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

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Yellow Submarine

Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

An interview with Robert J. Sawyer for issue 125 (January 1998) of the French SF magazine Yellow Submarine.

Interview conducted Wednesday, October 29, 1997, by A. F. Ruaud.

A. F. Ruaud: Where and when are you born? Is your family from the Canada, or from outside of it?

Robert J. Sawyer: I was born in Ottawa, which is Canada's capital city; my father at the time worked for the Canadian federal government as a statistician. We moved to Toronto, which is Canada's largest city, within months after my birth so that he could take a teaching post at the University of Toronto. My father was born in Canada, but his parents were born in the United Kingdom — his father in England and his mother in Scotland. My mother is an American, although she's lived in Canada for over forty years. Her ancestry is half-Norwegian and half-Swedish.

Ruaud: Are you a full-time writer, or have you another job besides writing?

Sawyer: I am, in fact, English-Canada's only native-born full-time science-fiction writer. I graduated from university with a degree in broadcasting in 1982, spent one year as a teaching assistant (teaching television studio-production techniques), and have supported myself full-time as a writer since 1983. During the 1980s, most of my work was nonfiction — articles for magazines, plus lots of government and corporate work. I've been a full-time SF writer since 1992, and things seem to be going well. Indeed, in 1997, my wife quit her full-time job in the printing industry to come work for me as my assistant.

Ruaud: What is it, to be a SF writer in Canada? I mean: Do you know the other Canadians SF writers? Is there any sort of "Canadian school" of SF, a flavor to the SF of this country, as there is a British SF?

Sawyer: I spent over a decade building an SF community in English Canada. From 1984 until 1992, I was the coordinator of Ontario Hydra, Canada's first association of SF professionals. And I led the long battle to establish a Canadian Region of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; that region came into being in 1992, and I served for the subsequent three years as SFWA's first Canadian Regional Director. In addition, I published a newsletter for Canadian SF writers called Alouette — named after Canada's first satellite — as well as a publication called Northern Lights, to inform the public about what was going in Canadian SF. So, yes, certainly there is now a sense of community among Canadian SF writers — I know virtually all of them personally, and many are close friends.

As to whether there's a Canadian school of SF, that's hard to say. We are so dispersed geographically — Canada has twenty times the land area of France, after all. There's a Canadian academic who likes to say that American SF has happy endings, Canadian SF has sad endings, and British SF has no endings at all — but, really, any attempt to unify Canadian SF thematically is doomed to failure.

Most of our SF writers are immigrants to Canada — Michael Coney and Andrew Weiner from Britain; William Gibson, Spider Robinson, and Robert Charles Wilson from the United States; Élisabeth Vonarburg from France. Their work seems to me as often or even more often to reflect where they came from rather than where they now live.

Still, one can certainly make a case that much Canadian SF is concerned with the harshness of the landscape, whether it's actually swirling snow, or something metaphoric of it. You can also make a case that in Canadian SF, the main characters are rarely completely triumphant, the way they often are in American SF; I think it comes from being part of a middle-power, instead of a super-power. Canadians are used to the fact that there are things that are too big for us — things we can't change.

Ruaud: Do you have any contacts with the French-speaking writers of SF? Or are the Canadian-English and Quebec-French SF communities completely separate entities?

Sawyer: You know, the politically-correct answer is that we're all one, big happy family, but, sadly, it's not true. An organization called SF Canada has existed for eight years now, and it tries to mix Anglophone and Francophone Canadian SF writers, but, really, we have so little in common. The English-Canadians are all trying to sell to the U.S.; the French-Canadians are mostly selling to small-press publishers or small-press magazines in Quebec.

Also, there's a degree to which the interaction is a one-way street, part of the overall tendency for English Canada to really try to accommodate French Canada: we want the French to stay in, they want to get out, so you can see why it works only one way.

Our national SF awards, the Auroras, are given in both English and French. But it's possible to get on the French ballots with as few as two or three nominations! That's because so few French-Canadians participate. And our largest English-Canadian SF publisher, Tesseract Books, publishes French-Canadian SF stories in translation in every one of its annual anthologies, and has even done a whole book consisting of nothing but French-Canadian stories translated into English. But I've never once heard of an English-Canadian SF story being translated into French for the Québécois market.

Still, there are a few Francophone writers who make a real effort to keep in touch with their Anglophone counterparts — especially Jean-Louis Trudel, Yves Meynard, and Élisabeth Vonarburg, although, since she's a vocal Quebec separatist, arguments often ensue. I wish there was more genuine interaction — people actually getting together face-to-face — rather than symbolic gestures, such as giving Auroras to French works even though voter turnout is minuscule.

Ruaud: Why are you writing science fiction? Which is also to say: what are your influences and what kind of SF do you like?

Sawyer: As a teenager, science fiction always formed the bulk of my pleasure reading, so I just naturally gravitated towards it. The biggest earliest influences on my writing was Arthur C. Clarke; my first novel Golden Fleece is certainly inspired by 2001. I also have been influenced by Larry Niven and especially Frederik Pohl, who, in his best work, manages to do wonderfully character-driven hard-SF, precisely the kind of thing I try to write.

Ruaud: Don't you want to write in other genres? Many of your SF novels also have a strong mystery component.

Sawyer: I used to think quite seriously about trying mystery fiction. As you say, many of my novels have mystery elements — Golden Fleece, The Terminal Experiment, Frameshift, and Illegal Alien are all, to some degree, murder mysteries, and Fossil Hunter has a murder-mystery subplot. And of course my "You See But You Do Not Observe," which is a Sherlock Holmes story, won Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, and another story of mine, Just Like Old Times," about a time-traveling serial killer, won both the Aurora Award for SF and the Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for mystery fiction.

But it's so hard to establish oneself as a name in any genre that I'm now very reluctant to take any time away from SF. My audience is building nicely in the SF field; I want to continue to serve that audience with new books as fast as possible. A detour into pure mystery would be a disservice to my readers.

Ruaud: I read somewhere that you've also wrote radio programs, no?

Sawyer: In 1985, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned me to write and narrate three one-hour radio documentaries about the history of science fiction. I interviewed many of the greats of SF, including Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Thomas M. Disch, Samuel R. Delany, Spider Robinson, Judith Merril, and Élisabeth Vonarburg. The programs were a success, and the CBC commissioned two more from me in 1990 about alternative histories. For those, I interviewed Gregory Benford, Harry Turtledove, Kim Stanley Robinson, S. M. Stirling, and others. They were a lot of fun, but they also helped me to realize that I was spending too much time writing about science fiction — I also used to review SF for The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, as well as doing the two newsletters I mentioned earlier. I needed to concentrate on writing actual SF. Still, I do a fair bit of broadcasting these days. I present regular commentaries on life in the future for a Canadian science TV program, and do frequent commentaries for Canada's science-fiction television service, Space: The Imagination Station.

Ruaud: There was a ten-year gap between the publication of your first story, in 1981, and of your first novel, in 1990. Why? You weren't interested by the novel form at that time, or was it by lack of time, or . . . ?

Sawyer: Partly, it was a lack of time. My freelance non-fiction career kept me very busy; indeed, in 1988, I said to my wife that for the first time ever I was going to start turning down work so that I could make time for my fiction writing. But the other part of it was that I'd not had much luck with short fiction. The conventional wisdom was that you were supposed to start out writing short stories, and then, once you'd mastered them, you could graduate to novels. Well, I was having poor luck with short fiction. Finally, I said to heck with it, and began writing a novel anyway — and it was like a whole new world had opened up for me. Clearly, the novel format is my natural canvas. Although I have no trouble selling my short stories today, I still find it much, much harder to write short fiction than to write novels.

Ruaud: From where did it come, this obvious love of yours for the dinosaurs?

Sawyer: Ever since I was a little boy, I've loved dinosaurs. Indeed, I thought I'd devote my life to them: I intended to become a paleontologist. But the job prospects seemed slim: there are only three dinosaurian paleontologists in all of Canada, and it didn't seem likely that one of them would dutifully retire just because I'd arrived on the scene. So, it developed that my secondary dream of being a writer — something I'd always thought would not be a practical pursuit — turned out to be my career path. I think there's a connection, though: dinosaurs were a truly alien form of life, and we learn about them solely through logic and deduction and science. Well, my novels have a real fascination with aliens, too, and, of course, my books revel in the scientific process, and in the kind of puzzle-solving paleontologists have to do all the time.

Ruaud: Your novels frequently have a strong "hard SF" (that is: scientific) background. Do you have a scientific foundation?

Sawyer: At university, the only science I studied was psychology — which you can certainly see reflected in my novels Foreigner, The Terminal Experiment, and Factoring Humanity. But, in my many years of working as a journalist, I learned how to do research; I love science, and I really do think it belongs to everyone, not just the scientists. Kim Stanley Robinson and Frederik Pohl are thought of as great hard-SF writers, but Stan has a degree in literature and Fred didn't even finish high school. As long as you're willing to do the research, I think anyone can write hard SF. And I'm certainly willing to do the research — indeed, it's my favorite part of the writing process. Nothing gives me more pleasure than learning new things.

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