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Spotlight On . . .
Robert J. Sawyer
From the December 1997 issue of Fingerprints, the newsletter of the Crime Writers of Canada. Interview conducted in November 1997 by Jim McBride. This interview focuses on Robert J. Sawyer as a mystery-fiction writer; many of Sawyer's novels are science-fiction/mystery crossovers; indeed, Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, declared Sawyer's Illegal Alien to be "the best Canadian mystery of 1997."
Fingerprints: Where were you born?
Rob: Ottawa in 1960 but my family moved to Toronto a few months later so that my father could take a teaching post at the University of Toronto. I've lived in or near Toronto ever since.
Fingerprints: What got you started in writing?
Rob: My first publication was in the literary magazine of Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Toronto (where I did a Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in Radio and Television Arts). I managed to re-sell the story to an anthology co-edited by Isaac Asimov, and, after that, I was hooked. Except for four months in a bookstore, and eight months as a teaching assistant, I've never had any other full-time job besides writing.
Fingerprints: How do you plan your writing? Do you start with a crime first, or with a character?
Rob: Oh, I think you've got to start with the crime first. Indeed, the only time I ever get blocked in my writing is when I foolishly start writing a crime-related story before I know who did it and why. Characterization is very important to me, but I develop it as extension of and counterpoint to an already conceived plot.
Fingerprints: Do you completely plot a book or story before you start?
Rob: No, I only have the bare bones in mind unless, of course, I've had to produce something more substantial in order to secure a publishing contract. Even then, I try to be as vague as possible. If I've worked everything out up front, there's no excitement in discovering things at the keyboard during the actual writing.
Fingerprints: How do you find the many interesting characters in your books?
Rob: The characters almost always come out of the research I do. For instance, in Frameshift, Pierre Tardivel started out simply as a man at risk for a genetic disorder, but as I learned more about such things, his background, motivations, and thoughts grew more complex and subtle. I really do believe what Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche said: "If you want to get across an idea, wrap it up in a person."
Fingerprints: You publish very successful science fiction as well as mysteries. Do you find this an easy crossover?
Rob: Oh, yes not only is it an easy crossover, but it's a natural one. Science fiction and mystery have a great deal in common. Both prize the intellectual process of puzzle solving, and both require stories to be plausible and hinge on the way things really do work. In well-written science fiction, you don't explain the background of the story; rather, you drop subtle clues throughout the text, letting the reader piece together the nature of reality in the world you're portraying; the science-fiction reader is a natural detective the genre demands it. The success I've had has always been based on giving equal weight to the mystery and science-fiction aspects, instead of favoring one over the other. For instance, my The Terminal Experiment got glowing reviews in both The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. But in The Star it was reviewed as science fiction by Henry Mietkiewicz, whereas in The Globe it was reviewed as mystery by Margaret Cannon.
Fingerprints: Do you have any advice for anyone interested in writing science fiction?
Rob: As a business, science fiction is very similar to mystery. Both have healthy short-fiction marketplaces, dominated by Dell Magazines the same people who publish Ellery Queen's and Hitchcock's also publish the top two science-fiction magazines, Analog and Asimov's. Both genres are series oriented: if you want to develop a character and write book after book about him, her or it you can. Both are convention-driven businesses: just as there are lots of mystery conventions, so, too, there are lots of science-fiction conventions. And both are research-driven genres. You can't write a really good mystery without doing lots of research; the same is true of science fiction. My advice for those wanting to break into science fiction is the same advice I'd give for those wanting to break into mystery: start with short fiction, then try to sell a novel. And, just as in mystery, I'd say the greenest pastures are in New York; don't be afraid to tackle the American market, and don't worry about your Canadian content I've never had the slightest problem selling flagrantly Canadian work in the States.
Fingerprints: Where and how do you write?
Rob: I've got an office in my home, filled with plants. I still write with WordStar for DOS, which I love because it allows me to touch-type everything including commands; my hands never leave the home row. My wife Carolyn works for me full-time as my assistant; she has a larger office adjacent to mine with photocopier, fax machine, filing cabinets, and so on.
Fingerprints: When do you write?
Rob: I try to put in an honest six or seven hours of work each day, but it's usually spread out over about fourteen hours, with lots of breaks. I'm a late riser, and often am working well into the evening. And I firmly believe that you've got to have a real life, so I don't work on weekends I reserve that time for family and friends.
Fingerprints: Do you have any special writing habits to get you going and keep you going?
Rob: I need silence. I set word-count goals (2,000 words a day during the first-draft stage), and am constantly checking my progress. When I hit that 2,000 which is quite hard to do on many days I quit, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence.
Fingerprints: Who are your favorite authors?
Rob: In mystery, Eric Wright and Robert B. Parker; in science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke. Outside of the genres, Carol Shields and Robertson Davies.
Fingerprints: Are there any authors that greatly influenced you and that you used as a model?
Rob: Certainly science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl, who, when he's good, brilliantly integrates his characters and his ideas. Also Harper Lee; To Kill a Mockingbird had a profound impact on me as a writer. Robert B. Parker for dialog; and John Jay Osborn, Jr. who wrote the novel The Paper Chase had a big impact on how I structure scenes.
Fingerprints: What are your latest books that you have written?
Rob: Illegal Alien just came out; it's a courtroom drama with an extraterrestrial defendant. Factoring Humanity comes out in June 1998; I think it's my best novel yet, but really doesn't have much of a mystery component, although I suspect fans of The Terminal Experiment will like it anyway. The book I'm writing now, Mosaic, deals in part with a man who has certain knowledge that he will be murdered twenty years hence, but doesn't know who will do it or why.
Fingerprints: Do you have any advice for CWC Members?
Rob: Yes stay in the Crime Writers of Canada! I've been in lots of writing groups over the years, and the Crime Writers of Canada is the best. The amount this organization has done to increase the profile and credibility of Canadian crime fiction is phenomenal. You know, there's also a Canadian science-fiction writers group called "SF Canada," but the publishing world has taken no notice of it at all. Everyone knows the CWC, though!
Fingerprints: Any tips for aspiring crime writers?
Rob: Two tips, intertwined: On the one hand, never give up. Perseverance is incredibly important in this game, and the ones who come out on top aren't necessarily the best writers, but, rather, are the ones who didn't fall by the wayside. On the other hand, if you can think of anything else that would make you happy instead of being a writer, then get out now, and do that other thing instead. No other job has less security or more ego-crushing crap than this one does.
Fingerprints: What has been your most interesting experience as a crime writer?
Rob: Winning the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story of 1993 and the looks I got as I took that trophy of a hanging man home on the subway that night!
Fingerprints: You are the only writer to have won the major science-fiction awards from Canada, United States, France, and Japan. How has this affected your writing? Your life?
Rob: It hasn't changed what I write, but I suppose it has changed my lifestyle a bit; I have a certain degree of comfort now, thanks especially to having won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year. Winning that more than doubled my advances in the U.S., Britain, and Japan, and landed me publishers in France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Poland, and Spain. It's been a huge boost.
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