SFFWRTCHT: An Interview With Author Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer has won 46 national and international fiction awards including a Hugo, a Nebula and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. He’s been called the Dean of Canadian science fiction and Canada’s premier science fiction author and lives in Ontario with his wife, a poet. His novel, Flashforward, was the basis of the ABC  TV series in the U.S. His other novels include Terminal Experiment, Illegal Alien,The WWW Series, The Neanderthal Parallax and The Quintaglio Ascension trilogies, Calculating God, Mindscan and his latest Triggers from Tor Books.

His short fiction has appeared in anthologies like Dinosaur Fantastic, Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, and Far Frontiers, and three short story collections. He can be found on Twitter as @robertjsawyer and Facebook and via his website.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt had an extensive conversation with Rob about his craft and work for us.


SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with the basics: Whered your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from? And who/what were some of your favorite authors and books?

Robert J. Sawyer: Growing up in the 1960s with Star Trek and Apollo, plus seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in first run. Clarke Childhood’s End, Pohl Gateway,  Niven Ringworld , Asimov Caves of Steel.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you develop an interest in writing and how did you pursue that? Classes? Workshops? Learn on your own?

RJS: Self-taught! One creative-writing course at university, but it was a waste. Read great books and you’ll write great books.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you involved in Cons as a kid?

RJS: First con when 13; started working on cons at seventeen. Still attend six or so per year. Love them.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write before making your first sale? Did you start with shorts or novels? 

RJS: Seriously started writing at seventeen; first sale at nineteen. Short stories for the first ten years, then novels.

SFFWRTCHT: Would you say short stories are a really good training ground for long fiction or totally different form?

RJS: Totally different form. Doing shorts was a waste of several years, to be honest. I’m a novelist at heart. Plus, it pays much better!

SFFWRTCHT: Whered the idea for Flashforward come from?

RJS: 20th anniversary high-school reunion. Everyone said they wish they knew what the future would hold!

SFFWRTCHT: When did you find out it would be adapted as a TV show but quite different from your book?

RJS: Before we did deal; sat down with Goyer and Braga — they pitched their approach to me; I agreed, and signed the contract.

SFFWRTCHT: You obviously later wrote an episode for the series. How involved were you allowed to be?

RJS: Very: consultant on every script; lots of time on set and in their writers room. I loved my time on that show. My degree is in broadcasting, sold scripts before I sold stories. So, it was like coming home.

SFFWRTCHT: Ah, so did you break stories with them then?

RJS: Yes. Breaking stories is fun! And the staff writers were wonderful; loved them all.

SFFWRTCHT: Aren’t episodes in a show a bit like short stories (at least in the writing)?

RJS: We were a serialized drama, not very episodic. So, more like a novel with chapters.

SFFWRTCHT: What shows/movies did you work on as a screenwriter before turning to fiction?

RJS: Wrote my own scripts, sold some early on. None produced. I created an animated series with William Shatner as Executive Producer.  That was called Exodus: Mars. Shatner is CEO of a computer graphics company that did work for TekWar. He was fabulous to work with. Bill Shatner is consumate pro. That’s why he is constantly employed. He knew my script and series bible as well as I did.

SFFWRTCHT: When writing, do you usually start with characters or plot? Or science perhaps?

RJS: Theme! Theme above all: what I want to say, then find the right characters and story to say it.

SFFWRTCHT: So I guess I don’t have to ask if your stories have a message, because obviously they do in theme.

RJS: Well, a topic — something I want people to think about. Sometimes I have a message of my own, but not always.

SFFWRTCHT: “[He] was about fifty, and slim as the Leafs’ chances in the Stanley Cup.” Where do you come up with stuff like that?

RJS: I’m a comedian at heart!

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve done radio and TV hosting now and a lot of public speaking. You seem to be quite comfortable with it, unlike many writers.

RJS: I was encouraged by a friend who is a professional speaker; also, studied radio announcing.

SFFWRTCHT: Did the visual aspect of writing for TV change way you handle visuals in your other writing?

RJS: I try to keep the different forms of writing separate; that way I enjoy each as a change from the other.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the biggest difference between writing novels/shorts and scripts, from a writing angle? 

RJS: Novels are about the inner life and interior monologue of viewpoint character; TV is about external action.

SFFWRTCHT: In the WWW  Trilogy, a blind girl gets a chance at sight with special implants using WiFi and the net to help her to process signals. And then she discovers an intelligent being living on the web which no one knew was there and builds a relationship with it.  Whered the idea for the WWW books come from?

RJS: From a one-liner in New Scientist that early in 21st century the World Wide Web would have more links than brain has synapses. Wow!

SFFWRTCHT: Where’d you come up with the idea of the web being and the tech for giving sight to the blind?

RJS: I made it up! But the Helen Keller/Annie Sullivan parallel was the key; whole trilogy hangs on it.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you go about accurately getting inside the mind of a teenage girl? What kind of research did you do?

RJS: I read tons of teenagers’ blogs; watched my teenage nieces; visited schools (as a writer guest). Paid attention!

SFFWRTCHT: Do you take notes of dialogue snippets? Keep a journal for research stuff like that? I know many writers do.

RJS: Bryan, I should keep such a journal, but I don’t. I rely on my increasingly feeble memory.

SFFWRTCHT: You seemed to have dug in deeply to the technology behind the web as well. How did you discover all of those inner workings?

RJS: Research — my favorite part of writing a book; plus, I used to be a computer journalist and knew a lot already.

SFFWRTCHT: Both the WWW Trilogy and Triggers are set in contemporary North American settings. Is it easier or harder using real worlds in fiction?

RJS: Easier, and more accessible. It brings in mainstream readers, plus makes books relevant, real. Literary fiction’s got nothing on me!

SFFWRTCHT: Your latest, Triggers, tells the story of an assassination attempt on the President in post-9/11 America. And a memory control experiment aimed at PTSD which infects people at the hospital after an EMP bomb goes off. What gave you the idea for that?

RJS: I racked my brain for high-concept big idea like the one in Flashforward and finally came up with linked memories.

SFFWRTCHT: So is that entirely made up or did you do some research on memories and PTSD treatment for this?

RJS: Tons of research on nature of memory and on PTSD and on Secret Service and more. Of course, as I said earlier, I thrive on research.

SFFWRTCHT: You have both US and Canadian citizenship. Was there any challenge to getting access to research on the White House, Secret Service, etc.?

RJS: US citizenship is a definite asset and got me security approval quickly. I’m like Spock: two opposing worldviews. But Canadian citizenship was never a problem for gaining access to secure areas in US. We’re allies.  NORAD, and all that.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you go to DC to research or do most from home?

RJS: Absolutely went to DC to George Washington University Hospital which I used in novel under a different name, to Lincoln Memorial.

SFFWRTCHT: I wondered about the hospital name. Why change the name? Legal reasons?

RJS: GW wasn’t happy that I had a nurse addicted to drugs. They’d been so helpful, I decided to change name to make them happy.  GW cooperated 100%, were wonderful to work with; great behind-the-scenes tour. Love them!

SFFWRTCHT: Is Triggers a stand alone? I was assuming that but then it does seem like you could explore consequences more.

RJS: Triggersis stand-alone, but I am developing a TV series with high-powered Hollywood people which will explore more angles.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you feel a growing pressure from publishers/agents to write in series form?

RJS: Very much so. I simply tell them no, and take the economic hit. I would rather write standalones. No more series for me.

SFFWRTCHT: Unless, of course, you get a great idea for one, right?

RJS: No more series. Done. Mark my words!

SFFWRTCHT: Speaking of names, how do you come up with your naming scheme for stories, worlds, etc.?

RJS: Sometimes in tribute to friends. Hollus, Shoshana Glick, etc., named for real people. Other times, through careful study. I consulted with Lieberman, a Neanderthal vocal-tract expert, for Hominids.

SFFWRTCHT: I’ve heard raves from Jamie Todd Rubin about Hominids. What made you decide to posit parallel universe with hominids and neanderthals?

RJS: I loved Planet Of The Apes and was looking for my own version of skewed view of our world. Stranger in a strange land redux.

SFFWRTCHT: Calculating God has an alien visiting Earth whose planet has parallel evolutionary experience and believes it proves God exists. Where’d that provocative idea come from? Talk about hot button potential.

RJS: Calculating God was in response to deaths of Sagan and Gould; famous atheists. Plus I was appalled by the rhetoric tricks coming out of skeptical movement; no better than fundamentalists. Most Christians can reconcile science and faith; they’re not antithetical. But the skeptical movement pretends otherwise.

SFFWRTCHT: What made you decide to have Hollus be female? Was there a statement in there about feminized religion?

RJS: More a statement about implicit sexism in our society.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve previously spoken against self-pub in favor of waiting for traditional publishing. Are you still advocating that?

RJS: Yes. Traditional publishing has more benefits if you can get in. Self-publishing: only outliers succeeding, most still fail.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your favorite thing about writing books?

RJS: The research, the diving in-depth to anything that interests me.

SFFWRTCHT: Whats the best writing advice & worst youve ever gotten?

RJS: Best: don’t worry about what your mother will think. Worst: don’t set your books in Canada.

SFFWRTCHT: What was the most difficult story you ever wrote and why?

RJS: Frameshift, set in part at the Treblinka death camp. Horrific stuff, and I had to properly honour the dead.

SFFWRTCHT: With your love of research, ever considered writing a popular nonfiction book on human consciousness?

RJS: I have – and David G. Hartwell at Tor says he’ll publish any science nonfiction book I care to write. I haven’t had time.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you defeat Writers Block? Or do you deal with that? 

RJS: Jump to some other part of the narrative. Don’t write linearly. Come back to problem spot later.

SFFWRTCHT: Interesting. So do you generally not write linearly or just when you’re blocked?

RJS: I never write in a linear fashion; jump all over the place all the time. It’s not like I use a typewriter! I always have the end in mind …then take the scenic route to get there! It all comes together like a quilt or a mosaic.

SFFWRTCHT: As a panster, have you ever lost the narrative thread mid-project? Suggestions on how to find it again?

RJS: No, because I always keep theme in mind; focus on that.

SFFWRTCHT: As a panster, have you ever lost the narrative thread mid-project? Suggestions on how to find it again?

RJS: No, because I always keep theme in mind; focus on that.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you outline or pants it? Do you use Scrivener or other “writing software tools”? Write to music? Any rituals?

RJS: Outline? No. Seat of the pants, baby! It’s exhilarating! No particular tools, and I write with WordStar for DOS — me and George R.R. Martin. I like silence, but a fire in the fireplace.

SFFWRTCHT: Whats your writing time look like-specific block? Write til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

RJS: I write until I hit daily 2,000-word word-count goal, then get to knock off for day, whether 11:00 a.m. — or 11:00 p.m.

SFFWRTCHT: As such a huge Star Trek fan, would you ever write a licensed Trek novel?

RJS: No, licensed tie-ins are not good for a writers’ career. Yeah, Haldeman — almost 40 years ago. Otherwise, nah.

SFFWRTCHT: In  writing, what’s the biggest challenge for you–beginnings, middles, or ends, and why? Also, what do you do about it?

RJS: Ends are the biggest challenge — so I figure them out first. I knew how the WWW Trilogy would end before writing word one.

SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take you to write?

RJS: I do one book a year, but, realistically, it’s about five months full-time work spread over a year of doing lots of fun things.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any advice for new sci-fi authors looking to get published? Besides, stay away from tie-ins?

RJS: Ignore the market and write fresh. But a first novel must be easy to describe to sales force, or it’s doomed. One-sentence pitch.

SFFWRTCHT: What is the biggest challenge/obstacle sci-fi authors encounter today?

RJS: A shrinking science fiction market. Ace used to do five SF books a month and one fantasy; now it’s one SF and five fantasy. Very competitive!

SFFWRTCHT: Is there a novel of yours that you would want to go back to and improve?

RJS: No. They’re artifacts of the time I wrote them. Some are 20 years old now, and haven’t read them since.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you read them again when they first come out in print then set them aside?

RJS: Never look at your books after they’re published! You’ll spot a typo and kick yourself. I’ve got 2,000,000 words out there, all currently in print. Barely remember writing some of them.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

RJS: Next: Red Planet Blues, a hard-boiled noir detective novel on Mars out in April 2013. A fun, fast-paced book. Just finishing it.

SFFWRTCHT: So glad to hear about the Mars book. I worry that we no longer instill aspiration for space. Related to your idea?

RJS: The working title was The Great Martian Fossil Rush —I love the idea of going to Mars!

SFFWRTCHT: Could you talk a bit about what you think about the societal importance of science fiction? Is it the same or different as other genres?

RJS: It’s important societally! It’s a medium for social comment, and in repressive countries for criticism of regime. Science Fiction is huge in China. For same reason, it will become huge again in the US. BAZINGA!

SFFWRTCHT: Do you think the 2013 theatrical release of Ender’s Game will affect that?

RJS: Ender’s Game will sell another 100,000 copies of Orson Scott Card’s terrific book, but otherwise won’t change things.



Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

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