Interview with Robert J. Sawyer – April 2011
Írta: ekultura.hu | 2011. 04. 27.
ekultura.hu: It was Flashforward that brought you fame outside the science fiction scene. As far as I know you’ve been involved in the creation of the television series as an advisor. To what extent could you influence what actually appeared on television?
Robert J. Sawyer: I had no control, but I was consulted all the time. I argued a lot with the producers, and I won about half those arguments. I think that’s a good ratio, after all it was their money being spent – a hundred million American dollars – to make that TV-series, not my money. So they had to be doing what they thought was going to be the most likely to get a return on that financial investment. I was content with the way the show turned out. We didn’t get renewed for a second year, so clearly some of the choices that were made were not the right choices, but we all thought we were doing the right things at the time, and whether I won or lost a given argument didn’t matter – we were trying our best.
ekultura.hu: If you could start it over, what would you try to convince them to change?
Robert J. Sawyer: Well, the opening episode starts with this huge disaster – which we depict on the cover of the book –, where everybody has blacked out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, and 20 million people have died. By the end of that episode, the very first episode, our main character’s wife manages to drive home from work. All of that carnage that was on the roads, all of the millions of automobiles that have had accidents have magically disappeared. By the second episode all of it was in the background, all of the disaster had been forgotten.
I think that was a huge mistake. We promised with our promotional advertising – that was the imagery that was used, that was the scene on the cover of the book, the posters, and so forth – this almost post-apocalyptic sense to the show. Yet, it’s lost within the first episode – only 44 minutes long. So by 42 minutes into the series we’re done with the apocalypse, and back to life as normal. I think that was a big mistake.
ekultura.hu: This doesn’t seem to be your sole experience with television. Could you tell us about what else you’ve been involved?
Robert J. Sawyer: There was a Canada–South Africa co-production called Charlie Jade, a science fiction, kind of detective series, and I was hired to create the series bible for that, which is the biographies of the characters, the basic world set-up, how the overall arc of the show was going to go for the first season. I had a great deal of fun being involved with the show at that level. When it ultimately came time to go to South Africa – Cape Town to be precise –, where it was made, I chose not to go. I chose to stay in Toronto and pursue other things. I think if it had been made in Toronto, I would have had a longer involvement with the show. But I very much enjoyed my involvement, and it was a very lucrative involvement, so that was happy.
My degree is in radio and television arts from Ryerson University in Toronto, so I’d always had an interest in this area, and I just recently wrote a commission to a pilot script for Canada’s science fiction channel, which is called Space, and hopefully something will come of that as well.
ekultura.hu: Aside from pure science, you seem to be attracted to the theme of dinosaurs, because they appear in several of your books.
Robert J. Sawyer: They do, and in my short stories.
ekultura.hu: What do you find so appealing about dinosaurs?
Robert J. Sawyer: I was a dinosaur fan even before I was a science fiction fan – ever since I was a little kid. But it’s the same fascination. Dinosaurs are an alien form of life. We can’t contact them. They existed in another time, and they were real – unlike dragons. Dinosaurs really existed. You can learn about them, you can study them, you can set out to know everything there is to know about them, just as we can learn about other stars and what planets might orbit them, and maybe eventually what life might be there.
This appeal to me of life forms that are not like us was right there from my childhood, and it continued right through. In fact, right until just as I was about to start university, my intention was to be a paleontologist –somebody who’d study dinosaurs. And I’d been accepted at three universities in Canada to study that field. I was actually going to go. And it was only at the very last minute when I thought, “You know, I’d better find out if there are any jobs for somebody who studies dinosaurs,” and there were none to speak of. There were three in all in Canada, twenty-four dinosaurian paleontologists in the entire world in 1979. It’s not much different today.
My notion that writing was a crazy dream and being a scientist was a good solid white-collar career was suddenly reversed. You could be a writer anywhere in the world. There’s no quota that says that there can be so many Canadian writers. So I shifted my interest from being a paleontologist toward my early works writing science fiction up out paleontology, and it still permeates through my work. Every book is better if it has a dinosaur. If you have a problem with a book, put in a dinosaur. It makes for a better story.
ekultura.hu: Throughout the years you’ve won several science fiction awards.
Robert J. Sawyer: Forty-five. I, in fact, am the all-time worldwide leader in the number of awards as a science-fiction novelist in the history of the genre. Nobody has more. Not Stephen King, not Arthur C. Clarke, not Isaac Asimov. I’m thrilled by that number. It’s been enormously gratifying, and a lot of that is support that’s come from non-English-speaking countries. Yes, of course, I have awards in Canada and the United States, but China, Japan, France, Italy, Spain – all of them awarded my work as well, which is very gratifying.
ekultura.hu: Which of your awards are you most proud of?
Robert J. Sawyer: Science fiction is a funny field, because it has what would normally be considered the Academy Award, the one that writers, that is professionals, give professionals. It’s the Nebula Award. I won it for this book, The Terminal Experiment. However, science fiction also has a people’s choice award called the Hugo Award, which is given by readers. And I have to say that as much as I am thrilled to have the respect and support of my peers, my colleagues, the award that means the most to me is the one from the readers. So of them all the Hugo, which I won in 2003 for my novel Hominids is the one that means the most to me. Also, I have to say it’s physically the most beautiful of the awards, too. It’s absolutely lovely.
ekultura.hu: Does it still mean anything to you if you receive an award?
Robert J. Sawyer: Oh, yes, absolutely. In fact, right now we’re in the period where we’re waiting for the announcement of this year’s Hugo nominees, and I have to confess that just moments ago I was checking my email to see the announcement had come yet. It hasn’t yet. So, yes, absolutely. Partly because you’re only as good as your most recent book. This book is a perk out of Terminal Experiment, but I’ve written 14 books since Terminal Experiment in English. So for people to say, “Well, you did fine work when that book came out in America years ago”, that’s gratifying, but what I really want to hear is that I haven’t lost it, that I’m still at the top of my game, still doing good work. And the awards, the award nominations, and if one’s really lucky, the award wins vindicate that – make it an incentive to keep going on.
ekultura.hu: In one of your interviews you said that when it comes to the book writing process, you spend the first four months researching. What exactly do you do then?
Robart J. Sawyer: It depends on the book, but for instance on the book that I’m currently writing, which is called Triggers – it will be out a year from now, and is set in Washington D.C. – the first thing I did was I went to Washington D.C. It deals with an assassination attempt on the U.S. President at the Lincoln Memorial. Well, I went to the Lincoln Memorial to look around. The President is taken to George Washington University Hospital. I went there and got a behind-the-scenes tour with doctors and nurses, who took me though all the operating rooms and so forth – places they wouldn’t normally let the public in, unless you had to have an operation, and showed me all the procedures. So that was part of it: getting to the actual location and getting the feel of it: the smells, the sights and sounds, and getting everything right.
It’s a novel about the nature of memory. So I read an enormous amount of scientific literature about what we actually know about how memories are re-encoded. And we actually know a great deal about the biochemistry of the way information is stored in the brain. And I had to know all that to write convincingly about modifying memories. You have to know how memory is stored if you want to write convincingly about how memory is modified.
So all of that research: much reading, going to locations, and then talking to as many experts as I can – neuroscientists, people who work in security for dignitaries, all that sort of thing, is an enormous amount of research. It’s my favorite part too. There’s nothing I love more than doing the research.
ekultura.hu: To what extent does the research influence the story itself?
Robert J. Sawyer: I have no idea of the plot until I’ve done the research. I have a theme, the overarching idea in mind, and then I start doing the research, but the plot, the incidents come out of doing the research. I never bend the research to fit a preconceived story, because you can’t know what’s going to be exciting until you’ve done the research. But once you’ve done the research, you start looking for what’s going to be dramatic out of this, which interesting facts or figures, or interesting places would be worth writing about.
For instance, I had no idea in this novel, Triggers, how the president would be assassinated. I simply went to the Lincoln Memorial and now worked out a way that I hope the secret service will pay attention to, because there’s a very easy way to compromise the security there, and I have it fully in my book. I can’t make that stuff up. I have to research it, and find it out, and then I develop the plot to take advantage of all that wonderful research.
ekultura.hu: What do you think of modern technological developments, for example e-books?
Robert J. Sawyer:Well, I was fascinated, because here we are at the Budapest International Book Fair, and yesterday, I went into the indoor part, where they have various vendors’ booths. The only booth that had no-one at it, no-one whatsoever, was the booth for Koobe. It’s an e-book hardware vendor. And there was nobody at their booth. All the booths with print books had people there. So it was very fascinating.
I myself have been doing most of my reading, for ten years now, as an e-book reader. And in fact I have here my Amazon Kindle device. It has accompanied me on this trip, which has taken me, I must say, around the world. I started in Canada, I went right across Canada to Tokyo, I came here through Tokyo, and I had my e-book reader all along on the journey. I very much like e-reading.
In North America we get a perception that it’s taking over, almost immediately, and that paper books are dead. We talk about it in very disparaging terms. And to see here that that in fact it’s not the case here, in Hungary is fascinating. And in Japan, where one would have thought, because they love gadgets in Japan. Nobody’s reading e-books in Japan. The Japanese culture has long revered the printed page. And the fascinating thing about Japanese books is they’re all exactly the same dimension, height and width, because Japanese houses are very small. So there you can get the shelves to have just maybe a centimeter of clearance, and have huge quantities of these volumes.
I think the e-book inevitably will replace paper books, but before I started this trip, where I went to Japan, came here to Europe, I would have probably said it was going to replace them within five years, now I think it’ll be 15-20 years before we see a real shift worldwide to that being the principle way how people read books.
ekultura.hu: There’s also a downside to modern technology, namely that you can download books illegally. What do you think of that?
Robert J. Sawyer: It is a huge problem. Before my book was officially out in print, there were already pirated editions available. These days the lazy pirates wait till the DRM (digital rights management) protected e-book is out, and they crack that, and make the book available to anybody. But the other way to do it, the old way – my books have been pirated online for as long as I’ve been around – is they take the paper book, they scan the pages, they run it through optical character recognition software, and steal it that way. Before my book had been officially published, somebody had an advance copy. My latest book, Wonder, in the States, came out just two weeks ago and it was already pirated online.
I don’t understand how anybody could take any joy in reading I writer’s work – “This is wonderful! It’s entertaining. I’m enjoying it. It’s giving me great pleasure,” – and not help feed that writer, or his spouse, or his children. How they could say, “But it’s worth nothing to me, and yet I will spend time to read the book.” Even a novel like this. This novel is about 90,000 words, which is maybe, for a normal reader, 8 or 9 hours of pleasure – hopefully –, and yet to say that’s worth not even one forint. “It’s worth nothing. I would rather steal it than help fund the process that makes it possible.”
Frankly, it disgusts me. And it worries me too. I’m very concerned about the long-term viability of being a writer for a profession. Maybe I should have been a paleontologist. At least the dinosaurs can’t get any more extinct than they already are.
ekultura.hu: In one of your blog posts you wrote a „Letter to beginning writers”. Do you really think there are people who want established writers to take them under their wings?
Robert J. Sawyer: I know it. Every single day I get email from people saying, “Could you read my manuscript, could you give me personal advice?” And every once in a while maybe I will be touched and will do it for somebody, but if I did it for everybody who asked, I would never be able to write my own books. And that would be the end of my career, then nobody benefits.
Absolutely everybody is hoping that somehow somebody will take them under their wing. But I have to say when I was starting out, nobody had email, you couldn’t write to your favorite author and say, “Please, read my manuscript.” When you’re asking somebody to read a novel, just to read it, you’re asking four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten hours. It’s not like “Will you do me a favor? Can I have some money for a cup of coffee?” They’re saying, “Can you give me a whole work day out of your life?” For free. Just to read this work. And then more to write up the commentary on it. It’s a huge favor to ask.
So it happens all the time. And the bottom line is everybody says they want an honest response, but they really don’t. Most people don’t. What they really want is praise. They want me to say, “Oh, let me look. OK, this is a good book,” or “You’re brilliant. This is fabulous. This will sell. Go ahead, and you’ll be a genius. J. K. Rowling has to move over now for you. Stephen King.” They want to hear that. And when you say, you know, starting on line one, you’re grammar isn’t very good, on line two, there is no tension, on line three, the character is doing something that no human being in the history of all humanity has ever done, they’re behaving unbelievably, they actually get angry.
So it’s a very tricky thing. So I say – and that’s the truth – I can’t do it for you, I can’t read your book for you. But I do try to provide lots of advice. It’s not just that blogpost on my website at sfwriter.com but lots and lots of articles about how to write: technique, how to craft an opening sentence, how to devise characters, how to do dialogue. I try to share as much as I can, but I have to do it by broadcasting. I can’t do it on a one-to-one mentoring basis.
ekultura.hu: In another one of your blogposts you said that beginning writers have to develop their characters and ideas. This sounds pretty obvious. Why did you have to give this advice to all these aspiring writers?
Robert J. Sawyer: Lots of lots of beginning writers, especially in science fiction, think that they should start out by writing a Star Wars or a Star Trek, or maybe Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, or something like this instead of writing their own work. And it’s a mistake. Nobody will remember you. They’ll simply remember Star Trek or Star Wars or Buffy. The only way you can make a name for yourself is by creating something that’s uniquely yours.
And I’ve got to say it’s not just the writers who get this notion, but publishers want to have energetic young people who will write these Star Trek and Star Wars novels cheaply, inexpensively. They use up these young writers. They get them to devote their energies and work as hard as they can, and burn them out. Rarely if ever do you see somebody who starts doing that kind of work graduating to having a significant following for their own work. It almost never happens. And so I caution junior writers, beginning writers against them. It’s a terrible mistake.
ekultura.hu: There are courses in creative writing in many American colleges. I don’t know anything about Canada.
Robert J.Sawyer: In Canada, too.
ekultura.hu: They produce a lot of hack writers who deluge reading audiences with their mediocre books. What’s your opinion of this phenomenon?
Robert J. Sawyer: The first question you have to ask about a writing course is “What are the credentials of the teacher?” If the teacher has hardly published, you’re making a mistake. That’s not who you want to be taught by. But secondarily, I’ve looked around at my colleagues, the people who actually have books here, at the book fair, and you look in their biographies, and you ask them “What did you study at university?” Well, it might be science, or history, or medicine, or law, or politics, or geography, or literature, but it’s not creative writing. Very few professional writers did creative writing as their major.
The best way to learn to be a writer is to read great books. Read as many of them as you can, and often read them a second time. You read the first time, you say, ah, it’s very exciting, and then the second time, “How did they accomplish that?” You can see the way it was put together. You can do that for yourself. You don’t have to sit in a lecture hall and have some guy who published a book of poetry in 500 copies telling you the things you can teach yourself.
I’m somebody who has taught creative writing at major Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto, the largest in Canada I have taught at. There is a demand, people keep asking me to teach there, but actually, in the last several years I have turned down the University of Toronto. And part of the reason is that I really think there are better ways of become writer than listening to me or anyone else pontificate about how to become a writer.
ekultura.hu: You seem to be traveling a lot. How do you find time to do actual writing?
Robert J. Sawyer: Just this morning, my wife, who’s over here, went out shopping here in Budapest, where there are wonderful stores. I stayed at the hotel. I went to the courtyard. Lovely day, I set out my laptop and wrote. I will fly from here to Toronto in two days. I will get 7 or 8 hours on an airplane with my netbook computer, and I will write. I actually quite enjoyed my flight from Vancouver to Tokyo, which was 12 hours of uninterrupted writing time.
The answer is that writing is a totally portable profession. You can do it anywhere in the world. And as long as you have the discipline to get up in the morning and remember to do it even when you’re in a wonderful place like Hungary, you get your work done. And you have to, because when you reach a level in your career, you get a contract to deliver a book on a specific date. Usually that date is a year in the future, and nobody checks on you for the entire year. My editor never calls and says, “Well, it’s six months now, are you halfway through?” There’s no checking up, they’re trusting you to be an adult, and a professional one and dedicated. And if you are those things, you can do your writing all over the world.
One of the great joys of this job is this ability. I’m here as the guest of Galaktika, they brought me here. I was in Tokyo last weekend as the guest of a science fiction convention in Tokyo. I’m off to Milan shortly to be guest of honor at the Italian national science fiction convention. There are some downsides to being a writer, but one of the great upsides, one of the great perks is that you do get to travel all over the world. But you have to remember to do the writing while you’re traveling.
ekultura.hu: And while you’re traveling, you actually see the editions in several different languages.
Robert J. Sawyer: It’s lovely. I’m in 20 different languages now. Now if we look at this, I know what that says – that’s my name. I didn’t know what the title was. It’s not the English title. The English shows Terminal Experiment. So I had to ask Attila Németh, my editor, my publisher here, what it says. He says “soul wave” translated. It’s a term out of my book. But I have no way of knowing if it’s a good translation. I trust the fine folks from Galaktika. And the same with all the other languages. Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, French. A little French I can read, cause I’m Canadian. But you just have to trust that they’re doing a good job.
ekultura.hu: But are you satisfied with the cover, the physical appearance?
Robert J. Sawyer: It’s fascinating. This one is beautiful, Flashforward, the Hungarian edition is beautiful. They’re beautiful books. It’s interesting to see the same book – Terminal Experiment has been in maybe 15 different languages all over the world –, to see this cover versus the Japanese cover, for instance, which was done with a ceramic sculpture, kind of a head that’d been unfolded like a lotus flower. I mean, it’s beautiful. The American cover looked very much like a Michael Crichton kind of medical thriller. It’s fascinating to me to see all the interpretations of the work.
Very often of my different editions the most beautiful one will be unexpected. For my novel End of en Era, which is a dinosaur book, the Korean edition is the most beautiful edition of all the editions in the world. It gives me such joy to see all of these editions.
ekultura.hu: Thank you very much.
Robert J. Sawyer: My pleasure. Thank you.