[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

by Edo van Belkom

First published in the September 1992 issue of Alouette: The Newsletter of the Canadian Region of SFWA

Copyright 1992 by Edo van Belkom

Robert J. Sawyer's first novel, Golden Fleece (Warner, 1990) garnered raves from many reviewers, including Orson Scott Card, who chose it as the best SF novel of the year. Golden Fleece won both Canada's Best-English-Novel Aurora Award and the CompuServe SF Forum's HOMer Award for Best First Novel. Sawyer's next two books were auctioned in 1991, with Ace Books coming out the winner. The first, Far-Seer — Book One in his Quintaglio series — was released in June 1992. It also met with glowing reviews: Asimov's called it a "tour de force," Quill & Quire said it was "a riveting tale; refreshingly original; thrilling, compelling — a real treat," and The Toronto Star declared, "Without question, one of the year's outstanding sf books." The sequel, Fossil Hunter, will be out in May 1993, and Ace has bought a third Quintaglio book, as well. End of an Era, the other book Ace purchased in the 1991 auction, will be published in 1994. A full-time writer since 1983, Sawyer sold his first SF story in 1979 and made the jump to writing SF exclusively 10 years later.

Edo van Belkom: You are a hard science-fiction writer. Was that something you consciously set out to do or it is the kind of SF that you're most comfortable with?

Robert J. Sawyer: The only SF that really appealed to me when I was growing up was hard SF. I was a fan of Clarke and Asimov from day one. I've always had an interest in scientists and right up until the end of high school I wanted to be a scientist professionally. My particular interest was paleontology, but when it came time to actually assess my career goals, I couldn't see spending another ten years in school so that when I finally graduated I could make $18,000 a year sifting dirt. But I've always been interested in science, and indeed I had an interest in science before I had an interest in SF, so I've naturally gravitated towards SF that has real scientific content to it.

van Belkom: One of the knocks against hard-SF writers is that their characters are often wooden and their sole purpose is merely to advance the plot. You create well-defined characters while still writing hard SF. Is this something you knew you had to pay particular attention to or was it something that came to you naturally?

Sawyer: It was neither, unfortunately. When I started writing SF, even when I first started selling, I was not skilled in characterization. In fact I had no particular flare for it and I think I shared the same drawback that Clarke and Asimov and many other hard-SF writers shared: I thought, gee, the ideas are so exciting that characterization isn't necessary. The thing that appealed to me about SF writing — and I started writing it when I was a teenager — was that here was a literature in which I could do things they never touched on in the high-school English classroom: things of speculation and sense of wonder and alien civilizations and vast starry vistas. In my early twenties I did my first draft of what eventually became the novelette version of Golden Fleece. I showed it to Terence M. Green, an established writer, and he took me aside and said, "You know, the science is great. I love your science. I love your speculation, but I don't care about the people in this. I don't believe the characters." This really took me aback because I kind of thought characterization wasn't important in SF. So I've really made an effort for about eight years now to focus on characterization. The greatest thing that happened to Golden Fleece, when it was eventually expanded to a novel, was Orson Scott Card picked it as the best SF novel of 1990. Well, I met Card when he was in Toronto last summer and said, "I'm really glad you liked the novel. I have another coming out, Far-Seer." And he said, "Tell me a bit about it." I told him, "Well, you might not like it because it doesn't have quite the same level of mathematics and engineering in it that made Golden Fleece such a hard-SF novel." And he said, "That's okay, I didn't care about any of that stuff; the thing I liked most about your book was the characterization." Well, for me that was it. That's when I knew I'd succeeded.

van Belkom: Your second novel, Far-Seer, features the Quintaglios, which are basically dinosaurs, tyrannosaurs in particular. In the past, the knock against aliens in SF was that they are more like human beings than alien beings. What makes the Quintaglios different from us?

Sawyer: I live in Toronto, which has a reputation worldwide for being a safe city, and yet I was assaulted outside my apartment building a few months ago. Human beings are incredibly violent. And yet when we look at cultures that don't live in these overpopulated cities, they have far less innate violence. I've always been intrigued by why "civilized man" is such a violent being. I think the reason is that humanity is in essence a carnivorous species that paradoxically doesn't kill its own food. Our food is killed by other people for us and we buy it in these pristine Styrofoam packages with cellophane wrappers. The Quintaglios are my exploration of what if you had a civilization where you didn't have to sublimate that urge to kill? I suspect that rather than being a more savage race, you end up with beings who are more compassionate and fundamentally pacifistic because they've got that way of purging their violence.

van Belkom: Your first novel, Golden Fleece, was a critical success, but perhaps not as financially successful as you would have liked. Still, you'd sold a total of five novels before your second book had even seen print. Do you consider yourself fortunate, or is it all part of some career plan that's going along according to schedule?

Sawyer: I'm a big believer in career planning. However, I think my career is going better than I could possibly have hoped for. The recognition Golden Fleece got was substantially greater than most first novels get, with rave reviews in everywhere from F&SF and Science Fiction Review to The Toronto Star and Library Journal. Those reviews really gave my career a boost, putting me in a position where my second and third books could be auctioned. I think my career is probably two or three years ahead of where it would have been if I hadn't been lucky enough to have Golden Fleece noticed.

van Belkom: You've occasionally taken the bull by the horns and done some of your own promotion. Has that helped?

Sawyer: Absolutely. I want to continue to write SF full-time. I have made my living as a writer since 1983, but most of that was through doing non-fiction and corporate work. I do not believe SF is a buyer's market: this idea that whatever crumbs a publisher might throw our way are more than adequate compensation for what we do because anybody can write SF. That's the most crippling myth that SF writers labor under. I flat-out reject that. So I have indeed undertaken to draw some attention to my work. I did 75 bound galleys at my own expense for Golden Fleece which cost me, including printing and postage, about $500. That's the best $500 I've ever spent in my life! It was pure self-promotion because my publisher, Warner, wasn't going to do any bound galleys of a first novel by an unknown author. I can trace almost every piece of positive publicity directly to my own intervention. I can trace my sale of Golden Fleece to the Science Fiction Book Club directly to my drawing it to the attention of Ellen Asher at the 1991 Nebula Awards Banquet and providing her with a sheaf of reviews. I want to write SF full-time, but I do not want to starve in a garret. I want to make a decent living, and if that means I have to push, I don't think there's anything wrong with pushing. But remember: all you can do is make sure people notice your book. The judgment they pass on it is something you have no way of controlling except by doing the best damn job of writing you can.

van Belkom: When you originally wrote Far-Seer, did you have plans for it to be part of a continuing series?

Sawyer: This is going to surprise my editor when he reads this. I had no intention of there being a Quintaglio series. I believe deeply in the artistic principles of SF. Basically, I'm against series books; I'm against trilogies. I'm against writers going back and yanking the same teat year after year trying to get more milk out of an old idea. When I was writing non-fiction, I had no qualms about writing whatever somebody else wanted me to write. But people were paying me a dollar a word for my non-fiction — I'll write anything for a dollar a word. But if I'm going to take a cut in pay, which I have, the only reason to do that is to write what I want to write. That said, when I handed in Far-Seer to my agent, Richard Curtis, he called me up and said, "I loved the book, but you've killed the main character at the end." I said, "Yes. I thought it was quite poignant." "No, no," he said, "How are you going to do a sequel?" I said I had no intention of doing a sequel — this book stands on its own. He said, "No, we can really push this book if we present it as the first book in a series." I mulled it over a few days and then said, "Okay." So the sequel, Fossil Hunter, was written completely from scratch. I make peace with myself because I didn't have some crass plan that I was only going to go so far in volume one, and then milk it a little more in volume two, put a teaser in volume three, and keep jerking people along. I want to give people value for their money by giving them a complete work in every book.

van Belkom: You're against writers going back and yanking the same teat, but your first novel, Golden Fleece, was expanded from a novelette.

Sawyer: I was heavily influenced by the experience of two of my friends: Andrew Weiner, who wrote a novella, "Station Gehenna," published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Terence M. Green, who wrote a novelette called "Barking Dogs," also published in F&SF. Both of them subsequently expanded their works to novel length. This seemed to be a good way to tackle the process of writing a novel. By the time I had written my first novel, I had published well over one hundred magazine articles. But these had all been pieces of 2,000 words in length. The idea of producing even a 60,000-word novel was incredibly daunting to me. Although my goal had always been to write books, the only way I could see myself doing that was step by step, starting with a novelette.

van Belkom: I know you have many times thought about leaving SF and trying another genre, mystery fiction perhaps. Does that thought still enter your mind every once in a while?

Sawyer: There was a very interesting article in the SFWA Bulletin recently by a writer who had written shotgun in a bunch of genres and never made any impact in any of them. And that hit home for me because I don't really believe in genres. I believe in writers' voices and there are things Rob Sawyer would like to say that might fit best in a book that didn't have an alien or a spaceship on its cover. This isn't going to make me popular, but sometimes after I've gone to an SF convention or given a reading, some of the people in attendance strike me as not being the audience that I envisioned when I was writing the work. Sometimes it's depressing to write stuff that you think is powerful and has something to say about what it is to be human, only to find that the audience that you most directly interact with is composed of a significant percentage of people who are socially challenged and somewhat limited in their life experience. I have serious aspirations to my craft, but sometimes the feedback I get from the SF audience is not the feedback that I was hoping for. And I know there's an element of career suicide in saying that, and, on the other hand, every once in a while you get a letter or meet somebody who is the kind of person you had in mind when you wrote the book and that recharges the batteries for another round of going up against people who wear propeller beanies and pointed ears, and want to argue every scientific detail with you but don't know anything about life.

van Belkom: At what point will you say, "Damn the publishers and everyone else, I'm going to write the book I want to write, mainstream or not?" Do you think that will ever come?

Sawyer: I think that point is going to come. I'm really happy with my current publisher, which is Ace. But as my aspirations become wider than the category confines it will be interesting to see whether Ace and I continue to have a completely harmonious relationship. But here's Sawyer's Rule of Writing: the more somebody pays you for something, the less likely it will be something you want to write. I have been paid very large sums of money to write things that haven't interested me in the least. I am quite content to be paid much smaller sums of money to write what I want to write. I will gladly write the third and perhaps more Quintaglio books, but the book I'm going to write after the next Quintaglio book is going to be one hundred per cent for me and for the audience that I envision.

van Belkom: You mentioned Terence M. Green earlier in this interview. He has broken out of what Canadians like to call the "SF Ghetto" by having his most recent novel published by McClelland & Stewart, Canada's biggest mainstream publisher. Do you look to his as the ideal career path, the one you'd like to follow?

Sawyer: A lot of people look down on SF. A lot of people who would be moved or touched by my stories will never read them because there are those words "science fiction" on the spines of the books. Terry Green has broken out in the sense that what he writes has transcended the genre boundaries. Those of us within SF will always embrace him as one of us, but he is also reaching the bank executive, the doctor, the high-school teacher, and the rest of the literate readership who would never touch a book with a garish cover and the initials "SF" on the spine. I want to reach that same audience with at least some of my works. Part of what I do will always have the tropes and conventions of traditional SF and will be packaged as nothing but that. But I want to have the room to reach the whole literate audience, not just that portion that goes into the SF section of the bookstore. Whether I have the talent and whether my publishers have the faith in me for that to happen is something that only time will tell.

Edo van Belkom is a member of SFWA and the Horror Writers of America. He has sold two dozen stories of SF, fantasy, and horror to such publications as Aethlon, Gent, Haunts, Midnight Zoo, Northern Frights, The Raven, and Year's Best Horror 20. He lives in Brampton, Ontario, with his wife Roberta and son Luke.

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