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

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Inklings Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

by Debbie Ridpath Ohi


(Inklings is an online newsletter for writers on the internet.)

Interview conducted March 1997.

Robert J. Sawyer is Canada's only native-born full-time science-fiction writer. He has sold ten novels to major New York publishers and won thirteen national and international writing awards. His novel The Terminal Experiment won the Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1995, and his Starplex is a current finalist for the Nebula Award for the Best Novel of 1996. His new novel, Frameshift, will be out in June 1997.

How did you make your first professional sale? (How did you know the Strasenburgh Planetarium needed material, for example?)

The Strasenburgh Planetarium is in Rochester, New York; since 1972, my family has owned a vacation home on Canandaigua Lake, which is near there. In the summer of 1979, the planetarium announced a science-fiction short-story writing contest, to be judged by Isaac Asimov. Asimov was to pick a grand-prize winner, whose story would be produced as a dramatic starshow, and two runners-up. He did that, but the planetarium folk felt the winning story — which was quite charming — couldn't be stretched to an hour on its own. They decided to make the dramatic starshow into a trilogy, with three complete stories in the course of an hour.

The natural thing to do would have been to make the second- and third-place entries the other two components, but one of them wasn't visually oriented enough to make a good starshow. The Planetarium held a reception for all those who had entered the contest; I came down from Toronto for that, and, as I entered the room, one of the producers said, "Thank God you've come! We've been trying to get ahold of you for weeks." I'd thought there might be some prejudice against a Canadian entrant, so I'd used the vacation home's American address and phone number on my entry — and it had been unoccupied for more than a month prior to this.

Anyway, it turned out that the planetarium staff had loved my story, and wanted to buy it to be the third installment of their trilogy. The trilogy was produced under the umbrella title "Futurescapes," and my story was called "Motive." "Motive" introduced the Quintaglios about which I wrote much later, and the giant exploration starship with its mixed human/dolphin/alien crew that features in my current novel Starplex. "Futurescapes" had 192 performances in the summer of 1980.

Did you get to meet Isaac Asimov?

I have met, Asimov, yes — but not as part of the Strasenburgh project. I got to interview Asimov in his home in 1985 for CBC Radio's Ideas series; I also wrote up part of the interview as an article for The Toronto Star (18 August 1985).

What about your worry about prejudice against Canadian writers? Have you found this to be true at all in your writing career?

Submitting to Strasenburgh was the last time I ever worried about possible prejudice against me in the States because I was a Canadian. The Planetarium didn't care — and so far, no one else has either. In fact, I've made a point of being blatantly Canadian in my fiction. Golden Fleece and Starplex both have Canadian main characters, End of an Era and The Terminal Experiment are set entirely in Canada, and Frameshift has a French-Canadian protagonist. I've never had a negative word from any American editor, reviewer, or reader over the Canadian content in my books.

Do you prefer writing novels or short stories? Why?

I much prefer writing novels. Even though I have a reputation for being a clear, concise writer, I find it very hard to say what I want to within the confines of a short story — short stories are great for making single points, but they really don't let you explore a range of issues and alternatives.

As a writer, how useful do you find the Internet?

The Internet is marginally useful. I participate on rec.arts.sf.written, in order to keep my name in front of potential book buyers. And my web site has been wonderfully successful; I get several fan letters each day through it. But as a research medium, I think the World Wide Web leaves a lot to be desired. The information on it has been placed there by vested-interest parties; it's essentially the world's largest collection of press releases. I much prefer information that's been evaluated by critical eyes, and so my principal online research tool is Magazine Database Plus on CompuServe. It's got the full text of all the articles in over two hundred general-interest and specialty publications, many going all the way back to 1986. Among the titles of obvious use to SF writers are Astronomy, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Discover, Omni, Popular Science, Psychology Today, Scientific American, Sky & Telescope, and Science News. The material isn't free — it costs US$1.00 to download each article — but I find it a much better research tool than anything on the Web. [Note: sadly, Magazine Database Plus went out of service in August 1999; I miss it a lot.]

[Rob's books on Sci-Fi Buzz]

How much preparation do you do before you actually start writing a novel? (e.g. outlining, research for the science in your stories?)

I only do an extensive outline when I'm looking for a contract prior to writing the book. The shortest outline I've ever done was 2,900 words (for Starplex); the longest was 12,000 (for Frameshift). But, in general, I prefer to write without an outline — although, of course, I do have some notion in my head of what I'm trying to accomplish. As for research, I spend two or three months of solid 40-hour weeks on research for each novel. And it's not just science research. For Frameshift, I had to dig into the history of the Treblinka death camp, the Israeli legal system, insurance regulations, and more; for Illegal Alien, I spent weeks learning about the American judicial system and trial procedures. But I love research — it's my favorite part of the process of creating a novel.

Do you ever get writer's block? If so, how do you deal with it?

I don't write my novels in linear sequence: I don't start at page one and keep going until I hit page last. Rather, I write scenes in the order they occur to me, or in the order in which I'm ready to tackle them, and fit them together as a mosaic at the end. Often, I don't know what to write next in a particular plot thread of the novel. At that point, I simply switch to another plot thread. Even on the days in which nothing creative is coming to me at all, I still work. If you write twenty little descriptive paragraphs of a hundred words each, and insert them in the novel at twenty different places where you've perhaps failed to provide a lot of detail in your first draft, you've still met your daily word quota. Writer's block is something you simply can't afford to have if you want to write full-time. It's a war for every writer: would I rather work today, or go outside and play in the sun? Most so-called writers' blocks are simply the latter winning out over the former; they're an excuse to goof off.

What are your writing habits? (e.g. daily schedule, where you write, etc.)

My wife heads out about 8:25 a.m.; I'm usually at my computer by that point, taking care of my email — I get about twenty business-related letters a day. She gets home a little before 5:00 p.m., and I try to be wrapped up by then. When I'm actually writing the first draft — as opposed to researching or revising — I try to do 2,000 words a day. Ideally, that's four double-spaced manuscript pages before lunch, and four more after lunch. I have one of the bedrooms in my home set up as an office; I do maybe three-quarters of my work there, and the rest on my 386 palmtop computer — it runs a dozen hours on AA batteries, and only weighs 750 grams, so I take it with me wherever I go.

Can you offer any tips/advice for writers who want to pursue a full-time writing career?

If you want to become a full-time writer, put some money in the bank first. When I stopped doing non-fiction writing, which is what I used to do for a living, and started writing novels full-time, I had a hundred thousand dollars in the bank — the result of lots of hard work, and years of planning in advance to switch to full-time fiction writing. That's a lot of money, but almost every new business — whether it's a restaurant, a retail store, or fiction writing — fails because it is undercapitalized. You almost certainly will make no money your first year of writing, and not much — a four-figure income, if you're lucky — your second year. If you don't have cash reserves to tide you over for two or three years until you're established, you're doomed. But remember, very, very few writers do it full-time; even most really big names are part-time writers for their entire literary careers.

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