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An Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 6:39pm

Internationally renowned and award winning Science Fiction author Robert J. Sawyer will be spending two months (June and July) as the very first Writer In Residence at the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron (CLS) here in Saskatoon and will be the very first Writer in Residence at a Synchrotron anywhere in the world. He will be doing a reading and signing of his newest novel, Wake, at McNally Robinson in Saskatoon at 7:30 pm on June 4.

His newest novel Wake, the first book in a trilogy about the spontaneous emergence of consciousness by the world wide web launched in April and at the end of April it was announced that a television series based on his 1999 novel Flashforward will premiere on ABC in the Fall. Robert took some time out of his extremely busy schedule to answer a few questions about his Writer in Residency, Wake and Flashforward.

NJB: For June and July, you are going to be the writer-in-residence at the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron (CLS) here in Saskatoon. How did that come about?

RJS: Four years ago, in 2005, I was on book tour for my novel Mindscan, and one of the stops was Saskatoon. While in town, I visited the Canadian Light Source and hit it off with Matt Dalzell and Jeff Cutler, who work there. They said they wanted to find a way to have me back for a longer visit; I suggested the notion of a writer in residence, something traditionally associated with public libraries or universities; they found the funding to make it happen -- and here I am. I'll be writer-in-residence for all of June and July.

NJB: What exactly is your writer-in-residency going to entail? Will you have office hours where aspiring writers can come to see you with their work? Will you just be, as I imagine based on my limited knowledge of the Synchrotron, writing in the glow of one of the beamlines?

RJS: Yes, I'm making 30 or so appointments to see aspiring writers -- and they're going fast! They can submit up to 5,000 words of manuscript at least 72 hours in advance of their appointment with me as a Word or RTF file, and then I'll meet with them one-on-one at CLS to go over their manuscript with them for an hour. To book an appointment, email me at [email protected]. When I'm not doing that, I will indeed be working on a new novel -- Watch, the final volume of my WWW Trilogy -- as well as just soaking up the ambience of a working science lab, which will help me write even more realistically about such things in the future.

NJB: You set Flashforward at the CERN Large Hadron collider in Switzerland, which has been in the news recently because of its search for the Higgs boson particle. Are you thinking about setting a work at the Synchrotron here in Saskatoon?

RJS: Not specifically. As you say, I've already done one novel at a particle-physics lab. But who knows what the future holds? I'm hoping to be inspired by my time at CLS.

NJB: I know you've just launched Wake, but when will the rest of the WWW Trilogy come out? I really, really, really want to know what happens to Caitlin, and Hobo and everybody else you introduced me to in Wake. When you conceived of the story for Wake did you know it was going to be a trilogy or did the story expand to the point that it needed to be a trilogy?

RJS: Thanks! I think Wake stands alone very nicely, but there are indeed two more novels with the same characters -- Watch and Wonder -- to come. Watch comes out in April 2010, the same month that Wake goes into paperback. I originally thought I could tell this story in a single volume, and had sold it to a publisher as such, but realized after spending a couple of years on it that it really required the breathing room of a trilogy to tell properly. And so I wrote a different book to fulfill that earlier contract (my novel Rollback) and re-sold this project as a three-book deal.

NJB: Reading Wake made me reflect on my own web browsing habits and think about other people's interaction with the web. When you turn on your computer every morning, where do you go first? What websites do you check everyday?

RJS: First thing is my email. Because I do so many different things -- writing, editing, working on TV shows, teaching -- there is so much of it; if I don't keep on top of it, it very rapidly gets out of control. After that, I check the best science-fiction news site on the web, And if I have time, a few science sites, such as

NJB: In 2007 you won the Galaxy Award, China's largest Science Fiction Prize, and part of WAKE is set in China. Has Wake already launched in China? How was it received, or how to you think it will be received?

RJS: Wake isn't out yet in China. The book deals in part with Chinese censorship of the Web, which is a real concern; I felt I couldn't write about the World Wide Web without tackling that issue. If that means the book never gets published in China, well, so be it. My number-one obligation as a writer is to be honest -- to engage directly and fully with issues. I can't stop to think about what market segments are going to be lost; I have to tell the stories that need to be told.

NJB: The news about Flashforward becoming a television series on ABC this fall is very exciting. How much input do you have on the direction of the series? Did you get to consult on the pilot, for example?

RJS: Quite a bit actually. I met in Los Angeles with David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga, who wrote the pilot script, before they'd written any of it to discuss their interpretation, and I reviewed drafts of the script. I was also on-set for a good hunk of the filming. I'm very pleased with how it's turning out.

NJB: You wrote Flashforward in 1999 but set it in 2009. While I was rereading it recently, and being a total bookstore nerd, one scene really caught my attention. When Jake and Carly meet in Vancouver, they meet in a Chapters store that is partially devoted to a print-on-demand machine that basically prints books while customers wait. Did you basically predict the invention of the Espresso Book Machine (seen in action here)? Does somebody owe you some money?

RJS: People only owe you money when you patent ideas, and I didn't. But, yes, I certainly got that one right!

NJB: Speaking of advances in book technology. What do you think of the Kindle and other similar electronic readers? Do you have a Kindle, or Sony Reader?

RJS: The Kindle is not available in Canada, and the Sony Reader unaccountably lacks a built-in dictionary, so I don't want one. Those two devices are e-ink units; I do have an e-ink device, the iRex iLiad, a European device that has a bigger screen than either the standard Kindle or the Sony Reader, and uses Mobipocket format (rather than the device-specific formats of the Kindle or Sony Reader). I also have a Palm operating-system hand-held, which actually is my principal ebook-reading device. I've been doing most of my reading as ebooks for five or more years now. They're definitely the wave of the future, although exactly when they'll really take off nobody knows for sure.

NJB: Which brings me back to Caitlin and WAKE. In Wake, Caitlin uses a number of adaptive technologies such as screen readers and Braille displays. Did you learn to use JAWS and the like in order to better understand how to describe how a blind person would use the internet?

RJS: Absolutely! I did tons of research, and had JAWS -- a real program -- installed on my desktop. As I said before, a writer has an obligation to tell the truth, and part of that is getting the facts right. I spent an enormous amount of time learning what it was like to be blind in order to write the character of Caitlin in Wake, and I had six blind people read and review the book in manuscript to make sure I got it right. That's all just part of the writer's job.

Categories: Interview, SciFi & Fantasy, Saskatoon

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