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This is last tour, Card says

Personal tragedy has put family first for writer

"Should I try to look intelligent or just look natural?"

Whether it's modesty or a chronic case of self-deprecating humor, author Orson Scott Card repeatedly pokes fun at himself during a photo shoot. The author of "Ender's Game" laughs at how "geeky" he looks, how much he dislikes his other publicity photos. Even though he's running late and suffering from a cold, Card chats amicably with the photographer. Just the same, he's focused, gracious and as relaxed as anyone can be under the spotlight.

But Card, 49, also realizes this is one of the last times he'll have to do this. "Shadow of the Hegemon," his latest science fiction novel, is the last book for which he'll tour, Card says — although he adds that he will continue individual book signings.

"That's too valuable," Card says of his signings, which can take up to five hours. "That's how I get to know who is reading my books and what they care about, and that's really important."

But the marathon book tours take weeks out of his writing schedule and keep him away from his family. The distance from his family has been particularly painful, especially since the death of his son, 17-year-old Charles, five months ago, from complications of cerebral palsy.

"The whole family was at the beach, and he died, his heart stopped. But we were all together and he had two days where he was laughing and happy," Card says, pausing to take a sip of his water. "So if we were going to pick a time for him to go, and to be free of the body that had been a burden to him all his life, that was the time."

In 1997, Card and his wife, Kristine, watched their premature baby girl die in their arms the day she was born.

"I've faced that now twice, and I feel . . . like that's my quota. I've told my children now that if they die before me, I'm not going to their funeral. Their job now is to bury me; the next funeral in our family is mine," he says. "They are on notice; that's the rule. If they break it, they have to face the consequences."

But Charles' death has had more immediate consequences.

Since then, "I have not been able to write very much at all. And it'll be interesting to see if I can," the historically prolific Card says, almost nonchalantly, as if being unable to write wouldn't affect his identity or sense of purpose.

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And after spending time with Card, it's easy to believe retiring his pen wouldn't change who he is. He says as much when talking about his life: "My priorities are first to be as good a father as I can to my children. . . . I try to be a good husband to my wife, a good Mormon, and after that, that's when I start trying to be a good writer, which is pretty far down the line."

He's a full-time father and husband. Writing is just his day job, Card says.

In conversation, Card is all honey and venom. He's sweet and glowing when talking about his family, fans and books. When the conversation turns to education, writing classes and politics, the mild-mannered Card is almost overbearingly critical. Card, a Democrat who feels betrayed by his party, is particularly rancorous when the words "Bill" and "Clinton" are used in the same sentence.

Card fans might find this unusual, even shocking, for a writer who shows compassion even to his antagonists, whose motivations and intentions are always humanized. He has a gift for writing dialogue and creating believable, three-dimensional human beings from ink and paper.

"I try to understand (people), but that doesn't mean that I don't take sides," Card says. "Past interviewers expressed shock when they heard that I was a Democrat, an open-minded person, and was voting for George W. Bush. Why in the world should I think just like you because I'm open-minded?"

He continues: "That's what gripes me about so-called intellectuals in our society today: They judge whether a person is smart or not, not based on the rigor of his thinking or the process that he goes through, but based on where they reach the same conclusions as they do."

Confidence that borders on arrogance is immediately offset by Card's disarming smile, warmth and self-deprecating humor. Card's refreshing honesty is another of his charms, although he admits it may subtract from his mystique. "I have no mysteries. I'll tell you everything you want to know and more. I'm like the murder suspect who not only confesses to his own murder, but to everyone else's as well."

Even on Card's extensive Web site, www.hatrack.com, very little is secret. Perhaps the most comprehensive author site on the Internet, Card's family-run site includes an extensive biography, an online writing class, early versions of novels and chapters, breaking personal news, a memorial for son Charles, book tour information, interviews and links to Card's political and religious writings.

A former missionary in Brazil, Card remains a devoutly faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; he describes himself as being "religious without being insistent."

"A lot of interviewers find it amusing or strange — and I've had this surprisingly often — but they'll assume that since I'm a writer of fiction, I must have left the church — because you can't actually be a writer or an intellectual and some kind of artist and believe in one of these 'primitive religions,' " Card says. "But in fact, I'm a believing, practicing, active Latter-day Saint and make no bones about it."

Casual readers of Card's Ender books won't find many references to his religion, although faith is sometimes a topic among characters, and Card admits that he and his characters' beliefs rarely coincide. The connecting thread of Card's work is his fascination with human relationships, especially the bond of family, which is paramount to him. Before he published science fiction, Card was a playwright in Mormon culture, and his first book was a non-fiction work on parenting. But even then he knew he'd make a living writing fiction. Although he's known best for his Ender books and the fantasy Alvin Maker series, science fiction has only occasionally accounted for more than half his writing output each year.

Often Card's ambitious writing schedule gets away from him. For example, he was writing "Speaker for the Dead" when he realized his main character, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, needed a more fleshed-out back story, so he renegotiated his book contract and submitted "Ender's Game." That book, published in 1986, and its 1987 follow-up, "Speaker for the Dead," both won back-to-back Hugo and Nebula awards — the science-fiction community's highest honors, making Card the first writer to accomplish such a feat. The third installment in the series had to be split into two books, "Xenocide" and "Children of the Mind." One book stretching into two or three has been a common occurrence in Card's career.

"That happens to me all the time . . . the whole Alvin Maker series, if you count the original outline, after five books I'm about to get to the beginning of book two. That's the ultimate story that got away," Card says. "But I've learned to trust my instincts. My editors know that sometimes I turn in novels really late, but they know I can't turn a book in if it doesn't feel right to me, and they usually find it's worth the wait."

Readers seem to think so too. "Ender's Game" lands right behind Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and in front of Stephen King's "The Stand" in the No. 11 spot on the Modern Library's "Reader's 100 Best" list of favorite books. Not bad company.

The novel, an empathetic, character-driven story, is centered on a child — "Ender" Wiggin, humanity's last chance in a forthcoming battle with an alien race. Written in part from a child's perspective, "Ender's Game" makes for white-knuckled reading. Young readers identify with Ender's isolation, the coming-of-age narrative, while older readers are sucked into Card's meditation on the ethics of survival. Card's new novel, "Shadow of the Hegemon," is the second installment of the "Shadow" series—stories told from the perspective of Bean, Ender's trusted friend at Battle School.

The Ender books remain tremendously popular among people who "don't read," although Card himself dismisses the idea.

"Our education system right now is designed to make people obedient, compliant and bored. But a lot of kids who weren't reading, and come to 'Ender's Game' and became readers, it's because finally they've found a story that speaks to how they feel their life was going. And so they feel a resonance. But they already had those feelings, all I did was put it into words. So, I don't change their lives. I'm grateful to be a part of that, but they would have found another book if they hadn't found mine."

A movie version of "Ender's Game" has been in the works for years, and Card's script is circulating Hollywood under the wing of "Raging Bull" producer Bob Chartoff. Production on the film is not imminent. In the meantime, Card is kicking around the idea of a convention, "EnderCon," in 2002 for fans of the series and science fiction in general.

For now though, he's slowing down a bit. After finishing this tour, Card will return home to North Carolina to reconnect with his family and face a blank computer screen.

Losing a child, Card says, "is the worst thing in the world. Once you have children, you realize that you are held hostage by those children. They are more important to you than yourself."