My Interview with Robert J Sawyer!
I’m thrilled to interview you today, Robert. Your titles fascinate me, especially your newrelease, TheOppenheimer Alternative, and I have added them to my to-be-read list. I look forward to discovering your work as well as the man behind the words!
1. My interviews always begin with the same revealing question: please, tell us how you’d describe yourself?
Since “the world’s first bionic man” is already taken I’ll go with “Canadian science-fiction writer.”
2. I’ve met writers who’ve become published authors so they ‘had something to read.’ They claimed there were no relatable books until then. In turn, I’ve met avid readers whose passion for the written word led them into the art of storytelling themselves. Still, others fall somewhere in between these examples. I’d like to learn more about you and where you stand as a writer and reader.
· What came first for you – the reader or the writer?
o Not many people get to say this, but it’s honestly true: they were simultaneous for me. The very first science-fiction novel I ever read was called Troubleon Titan by AlanE. Nourse, and it began with an author’s foreword about the joys of being a science-fiction writer. Nourse — who pronounced his last name “Nurse” and had an M.D. degree so was in fact Dr. Nurse — made it sound like so much fun that I knew I wanted to do it myself.
Ø Did you engage in oral storytelling?
§ In the sense of just spinning yarns in front of an audience, no; one of my great friends, MarieBilodeau, is a master of that — I’ve seen her perform at Canada’s National Arts Centre — but I need a prepared text in front of me. That said, I’ve done many hundreds of public readings, and I — cough, cough — get a lot of praise for those because I do act them out, with gestures and different voices and appropriate accents.
Ø What, or who, influenced your love of literature?
§ I graduated high school in 1979 — I’ll save your readers the math: that was forty-one years ago. And just yesterday, one of my high-school English teachers, Bill Martyn, called to say hi, which is remarkable, of course; few, if any of us, are in touch with teachers from that long ago. But he and my other high-school English teachers really did inspire me, and I’ll forever be grateful to them, and they, to this day, have remained some of my biggest supporters.
· I know that Arthur C. Clarke is your favorite sci-fi author. What about his work speaks to you most? Is it his style, themes – what draws you to him?
o Clarke, of course, is best known for co-writing the screenplay for 2001:A Space Odyssey. He was firmly grounded in hard science, and a rationalist, as I am, but was also interested in metaphysical questions: where did we come from, why are we here, what does it all mean? I learned from him that science fiction isn’t escapism; rather, it’s a means of engaging with philosophical questions. He also has a wonderfully lyrical prose style, almost never has villains in his books — just good-hearted, bright people trying to make the world or the universe a better place. I find him uplifting to read, and I try to make my works uplifting, too.
· Are there other authors who have influenced you? If so, who, and why?
o FrederikPohl, another science-fiction grandmaster. He showed that the most important thing in writing characters is getting to the psychological truth of who they are. They don’t have to be likable; they simply have to be real. It’s a lesson some genre writers, with their white-hat heroes and their black-hat villains never learn.
o Most of all, though, H.G.Wells, the grandfather of English-language science fiction. He knew that his newfangled mode of storytelling could be a powerful tool for social and political commentary through the use of mask and metaphors—which is precisely what I try to do with my own books.
· Which books have made the greatest impact on you?
Ø As a reader?
§ HarperLee’s ToKill a Mockingbird. As I answer your questions, thirty — thirty! — cities in the United States have rioting in them over racial injustice, so her book is every bit as timely today, sad to say, as it was when it came out sixty years ago. She set out to do what good science fiction also tries to do: suck you in with a story apparently about one thing — in her case, about the summertime adventures of three kids in the Deep South — and thereby get you to think about something important and profound.
Ø As a writer?
§ TheMaking of Star Trek by StephenE. Whitfield and GeneRoddenberry, the first-ever “Making of” book. I first read it when I was twelve or so, and it was a fascinating look at the creative process — at the layers of thought and research that are behind every little detail one sees in the finished product.
Ø As a person, in general – shaping your mind and ideology?
§ That one changes from year to year, but right now I’ll say TheRighteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The author is JonathanHaidt — which is funny, of course, because it’s pronounced “hate” and he’s really talking about not hating — and his premise is that liberals and conservatives have fundamentally different but equally valid moral frameworks, and if you don’t seek to understand the other side — whichever one is the other from your point of view — you are failing as a human being. It’s changed the way I engage with others, especially on social media but also in real life, too.
3. Like many sci-fi writers, you have an appreciation of StarTrek. What I find unique about you is that your influence surpassed the usual trekkie and originated from a writer’s point of view. Not only did you have limited exposure to the show in its original airing, but, as you said above, you actually found your draw to it through a unique book, TheMaking of Star Trek. I’d like this section to address this topic.
· I read that the first episode you ever saw was ‘TheDevil in the Dark,’ and though you didn’t watch much after that due to restrictions in your household, you did find the book. So, I am curious to know, was it really the show or the book that made you a fan?
o Well, the big restriction was my bedtime! But it was definitely the show itself that captured my imagination. Predating by decades my exposure to JonathanHaidt, whom I discussed above, I was fascinated, even as a kid, by StarTrek’s constant messaging that the person you think of as a villain isn’t necessarily a bad guy. Almost every childhood fairy tale or game — think of cops and robbers — has a good guy and a bad guy. But right from that first episode, ‘The Devil in the Dark,’ I got the StarTrek message that most fights are misunderstandings, that being a pacifist is at least as noble as being a soldier, and that communication is the key to understanding.
Ø What captured your interest in the television series?
§ Optimism: the view of a future that was better than today, and of a humanity is striving to overcome its violent past. SethMacFarlane — he of TheOrville and FamilyGuy fame — has this as his favorite StarTrek quote, from Kirk: ‘We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill. That’s all it takes: knowing that we’re not going to kill today.” My favorite is similar, and it’s Kirk speaking of a role we Canadians hold dear, that of peacekeepers: “They were humanitarians and statesmen, and they had a dream — a dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars, a dream that made Mr. Spock and me brothers.’
· I read you said that not only did the original series influence you to be a sci-fi writer, but it taught you to be a better person. Can you elaborate on that, please?
o Here is everything any person needs to know about life, in one short scene from Star Trek’s very firstseason, in 1966, back when the United States was segregated, when women were denied many job opportunities, and so on. A crewman, basically drunk, has taken over control of the ship and is singing irritatingly and incessantly over the intercom system. Captain Kirk — white, male, large, in charge — goes over to the station of Communications OfficerUhura — black, female, small, subordinate — and, looming over her, shouts, “At least try cutting him off!” And Uhura snaps at him, “Sir, if I could cut him off, don’t you think I would?” A beat — a second, where they each reflect on their relative positions and power — and Kirk apologizes to her. That’s an important lesson in 2020 — just imagine the impact it had on TV viewers in 1966!
· You’ve said you learned to write from watching Star Trek. Why do you believe this? What did it teach you?
o First, have a theme — have something to say. That’s what differentiated Star Trek from most other TV; it was about something. Second, let your characters disagree amongst themselves, and, in that disagreement, dramatize all sides of an issue. Third, forget all this garbage about A-plots, and B-plots, and C-plots that are so common in superficial writing. If you’re going to tell a story, do a deep dive. Dig in and tell that one story; don’t keep cutting away to some soap-opera subplot because you really aren’t writer enough to engage with the actual issues your main plot is about. Later Star Trek series, sadly, moved away from this last point, but it’s the core of the original series.
· Screen writing is a different art than writing a book. However, world-building is the same. How did the show and book help you to understand this process and implement it into your own work? Did they essentially teach you the same things, or did you find unique perspectives from the two mediums?
o The show, of course, gave you the end product — but even in that you can see the worldbuilding. “The United Federation of Planets” isn’t really anything more than just a phrase in the show, but it implies so much. And, although you never see Earth in the original Star Trek, you hear it’s “united,” as well — one word that tells you we finally learned to get along.
o The making-of book, with its excerpts from production memos and reminiscences by show creator GeneRoddenberry, shows you how that process works: if you say x, it implies y.
4. I have read from several sources that LocusMagazine’s Index has you listed as the highest global award wins as a sci-fi/fantasy novelist. Though you have been nominated for and won many awards, you’re only one of eight writers to win all three of the top awards in the genre of Science Fiction: The Nebula Awardin 1995, theHugo Award in 2003, and the John W. CampbellMemorial Award in 2006. In addition, you are the only Canadian author to have accomplished this to date. How does it make you feel to know you’ve literally written history?
Pretty good, thanks! Those three awards represent three very different groups: the Nebula is voted on by other writers; the Hugo, by readers; and the Campbell by academics and critics. Few writers can satisfy one of those audiences; to have earned respect from all three has made all the sacrifices one makes when choosing a career in the arts worthwhile.
5. As I cannot think of a better person to offer guidance to a novice author, particularly in the science fiction/fantasy genre, I’d like to focus this next set of questions on your journey to becoming a published author and what advice you have to give.
· You are a writer without being a published author. Why did you decide to have your work published?
o Actually, I may well be the worst person to ask. I sold my first short story forty years ago and my first novel thirty years ago — the field has changed a lot in that time. But as for why to get published, as opposed to just doing the work for yourself or a small group, it comes back to what I said earlier: I had things I wanted to say and that I felt the world needed to hear. For instance, my first novel came out when Ronald Reagan was pushing the snake oil of the StrategicDefense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” something that couldn’t possibly do what it was being touted as being capable of: working flawlessly the very first time to totally shield the US from a Soviet attack. So I wrote GoldenFleece to highlight the inherent bugginess of software and the folly of trusting our future to military computers rather than human diplomacy.
Ø What are your thoughts on the query letter, and do you still need to write one when you are pitching a new book?
§ You definitely need a short-and-sweet description. Some editors are only interested in literary science fiction, others in military science fiction, still others in light and fluffy stuff. You need to make sure your manuscript is being read by someone who likes the sort of thing you’re writing. Beyond that, though, the story should stand on its own.
· How did you become a published author?
o I think this is still the way most people do it, and it certainly worked for me: I started out writing short fiction — science fiction has always had a vigorous short-story marketplace — and got some credits there. I used those to query a top agent, who took me on, and he (Richard Curtis) sold my first book for me.
Ø What do you think of the Indie movement? How do you think the flexibility of publishing has affected the industry?
§ For sure. There’s tons of great independently published fiction out there, and kilotons of independently published crap. The problem is separating the tiny amount of wheat from the huge amount of chaff, and of being discovered by readers. But traditionalpublishers have gotten lazier and lazier — they do almost no promotional work on their own anymore, offloading it onto their authors, and the number of bookstore accounts they serve has dwindled enormously — and they’ve gotten greedier and greedier, wanting way more than a fair share of ebook royalties, and a piece of things they traditionally had no stake in such as audiobooks.
Ø Do you recommend budding writers to seek literary agents, small presses, or Indie avenues for publication? Why, or why not?
§ If, and only if, you’re book can win at the usual — stupid, but usual — publishing game of “it’s this meets that” or “it’s another XXXX,” then traditional publishing is for you: “It’s HarryPotter meets X-Men,” or “It’s the next Dune.” Otherwise, the machinery of traditional publishing, which is based on only your editor, and sometimes not even that person, actually reading your book, and everyone else — the art director, the sales force, etc. — relying only on that simplistic comparison, will fail you completely.
Ø Where do you see the industry headed?
§ More self-publishing, more electronic publishing, and more consolidation among print publishers — we’re down to fivebig New York houses, and soon it’ll be four, then three ...
· What, if anything, would you change about your career if you could, and why?
o I’d never have written anything just for the money. I did some media and gaming work, and contemplated some tie-in book writing related to TV and film properties, solely for the bucks. In the end, those weren’t the things that paid off — it was my own intellectual property, the things I was passionate about, and the things I alone owned the copyright in that mattered.
· What do you feel are the downfalls of publishing?
o Someone once asked me what the collective noun for writers is (just as a group of crows is called a muder); my reply: a poverty of writers. Pretty much says it all. I’ve done well, but that has a hell of a lot of luck in it. I’ve never met a poor publisher — the person at the top of any large publishing house — but the industry is built on the passion of overworked and underpaid people who do it out of love: writers, editors, booksellers. And publishers and the rich owners of bookstore chains take full advantage of that.
Ø Do you have control of your edits, covers, blurbs, or promotions?
§ Sure; all authors have the right to accept or reject editorial suggestions. If it’s a big issue, the publisher may show you the door if you won’t play ball, and that’s fine. I walked away from a division of Penguin over the editing of one novel — and won the Nebula Award for the same book published by HarperCollins verbatim as I’d written it. And good at blurbs, etc., so my publishers have long let me write my own. On covers, I always get consultation and sometimes get approval, but even with just the former, I’ve had publishers kindly scrap cover designs not once but twice that I wasn’t happy with and redo them from scratch.
§ Most authors have way more clout than they think they do: asking politely goes a long, long way.
Ø I have had traditionally published authors tell me that reviews don’t affect them. Whereas, they can determine the visibility and promotability for an Indie author. How do you feel; do reviews matter? Why, or why not?
§ They matter to sales, absolutely, and Amazon selects books to promote based on the number of user reviews and BookBub won’t let you run a deal with them if you don’t have a lot of user reviews.
§ Prior to publication, I have lots of beta readers — over fifty people read and commented on TheOppenheimer Alternative before it was published — and I know precisely what the ereviews will say, good and bad, long before the book comes out, and so the actual reviews are of no interest to me, except as marketing tools. Those things they praise were by design — and those things they didn’t like were by design, too, and I simply disagree with the reviewer. Remember, most user reviews — and way too many professional ones — conflate “not to my taste” with “with not any good.”
· What do you think is the best aspects of being a published author?
o Making something out of absolutely nothing. A sculptor has clay; a painter has canvas; an inventor has nuts and bolts. But a writer? You’ve brought something into existence out of thin air that can change minds and move hearts. It’s magic.
6. What can we expect to see from you over the coming year?
Not a blessed thing! It took me four years to write TheOppenheimer Alternative, and my next book will take years, too. Let’s chat again around about 2024!
· What is your current WIP?
o I’m doing research for a novel that would be in the same vein as my new one, TheOppenheimer Alternative: a hard science-fiction philosophically rich book set in the past. But this time the past is the 1800s and the larger-than-life real characters aren’t physicists but the Wild West frontier pioneers of dinosaurian paleontology.
· What’s the best way for readers to connect with you and your books?
o Visit my website at https://sfwriter.com and come join the conversations on my persona Facebook wall; I’m RobertJ. Sawyer over there.
Thanks again for taking the time to meet with me. It is truly an honor to meet someone of your esteem. I could go on and on about your accomplishments, but really, I just want to wish you best in all things. Stay safe and healthy!