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Is Robert J. Sawyer a Part of
In May 1999, I was approached by a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department
of English at
what was then called the University of Western Ontario
(and is now known as Western University) who was preparing a paper
on the relationship between Canadian science fiction and Canadian literature.
By Canadian literature, he said he meant:
- the tradition of Canlit and its canon, from
Wacousta and Roughing it in the Bush
through the Confederation Poets, Frederick Philip Grove,
Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence,
Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and more recent writers
such as Nino Ricci, Anne Michaels, etc.;
- the literary institutions that support that tradition
(publishers, the Canada Council for the Arts, literary journals,
Canadian Literature scholarly journals, university English
departments and high school Canlit courses, etc.); and
- the contemporary [Canlit] writing community
The academic asked within that definition of Canadian Literature:
Here's the response I sent him:
- How I saw my relationship to Canadian Literature?
- Whether I was influenced by Canadian Literature?
- Whether I saw myself as writing in the tradition of Canlit or
in the tradition of SF?
I am a Canadian writer, born in Ottawa, raised in suburban
Toronto, educated entirely at Canadian institutions, and
currently residing in Thornhill, Ontario. Being part of Canadian
literature is, I firmly believe, my birthright.
That said, my chosen art form science fiction is one in
which there is very little domestic Canadian publishing. In
English, there simply is no author who has published twelve
science-fiction novels in Canada (the number I have placed with
major U.S. publishers); it would be impossible for me to have
published the books I have by staying with domestic publishing
houses. (I have, however, had five-figure-per-novel advances
offered me by Canadian publishers, including Random House Canada
and HarperCollins Canada, who wanted to add me to their
domestically published Canadian-fiction lists.)
Of course, I have studied Canadian literature (including a
full-year course in this topic taught by Dr. Margaret
Morris at Ryerson in 1979-80; it's perhaps
noteworthy that it was in this class that I first met
Tanya Huff, a major Canadian fantasy
writer, who has been a close friend ever since), and I am
familiar with what you term "the canon" (indeed, I used an
epigram from Margaret Laurence's
The Diviners as a chapter head in my novel
End of an Era)
although I reject the notion of
there being a canon of Canlit other than the totality of
ambitious written works in all fields and genres produced by
I'm lucky enough to have had
considerable success outside of
Canada's borders, but if one were to delete all of that from my
curriculum vitae, I think you'd find what's
left is a resume indistinguishable from that of a reasonably
successful Canlit writer.
My work has been anthologized alongside that of
Margaret Atwood, Katherine Govier,
Douglas Fetherling, Timothy Findley, Geoffrey Ursell, Lesley Choyce, and W.P. Kinsella in the anthology
Ark of Ice
(Pottersfield Press), and as an anthologist, I have published work by Robertson Davies (in
Crossing the Line).
Canadian authors I consider particularly
influential on my own work include Davies, Martha Ostenso, Susannah Moodie, Stephen Leacock, and Marie-Claire Blais, as well as
contemporary Canadian novelists
Terence M. Green,
and Carol Shields [and I went on to write the introduction for the
most recent edition of
Frederick Philip Grove's Consider Her Ways, published by Insomniac Press].
I have studied creative writing at university (a full year
course, again with Tanya Huff as
a fellow student, under Marianne
Brandis at Ryerson, 1981-82); and, in turn, I now
teach creative writing from time to time at both Ryerson and the
University of Toronto (indeed, this summer I am teaching at the
University of Toronto's
Taddle Creek Writers'
Workshop alongside Barry
Fetherling, and M.T. Kelly).
I speak occasionally to Ontario high-school English classes
through The Writers' Union of Canada's "Writers in the Schools"
program, and served (alongside Katherine Govier,
Susan Musgrave, Rick Salutin, Daniel Poliquin, and
Lorna Crozier) as a writer-in-electronic residence through
the Writers' Development Trust's "Wired Writers" program (and
have also been writer-in-residence for Maclean's
Online, and am currently hosting the "Writers' Studio" on
My first fiction publication was in a Canadian literary journal
(White Wall Review, Ryerson Polytechnical
Institute, 1980), and I subsequently served as co-editor of that
journal (1982); I have also been a contest judge for
Prairie Fire, and I have a story of my own coming
Canadian Fiction Magazine.
In addition, my work is
widely taught in Canadian post-secondary
The Terminal Experiment at
the University of Toronto [English department], York University
[Multidisciplinary Studies department], and the University of
Waterloo [Philosophy department]);
(in a survey of Canadian novels at Humber College);
(at Ryerson Polytechnic University); and
Starplex (at Dalhousie University, in
the course Modern Canadian Literature, English 4357R, taught by Patricia Monk, Ph.D.).
The full list of required texts in Dr. Monk's course is:
- Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale,
- Robertson Davies's Fifth Business,
- Margaret Laurence's The Fire-Dwellers,
- Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night,
- Robert J. Sawyer's Starplex,
- Sheila Watson's The Double Hook, and
- Jack David and Robert Lecker's anthologies
Canadian Poetry Volumes 1 and 2.
I have read at the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors
(and am currently a consultant to Harbourfront both on cultural
components of the 2008 Toronto Olympics bid and on the future of
literary programs at Harbourfront), at the Winnipeg Writers
Festival, and at the National Library of Canada (plus all the
usual Toronto-area literary venues, such as the Idler Pub, the
Rivoli Café, and the Hart House Library at the University of
I am a past member of the Canadian Authors Association, and
served as keynote speaker
at their 76th Annual Meeting in 1997; I
am a current member of The Writers' Union of Canada (and served
on its membership committee in 1996-97). The Richmond Hill (Ontario)
public-library board currently has an application
before the Canada Council for the Arts to have me be their
writer-in-residence in 2000; they sought me out for this position,
rather than the other way around.
I am profiled in The Oxford Companion to Canadian
Canadian Who's Who, have
been profiled in
Books in Canada magazine, and a
caricature of me (as part of a series of caricatures of
distinguished Canadian authors) appeared as the cover
illustration on the May 1993 issue of Quill & Quire
(a publication that, incidentally, has awarded my work three
starred reviews, denoting books of exceptional merit). I was
interviewed repeatedly by Peter
Gzowski on CBC Radio's Morningside and
have appeared repeatedly on TVOntario's literary books program
The Globe and Mail called my novel Illegal
Alien "the best Canadian mystery of 1997"
[review published in the 13 December 1997 edition]
and The Ottawa Citizen put my novel Factoring Humanity on
their list of 1998's
top nine works of fiction (novels or short
story collections, by authors of any nationality) [list published
in the 29 November 1998 edition].
I have co-edited three anthologies for small Canadian literary
(Tesseracts 6, co-edited with
Carolyn Clink for The Books Collective,
Crossing the Line, co-edited with
David Skene-Melvin for
Pottersfield Press, Nova Scotia ; and Over the
Edge, co-edited with Peter
Sellers also for Pottersfield [in press]).
And I have made a point of supporting small literary magazines:
I made a special arrangement with the U.S. editor who had
commissioned my story
"Just Like Old Times" to have it first
appear in On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of Speculative
Writing, Summer 1993 edition; that story went on to win
both the Crime Writers of Canada's
Arthur Ellis Award and the
Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Award ("the Aurora"). In
addition, I wrote a
column for three years for On
Spec. I've also been published in
TransVersions, a small-press magazine published at
the time in British Columbia [it's now published in Toronto], and
that story went on to be an Aurora finalist.
reviewer, I've contributed to The Canadian Book Review
Annual, The Globe and Mail, and The
Ottawa Citizen. I'm also a contributor to The
Canadian Encyclopedia, Books in Canada, and
Canadian Author & Bookman, Quill &
Quire, and Aloud (the newsletter of the
Harbourfront Reading Series), and I am quoted in The
Dictionary of Canadian Quotations, edited by
John Robert Colombo.
I'm cognizant of those within the Canlit establishment who
pooh-pooh writers who are enjoying commercial success, darkly
hinting that although the books may sell well in stores, they
aren't "grantworthy." Well, it is true that my books do sell
well in stores, and it is true that I'm lucky enough not to
require government subsidies in order to pursue my art, but to
silence these critics I nonetheless did apply in 1993 for an
Ontario Arts Council grant, specifically to demonstrate that
there was nothing inherently ungrantworthy about my work;
Books in Canada magazine sponsored my application.
I received the grant I applied for, and the novel produced under
The Terminal Experiment went on to
win the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's
Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year,
to win the
Aurora Award, and to be a finalist for the
Hugo Award; the book has been
translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian,
Japanese, Polish, Russian, and Spanish.
All the above is a preamble to responding directly to your
question, "Do you see yourself as writing in the tradition of
Canlit or in the tradition of SF?" It's a false dichotomy in my
view; my work belongs squarely in both camps, and, as I believe
the foregoing demonstrates, has been embraced by both. I'll end
with a couple of questions of my own: have I ever thought about
giving up science fiction? Yes, repeatedly because of the
sales limitations, the stigma associated with the genre, the
desire to reach a wider audience, and the constraints sometimes
imposed by the conventions of the genre. Have I ever thought
about giving up being a Canadian writer, exploring Canadian
characters, themes, and settings? Never.
Postscript 1: In March 2008, Quill & Quire, the
Canadian publishing trade journal, named Robert J. Sawyer one of the
"The CanLit 30:
The most influential, innovative, and just plain powerful people in Canadian publishing." Only two other authors made the thirty-name list:
Margaret Atwood and Douglas Coupland.
Postscript 2: In April 2015, the
Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board certified the
Robert J. Sawyer Archives at McMaster University as being
of "outstanding significance and national importance."
Postscript 3: On July 1, 2016 Canada Day
Robert J. Sawyer was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the highest
civilian honour bestowed by the Canadian government; he was the first
person ever admitted to the Order for work in the science-fiction field.
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