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Robert J. Sawyer, an Interview

Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008 at 2:57pm

By any measure, Robert J. Sawyer is one of Canada's most successful writers, an achievement made even more amazing by his ability to reach it while writing books that are consistently marketed as Science Ficton. Robert's latest book Rollback is out in paperback this month, so I'm pleased to present an interview, conducted via email recently.

KP: Rob, thanks for chatting with me. First off, could you share a few of the high points in your life that you feel have helped make you who you are, both personally and professionally?

RJS: The most significant high point to date was winning the Hugo Award Ė the worldís top honour in science fiction Ė for best novel of the year in 2003, for my novel Hominids. Iíd won lots of awards before that, including the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Americaís Nebula Award, but nothing had had such a big impact. My win was page-one news above the fold in the Ottawa Citizen, and it kick-started a lucrative sideline for me as a keynote speaker, talking all over North America about the future of science and technology.

KP: When and why did you begin writing?

RJS: I seriously got into writing in my last year of high school, and, in fact, sold a story I wrote then to an anthology co-edited by Isaac Asimov. Iíd always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little kid; my mother has some of my efforts penned Ė or penciled! Ė when I was eight and nine that I suspect sheíll put up on eBay someday. But it was only at the end of high school that I decided to make a career out of writing, and, really, itís the only job Iíve ever had, and I canít imagine now doing anything else.

KP: What are you reading now, for fun, and/or research?

RJS: For fun, the novel The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and for research The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness by Lee Alan Dugatkin; much of my upcoming WWW trilogy will deal with altruism and the mathematics of cooperation. Both books are excellent, by the way.

KP: Are there any new authors that you have found particularly interesting?

RJS: Ah, you play right into my hands! I edit the science fiction imprint for Calgaryís Red Deer Press, and have been in the wonderful position to actually buy and publish books by the exciting new writers Iíve encountered over the last few years, including Nick DiChario, Marcos Donnelly, and Danita Maslan; their work is absolutely first-rate, and, in fact, Iím just about to publish a second book by Nick, called Valley of Day-Glo; his first was A Small and Remarkable Life and it got us our first big award nomination, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel of the Year. Danitaís Rogue Harvest is a brilliant eco-thriller, and Marcosís Letters from the Flesh is one of the best science-vs.-religion books the field has ever seen.

KP: I think many of your readers would like to know a bit more about the writing process, and how it works for you. Has writing always been fairly smooth for you, or are there particular aspects of the process that you find more difficult than others?

RJS: The first draft is excruciating for me Ė like pulling teeth. I love research, and love revisions, but staring at that blank screen and creating something out of nothing is very hard work for me. I love the research aspect most of all; Iíd happily do nothing but research, just following my interests wherever they lead me.

KP: Do you write to any sort of time or word-count schedule?

RJS: In the first-draft stage, I try to get 2,000 words a day done. In the other stages Ė research, revision Ė I just try to put in an honest dayís work, somewhere between five and seven hours.

KP: Do you ever experience "writersí block" and if so do you have any favourite technique for getting past it?

RJS: I donít write in linear sequence; that is, I donít start at chapter one and push through in order to the end. So, if Iím stuck on a particular point, having backed a character literally or figuratively into a corner, I just jump to somewhere else in the narrative. So, no, Iíve never really had writersí block; I tend to think itís a myth. I mean, could you get away with doing nothing for weeks on end by claiming ďbooksellersí blockĒ? Of course not; itís only because some writers try to give the process a mystical quality that people accept that you can only do it when some ill-defined muse has struck.

KP: Many genre writers feel restricted by the categorizations. Have you found the SF label restrictive, and are there specific actions you have taken to get around such restrictions?

RJS: I have not at all found the genre label creatively restrictive. Every single thing Iíve ever wanted to do as an artist Iíve been able to do within the pages of SF: romance, adventure, comedy, tragedy; first-person narrative, third-person narrative, stream-of-consciousness, stylistic experimentation Ė all of that is possible in SF. But the genre label does server as a barrier, keeping a lot of readers out. I write science fiction that, according to the critics, can be ďsavoured by genre and mainstream readers alikeĒ (as the Globe and Mail said of my latest, Rollback), but getting those mainstream readers to pick up an SF book can be hard. And, yes, Iíve taken a big step: Iíve sold my next trilogy separately to Ace Science Fiction in the USA, which will market it as genre, and to Penguin Canada here, which will market it as mainstream. I already have a large mainstream audience in Canada, but we expect this move to bring me an even wider readership here.

KP: You do a great deal of traveling to promote your work. Do you generally find that invigorating, or is it a tiring process?

RJS: Itís both, and I know that sounds contradictory, but itís true. Itís physically exhausting: Iím on the road between two and five months each year. But itís creatively and emotionally very stimulating, and itís wonderful interacting directly with my readers. Thank God I write well on airplanes!

KP: Next Iíd like to ask a bit about your philosophy of writing. Youíve often used variations on the line that a Science Fiction writerís job is about preventing the future not predicting it. Have you ever had any specific feedback that makes you feel that you, or another science fiction author may have successfully contributed to such a role?

RJS: Absolutely! Thereís no doubt that the discussions of privacy vs. societal stability in my Neanderthal Parallax trilogy have had an impact on the public discourse on this topic (and have lead to me being invited to write about that topic in Macleanís, be interviewed about it on CBC Radioís Definitely Not the Opera, and to address the Gartner IT Security Summit in Washington, DC, later this year). And as a direct result of my novel Frameshift, which is about the future of the privacy of genetic information and its relationship to health insurance, I was invited by Canadaís Federal Department of Justice to participate in a forum about what sort of laws Canada should have in these very areas.

KP: Unlike most Canadian authors, youíve never been afraid to make your settings unabashedly Canadian, while recognizing that the American market is critical to your success. Would you like to comment on that?

RJS: When I was starting out, everyone told me it wouldnít work Ė that if I wanted an American audience, Iíd need to hide the Canadian content in my books. But look at Rollback, which is set entirely in Toronto. One of the key scenes takes place at the CBC Museum, with the main character looking at props from The Friendly Giant and other Canadian programs. That didnít stop the book from getting starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, from making the American Library Associationís list of the 10 best SF novels of the year, and so on. Telling me not to write about Toronto would be like telling Robert B. Parker not to write about Boston in his Spenser novels; itís a crazy, uniquely Canadian notion. The world does know about us, and does care about us, and, in science-fictional contexts, we have an important lesson to teach about multiculturalism.

KP: Over your career, youíve been one of the most encouraging of genre writers towards other would-be authors, from participating in writer-in-residence programs and running writing courses, to an extensive area of your website devoted to advice to new authors and a significant presence on-line. Does that remain something that you enjoy participating in, or do you find it has become more of a drain on your other projects.

RJS: Well, of course, itís a drain; thereís zero benefit to it for me Ė but thatís not the point. The point is that Iíve been very lucky Ė I freely and frequently acknowledge that Ė and that, I firmly believe, comes with obligations: I owe it to the universe to pay back, and I do. As it happens, I do enjoy teaching, but it doesnít pay nearly as well as my writing does these days; I do it because it needs doing Ė simple as that.

KP: I believe you made a conscious decision to drop a lucrative career in writing non-fiction, in order to concentrate on your love of writing science fiction. Were there points when you thought you werenít going to make it, and do you have specific memories of how you felt when the first novel sold?

RJS: Sure, I remember selling my first novel, but even then that wasnít the point where I thought I was going to make it; I knew full well that most first-time novelists never sell a second book. No, for me, it was very touch-and-go from 1988, when I started backing away from that lucrative career you mentioned, to 1996, when I won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Americaís Nebula Award for best novel of the year: every one of those eight years was precarious, despite selling nine novels in that time. But the Nebula changed everything. As my editor said the day after I won, ďYouíve gone overnight from being a promising newcomer to an established bankable name.Ē Now, I do despair for the long-term health of SF, but I suspect Iíll be like Triceratops, which was one of the very last dinosaurs Ö Iím going to hold on to the very end.

KP: Youíve said in the past that many new writers fail because they fail to treat their writing as a business. What do you think is the single most important thing that a would-be writer needs to know about making a living at writing?

RJS: Itís a clichť, but itís also true: donít quit your day job. You need a financial cushion. Most writers are part-timers; Iím extraordinarily lucky to be able to do it full-time, and even luckier that I can support myself and my wife doing so Ė most of those who are full-timers are the secondary income earners in their households. The second piece of advice: recognize that youíre building a brand. Define your brandís qualities Ė in my case, itís books set in the present day or near future that combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic Ė and deliver it in a reliable fashion, meaning book after book, on a regular basis, that give the consumer the things they want from your brand.

KP: Now Iíd like to move on to your recent and future work. Your latest collection Identity Theft and Other Stories is due shortly, accompanied by a new edition of the earlier collection, Iterations. Do you feel the new work will be a departure for those who read the first, or will it feel like a comfortable continuation of the earlier work?

RJS: If you liked my earlier short stories, youíll like the new collection: there are several SF/mystery crossovers in Identity Theft,, just as there were in Iterations, and whereas Iterations had an Arthur Conan Doyle pastiche, Identity Theft, has an H.G. Wells pastiche Ė both of which are among the best stories Iíve ever written, in my humble opinion. Both collections have lots of award winners and nominees, and Iím very proud of both books. But they also mark the end of an era for me: I donít intend to do any more short fiction; these two volumes collect all of my short work, and Iím just not finding myself drawn to that form anymore. I much prefer writing novels.

KP: Your most recent novel, Rollback,, while not really about SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is set peripherally around their activities. Do you have any thoughts on our failure to find any signs of intelligent life off of Earth?

RJS: I was invited last summer to participate in a joint NASA Ames Reaserch Center / SETI Institute conference on that very topic. It was an incredibly high-powered think-tank: Marvin Minsky, Freeman Dyson, Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak, etc. etc. And the conclusion we all converged on was this: intelligent life in the universe is probably common, but the desire to have material things and boundless energy will put any environment so at risk that any civilization may have a very short lifespan. It was an interesting change of perspective: if youíd asked 40 years ago what had happened to all the aliens, the consensus response might have been nuclear war; now it is environmental collapse. Weíre at the tipping point of our own environmental collapse, and it seems likely that all races face that Ö and only a few survive long enough to engage in decades- or centuries-long dialogues with other star systems.

KP: I believe your next book is set to be about the rise of consciousness within the World Wide Web. Human-like intelligence in machines was also touched on in Rollback and played a significant role in Mindscan. Combined with your statement that science fiction is about preventing the future, this seems to indicate that you feel that machine intelligence is close enough that we need to think about the repercussions now. Would you say that is the case?

RJS: Totally, and, in fact, I make my strongest statements about that in two earlier novels of mine, both still in print: the Aurora Award-winning Golden Fleece, and the Hugo Award-finalist Factoring Humanity. But I think just sounding warning bells is only part of the SF writerís job, and in my new project Ė a trio of novels called Wake, Watch, and Wonder Ė Iím really trying to come up with a new synthesis: a way in which we can share this planet with a superintelligence without giving up our essential humanity, our individuality, or our physical bodies. Weíll see if I can pull it off; the first book will be out next year.

KP: Do you think that we will be ready to identify machine intelligence when it emerges?

RJS: That presupposes that it hasnít already; it might well have, and we could be unaware of it. But, yes, I do think weíll know when machines start to think, just as we know when a baby starts to think for itself: it will say ďno.Ē

KP: Many writers find that they canít look at earlier work without wishing they could go back and do it over again. In light of your time spent preparing for the ďWWWĒ series, if you had to do Mindscan all over again, would you change anything?

RJS: No Ė not because itís a perfect book, but because that would be pointless. I love Douglas Adams, but he spent his whole life tinkering with the same basic story, instead of giving us much that was new. When I finish a book, itís ďfixed in a permanent formĒ (as the copyright legislation phrases it), and thatís just fine: itís a snapshot of who I was and how I saw the world at a given time, warts and all. I never go back and re-read my books; in fact, when my first novel, Golden Fleece, came out in 1990, I said I wouldnít start re-reading each one until 40 years had passed, so Iíll re-read Golden Fleece in 2030, when Iím 70 years old. But in the meantime, Iíd much rather push ahead and write new works than go back and relive the past Ö which is exactly what one might expect a science-fiction writer to say!

I'd like to thank you for the chat, Rob. I don't think I'm taking a big risk by predicting that all of your fans will be waiting for the new books with some impatience.

Categories: Interview, Authors, SciFi & Fantasy

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