Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Five questions

A grade-ten student named Ryan wrote to me today to see if I'd be willing to answer some questions for a paper he was writing for school. I said sure:
1. About how long have you been writing?

I've written stories ever since I was a little boy; my mother has one I wrote when I was seven that I bet she's going to put on eBay someday. I started getting really serious about writing fiction when I was 15, submitted my first story to a magazine when I was 17, and made my first sale when I was 19, in 1979. I've been a full-time writer since I was 23, and a full-time novelist for 17 years now.

2. Here's a fun one: what kind of ethical concerns are related to the field?

Science fiction obviously deals with questions of our relationship to technology, and whether it improves our lives, of biotechnology, of definitions of personhood and who is entitled to rights; those questions are explicit in many works of science fiction. Beyond that, any issue can be explored in a science-fiction novel; my novel Frameshift came out in 1997, for instance, and it explored the exact same ethical issues surrounding John Demjanjuk and the search for justice related to Nazi war crimes as Demjanjuk's current real-life trial is exploring -- with Demjanjuk himself a character in my book.

3. Is the "phi" part of the "phi-fi" ["philosophical fiction"] always as apparent as you make it, or is it often lurking in the background without the author even realizing it?

I think most ambitious authors know exactly what they're doing; ask them, and they'll tell you, and they'll be insightful. This myth that authors are out of touch with what they're creating has been foisted on us by university English departments because it gives them a reason to exist. But the definitive source for what Rob Sawyer is doing is Rob Sawyer, not any academic. Now, yes, the author may be subtle so that the philosophical point of the story is not immediately obvious, but there's a world of difference between "subtle" and "clueless."

4. Do deeply religious characters often seem as crazy in novels as real people think atheists do, or is that just a coincidence?

Religious people will always seem crazy to many atheists; Richard Dawkins calls religious belief "the God delusion," after all. Meanwhile, those who firmly believe they have spiritual experiences often think it's crazy that others can't see the same things they do. Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

5. The one thing that I get hit hard by most is detail. Is there a special way that it needs to be thrown in, or do I just need to throw it in willy-nilly?

There's a term for details that are aptly chosen: they are called "telling details" because they tell us something we need to know without actually coming out and saying it. A person who eats Kraft Dinner every night does so not because that's a random choice, but because it's cheap and therefore he's poor; a person who holds the door for a stranger does so not because it's a random choice but because he is kind; a room that has a musty smell is one that's been unoccupied for some time. Decide what we need to know, then choose details that lead us to conclude the things you want us to think.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At January 14, 2010 10:12 AM , Blogger The Snake said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to interact with fans!

At January 14, 2010 9:27 PM , Blogger Silverfish said...

Nice little interview Rob.



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