"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It was the most unpleasant interview I’ve ever done.
And one of the most instructive.
Science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card wrote one of my favorite books of all time. So when he came out with a sequel, I was delirious with the desire to interview him.
“Ender’s Game,” which won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1985, is the best book I have ever read about violence. Who would have thought it would result in an interview in which I wanted to throttle the author? “Ender’s Game” is also about loving your enemies, a goal so important to me that I wrote a book about it myself. How could I guess that interviewing the author would make me question that entire project?
A strangely empathic novel about 6-year-olds forced to be military commanders, “Ender’s Game” brought together a fan base that might reasonably be expected to be at one another’s throats (in some cases literally): progressives, children and soldiers. It was cherished by middle-schoolers and adults harrowed by child abuse; it was passed around by Gulf War bomb-droppers and used as a text by the Marines. And as for me, well, I’m a Jewish lesbian radical who wrote a book about what I have in common with the Christian right, so Card’s paradoxes are right up my alley.
Card’s hero, Ender, is an abused little boy being trained to fight alien enemies called the Buggers. His teachers have chosen him because he’s compassionate enough to love (and hence to understand) his enemies, but ruthless and scared enough to wipe them off the face of the earth.
The sequel, “Ender’s Shadow,” is about another child who thinks he has to choose between love and survival. Its hero, Bean, is a starving toddler in a hellish future city where children fight each other for food. Bean eventually makes it into the Battle School where Ender’s being taught to exterminate the Buggers.
I knew that Card, like his readership, was an outrageous hodgepodge. He writes strange, passionate books full of yearning but no sex and ardent little boys frisking around in zero gravity pretending to shoot each other. A devout Mormon, he is squeaky clean but adorably perverse and the author of a hit Mormon musical called “Barefoot to Zion,” which celebrates the sesquicentennial of the entry of the Mormon pioneers into Salt Lake Valley. (I wanted to get my hands on a copy of that musical, badly.)
But I’d somehow failed to ascertain that Card was a disgustingly outspoken homophobe. And given his book’s brilliant, humane examination of the ethics of violence, I couldn’t have predicted he’d be someone who thought it was dandy to bomb and massacre civilians.
Now, I’m someone who loves contradictions, especially in writers. I think Ezra Pound should have been allowed to remain in the Poets’ Corner of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine because his fascism and anti-Semitism will never make him a less beautiful poet. I have great fun reading Andrea Dworkin, even though I agree with her about exactly one thing: Rape is bad. And Allan Bloom’s translation of Plato’s “Republic” is fantastic and remains fantastic, even though his politics were gross.
But it’s one thing to admire a bigot on the page, and another to endure a two-hour conversation with one. And my love and admiration for Card only made it worse. Talking to Klansmen was nothing compared to talking to the author of the most ethical book I’ve ever read.
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When Card comes on the line from Greensboro, N.C., I immediately tell him how ecstatically I love his work. I know I sound like a gushing teenager, but I can’t help it. Writers I like are like people I have crushes on — my feelings for them are among the most intense feelings I have. But, with difficulty, I collect myself. As a reporter, I’m here to draw out contradictions in my hero, not just celebrate them. “You seem to like the military,” I begin, “but you’re also hugely concerned with ethics. What’s your opinion of most of the wars the U.S. has been involved in since World War II?”
“I have great respect for the people who offer themselves in that sacrificial role,” says Card, whose voice is mellifluous and macho at once. I could listen to it all day. “But I also have great criticisms of the way the military is currently organized. I’d hate to have it on the record that I ‘like the military.’ But our entry into the Korean and Vietnam wars reflect very well upon the American people. The motive was not imperialistic at all, but genuinely altruistic. We were willing to send our children off to war to protect, as we saw it — as we were told to see it — to protect the freedom of other nations. And like Ender, if we were lied to, we’re still not responsible for the actions we took based on what we believed. Our leaders, in both cases, made mistakes. The Grenada thing — I think the record is absolutely clear that that was a good thing.”
That’s OK, I tell myself nervously. I expected us to have different politics. It’s on the really big issues that he and I will find our commonalities. “But what about the issue of the specific means that were used in those wars, like killing civilians? In Grenada, the U.S. bombed a mental hospital.”
“Those mistakes are part of war,” says the man I adore. “If you embark on a military mission, you know there will be those mistakes. And that’s not the action that you condemn. What you have to look at is, is the military action worth it? When you go into a war, you’re going to be killing innocent people, by definition. When I talk about mistakes made in Korea and Vietnam, I was just talking about the mistake of getting involved in the first place. I wasn’t talking about killing civilians.”
But wasn’t the whole point of “Ender’s Game” that the end never justifies the means? That hurting people is never, ever right except when minutely controlled and in immediate self-defense? I don’t dare to ask. I don’t want to know if the book he wrote is so different than the beautiful one I read.
I ask why Bean, who is starved, is portrayed as so much more traumatized than Ender, who is repeatedly beaten up and terrorized by people he loves. Card says, “When you talk about what I said in ‘Ender’s Shadow,’ you have to realize that Ender is seen there through the eyes of Bean, and Bean doesn’t know about the stuff that went on in Ender’s home. And most people have a certain threshold of pain in their past that they have to deal with. But I don’t think there is anyone who would seriously argue that having been beaten up by your older brother and threatened by him constitutes the same sort of thing as a day-to-day struggle for survival in the murderous kind of street life that Bean was facing, and that a lot of Brazilian kids face today.
“I had the experiences — well, at least I perceived myself to have had the experiences — that I show Ender having with an older brother when I was young. I see it differently now, but I was depicting what I thought was going on when I was a little kid. And I generally look back on my childhood as being quite a [Ray] Bradbury-esque safe childhood. There were problems, and they certainly did color my life, but I faced nothing like the trauma that kids who are homeless and desperate face. There is a hierarchy of suffering.”
Although I don’t exactly agree, I sigh in satisfaction. Card and I have something major in common — we both experienced violence as children. I always feel a powerful bond with other abused kids, and reading “Ender’s Game,” I was certain Card was “family.” Now I know for sure we are brother and sister under the skin! “Your books are flamboyantly interested in violence and what it means. Are you so interested in this because of your experience with your brother?”
“Not really. It really has to do with the fact that I’m a nonviolent person and I really don’t understand the impulse that well, and I try to explore it. I’ve seen it happen a lot. It’s frightening to watch people become a mob. Violence per se I recognize as sometimes necessary, but always terrifying. When people do resort to it, I try to find out for myself at least how they justify it to themselves.”
I think he’s obfuscating. No one’s that interested in figuring out why people hit people unless they’ve gotten hit a lot themselves. “You say your feelings about being hit by your brother have changed. How?”
“At the time I really took seriously the rhetoric of threat. But I was little, and he was young. And things get said in the heat of argument that aren’t meant. He never intended to do me any kind of lasting harm. In fact, at the very time that he was saying those things to me in rage, he would tell my mom, she told me later, that he really loved me and cared about me and wanted to defend me if I was in danger. I listened to the threats and took them seriously, because in my naiveti I believed them.” Actually, I think Card is being more naive right now, by discounting actions that obviously really hurt him.
“My reading of ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ — when I was 10 — probably has more to do with my returning to issues of violence. Reading about the soldier dashing the infant’s head against the wall, I sobbed like a baby. That was the beginning of my putting my brother’s and my conflict in perspective. He would never do that.” I bite back a sarcastic retort. Card’s brother was basically OK because he wasn’t as bad as the Nazis? He adds, “It really was almost whimsical to base Ender’s relationship with his brother on my relationship with mine.”
Time for a more theoretical approach. I ask Card if he’s read Richard Rhodes’ book about violence, “Why They Kill.” “If you buy its thesis, Ender has gone through all the stages of socialization that make someone into a ‘dangerous violent criminal’ — brutalization followed with lots of coaching to be violent and with having great victories the first few times he fights an attacker.”
Card replies, “In all likelihood, he’s probably correct in the sense that those who do become hyper-violent probably go through patterns like that. But what I suspect is completely lacking in his theory is a way of accounting for the people who go through the same process who do not become spectacularly violent. Because my guess is it’s not inevitable. I know people who’ve gone through terrible things in their lives, and some people act out the script they’re given, others end up rebelling against that script and becoming, if anything, remarkably pacifistic.”
I notice that both of us are now speaking intensely and starting to breathe hard. There’s a good reason for it — this issue is probably the hardest one for most people who were abused as kids. It’s terribly frightening to think that we might become like the people who hurt us. I’m afraid I might. Card’s hero Ender, for his part, is terrified that he might. Is Card?
I want to bring Card closer to discussing this fear, so I press my point. “But it’s not just the being subjected to violence. It’s also the coaching. Ender’s coaching and the things he’s put through in the school are done deliberately to make him violent in a certain way. It’s interesting that you and the criminologist Rhodes champions, Lonnie Athens, have come to the same thesis — you about what makes a brilliant commander of an army, and Athens about what makes a dangerous killer or rapist.”
To my dismay, I can feel Card closing down. “We’re perhaps overworking the term ‘violence,’” he says tightly. “The essence of good military command is to avoid violence. And in fact that’s what Ender did — the least possible violence in order to achieve the necessary end.” The least possible amount of violence? Ender commits genocide.
“Ender’s training was merely an exaggeration and echo of what we train all of our soldiers to do, always. We do the same thing with our police. But we try to teach them the proper channels in which that is to be used.”
And it never, ever works, I say to myself, but maybe it’s time to pose a safer question. “‘Ender’s Shadow’ sounds Jungian,” I say, “but Bean doesn’t seem to be Ender’s shadow in any sort of Jungian sense.”
“Well, since I have no respect whatsoever for Jung or any of his works, that’s hardly a surprise. The beginnings of the science of psychology are filled with false prophets like Jung and Freud, people who really set back the science of psychology and had a huge and sickening influence in our culture. They are among the great frauds and evils of our time.”
By this point I have my own ideas about why he doesn’t like Freud and Jung. But I change my tack again, still convinced we’ll come to common ground. “You portray armies and police forming among the children of Rotterdam because one of them gets the idea that ‘you got to get your own bully’ to protect you from the other bullies. That’s a fairly left idea, that the police are basically paid bullies. Do you ever see yourself as a leftist?”
Card laughs. “Well, let’s put it this way. Most of the program of both the left and the right is so unbelievably stupid it’s hard to wish to identify myself with either. But on economic matters, I’m a committed communitarian. I regard the Soviet Union as simply state monopoly capitalism. It was run the way the United States would be if Microsoft owned everything. Real communism has never been tried! I would like to see government controls expanded, laws that allow capitalism to not reward the most rapacious, exploitative behavior. I believe government has a strong role to protect us from capitalism. I’m ashamed of our society for how it treats the poor. One of the deep problems in Mormon society is that really for the last 75 years Mormons have embraced capitalism to a shocking degree.”
I find I’m beginning to like Card better! When he says provocative things I agree with, he’s my brother. And I truly love it when conservatives and I turn out to share opinions. But as a responsible journalist, I have to ask the boring Mormon Church/gay marriage question now. I expect him to say something innocuous and apologetic like, “It’s the position of my church so I have to agree with it.” So I dutifully ask, “How do you feel about the Mormon Church’s decision to raise over $1.5 million for initiatives banning gay marriage in California, Alaska and Hawaii?”
Card raises his voice. “No, what they’ve done is oppose efforts to apply the word ‘marriage’ to a homosexual couple! People are treating it as if they were seeking out opportunities to persecute somebody else! They’re simply opposing changing the word ‘marriage’ to apply to something it’s never applied to.”
“How is that different from changing the law so that blacks and whites can marry?” I have to force the words out.
Incredulously: “Are you asking that question seriously?”
“I find the comparison between civil rights based on race and supposed new rights being granted for what amounts to deviant behavior to be really kind of ridiculous. There is no comparison. A black as a person does not by being black harm anyone. Gay rights is a collective delusion that’s being attempted. And the idea of ‘gay marriage’ — it’s hard to find a ridiculous enough comparison. By the way, I’d really hate it if your piece wound up focusing on the old charge that I’m a homophobe.”
“What old charge?” I’ve never heard of it.
“It’s been raised before. It’s been circulating on the Internet for a long time. It’s really just one of those annoying things that happens. It’s really ugly!”
It’s hard to express everything I’m feeling at this moment — love, betrayal, hurt, desire for conciliation. I say with a curious mixture of gallantry and stiffness, “I doubt it will be the focus of the piece. I really like your books and I really disagree with what you said. That’s a contradiction I’m willing to live with.”
Sometimes I’m really much too interested in peace. (It comes from a fantasy of finding out that your abusers love you after all; you and they can bond together in a giant bath of love.) After the interview, my civility here embarrasses me to no end. I wish I’d said, “You fucking jerk, you’re insulting me, and your disgusting views make me so sorry I like your book. Gay rights are so much less ridiculous than you are.” Then again, most reporting is based on hiding the self, at least during the interview.
In journalism, silence about one’s own opinion is often the only way to get the goods. Actually, that’s partly why I chose this profession — it offers a great deal of opportunity for not protesting, not fighting back, for hiding. Is it somehow familiar or comforting for me to endure the calumny of bigots and do nothing?
I prefer to get my digs in when I write the piece up, like this. It’s a way of fighting back without ever having to face my tormentor head-on. But during the actual interview, I get very nervous at this point and change the subject. (Or perhaps more accurately, I ask the very same question, but in a covert form so that Card will have no idea I’m really making reference to him and his homophobia.) I ask: “Why is Bean so much less ethically concerned than Ender? He’s only worried about betraying his friends. He has no compunction about killing his enemies.”
Says Card, “He simply grew up without being able to afford introspection. When you have kids in a street gang, they consider their actions to be noble if they act in a way that serves the street gang. Members of the homosexual community consider themselves to be noble when they indulge in shameless name-calling and distorted positions of people who oppose them, because they believe they’re serving their higher cause. But Bean is ethical to somebody who’s in his own community while being very unethical to somebody who doesn’t belong to that community. ” He must have the homophobe’s version of Tourette’s syndrome.
I say, “These questions about how to approach your enemies, about what kind of bad things it’s appropriate to do to your enemies, are precisely Christian questions.” I don’t tell Card this, but Jesus’ perverse ideal of loving one’s enemy is precisely what I like most about Christianity, and why I make the effort to seek out common ground with Christians at all.
He yaps, “In our culture today, there are a lot of people who use the fundamental Christian doctrine — to love your neighbor, to forgive all men — only as a weapon to silence Christians! The effort to hold Christians to this particular standard is very unfair.”
What an asshole. I’m trying to praise Christianity; in fact I’m trying to be Christian as he would understand the term, and all he can see is an attack.
“I was actually asking in terms of Bean. Where does class come into it? The most interesting difference between the two books for me was that Bean, who was raised in poverty, is much less concerned with the radical ethical questions Ender cares about. I wondered how true to life that was.”
He utterly and completely misunderstands what I mean by “radical,” because by now he’s apparently seeing me as a lesbo-loving communist bimbo. “It is absolutely true to life. You will find among the great activists for the communist cause precious few workers, precious few poor people. It’s the same thing you found in the civil rights movement. It’s the middle class that feels the luxury of being able to have causes. Applying the idea of class to everything is just one of the many mistakes of the religion of Marxism.”
This can’t go on much longer, but I’ll give it the ol’ lesbo communist try. “Are any aspects of the two books particularly Mormon?”
“Not really, except in the sense that they’re written by me and I’m a committed, believing Mormon. There are Mormons who think I’m the devil because they’re unable to tell the difference between Mormon doctrine and right-wing conservative views. And I find it extremely discomfiting that, really to a shocking degree, love of money has pervaded Mormon society. It’s something that as a people we have great cause to repent of. I think it will lead to our condemnation in the eyes of God. When I talk that way, there are some people who are extremely troubled because they think I’m saying that they’re wicked. And they’re correct — I am.”
I love this. Beyond anything, it amuses me to see how much I love Card calling something “wicked” when it’s a judgment that I happen to agree with. But I need to go back to the fray. “Aren’t there some Mormons who agree that gay people should have protection from discrimination?” I know there are because I read a whole book about them.
He’s delighted to get back to battle, too. “We have laws right now that protect anybody from violent acts. But I do not believe homosexuals should be given a whole raft of rights analogous to what blacks have.”
“You mean laws that say you can’t be fired because you’re gay?”
That’s exactly what he means. “I think there are a lot of reasons people should be able to be fired. It should be perfectly legitimate to fire somebody for that reason or reasons like it. But I would find it appalling to fire people from most positions because of it.” My hand curls in a fist next to my writing pad.
He adds, “My views on the program of homosexual activists are part of a much larger struggle to get rid of some of the social experiments we’ve been performing. Divorce, the treatment of the poor, rate –”
“Rape?” I get excited, thinking I have just discovered another good thing about Card. He thinks rape is a serious issue.
“I said rate. Those issues rate far, far higher for me.”
“Oh. I thought you were talking about the need to fight rape.”
Card is amused. “Well, it’s already against the law. I don’t think there’s a serious pro-rape movement going on in America.”
“No,” I say. “There just isn’t much anti.”
He starts to get patronizing, even flirtatious. “Oh, now, now!” he chides gently. I can hear a smile in his voice, a twinkle in his eye. “Anti-rape laws are so much more strictly enforced now than they were 25 years ago.” His playful, patronizing tone makes me queasy.
“I know there isn’t a serious pro-rape movement in America,” I reply far too politely. “But it still goes on. Obviously we’re not doing enough to prevent it.”
“What can you do,” he laughs, “except find people who can’t be proven to have committed a rape, and punish them anyway? Let’s bring back chaperonage. That’s the best way to prevent rape!”
“Are you being serious?”
“Oh, I’m quite serious. There’s a reason why the whole system of chaperonage began.”
I am trying so valiantly to be bigger and better than Card. It’s excruciating. Like Ender, I really am afraid that if I ever really unleash my anger, it’ll blow up the world. But another reason I hold back is my genuine respect for the author of “Ender’s Game.” It’s hard to speak in a sufficiently hostile way to the man who wrote it, even if he is a pig. (Although, if this ever happens again, I’ll try to find a way.) In the end, I talk to him the way I might address someone with a really low I.Q.
“One of the reasons I respect your work is that you’re really, really concerned with ethics. The foundation of all ethics, for me, is always whether something hurts anyone. For that reason, it puzzles me that you would see something like homosexuality as wrong, when it patently doesn’t hurt anyone.”
“I’m amused that you think it doesn’t hurt anyone. The homosexuals that I’ve known well, I have found none who were actually made happier by performing homosexual acts. Or by withdrawing, which is what they do, from the mainline of human life. The separation is there and is, in fact, celebrated within the homosexual community.”
Why would we ever want to withdraw when there are people like him to be close to? “When you talk about separating oneself from the mainstream, don’t some people feel that way about Mormons?”
“I’m talking about the mainstream of biological life. Mormons don’t withdraw from life.” I fantasize about pressing a button that makes my space fleet blast Card into tiny fragments whose DNA will never bother me again. (After all, I am, according to him, someone who opposes “biological life.”) But in reality, contradictions are what I love most in the world (and I intend to keep on loving them), so I end the interview with a sweetness that later makes me cringe and pick up “Ender’s Game,” discover it’s still good, and wish the man a very lousy rest of his life.
Donna Minkowitz is the author of the memoir "Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates."More Donna Minkowitz.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)