Orson Scott Card sits down with Walmart to discuss his newest book, Lost and Found
1. How did you come up with the idea for micropowers in Lost And Found?
We’ve had such a half-century with endless sequences of superpower movies that they have completely dominated our culture. Actual people now say things like, “That’s my superpower,” and people seem to be quite serious in their discussions of things like “which superpower would you rather have” or “Batman vs. the Jeremy Renner archery guy — who wins?” I am bored beyond endurance by superpowers that almost all seem destructive and scientifically indefensible.
Add to that the penchant of comic book publishers to please fans by combining in various stories superheroes who do not, cannot, belong together: Tony Stark and Spiderman, Batman and Superman, Thor and anybody else ever. For me, it’s impossible to care much about stories in which I don’t believe in any of the characters.
Plus, there seem to be some generic superpowers that all the superheroes get regardless of their official powers list: They can all fall from great heights and land, undamaged, in the same superhero crouch; they can all take killer blows from bad guys and get up and fight again; yet somehow they are able to have something like normal human relationships. (For more superhero impossibilities, it might be worth reading sci-fi master Larry Niven’s funny essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.”)
My response to all this nonsense was, why not imagine powers that are to a human scale? We purport to believe in many of them already, or at least refer to them in common idioms. No, teachers don’t have eyes in the back of their head, but they have no problem “seeing” the nonsense going on behind them when they write on the board. No, “women’s intuition” is not a thing, but there are people who really believe there might be such a thing.
The evil eye. Curses. The ability to feel cool when everybody else is sweating. The people who can come out of the first showing of a new movie and quote whole scenes verbatim. Horse whispering. Dog whispering. Healing hands. Many, perhaps most, people believe they live in a world where some or all of these magical abilities actually, or at least possibly, exist.
I happen not to believe in those, either, but at least you can imagine people with such powers existing in the real world and interacting with regular people.
But then, I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer. Why not come up with powers that are so minuscule that anybody who had them might regard them as more of an annoyance than anything else. What if, without looking, you automatically knew which of the people within a hundred feet of you had innie or outie belly buttons?
What if, just by looking at them and tightening your tongue against the roof of your mouth, you could make any person within a hundred yards yawn, long and uncontrollably? Ditto with sneezing, belching, or tummy rumbles.
What if you constantly sensed the location of every spider anywhere near you? Ditto with mice, termites, bedbugs ...
Some of these might indeed work decently with some occupations. An exterminator or animal control officer might make good use of the ability to know the location of termites. Or mice. “Let me call Al, he’s our mouse guy.”
And the yawnmaker might be useful in a law enforcement context — a criminal who’s running away won’t get far if he keeps yawning uncontrollably.
So my job, in writing Lost and Found, was to invent a lot of micropowers like these and then try to find uses for them, as well as noticing how they disrupt the lives of the people who have the powers ... and their victims.
My favorite micropower, though, was the ability to know immediately who owned any lost object. The story of Lost and Found, then, arose primarily from that exploration: What would happen if you could return any lost thing to its owner? And that’s where Lost and Found begins.
2. Which micropower would you want to have for yourself?
The ability to eat all I want of anything, and suffer no ill effects of any kind. I know people who have that micropower. I resent the fact that I’m not one of them.
I don’t know of any official cosmology that teaches this, but I personally think that in the afterlife, anyone who ever said, out loud, “I eat and eat and I can’t gain a pound,” will be obese for eternity. They can still go to heaven, but they’re really, really fat.
Outside the works of Rubens, I don’t know of any fat angels. But I think there have to be some.
3. Which character in Lost And Found came easiest to you to write? Was there a character in the book who was more challenging to write?
Characters are neither hard nor easy to write. You just have them do the things they would do, say the things they would say, for the reasons they would do or say them.
It’s thinking up characters that is hard. The great secret is that characters cannot be created in isolation. I’m always amused and saddened by novice writers who come up with lists of traits and think they’re doing “characterization.” They’re not.
Characters only become believable, well-rounded people when they interact with other equally interesting characters. In developing the character of Ezekiel Blast, I could do a few things with him alone — the fact that he renames everybody, at least in his own mind, including himself — but none of those things could make a character who could sustain a book.
However, when Ezekiel was shown interacting with his father, with Beth Sorenson, with Ms. Banshee, with Lt. Shank, then his character began to come to life. The smart mouth, the smart mind, the genuine pain, the constant sense of grievance, and the ability to respond to kindness and honesty. Each of these relationships brought out something different in Ezekiel, making him easy to write; and his actions and reactions spurred the others to responses that helped me create them and make them interesting.
Interesting to me, that is. It’s for readers to decide which of them is interesting to them.
4. Which book most changed your life as a young reader?
Aside from scripture, which I read early and often, I think the most transformative book I ever read was William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. That great history of World War II and its causes was given to me by my older sister, who had been assigned to read it in high school.
I was ten years old. I was not prepared for such a devastatingly thorough treatment of evil in the real world. Twice while reading it I had to stop and set it aside until I could stop crying, because of the terrible things that happened to real people. And because all those things were also done by real people who could have chosen not to do them. This was when I first understood the darkness in the world. The opposite of, the utter absence of, love.
There were also fiction books that moved and inspired me — Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, The Prince and the Pauper, Galactic Derelict, Citizen of the Galaxy, Lord of the Flies — but it wasn’t Alcott, Austen, Twain, Norton, Heinlein, or Golding that led me toward being a writer. After all, their excellent books were already written.
No, it was the combination of scripture and Rise and Fall that turned me toward writing. Rise and Fall because there existed good and evil in the world, and scripture because when you see the difference, it’s right and necessary to bear witness to it, to explain it, to help people see the difference, not only outside of them but inside of them as well.
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich gave me a sharply focused lens through which to view the world around me. It forced me to explore the principles of a right life, where the lines must be drawn in order to stay on the side of kindness and decency, of love and light. My fiction is always about that line, and how hard it can be to find it, and how it keeps sneaking around in places where it never seemed to be before.
5. Do you enjoy listening to audiobooks? If so, what audiobook have you listened to lately?
I listen to audiobooks constantly. I used to buy the big awkward packages of cassette tapes and risk my life changing tapes while driving on long solo car trips. Well, not always solo. My sister and I were driving through Wyoming while listening to the last few cassettes in John Grisham’s The Firm. It was so exciting that I actually got a ticket for speeding. In Wyoming. In an aging, rusted-out Datsun B-210.
That’s how I found out Wyoming actually has a speed limit. Or maybe the cop pulled me over because he didn’t believe that a B-210 could go that fast.
The best thing about audiobooks, for me, is this: I write books that are meant to be read aloud. I punctuate them for readers, not for grammarians; I try to write them so that the audience will know how to interpret the sentences, how to emphasize the right words, because science tells us that even when we read from a page, the language is processed through the auditory parts of the brain—as if we were hearing the book.
With a well-recorded, well-narrated audiobook, the story comes to you exactly as the brain expects to receive it — through the ears. In Jane Austen’s time, that was how books were often received. Someone in a group would read aloud from a book, usually trying for some kind of inflection or suggestion of character. Authors then wrote to be read aloud, to be fully understood on first reading.
And I try to write that way today. Even if you read the print edition, I try to write it so that it plays out smoothly, clearly, naturally as your brain “hears” what I’ve written.
6. What abilities or qualities do you look for in a good audiobook narrator?
It’s annoying when a narrator goes to great lengths to “do voices.” While some are superb at it, most simply resort to accents or cartoon voices; and the bad narrators are at their most wretched when trying to voice the other sex.
Narrators do their best work when they have an attentive director and producer. The producer reads through the book in advance, making sure to learn the correct pronunciations of all the unusual or foreign words, so that they can coach the narrator. The director listens for any of the mistakes that wreck the reading experience — too loud, too soft, too fast, too slow, wrong inflection, bad accent — and has the narrator do it over.
7. What would readers be surprised to find out if they could glimpse inside the mind of authors?
I suspect readers who really love a particular book might have the misconception that it emerged from a neat and orderly mind, which planned it all carefully and then executed the plan.
Maybe there are writers who work that way. But creating story is a messy business. Stuff keeps crowding in from your unconscious mind no matter how carefully you planned, and it’s a foolish writer who rejects those unconscious influences, not matter what they do to the original outline.
Storytelling emerges like a volcano from hot, seething stone. Later, when it has been poured out and it cools, the shapes can look elegant, gorgeous; but they didn’t have that shape when they were still inside the author’s mind.
I’m speaking for myself, but I’ve known and talked with enough excellent writers to be pretty sure that this faithfully describes how most of us produce our fiction.
8. Lost And Found appeals to both young adult and adult readers. As you wrote the book, were you mindful of shaping your book to appeal to audiences of all ages, or does it just happen naturally?
When I wrote the novel Ender’s Game back in 1984, it was meant as an adult novel that only happened to have a child protagonist along with a lot of other kids. I made no concessions to younger vocabulary; in fact, there are a lot of big words, not to mention words I simply made up, and it’s quite a demanding book for inexperienced children and teenagers to read.
But because many of them cared about the characters, children as young as seven have read and understood the book. And it’s not all genius children, either — I hear from kids who read the book while flunking out of school, and from teachers who work with dyslexics, who work out a way to read the book for themselves.
Since Ender’s Game has won awards as a Young Adult novel, despite my utter lack of concern for making it young-adulty, when I wrote my Pathfinder trilogy, the first book I ever wrote with the intention that it be for a Young Adult audience, I simply wrote it, again without any concern for the rules and tropes of the genre. So it is aimed at everybody, kids and adults. It’s simply a book by me.
With Lost and Found, there were people who tried to get me to force-fit it into their idea of what kids want. But I figured, What kids want is a great story, and that’s my job, to think of a great story and tell it as clearly and effectively as I can. So, just as with my other books with young protagonists, Lost and Found is aimed at young readers in only that one sense: They expect a story full of interesting and admirable characters, who come up against terrible circumstances and figure out a way to win.
Oddly enough, with the possible exception of people who actually believed their college literature teachers, that’s what most readers want, no matter what their age. So I feel reasonably happy about putting out Lost and Found for anybody to read, in the hope that the story of Ezekiel Blast and Beth Sorenson will give them what they’re hoping for in a story.
9. Are there particular questions or life lessons on which you'd like your readers to reflect when they read Lost And Found?
I don’t think fiction is well-served by being shaped around themes or moral lessons. Not that those lessons aren’t there — I think it’s impossible to tell a story of any length without revealing the moral universe in which the author lives. But if the author is controlling the story to give a “lesson,” it can and usually does destroy the story.
Still, it’s a fair question, and so here are my two answers:
a. Readers will find their own resonances within a story they care about and believe in, and the writer is the least-qualified person to try to interpret the story for them.
b. There are some ideas that are simply obvious, when you read the story. They’re not surprising in any way: Humans are lonely. When they find someone who is good company, someone they come to trust, someone they allow themselves to need, that’s the most important thing that can happen in their lives.
Meanwhile, we are all struggling to find out that maybe we’re really good at
something. Maybe there’s something we can do that nobody else can do, or at least something that other people will value. Even better if the people who value it are the people we care about, too. And if it’s just some lame and seemingly useless micropower, it’s still something. And your life will be better if you own it and try to do it better than before.
But that’s actually a set of lessons that could be drawn from almost all my books, and probably most books by other people, as well. Because reading a novel is an act of community: Everyone who has read the same book has a set of closely related memories drawn from that book. And when you find someone who loved a book that you love, you feel an immediate kinship, because you have clear memories of living through the same things.
Find someone who loves Little Women and mention Beth. Find someone who loves Pride and Prejudice and say the name of Mr. Collins or Lady Catherine De Burgh. Find someone who loves The Prince and the Pauper and mention the triumphant moment when Sir Miles Hendon pulls out a stool and sits down in the presence of King Edward VI.
Or perhaps it will be the moment when Samwise Gamgee sits down in his own home and Rose puts little Elanor on his lap, and Sam says, “Well, I’m back.”
We all remember such characters and moments. They live in our hearts with greater clarity and force than most of the real people and real events in our lives. That’s the power of fiction.
10. Is there anything else you would like to add about Lost And Found, or any message you'd like to convey to readers?
The only message I have for readers is this: Don’t read clinically, analytically. Don’t read as if you were going to have to take a test or write a paper about the book. Just read it to find out who these people are and what happens to them and what they’re going to do about it. Read as if you were making friends with them. That’s how to get the most out of any good book.
Whether Lost and Found becomes a good book for you depends as much on what you bring to it as on what I put in it. We’re collaborating on this story, you and I; I did my best, and if you do your best, too, maybe we’ll end up with a story we both care about and believe in.