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Interviews - Robert J. Sawyer Interview by Will McDermott

Robert J. Sawyer Interview by Will McDermott

I've known Rob Sawyer for several years, having met him at the first convention I ever attended as a Pro - Astronomicon 8 in November 2002. Since that time, I have had the privilege to sit with Rob on convention panels, talk with him in green rooms and consuites and even attend his famous ocassional bashes. I have always found Rob to be a gracious person who is accessible to both pros and fans alike, and actively reaches out to help those aspiring writers who haven't yet found the level of success that Rob has achieved in his professional writing career.

I had the chance to sit down with Rob in the hotel lobby at Noreascon 4 (the 2004 World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention in Boston) last fall for a short interview. I had hoped to get the interview published in Amazing Stories, but that opportunity fell through, so you get to read the full interview for free right here.

I always like to start with this question: What book influenced you the most as a child?

Oh, as a child! The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth. It had won the Newberry Award for children’s literature. You see echoes of it throughout my science fiction. It is in fact a science fiction novel. I got it through the Scholastic Book Club. It was a novel about a 12-year-old boy in Freedom, New Hampshire – a little town in New Hampshire – whose chicken laid an enormous egg, out of which hatched a Triceratops. I actually re-read it a number of years later as an adult, and it is so bitingly satiric about big business, about the culture of science in academia, and advertising, and the American big city versus small town ways of life. It’s just an utterly charming novel. The triceratops that for many years was on display at the Smithsonian was called Uncle Beasly after the character in the novel. You know, I’m famous for having blatant Canadian content in my books, and this is an American novel set in New Hampshire. But the paleontologist from the Smithsonian, who had been vacationing on a lake in New Hampshire and heard tell of this enormous egg, and had come and seen what looked like a triceratops to him, was not satisfied that it was really a dinosaur until Professor Morrison from Toronto came down and signed off on it. He said, “Well if you say so, the world’s greatest expert on dinosaurs – being a Canadian – then it must be true. It was the first time in my reading history, even growing up Canada, where I found a reference to Canada in a book for Americans – or for Canadians for that matter. And it’s always stuck in the back of mind that, yes, American readers can appreciate references to Canada just as much as Canadians do.

So what works influence your writing now?

I was very fortunate to be here [at Worldcon 2004] on a panel with Frederick Pohl, and I was able to tell him that I think: a) the best science fiction novel the field has ever produced, and b) the one that influenced me the most as a writer is Gateway. In fact, Humans takes its structure from Gateway, which is structured as a series of psycho-analytic sessions and then flashbacks to the events that led to the guy being on the couch. It’s not the first time I’ve used that technique. I also used it in my novel, Foreigner.

Fred Pohl did in that novel exactly what I have ultimately extracted as being the mission statement for my books, which is to combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic. Gateway is all about the human emotion of guilt and how it can destroy and wrack a person forever. And yet it is set against this backdrop. It was one of the first novels about black holes and the physics of black holes and what black holes can do in terms of slowing the passage of time. That juxtaposition of an intimately human story against a grandly cosmic background I learned from Pohl and try to apply in each of the books I write.
You often you use your books to explore very human themes and questions. So, what themes are you exploring in Mindscan?

There are a couple of things that Mindscan looks at. First it looks at what constitutes personhood. It is a novel about the technology that exists – the mindscan process – that allows you to scan the entire contents of a human mind and reinstantiate it into an artificial body. The basic premise of the story is that somebody has done this. Made the durable immortal version of themselves just before they are about to die from an incurable disease, which turns out to be…curable. Suddenly, he says, “Yes, I transferred my personhood. I signed over my house. I gave away all of my rights. I was just about to die, and this was going to be the legal me – this artificial version. But now I want those rights back.” So, it flips back the standard SF model, which is: “Is this artificial thing a person?” Its no, “is the biological one the person?”

Secondly, I was fortunate enough in 1985 to do a bunch of interviews with science fiction authors for CBC radio, including Fred Pohl for that matter. One of the authors I interviewed was Ursula K. Leguin. And she said “What science fiction manages to do is through dislocations in time and place, let us see ourselves in ways we don’t normally see ourselves.” So, once I have this uploading technology, I am very interested in romantic relationships that have a substantial age differences involved in them. I have an 85-year-old woman and a 44-year-old man who are generations apart in terms of their pop cultural references and in terms of their approaches to life. My 85-year-old woman was born in 1960 – the novel is set in 2045. And I was born in 1960, so her culture is my culture. Then I have a guy born in 2001 – January 1st 2001, very symbolically. I’m very interested in how much of our relationships with people do we share the same cultural background, and how much transcends the pop cultural background, the politics we grew up with. Can somebody who never lived through Watergate, or Apollo, or Vietnam, or the Civil Rights movement, or Iran-Contra, Richard Nixon, and doesn’t remember 9/11 ever really relate to somebody who does? So, that’s the other big issue. It’s often, of course, explored the older man – it’s not even explored. It’s such commonplace. The rich old guy whose got the young, attractive woman. I wanted to do the old woman and the young guy and explore that relationship a bit. The reason this works out is I have two people who have uploaded their consciousness – one who did it in his forties and the other who did it in her 80s. So there are two people in these artificial bodies.
The science fiction community is very welcoming to both fans and aspiring writers. It’s a different paradigm from the cutthroat world of business and politics – any large group that’s competing for a single pie. What do you think makes this group so supportive of its fans, its new people, and each other?

Robert A. Heinlein said many, many years ago after he had done a favor for a young writer who had replied, “I’ll find some way to pay you back,” Heinlein said, “You can’t! There’s nothing you can ever do for me. So, what you have to do is pay forward. You have to find the person who’s coming up behind you and do something good for them. And that’s how you will settle your karmic debt with me.” That ethos has permeated the science fiction field. We all learn so much about writing from Heinlein, and about storytelling from Heinlein, and about being good human beings from Heinlein. We all hear that story early in our careers, and really, most of us do try to take it to heart.

That’s part of it. The other part of it is a realization that yes, although science fiction is a commercial publishing category, it is not just a business. No one else can write a Robert J. Sawyer story so I’m not competing with anybody else. Nobody else can write a Harry Turtledove story. Only Harry can do that! So, if Harry has success or failure doing Harry Turtledove, it doesn’t impinge on whether I have success or failure. And that helps a lot. We do have a shrinking pool of publishers, which is sad. And we have fewer magazines with smaller circulations, which is sad. But nonetheless, no one says, “Oh, you’ve sold a book, and therefore I didn’t.” But if you’re a used car salesman and I’ve sold you the old Hutt mobile, nobody else can sell you that. Your need has been filled. So that’s part of it, too

The other thing is, one of the great joys about all aspects of publishing, and not just SF, is the pay is lousy. Which means, nobody goes into this as a profession except for love of the field. Whereas, people who go into business or law or medicine or government are often seduced by the rewards – the tangible material rewards – that go with pursuing those careers. And although there are people who make a lot of money in science fiction, there are people who make no money in science fiction. My editor, David G. Hartwell, has a Ph.D. in comparative medieval literature, and could have had a very comfortable life teaching at a major university -- tenured, pension, and medical benefits, and all of that – but instead chose a life in science fiction. All of us did. Only an idiot goes into writing for the money. We’re in a field where there’s a recognition that this isn’t about the bottom line, so I treat it that way.

Finally, no field of writing, or even of any field of the arts, has such a direct connection between the producers of the art and the consumers of the art. The relationship between fans and pros is close. First, most of us who are pros started as fans, and are still fans. That incredible cross-fertilization and that there really are no barriers. Whereas if you see an actor and a member of the audience, clearly the actor is the exalted one and the member of the audience is the person paying homage. That’s not the way it is in this field. This is a field where the reader and the writer rub shoulders constantly at conventions and other events and have a relationship of equals and of friends.
You mention some of the woes of the current publishing industry, and yet you’ve started you own imprint, Robert J. Sawyer Books.

Yes. I started it with somebody else’s money. I’m not an idiot. [laughs]

How is that going?

It’s going really well. An established Canadian publisher named Red Deer Press – they’ve been around since 1975 – and are well known for literary fiction, and poetry, and for eclectic nonfiction in Canada had tried to acquire the one established Canadian science fiction line – Tesseract Books, which has been around since 1984 in one form or another. They had merger talks, but it all just fell apart. So, Dennis Johnson, the publisher of Red Deer Press started thinking “well, if I can’t buy a line, I’ll create a line.” He approached me and said, “How would like to edit a line for me?” and I said “ehhh.” And he said “I don’t have much money.” And I said, “urrh.” Then he said, “But I’ll call it Robert J. Sawyer Books.” And apparently I’m susceptible to flattery.

But actually it worked out well. The reason for that name was so that when he went to Borders and Barnes and Noble in the States, and said “We’ve got a new little Canadian publishing venture, that the name would have recognition, and both Borders and Barnes and Noble have agreed to carry the whole line in stores. So, it has worked to get us in the door.

We only do three books a year, so it’s a small line. In our guidelines I say this, “There are many fine works of science fiction that are going unpublished these days, but in flusher times would have found a home with major New York publishers. Those are the books I want to have submitted to my line. I’ve bought four books now for the line, and every one of them would have been published ten years ago when times were better in science fiction, and certainly twenty years ago by Tor or by Ace or by DelRay – one of the big publishers would have snapped these books up when there was more room in this field.

I think again this is that Heinleinian thing. It comes full circle of paying forward to people coming up behind me. Two of the four books that I bought had spent over two years in slush piles at Tor. I happened to become aware of them without the authors doing anything like simultaneous submission. One had sent the book to me as an author for a cover blurb and the other had submitted the first chapter of a novel to a workshop that I was facilitating. In both cases, I said, “Wow. These are great books. What’s happening with them?” Well, they’d been sitting in a slush pile; in one case for three years, in the other case, for two years. And I said, “Let’s have a conversation with Tor.” Of course, Tor’s position was this: “These are great books, but we’re waiting for the market to tunr around before we can really do anything with these novels from beginners.” And I said, “I’ve got a niche. I can do something with them.” And we are. We’re doing them and we’re doing major print runs: between 3,000 and 4,000 hardcovers for each of these books and distributing them across North America. And although it is the least remunerative thing that I do with my work, it is the one of the most satisfying things I do. I really am enjoying it.

So what’s next for Rob Sawyer?

The novel Mindscan will be out in May 2005 from Tor in hardcover. I finished the final, final revisions literally just before leaving for Worldcon. When I get back to Toronto, I will start my next novel, which is called Webmind. It’s under contract to Tor. It’s about the world wide web as a collective entity having consciousness emerge on it; and humanity becoming aware that it has created – without any intention of doing so – an artificial intelligence. I want to have a new take on that. We’ve seen The Forbin Project, and we’ve even seen William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which is now twenty years’ old now. And in all those cases, the relationship between us and the AI that we have created accidentally has been adversarial or at best something that we’ve been nervous about. I think since it is inevitable that we are going to create an artificial intelligence, and I also think it’s inevitable that it is going to happen not by design, but by accident – because that’s how our intelligence emerged – that I think there’s an opportunity to write a novel about how that can go positively – I’m known as an optimistic writer – how the experience can be uplifting and positive for both parties – the AI and us.

I’ve heard you say that a writer must treat his craft as a business. So what is your schedule like on a typical day at work?

The most important part of the business – and too many writers forget this – is the writing. So there’s always writing. For me it’s 2,000 words of new material every day, and I actually normally work seven days a week. Secondly, there is a substantial component of promotion. But I’m one of those writers who is firmly convinced that a writer wastes his time trying to sell books one-on-one to readers. The best thing to do is interviews and let the media leverage your presence. On a hardcover book I get $2.50 in royalties. On a paperback you’re getting maybe 70 cents. So it’s just not worth it spending even ten minutes of your time trying to earn 70 cents. You can’t do it one-on-one. You’ve got to do it by having a presence in the media. The third thing is simply following up on opportunities. So many writers will see that there is an opportunity where they might get interviewed in the media on something they are an expert about, but never send out a press release. There’s a great essay in the SFWA handbook by Frederick Pohl called “The Science Fiction Professional” that he wrote maybe 50 years ago that said whenever something interesting happens, send out a press release. Whenever you write a new book, send out a press release. Whenever you contract a new book, send out a press release. And I’ve taken Frederick Pohl’s advice to heart. The writer’s day is one of making sure you write, and making sure that after you’ve written that you have at least taken some steps to help make sure that people buy the books.

I’ve also heard you say that you do a lot of reading on an almost daily basis, both nonfiction and fiction.

Yes. Absolutely. People ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I say, “From reading nonfiction.” And I’m astonished by aspiring writers who don’t read. Whenever I do a writing seminar, I will ask people “what are you reading right now?” You go around the circle and you get people who want to write science fiction who: a) aren’t reading science fiction, b) aren’t reading science, and c) aren’t reading at all. Now, why the hell do you want to write a book? You obviously have no affinity for what you are trying to do. In fact, not to be arrogant, but one of the things that always astonishes me is when people say, “I want to be a science fiction writer, Mr. Sawyer, and I have a few questions. But please forgive me, I’ve never read any of your books.” Now, I’ve got eight Hugo nominations. I’ve won the Hugo and I’ve won the Nebula. So what they are saying is they want to work in this field, but they are not reading the Hugo and Nebula award winners. How do you possibly expect to be current, up-to-date, and well-read in the field, or understand the field’s definitions of quality if you’re turning your back on reading the Hugo and Nebula award winners. When somebody says, “Oh, I love this field,” what they really seem to mean in that case is, “I love Buffy or Star Wars,” and “I want to write a book” which they really seem to think is easy – and it’s not – and yet aren’t familiar with the literature. If you want to make it in this field it should be impossible to say, “I haven’t read Robert J. Sawyer,” or “I haven’t read Vernor Vinge,” or “I haven’t read William Gibson.” The other thing is people who say, “The only science fiction authors I ever read are Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark.” That’s all well and good, but to show as a perfect example, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine would never publish Isaac Asimov today. It’s not up to the literary standards of the top markets in the field.

So, last question. What are you reading now?

I should say this because you read not just science, but you read all kinds of stuff as a writer, and I’m reading an omnibus of Wooster and Jeeves short stories by P. G. Woodhouse, which is British humor from the early part of the last century. The use of language is beautiful. The plots are intricate. Everything goes snick, snick, snick. Thriller writers could learn a lot form the complexity of the plots that Woodhouse contrives. That’s the other thing. The flip side is that you get people who say, “All I ever read is science fiction.” There’s a whole world that should be cross-fertilized from. And I just started The Elegant Universe by Brian Green, which is his popularization about string theory, which seems to be great so far.

Will McDermott - www.willmcdermott.com

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