle School before moving on to Bean’s life after the war. However, Bean’s early life and the mysteries surrounding his birth became so important in their own right that a half-dozen chapters in I called my editor and broke the news that Shadow needed to be a multi-volume work, and the first volume was going to pretty much end where Ender’s Game ended. Creating a parallel novel was dictated by the material, not the other way around.
Ender in Exile, on the other hand, was definitely designed to fill in and flesh out the time between the climactic battle and Ender’s meeting with the Hive Queen. During that time, he had voyaged in space and then governed a colony — despite being only a child. In Ender’s Game, it was easy enough to gloss over such matters, but I knew even the hero who won the war would be confronted with rivals for power and control, and would face great challenges in getting adults to take him seriously. How did he do it? Why did he remain disconnected from the life of this first colony? Who was he by the time he met the Hive Queen?
The problem with both Shadow and Exile is where they overlapped with Ender’s Game the scenes in the original novel were completely inadequate to deal with my current understanding of the story. The original scenes weren’t bad — I simply didn’t know enough at the time of writing. But because I’m the owner of the intellectual property, I felt free to rewrite myself. Not at first — I tried desperately to work with the dialogue in my original version of Bean-meets-Ender. But after that, I simply changed whatever I needed to change.
I saw no reason why a foolish concern with consistency should make me cripple the later books. Rather, I imagined — and still imagine — that at some later date I would create a revised version of Ender’s Game that incorporated the changes. None of the revisions changes the meaning or function of any scene; the events are unaltered. It’s a matter of making the dialogue work for both stories.
I went to that well again, with the six-hour audioplay Ender’s Game Alive, which is coming out from Audible.com quite soon now. I had much experience in creating audioplays early in my career — nearly 200 half-hour scripts, which were then performed and recorded. I had long since learned how to work without a narrator, so everything is done with dialogue. Ender’s Game poses unique challenges in adaptation to any dramatic medium, because so much depends on Ender’s viewpoint — his motives and internal responses. With the audioplay, lacking even the actors’ faces to work with, I had to find a way to get inside Ender’s head without ever using a voiceover or narrator, and without turning Ender into a chatty neurotic on a psychotherapist’s couch.
I think I did it, by turning to something I had done in the novel. In order to show the readers of Ender’s Game information Ender himself did not have, I used short scenes of untagged dialogue at the beginning of every chapter. Those scenes provided me with my device: by showing what the adults think Ender is doing, their efforts to understand and make sense of him, I was able to bring the audience of Ender’s Game Alive behind the scenes of the novel; it is, if you will, the “annotated Ender’s Game” — and it works. Skyboat Road, the producers of almost all my audiobooks, outdid themselves as Stefan Rudnicki and Gabrielle de Cuir created a superb performance of my script.
I used what I learned writing my unfilmed, unread screenplays, although of course I had 20 18-minute episodes to work with instead of a single under-two-hours feature. Ender’s Game Alive is actually more complete than the novel. So I hope even people who love the movie — and I believe most readers of Ender’s Game will enjoy the movie very much — will still give Ender’s Game Alive a chance. If nothing else, it will show that there’s more than one way to translate fiction into dramatic form.
But why were you willing to spend so much time on the screenplays? I see the value of it, but that would have been visible only in hindsight, and it kept not working - why did you persist? Was it the desire to get a movie made, or was it wanting to understand the story and solve the problem?
It was definitely not to, quote, get the movie made. I mean that would be nice, but - um. How do I put this nicely? Screenwriters, they talk about how much money they make. But they spend years of their lives writing script after script of which only a small percentage, if any, are ever made. And when they're made, somebody else has the power to wreck everything. It's a soul-numbing thing. I'm not the only one, I mean every screenwriter has this experience. The director comes in and thinks he can rewrite everything, and the directors are rarely writers, and if they are they're not the writer of this. Everyone in Hollywood knows and says, "Everything depends on a good script", and then they take a good script and wreck it in order to fit some insane, asinine formula some film school teacher came up with. It's the reason why television is so much better than film these days. In television, the writers have authority, and in film they have none.
So no, I did not want to, quote, get a movie made. Because then you sell your soul very quickly. What I wanted to do was learn a new art form. Every new page-one draft of the screenplay cost me a novel. But likewise, every semester I taught college fulltime and every play I’ve directed has cost me a novel. That makes about 20 books I haven’t written. But then, there’s no guarantee I would have written them.
I have long said that nobody should do the same career for more than 10 years - because you start to feel that's who you are. Now, each book is its own project, sure, but still, to be a novelist and only a novelist, it became boring. It felt fruitless. So I needed to branch out, I started to teach, that's why I write other things. That's why I wrote my review column, that I kept up without missing a week for 12 years. I need to write other things. I did political writing - because it would distort and destroy my fiction to make political commentary in it. Even though I'm frequently accused of that, which is absurd; I would never pollute my fiction with my current political opinions. I need to keep trying to learn and master new arts. I can't afford to quit writing fiction, because I now have employees and people who are dependent on my income, and I can't find anything to do that will pay as well. But the challenge of doing something else makes it so I can then stand to go back and write novels again. I have to do things in between. I love directing plays... I spent about 10 years directing a play or two each year, most of them just in my local LDS congregation, working with amateur actors. Even though in terms of time taken every play I directed was a book I didn't write, I'm not sure I would have written a book if I hadn't done a play during that time. I would have been just as likely to spend the time gardening or playing videogames. Writing fiction is a consuming process; when I’m done, I have to be done for a while.
The screenplays I’ve written, while I don’t think any of them will ever be produced, have taught me a great deal about story creation that makes me a better writer of the works that are published or produced. So I think of my time writing Ender's Game screenplays not as wasted time but as a school I attended ... and then dropped out of without a diploma.
The question that seems to follow on most naturally from the one about Ender's continued presence in your creative life is one you're probably tired of hearing, but I have to ask. The Alvin Maker series: did you deliberately decide at some point that this was something you were not yet ready to finish? When do you plan to finish it, and what will you bring to Master Alvin that you couldn't have given it 20 years ago?
The problem is that the underlying story that provides the bare bones of my plot — the life and assassination of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith — has finally led me to the point where the last volume of the Alvin Maker series overlaps with my historical novel Saints. Since I already wrote about the building of Nauvoo/Crystal City in exhaustive detail in Saints, I have been trying to find a way into that portion of the story that is all its own. Saints is in some ways my magnum opus, my most substantial novel; in my own life and mind, it casts a wide shadow. But I believe I see a way through it now — which involves skipping a lot of story and leaping ahead to a point much nearer the climax. This will avoid the thing I feared — that the final volume, Master Alvin, would be longer than the first six books combined. Instead, it will be about the length of all but the very-short first volume.
Mormons will persist in seeing Alvin Maker as the story of Joseph Smith, but that's just the plot skeleton. It's taking Joseph Smith's life as a premise - it's really my book about America. More than anything else I've written. It's my "great American novel". The essence of what it means to Americans to be Americans. The deep rifts caused in the American soul by the relationship between whites and Indians and between whites and their black slaves. Those are really the two great themes in American history, and both of them still colour our national identity, they're the bleeding wounds in the internal organs of our society. That's what I'm really trying to work with. So in Master Alvin I'm going to be true to what I'm really doing, and I'm going to show the civil war. That's what Master Alvin's about. And he fails to prevent it. That's where my focus will be and that's how I'll be able to write it.
I can’t promise I’ll get to it soon, though. I’ll certainly finish the trilogies begun with Pathfinder and The Lost Gate first, along with the two remaining Ender volumes, Shadows Alive (bringing together the storylines of Speaker and the Shadow books) and Fleet School, the direct kids-in-space YA sequel to Ender’s Game.
That's a lot of writing you have lined up. How's your health?
Not great. And it's a weird situation... I know absolutely how to get into good health, and that is lose the weight, do the exercise, get down to somewhere under 230 pounds. And I'll be fine. I'll be good for another 20 or 30 years. But right now I'm about 75 or 80 pounds overweight, and the vicious circle is that my fiction doesn't come from nowhere. It comes from deep close focus and attention. And in the pattern of my life, I have learned that any day when I exercise, when I get enough exercise, I get that sense of accomplishment that I also get from writing my day's quota of fiction. When I'm writing fiction, I find it very hard to exercise; when I exercise, I find it very hard to write. I have to write in order to make a living. I have to exercise in order to stay alive. But they seem to be mutually exclusive propositions. I'm really trying to overcome that - and it sounds like the easiest thing in the world, to run in the morning, take a break, then sit down in the afternoon and write. But truly, it is almost impossible for me to squeeze out any sentences of any kind once I've exercised, because I can't write without caring. And if I feel like I've already accomplished the day's work, I don't care.
I'm sorry, I shouldn't laugh. I'm laughing at the beauty of it.
No, I laugh myself! I laugh at it, I have to. I clearly understand the problem, I try to overcome it... I've finally got to the point where I can write my review column while exercising, but to have the concentration on fiction I need - that and exercise are really not compatible. So whenever I write a book, I gain weight. I get nervous, I get tense, I get caught up in it... and then I'll just snack. You do enough of that during the day and pretty soon you're in the 4000 calorie level. So that's the cycle I'm in. I so envy the people who have such a metabolism that no matter what they eat they don't gain any weight. But at the same time I'm not one of those people who can't help it, because heredity just makes them heavy. I really can lose the weight. I can be in great shape, and I have been.
Right after my baby girl died, I realised that if I wanted to live long enough to see my then three-year-old daughter graduate from college I had to face the fact that, wow, people I love can die. I can die. So that's when I plunged in and lost the weight. I was in my late 40s and I was healthy. The doctor said, this is great, you should live forever! - but gradually, as I wrote more novels, five pounds, ten pounds... pretty soon I was back up there. It's the constant battle of my life. I inherited being stroke-prone, my grandfather died of a stroke at exactly my age. The other grandparents all lived into their late 90s. But clearly I take after the one who had strokes. So that's my battle. I really would like to live long enough to finish all these works I have under contract. But I've made provision for them. My first stroke came just after I signed the two biggest contracts of my life, and my wife would have had to refund that money. So what we do now is we backload the contract... we get some money on signing, because that's useful, but most of it will come after I finish the book. Plus I have an arrangement with Tor that they will accept Aaron Johnston [Card's co-writer on the Ender's Game prequel trilogy] as the writer of any of my books. So if I die - I've given Kristine outlines of every book, and I trust Aaron to know how to flesh them out. So I feel like if I do die the work will be completed, my wife will not be bankrupted, all will be well. Meanwhile, though, I'm really trying hard not to die.
Alvin and Ender are to my mind your two great characters, in the sense of being fully realised people (we see them from many angles over many years, both within their personal timelines and in terms of your career) who incorporate some of your most important ideas. One thing they have in common: they each live lives of service. I'm struck by the number of characters you've created who are called, in one way or another, to give up their self-will for the good of their community; or perhaps a better phrase would be, to choose the community's good as the best use of their self-will. Unaccompanied Sonata is maybe the purest expression of this. I've had arguments with friends as to whether your thinking tends towards socialism (not an automatic pejorative in my country, I hasten to add), collectivism, or something quite different. How would you describe yourself, how important are these ideas to you, and how much of a constant have they been throughout your career?
I once received a Libertarian award. While I didn’t decline it, I was baffled: Who could read my fiction and think of it as anything but to-the-bones communitarian in perspective?
Can you define communitarian for me?
Well, the word I used to use was communist - small-C communist. Marxism/Leninism was by no means communism, they knew that themselves. What they were was climax capitalism. One owner. Capitalism where the capitalist owner is the state.
Whereas what I believe in - you have to realise that growing up Mormon we all live in these little villages. Our Mormon wards, our congregations, our parishes. For instance, right now in my ward, I'm second counsellor in the bishopric. That means that I'm involved in the key decisions in the ward, and I understand how absolutely powerless the leadership is without the willingness of the members of the congregation to do what they're asked to do. To get excited about even the humblest of what we call the callings. And some people get confused and think they're on a career track, ever rising. Those people are going to be very unhappy, because almost no one in the church has that kind of career track. What we have is, one moment you're in the leadership, then you're teaching a class, then you're being a clerk, then you're helping put a roof on somebody's house, or doing yard work for them. I find that as a bishopric member, I'm as likely to end up going round the church building after everybody else has gone, emptying all of the garbage cans and taking them out to the dumpster - you begin to get a sense that you'll do whatever it is the community needs. That's what we're raised on, in the Mormon church. We go out into the world, we might have lovely, splashy careers, or very humble careers. But Mormons tend to end up in middle management - every now and then there's a Mitt Romney, but even then he was helped along. You can find an occasional phenomenally rich Mormon, but most of the time Mormons rise to a certain position in a company and then they refuse to accept a job promotion that requires a transfer. And why? Because their kids are in high school. Their priority is their family, their kids don't want to move, so they don't move. They turn down the promotion because their life isn't about their worldly career, it's about their life in the community, it's their life in their family.
That's the perspective I bring to my fiction - that that is the ideal life. In a way, whether we know we do or not, I think we all live in those communities, it's just we're trained by our culture to pretend we don't, to be rugged individualists, or to try to have careers where we get to dominate other people. But that doesn't work. What works is making sacrifices for the good of the whole, as long as everyone else is also making sacrifices. That's what works. So without meaning to, that's what I've found myself writing. I don't have to preach it, because honest storytelling for me will always lead to that place.
So: what it means to me to be a communitarian is you find a good community - and immediately we hit the philosophical problem of infinitely receding definitions of "good", it's impossible to define good without using the term in its own definition, which means it's not a definition at all, but we won't go into logic 101 here. What matters to me is you have a community you believe in and care about, and then you subsume your own interests in helping bring about the continuation and expansion of that good community. Furthering its goals. If the community is not good, then you try to repair it. If it becomes irredeemibly not good, then you leave it, and you find another, or try to build another. So the communitarian is not a blind believer in the community. He still has individual standards, and he judges the community by those standards. But to the degree possible he tries to shape the community so it fulfils those standards, and then if it can't, he tries to build a separate community or a community within that one, that keeps the standards.
Most fiction being written today — especially literary fiction — is about adolescence. I don’t mean it’s aimed at teenagers, I mean the story is about a character who breaks free of a world shaped by others and sets forth as a lone hero to explore the world until he finds a role he wants. This Lone Ranger approach to storytelling has a long history and I enjoy it; I’m just not interested in writing it.
To me, the real story is about adults — people who have stopped wandering and have committed themselves to the creation and maintenance of a good community. If they are in a community that is not good, they are committed to making it better. But they are, most definitely, committed.
This is the thing most readers and critics miss about Ender’s Game, so I’m more than slightly happy to see you got it. Ender may be a child, but like many children who have caretaker roles thrust upon them, he is functioning as an adult. Although he has the desire to rebel and cut himself free — and even thinks, on two occasions at least, he has made exactly that decision — he cannot really do it. He really does believe in a community larger than himself, and knows there is no happiness for him in leaving that community behind.
This is the great secret of human survival and success in the world, the reason why some civilisations and cultures last and others die: communities that demand great service, but then reward it with visible benefits for all, are worth sacrificing for. The simplest community, but one enacted over and over, is that of marriage and family: parents either step up and sacrifice for their children, setting aside their own desires and preferences, or they don’t. Those who do make the sacrifices and keep the commitments have a far better chance of having their children go on to reproduce their genes; thus these traits are encouraged by evolutionary forces.
But adolescent selfishness also works, as long as most people live as adults. The rule-breaking, nose-thumbing, or sneaky-hypocritical strategies are able to live parasitically among those who work to make the system thrive, as long as they don’t break down the trust that community life depends on.
Yet communitarianism only succeeds as long as the needs and desires of the individual are respected and, to the degree possible, satisfied or satisfiable. Sacrifice must bring reward — not the rewards sought by short-term hedonists (which describes most adolescents), but rather seeing the thing built by sacrifice thriving and going on. If one gets a bit of honour along the way, so much the better; but parents know that even when their children are too short-sighted to understand what the parents did for them, parents take joy in seeing the children thrive. It is the meaning of life. Any community or culture that does not do all it can to assure that reward has decided to die, because the adults will transfer their allegiance to a culture or community that does protect and nurture that which they create, and family is foremost of those creations. That is as inexorable as the laws of economics. And, once I understood this, how could I write any fiction that did not respect those laws, and still consider it to be truthful or realistic?
I can't honestly pretend I don't want to ask you about your views on gay marriage, which have interested me since I read The Ships of Earth years ago. I don't really see a way to discuss this in the current climate, though; I have not felt, watching the gay marriage controversy you have been caught up in this year, as though anyone was really listening to anyone else. So my specific question is this: as a practical matter, is your fiction a better way of showing people like me what you believe and why than open advocacy? Do you in fact think of your fiction as having an element of advocacy?
If I ever catch myself using my fiction to advocate anything, I eliminate or subvert that advocacy. Polemic has its uses, but I do that in essays, where I try to persuade openly. My fiction is sacred in a sense: it is about telling mythick truth, insofar as I can discover it, and the discovery is at levels far deeper than mere opinions. I change my opinions with some frequency, not because they’re lightly held or casually arrived at, but because new information and new experiences shift the ground on which I stand. Mythick truth, on the other hand, to the degree I’ve found any, does not change; and where my opinions collide with it, I set my opinions aside.
I have only contempt for people who slavishly follow any of the popular political “philosophies” of today, since they are all a mass of self-contradictory and self-congratulatory confusion. Left and Right are so riddled with complacent dogmas that contradict both experience and each other that I cannot comfortably say I belong with any of them. Nobody listens to ideas anymore; nobody follows any process of analysis except to buttress opinions that were arrived at through membership in a group rather than any apparent thought process. When I write essays, I enter that hideous, bloody arena, and must take the wounds that come.
But I never put my fiction into that place, because it would be destroyed on the spot. Fiction must be written and read completely outside the realm of transient political fashions. Jane Austen’s work is still readable and relevant today, without mediation, because it is apolitical and culturally self-contained. That is, while she recognises exactly how her society works, with all its strengths and weaknesses, she is not calling for political or government-led change. She is rather showing us how individual humans negotiate the world they live in; and she shows that world in enough honest detail, good and bad, that modern readers can immerse themselves in her fiction and learn the rules of that world well enough to understand and share the dilemmas of the characters. I try to do the same with my fiction. I try to make my created characters true to what I observe of real people. Thus when I have characters with a religious life and religious beliefs, they are not my beliefs, except that they reflect my belief that everyone has beliefs.
Why do you use the spelling "mythick"?
Oh, I developed the term years ago; that's connected to an essay I wrote, Fantasy and the Believing Reader. It's on my website.
You say, "Mythick truth does not change, and where my opinions collide with it I set my opinions aside". How can you be sure where truth ends and opinion begins?
My working definition is there's that deep sense everyone has of what is simply true, and then there's the things you know other people disagree with you about, so there's a tentativeness to your belief. Now, there are people who treat everything they believe as if it was absolute truth. My candid assessment of them is they've decided to be idiots. Even if I strongly hold a view, as long as I know there are other people, sensible people, who hold a different view, then I have to regard it as my opinion. But we all have this core of belief we question so little it doesn't even occur to us it could be wrong. That's the mythick truth. It doesn't mean we're right, it simply means we don't question it. We have to trust that this is the core of beliefs on which we base our decisions without even realising it. Now sometimes we have shocking existential moments when we discover that things we believe at a mythick level are in fact questionable and we move it from mythick to mere opinion, but by and large most of us receive fiction, at least, and usually even factual material, by measuring it against our inner sense of what is true and real and right. When they collide, we tend to reject what we're reading. You usually can't even articulate why - although I've spent my life trying to articulate why, and therefore I don't read in a natural way any more. I can't help that... I try to hold on to natural reading, but I read in a critical way that kind of spoils some fiction for me.
Many years ago, I asked the New Zealand science fiction writer Phillip Mann why he never wrote fantasy. He answered that real fantasy was always in some way religious, and he did not think of himself as a religious man. Clearly, this is not a good description of a lot of what is published as fantasy, but as an argument about what's most distinctive and powerful in the genre, it has stayed with me. A lot of the fantasy I love the most - JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, your Alvin books, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea - does seem to have deep roots in a religious tradition. What do you think about this?
Mann’s observation is true, as far as it goes, but alas he did not go far enough. It is impossible to tell any story, fictional or otherwise, without making assertions about causality, and since knowledge of causality is always an infinitely receding goal, assertions of causality are always based on faith, regardless of how “real” and universally shared such beliefs about causation might be. A storyteller — even if the story is casual gossip — is always making unspoken and unguessed-at assertions about how the world works, in both a physical and a moral sense. The mere decision about which details to show and which to leave out is a moral one: this matters enough to mention, and that is unmentioned either because it is unimportant or because it is so universally agreed-upon that it need not be explained. All of these are moral and, yes, “religious” assertions, and Mann, however post-religious he might believe himself to be, is really admitting he is uninterested in discovering or challenging his own religion and therefore chooses to write within the consensus reality — the faith — of Those Who Think Like Him. The true believers. I’m just like him in that. We all are. It’s inescapable.
I remember making some people very angry after 9/11 saying what you can't deny is the sheer raw physical courage of these guys who piloted these planes into the buildings. And they said, that's not courageous, it was a cowardly attack! And I'm going, it's not cowardly to take an airplane you're in and plunge it into a building, so you know you personally will die. That's not cowardly, I don't care what you think about the overall philosophy of it, they were personally brave men. That made me very unpopular. But that's the way I have to try to see everything, is that I try to get inside even the people I think have done the worst things, and think, who are they, that they were able to do this thing? What made them want to do it, what was the goal they were trying to achieve, what did they think they were doing? Because if I can't understand every character in my fiction exactly that way, I have no business being a writer. I'll write false things. I have to be able to make every character the hero of his own story. Even the most evil characters will have self-stories they semi-believe, in which they're the poor beleagured victims.
There's an analogy here to the business of living as democrats. We need to be able appreciate the points of view of people we disagree with, and we also need to be able to lose fights and go on living with people we think are deeply wrong. In the same way you need to be able to see the point of view of every character in a novel. It troubles me the way you've been treated this last year - it's one thing to disagree with you, I disagree with you myself about a lot of things, but that's different from treating someone with contempt.
The odd thing is some of the people who are attacking me are doing so without troubling to find out what my positions actually are. I make it very clear in my writing. If they would look at what I write, they would see the very arguments they're making actually support my points. But they don't look at what I wrote, they just look to see what team I'm on. Is he on the other team? Then I'm justified in saying anything about him. Discredit him, hurt him, punish him. I'm treated as if I hate homosexuals, which is absurd. I really do have close homosexual friends, and we have never had a problem. That sounds like the "some of my best friends are" cliche, but it's the simple truth. I work in the theatre, and some of my best friends really are gay.
But the body politic has never been able to have a rational conversation about that, or anything lately. Nothing can be discussed rationally. Everything is just about my team versus your team. We're all caught up in a huge football game. With rabid fans.
And in fact my main opposition to gay marriage isn't with gay marriage itself, it's that they're going to try to enforce propaganda for it in schools, and that's going to run up against religious freedom, and that's where the real, bloody conflict is going to come. And the result I fear is going to be a massive takeover of our country by the extreme right wing. Because while I have had plenty of opportunity to see the left at its ugliest, having been under attack by the Taliban of the left, I am also deeply acquainted with the Taliban of the right. I fear for my country when they take over. We haven't had such divisive rhetoric in our country, such absolute hatred expressed by both sides, since just before the Civil War.
I want to ask you a little about your church - do you say Mormon, by the way, or do you say Latter-Day Saints?
We say Mormon internally, and then we make other people say LDS. Mormonism absolutely encourages its members to think and study and work things out for themselves as best they can, and to keep changing their minds. We recognise we are far from knowing everything that matters, it's one of our deep articles of faith. We know we don't know everything. What we know we know, but it's not complete. So my experience has been that when it's put to the test it absolutely works. And the people who are living the gospel, as we say, living the commandments, are markedly happier than the people who aren't, and better able to deal with the vicissitudes of life. My baby still died, no matter how much faith I had; my 17-year-old son with cerebral palsy died, and I was never able to perform some miraculous healing, which would have been very convenient. My life would have been happier. There are certain tests of religious faith that absolutely were not fulfilled, but I didn't regard those as the real test. The real test was that - my family is happy, and we've been able to deal with real problems, and respond to them in ways that made us stronger and better. I see it over and over again in the lives of the people around me - the ones who are playing it straight are happier. It works. I really have to say I have no doubt about the veracity of the core doctrines of the Mormon church, and I also have no doubt we have so little understanding. We just happen to have a little more than most of the other philosophies in the world. But it's enough to make a difference.
I try to treat other people's beliefs with respect. I'm very proud of the fact both Muslim and Jewish reviewers have treated my Women of Genesis series very positively, because I don't treat their view of things with contempt. They can look at my Abraham and feel at home with him - that makes me feel I've achieved something there. My goal there was to not violate what the original scripture says about the motives of the people.
You, Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer are the three LDS writers I know well, in the sense I've read pretty much everything any of you has published. I have frequently thought there was something you all share. Partly, it's to do with a particular type of world-building skill, but you also share a tendency to write about small, threatened groups within larger societies. Do you think there are parallels worth discussing between your work and theirs, or am I simply projecting my knowledge you share the same faith into your books?
Stephanie and Brandon and I — and David Farland, and Brandon Mull, and Mette Ivie Harrison, and many more — do have commonalities that arise from the LDS experience. Mormons become adept at living in two contradictory communities at once. We all live in the wider world and I think Mormons do a very good job of it — we tend to be prosperous people because we work hard and keep our commitments. But we all also live in the small villages we call “wards” — about a hundred to 200 households of people who serve each other, teach each other, and are as involved in each other’s lives as people in any small town. And the social rules of that village are very different from the social rules of whatever country we live in; we negotiate through both cultures and feel like native speakers of both languages.
Does that make us better able to depict the experience of alienness? Possibly. Does it draw us to tell speculative stories? Well, when you consult a list of Mormon speculative-fiction writers, it certainly looks that way ... until you realise how many Mormons write other kinds of stories, fictional and non-fictional. It’s probably more true to say Mormons are a book-and-reading-centred people, a culture in which children are expected to write and speak publicly from a very early age, so those of us with talent have early opportunities to discover our abilities and see how other people respond to what we write. We have a lot of amateur public performance in our villages, and so people of talent, who in other cultures might have some inchoate yearning to write or perform, in our culture are more likely to get the encouragement and have the positive experiences that lead us to put in our proverbial 10,000 hours.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR XENOCIDE AND CHILDREN OF THE MIND FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS
Two things I've wanted to ask you for a long time regarding Xenocide: would you agree this is a pivotal book for you, in the sense of marking a stylistic shift towards more dialogue-driven stories? Your characters seem to spend more time talking, arguing - bickering, often! - in your books since then than in the earlier ones. (Mostly, I like this; sometimes not. But for good and for bad, it seems factually correct to me, and I'm curious whether this was a conscious choice you made, and why - especially since writers with theatrical backgrounds often seem to over-emphasise dialogue when they first move away from the stage, and you didn't.)
Xenocide/Children of the Mind (a single book cut in two) is a “talking heads” book. That’s what was required to tell that story. If I have more “talking heads” in other books, it’s partly because I’m less interested in writing pure adventure stories, and partly because I’ve acquired a more wide-ranging tool set. I like to think if dialogue is interesting enough, it becomes action. Pathfinder and Ruins are about characters trying to learn the rules of a highly non-intuitive magic system; they talk and talk and talk, often in frustrating circles. But that is the action of Pathfinder and I’m finding that even young readers respond to it with delight — even as they want to hold their heads and scream. It works because readers recognise the issues being discussed are vital to the survival of the characters (and, eventually, of the whole human race); understanding must be achieved.
I hope I have never indulged in dialogue for its own sake, an author nattering on, making his characters talk about whatever is on the writer’s mind. What an empty exercise that would be. My characters talk to each other about the things that matter to them; the scenes always advance the story, or I skip them.
Xenocide's Path storyline, and in particular Han Qing-jao's final refusal to accept her caste's OCD is merely a control mechanism, has remained in my memory as the strongest part of the book. It's one of the few things you've ever written that could be read, although it need not be, as a strong critique of any move to value faith over reason. As a person of faith yourself, how did you come to write this story? Has it ever been received in ways that have troubled you?
Ultimately, religious faith is as reality-linked as scientific understanding. A set of rules of behavior are constantly tested against reality: if they don’t work, the religion dies, because its adherents lose their allegiance. Han Qing-jao’s OCD worked — that is, she was brilliant and yet could not reach her brilliant conclusions without enacting her rituals. Time and again, doing her rituals “worked” — how could she accept a story about them that made them empty and meaningless, when she had so many proofs? How would emptying her actions of meaning improve her function in the world? She could see no way.
We honour great faith even in false causes; it is the faith that makes actions holy, not the other way around. Commitment can be misapplied; but it remains an admirable trait. Like courage and honesty, great virtues are not always applicable; yet we honour them even so.
Ender's death - the dissolution of his body and the resettling of his aiua in Young Peter's - hinges on the idea that the things we care most deeply about move us at a sub-rational level. We can pretend to ourselves we have whatever concerns we think we ought to have, or want to have, but there is ultimately no point: the soul will follow its own nature. This seems to me a profoundly insightful perception, and also one of the most important recurring ideas in your work - again and again, we see that people's true selves are indelible and undeniable. When did you first find yourself thinking along these lines, and how - if you remember, at this distance - did you decide this would be the end of Ender's story?
It’s not that there’s no point in trying to fulfil your conscious aims; indeed, if we did not try to fulfil them, what would be the point of our rationality? What Ender discovers is that, in choosing between three lives, he will inevitably pursue the one that is most interesting to him, the one he values most. And in his case, the “Ender” life has played itself out. That life has been lived. It isn’t as interesting anymore as the new “Peter” life that is consuming far more of his attention.
As a child, in examining my own thoughts, I realised that when I took conscious control of my stream of consciousness it narrowed and shrank into mere language. Rather the way that as you “remember” a symphonic performance all the instruments are there — until you consciously try to sing along, to follow the music deliberately. Then all the fullness goes away and you’re left with the bare melody. So with thought: it is rich and thick until we control it, and then it thins down to language, parsed and linear. Language is vital in order to communicate with others, but our thoughts, when uncontrolled, range more widely.
And I also thought, as a nine-year-old: who is this listening to my thoughts? There were the thoughts (or music) that were so rich, and the conscious mind that wrecked it all by trying to control it; but in both cases, who is the observer who notices both, who is the audience for both? This Watcher can easily be confused with the conscious mind, because whatever it turns its attention to becomes the subject matter of conscious thought. But always the Watcher lurks behind everything; even as conscious thought moves off, the Watcher is watching, ready to turn conscious thought in another direction. This was all very mysterious to my nine-year-old mind; my comfort is it is still baffling to scientists studying mind — especially the ones who are desperate to believe there is no mind, but who haven’t the slightest idea of how anything works on a neural level, so their unbelief in mind remains a sad faith that is constantly contradicted by their own mental processes.
In any event, these are the perspectives about mind I bring to my characters. They rationalise their decisions but their decisions are ultimately irrational; they don’t understand their own basis for giving elements of the decision different relative weight. Ultimately, after informing themselves as best they can, they make choices, but usually don’t understand those choices until later, when more information allows them to revise their self-understanding. And even the revised versions of their motives are not reliable; they will revise them again. What living human has not had the experience of saying, “Ah, now I understand why I did that,” although they thought they understood their motives before.
When Ender in effect turns his face to the wall, he is not wishing to die, he is merely distracted by a far more interesting life that draws the interest of his indivisible Watcher mind. The man named Ender is not leading a life that engages him anymore. He isn’t needed in that life. And so that life can wither. We do this kind of thing all the time, not because we control multiple bodies, but because we live in different roles. How many people have let their work-self consume so much of their attention that their spouse-self or parent-self has died?
ENDER'S GAME, by Orson Scott Card (Orbit film tie-in edition, $27.99); the film of Ender's Game is released in New Zealand on December 5.
See also: An interview with The Walking Dead's David Morrissey.
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