Books ‘N Pieces Magazine was fortunate to interview Rob for our December 2017 issue. Here is the complete interview. [Note: Short stories, and interviews from upcoming issues of Books ‘N Pieces Magazine are only available to subscribers. You can sign up for a print or e-Magazine subscription from the menu above.]
Who is Robert J. Sawyer? Robert J. Sawyer is one of only eight writers in history — and the only Canadian — to win all three of the world’s top Science Fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (the full list of such winners: Paolo Bacigalupi, David Brin, Arthur C. Clarke, Joe Haldeman, Frederik Pohl, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert J. Sawyer, and Connie Willis), and he’s the first author in thirty years to receive a Lifetime Achievement Aurora Award.
Rob is also an award-winning scriptwriter and an in-demand keynote speaker. [Source: www.SFWriter.com]
Unless you are a science fiction reader, the name may escape you, that is
unless you watched the ABC adaptation of his novel Flash Forward, which only survived a season despite being an excellent show, and a terrific novel….
Q: John Scalzi wrote that “Cracking open a Robert J. Sawyer book is like getting a gift from a friend who visits all the strange and undiscovered places in the world. You can’t wait to see what he’s going to amaze you with this time.” I expect that every writer would love to get a testimonial like that. In developing your stories, do you look for the “amaze” option, or simply follow the idea that grabs you and flesh that into something solid? I get the sense from the volume of your work that everything is a (no pun intended) forward-direction with no looking back.
A: Damon Knight was one of the first serious science fiction reviewers; his reviews are collected as In Search of Wonder, and his notion that one of the prime virtues of science fiction is the sense of wonder—of the numinous, of what the Canadian poet Archibald Lampman calls “the wide awe and wonder of the night—has certainly been central to my reading experience. It’s also something I want to accomplish in whatever I myself write; my mission statement is to combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic, and I always want a central idea in each of my books that will knock people’s socks off.
Q: Among your works, I thoroughly enjoyed FlashForward (novel), and did watch the ABC series (which I know you had a hand in writing/consulting on), which sadly was canceled right when it was getting more viewers. Did you know how the novel would end before you wrote it? As the novel accelerated it took on new turns that ultimately led to the far, far ending. I find that as a reader (and a writer) the promise of an idea or concept is often better than the resolution. And inasmuch as the scale of the science, and the story expanded way beyond basic humanity, I always ask myself “So what?” with a bittersweet sense after I am done reading. Long-winded prelude, I know, however, do you find yourself adding the perspective of a subjective reality to your work—that even though it is science fiction, it represents a part of you. Does that include your beliefs at that scale? Or is it simply a tale told? I hope that question made some sense. If not, let me rephrase: Left to evolve on their own your stories become quite massive in the complexity of thought. Deliberate?
A: Actually, it was canceled when it was getting fewer viewers; I can’t blame ABC at all. Back then, Tivo, DVR, and time-shifting viewings didn’t count in the ratings. We were in the wrong time slot—8:00 p.m. on the coasts, and 7:00 p.m. in heartland—which was way too early in the evening for a serious adult show, and our live-viewing ratings dropped every single week.
As a writer, I do like to know how what I’m writing is going to end, but in the particular case of FlashForward, I didn’t. I had to work it out as I went along, trying to find the opening in my own rigorous logic that would let the characters actually have a chance at evading their predetermined fates.
I do want each story to have several successive pullbacks to wider angles. Adding to what I said earlier, I usually start with a pretty tight focus on the intimately human and keep pulling back until we’re immersed in the grandly cosmic. Not just FlashForward, but The Terminal Experiment, Starplex, Factoring Humanity, Calculating God, my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder, and, most recently, Quantum Night all follow that template.
Q: Your plots are fun. How much enjoyment is there in the plotting and writing, and what is the worst aspect of it? And how much time do you typically spend developing an idea before you start penning it?
A: Thanks! Although I think science fiction is an important vehicle for social comment, and a test bed for possible futures, nobody will read it if it isn’t fun, engaging, and a page-turner. I enjoy plotting, but I am adamant that the plot should progress by asking what a really bright person would do in the current circumstances, not what would be the easiest—but stupid—thing to have my characters do just to buy me the next plot turn. The movie Prometheus, I’m looking at you.
These days, I spend a full year researching and preparing before I begin writing a new book. It’s a wonderful time of invention and discovery, and I love every minute of it.
Q: On your website it states: Over ONE MILLION words * Over EIGHT HUNDRED documents—That is a pretty daunting banner for any writer approaching you—I might be nervous to say hello. And yet you appear to more down to earth than many other people. Do you attribute this to your nature, or being comfortable in the fact that you are a successful science fiction writer with no need to prove anything (despite a continuous quest for improvement, of course)? Or something else?
A: Well, I was the first science fiction writer in the world, and the first Canadian author of any type, to have a website, and I’ve written a lot of nonfiction about science and how to write, so in putting together that massive site I’ve had both a lot of time and a lot of material to draw on. It’s not supposed to be daunting; it’s supposed to be inviting with things of general interest, not just the usual modern website hustle of “Buy my books!”
And thank you for the kind words. I am a down-to-earth guy, and always have been. You’re right that I have nothing to prove to anyone now, but even at the very beginning, I figured the best way to do anything was just to be myself: good-humored, self-deprecating and able to take a joke, approachable, polite, and kind. That’s not “branding” or a marketing strategy; it’s just my recipe for going through life.
Q: Your novels are varied in content, but all are intelligent and thought-provoking, which is a far cry from a lot of the material out there, especially the over-saturated dystopic themes that have become staple in mainstream entertainment. To read one of your books is to go on a journey of exploration of the theme, and the unfolding of that is as much a part of the joy of the read, as is the story itself. Do you find that the audience looking for intelligent stories is growing or have we become a less literate culture with far lower expectations?
A: To my great sadness, serious science fiction, with trenchant social comment, plausible extrapolation, real science, and believable character psychology has become a tiny part of the genre; it’s been overwhelmed by fantasy—most traditional publishers are doing very little SF anymore—and the SF that is still published tends to be formulaic space opera and fungible military stuff. It breaks my heart; the genre I love is dying.
Q: I know you enjoy your career—but if you had to single out only one aspect of the entire process, from concept through finished product, which is your favorite? I suspect you will say that the writing is, and if so let me ask which part—drafting, notes, plotting, sequencing, revisions, the end of the first completed draft…?
A: No, it’s not the writing; I only do that to financially support my real hobby which is … research! I love doing research; I love learning new things. Right up until the end of high school, I’d intended to become a scientist, not a science-fiction writer, and, to this day, researching whatever I wish, following my nose and trying to find a new synthesis of disparate concepts from multiple disciplines gives me more joy than anything else. Of the actual writing process, I hate doing the first draft—it’s like being a sculptor who has to make his or her own clay—but I do very much enjoy revising.
Q: You have worked as writer and scriptwriter quite a number of times. Screenwriting is a more concise and visual structure than a novel, lacking in the luxury of time to fully flesh the imagery that novels offer. The end result of a novel is pretty much that which the author envisioned. The end result of a screenplay tends to become an investors relationship with everyone from readers on up. Does it bother you that there is a such a difference?
A: Not at all; they are completely different art forms. To go back to the sculptor metaphor, it would be like a statue maker saying to a painter, hey, don’t you miss the third dimension? Michelangelo worked in both—he sculpted David and he painted the roof of the Sistine Chapel—and in each form he managed surpassing excellence. I actually find the two forms I work in use different parts of my creative energy. In prose fiction, it’s all about stream of consciousness—the articulated inner voice of a character—rather than the external, as in a script, and in prose we emphasize showing, not telling: “a gnarled liver-spotted hand” conveying without stating that someone is old versus the declarative telling of a script: “An old man enters.” I enjoy having both a novel and a script to work on at the same time.
Q: With the sheer volume of material that you have written, do you hold to favorites, or is this a business where the products, once released, like children grown-up, are gone and you just move on? In the same vein, do you remember everything that you have written?
A: Writers have favorites for different reasons: FlashForward, because it made me the most money, thanks to the TV series; Hominids, because it won the Hugo, the top international award in my field; Illegal Alien, because it was the most fun to write; Quantum Night, because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. But I absolutely do not remember all the details. I made a pact with myself when my first novel, Golden Fleece, was published in 1990 that I wouldn’t re-read each of my books until 40 years after its first publication; for that book, that’ll be 2030, 13 years from now. I remember the broad strokes, but not the details. Ask yourself how much of the work you did a quarter of a century ago that you remember? It’s no different for writers.
Q: Aside from your famous line about doing anything else but writing, if writing is not your passion, what practical advice would you give a new or obscure writer, that could help them plot a direction for their career?
A: I’m a firm believer that writers should write their stories—not tie-ins to media franchises, not faux collaborations with big-name writers, not whatever they think the market is currently looking for, and, for the love of God, not mindless, escapist entertainment that will soon be churned out by AI algorithms at the pace of one every few seconds. Write something ambitious, something important, something moving, and do it to the absolute best of your abilities. Publishing is way more interested in the hot new thing these days than in established pros, and you get one, and only one, chance to be that; take your absolute best shot.
[Publisher: Quantum Night is Robert’s 23rd novel, already an award winner. I’d like to thank Robert for his time and thoughtful answers. Knowing his schedule and lack of time, I was delighted when he agreed to this interview. I have included links to his Website, books and biography, videos and more, below. You can read the full Dec. 2017 issue HERE. Enjoy.]
Photo credits: Robert J Sawyer