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

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Northern Dreamers

Robert J. Sawyer

by Edo van Belkom

Copyright © 1998 by Edo van Belkom.
All Rights Reserved.

Northern Dreamers by Edo van Belkom is a collection of 21 interviews with Canadian authors of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, published in Spring 1998 by Quarry Press (ISBN 1-55082-206-3, Cdn$19.95; US$14.95). This interview was conducted 1 July 1997, with minor revisions prior to going to press in December 1997.

As Canada's only native-born full-time SF writer, Robert J(ames) Sawyer takes his Canadian identity very seriously. For example, several of his novels, including the Nebula Award-winning The Terminal Experiment, take place in Canada, and his books and stories are generously populated by Canadian characters. As he commented in the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, "Although Canadian fantasy writers have often set work in Canada, very little SF has had identifiable Canadian content. I've undertaken to rectify that."

[Rob Sawyer] Born in Ottawa in 1960, Sawyer began his writing career as a freelance business journalist. He turned to writing science fiction full-time in 1990 with the publication of his first novel Golden Fleece, an Aurora Award winner. He followed up that novel with The Quintaglio Ascension, a series detailing the intellectual, scientific, and sociological ascension of a race of intelligent dinosaurs comprised of the books Far-Seer (1992), Fossil Hunter (1993), and Foreigner (1994). Another unrelated dinosaur novel, End of an Era, followed in 1994 and for a while it seemed that Sawyer would be an SF writer who specialized in dinosaurs. But all that changed with the publication of the near-future thriller The Terminal Experiment in 1995. The book won the Nebula, Aurora, and HOMer Awards for best novel and was a finalist for the Hugo Award. It also established Sawyer as someone who could write "Crichton-esque" SF/mainstream thrillers, while still being able to produce diamond-hard SF for the core readers in the genre. Starplex (1996) is a hard-SF novel full of "sense of wonder" while Frameshift (1997) is another SF thriller set on Earth. His most recent book, Illegal Alien (1997), is an SF courtroom drama.

Sawyer has also written several well-received short stories, most notably "Just Like Old Times," winner of both the Aurora and Arthur Ellis Awards, and "You See But You Do Not Observe," which won France's Le Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire.

In addition to fiction, Sawyer writes a regular non-fiction column called "On Writing" for a Canadian SF magazine, and he co-edited the anthology Tesseracts 6 with his wife, poet Carolyn Clink. He currently resides in Thornhill, Ontario, just north of Toronto.

van Belkom: You've got an arts degree and your background is in business journalism. How did you end up writing hard SF?

Sawyer: Ever since I was a little boy up until my last year of high school, I thought I was going to be a paleontologist; I wanted to devote my life to studying dinosaurs. But as high school drew to a close, several things became apparent to me. First, I was getting tired of school — something heretical to say in my family. My father was a professor of economics at the University of Toronto, my mother had also taught there, and her father had been a professor at Berkeley. I lived in an academic family but was coming to realize that the academic life wasn't for me. I couldn't imagine spending the next ten years getting a Ph.D. so that I could make $18,000 a year sifting dirt. And, of course, all dinosaur paleontologists are civil servants — they work at museums or universities. This was 1979, but one didn't have to have too much speculative ability to see that the lot of Canadian civil servants was going to get progressively worse as time went by. Finally, there are only three dinosaurian paleontologists in all of Canada — one at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, one at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and one at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa — and it didn't look like any of the three incumbents was going to give up his job just because I'd arrived on the scene.

Now, I'd always known I'd write science fiction, but I'd assumed it would be a hobby or a sideline — which is precisely what it is for ninety percent of the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. But there are only two dozen dinosaurian paleontologists in the entire world, compared to more than a hundred full-time SF writers. And SF writers, unlike paleontologists, aren't on a quota system: a writer can live anywhere, and the fact that Canada already had Spider Robinson and Phyllis Gotlieb didn't have any impact on whether I could do it, too.

Still, I knew it would be an uphill battle; I couldn't just start being a full-time SF writer, straight out of high school. But I did want to make my living writing. I thought about studying journalism, but the only degree program in journalism in Toronto at that time was at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, and it required high-school history as a prerequisite, something I didn't have; I didn't want to leave Toronto because I was already involved with Carolyn Clink, who would later become my wife. Still, on a tour of Ryerson I was introduced to their wonderful Radio and Television Arts department, which was without doubt the best broadcasting program in Canada. I thought, hey, I could learn script writing — that's a marketable skill. They said they had seven applicants for every spot in the program, so I applied almost on a lark, but I got in.

Ironically, I ended up doing mostly journalism during the 1980s: two hundred feature articles for Canadian and American magazines, everything from dollar-a-word stuff for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business Magazine to an article for Sky & Telescope. I also did a lot of very lucrative corporate and government work for such clients the Ontario Science Centre and Bank of Montreal, and, while I was doing that, I was banking a lot of money. By 1989, my wife and I had one hundred thousand dollars in the bank — enough so that I felt comfortable quitting the non-fiction work and trying to become a full-time SF writer; I knew I'd never get a novel written if I tried to do it around my commitments to my clients. I'd already sold a number of short works, including a novelette called "Golden Fleece" that was used as the cover story in the September 1988 Amazing Stories. Fellow Toronto writers Andrew Weiner and Terence M. Green had both recently expanded short works of theirs into their first novels, and I decided to emulate that. With my short-fiction credentials, I had no trouble landing my first choice of agent, Richard Curtis, and he, in turn, had no trouble selling the novel-length Golden Fleece.

van Belkom: Early in your career you were often referred to as a shameless self-promoter because of your efforts to promote yourself and your work. What's your response to that?

Sawyer: "Often" simply isn't true. Early in my career, a few vocal fanboys in Toronto — jealous wannabe writers who were having no success of their own — saw fit to dismiss the accomplishments of all their betters, not just myself. Rather than facing up to the reality that the reason my work, or Terry Green's work, or Andrew Weiner's work, was selling and theirs wasn't was that we were competent writers and they were not, they chose instead to gainsay every achievement we had. So if Orson Scott Card named my first book, Golden Fleece, the best SF novel of 1990 — and he did — well, it wasn't because it was a good book, but rather, somehow, because I had "promoted" the book.

I realize to those sitting on the sidelines, unable to get into the game, the fact that real writers who happen to live in the same city are getting prominent coverage in major daily newspapers, are cropping up on TV or radio, or — God forfend! — are actually autographing their books in a bookstore may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it would have been more dignified if they'd swallowed it quietly, instead of engaging in whispered smear campaigns. The fact that today, seven years after my first novel came out, these promulgators of the Sawyer-self-promotion myth are only marginally published, despite supposedly continuous effort in the interim, speaks for itself.

Do I appear on Canadian TV a lot? Yes — but because the producers call me, not the other way around. TVOntario's Prisoners of Gravity phoned me, for instance, because John Rose at Bakka, Toronto's SF specialty store, recommended me to them; I'd never heard of the show when producer Mark Askwith first called, but I ended up being their most frequent guest, making sixteen appearances over the run of the series. I do have a degree in Radio and Television Arts, after all, and am very comfortable on camera or in front of a mike. These days, I crop up a lot on @discovery.ca, the Canadian Discovery Channel's nightly science program; I've made over two dozen appearances to date. But, again, they came looking for me, and once more it was because I'd been recommended to them as a possible guest, not through anything I'd done.

Do I apologize that I keep getting asked back to Morningside, Canada A.M., or Imprint in Canada, or by Sci-Fi Buzz in the States? Do I apologize that some radio programs have had me on as many as fourteen times? Of course not; I'm a communicator by profession, and I'm successful in that profession because I do it well. Sure, I do some small amount of promotion, but it takes up less than a day a month, and it's just part of the job. If you think Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje do less, think again.

Besides, I've done far more to promote Canadian SF in general than I've ever done to promote myself. Who paid out of his own pocket to fly Donald Kingsbury from Montreal to Toronto so that he could give a free public reading in 1982? Who then got an interview with him into Books in Canada and another interview into Science Fiction Review? Who got Terence M. Green interviewed by Books in Canada? Who was the first person to have Terry Green, Andrew Weiner, or Robert Priest as guests at an SF convention? Who was co-chair of the first-ever conference on Canadian SF, NorthStar, held in September 1982? Who published Tanya Huff's first story, back in 1982? Who interviewed Élisabeth Vonarburg on CBC Radio coast-to-coast in 1986, before she'd had anything significant translated into English? Hundreds of people noticed there was no entry on Canadian science fiction in the first edition of The Canadian Encyclopedia, but who made sure there was an entry in the second and subsequent editions? Who as a volunteer ran Ontario Hydra, Canada's first association of SF professionals, from its founding in 1984 for the next eight years? Who made sure there were readings by Canadian authors at the National Library of Canada to supplement the posters of Captain Kirk and Superman that were displayed during their exhibition on Canadian SF? Who spent three acrimonious years fighting to establish the Canadian Region of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America? Who produced the column "Northern Lights: Canadian Achievements in SF" for the newsletter of the Spaced Out Library, and who later turned that into a standalone newsletter? Who, year after year, produces the brochure called "Award-Winning Canadian SF," thousands of copies of which have been distributed by Bakka? And who co-edited Tesseracts 6 for a fee of less than one percent of what he normally gets for doing a book?

I've done all of that, and more — all for the sake not of myself, but of Canadian SF in general.

van Belkom: Your second novel, Far-Seer, was the first in a trilogy you call the Quintaglio Ascension, but since your fifth novel, End of an Era, you've concentrated on stand-alone books. Will there be more Quintaglio novels, or perhaps some other series or linked novels?

[FAR-SEER Cover Art] Sawyer: I found doing a trilogy very constraining. I devoted over two years of my life to writing the three Quintaglio books; that's an awfully long time to spend with any one set of characters. I know trilogies or open-ended series are all the rage in SF, but I much prefer doing stand-alones. In fact, when my then-agent Richard Curtis sold the outline for Starplex to Susan Allison at Ace, he pitched it as the first book in an on-going series — and it could have easily been that. But as I was writing it, it became apparent that I was holding things back for future books, and I thought that was a cheat. A person buys a novel in a bookstore; he or she should get a complete work.

The Quintaglio trilogy never started out as a trilogy: there was originally only going to be one Quintaglio novel, Far-Seer. But my agent suggested I do more, and I agreed. I'd been influenced somewhat by the early career of American writer Michael P. Kube-McDowell, who, at the time, seemed poised to become one of the top names in SF, and he'd started out with a trilogy for Ace, the publisher who had done Far-Seer. But I actually think, in retrospect, that doing a trilogy was a mistake — at least with the three volumes coming out with no other books in between. I was pigeonholed for a while as the talking-dinosaur guy — and if there's one thing I never want to be as a writer, it's pigeonholed.

That said, I actually have already written what I think of as a second trilogy, after the Quintaglio one. I consider The Terminal Experiment, Frameshift, and Starplex to be a thematic trilogy; they don't share any of the same characters, and Starplex — which is an off-Earth, far-future, spaceships-and-aliens novel — is much different in tone from the other two, but they explore related territory, and I think of them as my "Eschatological Trilogy." The Terminal Experiment, which deals with the discovery of scientific proof for the existence of the human soul, is about the origin and ultimate fate of individual human beings. Frameshift, which explores the discovery of a second level of coded information in our DNA, is about the origin and ultimate fate of the human species. And Starplex, which tackles just about every major issue in modern cosmology, is about the origin and ultimate fate of the entire universe.

Meanwhile, the book I just finished, Factoring Humanity, and the one I'm just starting, currently called Mosaic, also cover thematically related ground — in this case, the nature of human memory and subjective time. Again, they share no characters, but they, too, are parts of a thematic grouping.

van Belkom: You've probably been interviewed in the media more times in the last few years than most northern dreamers will be in their whole careers. Is there any discernible bias against SF as a genre by the Canadian media?

Sawyer: Oh, certainly. It's de rigueur at The Globe and Mail to take potshots at SF. But, on the other hand, most of the other major newspapers in Canada have been very good not just to me but to SF in general: The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Citizen, The Edmonton Journal, The Calgary Herald, and The Montreal Gazette deserve particular credit for recognizing SF as a valid art form, and one of the most thoughtful analyses of my career to date was a piece by David Pitt in The Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

Still, The Globe is not alone. I was the subject of a snotty profile in Toronto Life in which the self-styled journalist — he made a point of asserting himself as such in article's first paragraph — decided to review the covers of my books, rather than actually read them. This clown lamented in his article how poorly his own books sell. I find that's often the source of the prejudice against writers of commercial fiction: reviewers and interviewers are often failed writers.

But, on balance, I think we do pretty well. The CBC and Newsworld, for instance, could not be more supportive of the SF field. I appeared on Pamela Wallin Live a short time ago with Tad Williams, a bestselling American SF author. He remarked on that: the CBC treats SF authors with real respect, and gives us major exposure.

As for a general prejudice against SF, it's still there, in spades. Terry Green has come up with the best answer for it. When someone tells him they don't like SF, he asks, "What book have you read that led you to form that opinion?" And the answer, of course, is none. So we've got an uphill battle, but it is winnable. Because of the media exposure my work gets in Canada, I've had lots of people tell me that either The Terminal Experiment or Frameshift was the first SF novel they've ever read, and that it was nothing like what they thought SF was all about. But they also say they're going to continue reading SF now, which is very gratifying.

van Belkom: As you become more successful in the field, do you find that critics and others are tougher on you than they've been in the past?

Sawyer: I really don't pay much attention to reviews. I used to read them myself, but I don't even do that anymore. My wife Carolyn works for me full-time as my assistant, and one of her jobs is to read through reviews, extract any quote that might be useful for the next dust jacket, and, if the reviewer was sufficiently perceptive — that is, if he understood the book — to photocopy the review and send copies to my publisher and agent. But, sure, when you win a major award, there are always some people lining up to take a knock at you. Still, as of right now, I've had two books out since I won the Nebula for The Terminal Experiment: Starplex and Frameshift. And although there have been a few detractors, those two books have gotten some of the best reviews I've ever had.

van Belkom: Several of your novels have been set in Canada and have featured Canadian characters. Obviously you're a Canadian writer, but have you sometimes had difficulty being accepted as a Canadian SF author in your own country?

Sawyer: Golden Fleece has a Canadian protagonist, and its only Earth-based scenes take place in Thunder Bay and Toronto. End of an Era is set entirely in Canada — in Alberta, at TRIUMF in B.C., and in Toronto. The Terminal Experiment is set entirely in Toronto, as is the novel I just finished writing for Tor, Factoring Humanity. Frameshift and Illegal Alien are both set in the States, but still have major Canadian content; I had to set them in the States because Canada is just too nice a country for the stories I wanted to tell. In particular, for Frameshift, which has a Quebecois as its main character, I needed a country that didn't have socialized medicine, and for Illegal Alien I needed a country that had capital punishment. In both cases, the U.S. was sufficiently nasty a setting.

I've never had any trouble being accepted as a Canadian SF author in my own country. Quill & Quire used a wonderful caricature of me as the cover illustration for its May 1993 issue, and when Books in Canada did a special Canadian Speculative Fiction issue in March 1993, I was the author they chose to profile. Still, I did have some trouble being welcomed as part of the literary community here. There's a real tendency for SF to be pooh-poohed by the literati. In fact, I got tired of being told that I wasn't literary . . . in large measure because I'd never had a government grant. So I applied for one — the lowest value Ontario Arts Council grant available, which was $500. And I got it, which shut a lot of people up.

But whatever lack of acceptance there might have been in the early years has been overcome. I've read twice at Harbourfront, I was keynote speaker at the 1997 annual meeting of the Canadian Authors Association, I'm profiled in Canadian Who's Who, and my books are taught at many Canadian universities in courses offered by departments as diverse as English, Astronomy, and Philosophy. I feel very much a part of the Canadian writing community.

van Belkom: You have dual citizenship and are a Canadian as well as an American citizen. Have you ever considered moving south of the border?

Sawyer: I was born in Ottawa and my father was born in Toronto. My dad married my mother when they were both grad students at the University of Chicago; my mother grew up in California. I am a Canadian by birth, a Canadian by residence, and a Canadian by preference. In the year I was born — 1960 — my mother had my birth registered with the U.S. consulate in Ottawa as a foreign-soil birth to an American national, and thereby I gained dual citizenship. But I don't actually believe in dual citizenship conceptually; I think citizenship is like marriage: it should be a form of monogamy. Yes, I could move to the United States anytime — I do have an American Social Security number, and all the other paperwork required to live and work there. But I choose Canada.

We Canadians are notorious for embracing our expatriates. Is William Shatner Canadian? Not in any meaningful sense; Canada may have been his birthplace, but it isn't his home — and the former is something he had no choice over while the latter is an act of volition. Shatner, as it happens, is no longer married to his first wife — he divorced her, and he divorced his country of birth. Is writer Sean Stewart Canadian? Some might say yes, because he lived here for a number of years, but he was born in Lubbock, Texas, and now lives full-time in Houston, Texas. If you choose to live somewhere other than Canada, I don't think you have much right to call yourself a Canadian.

Lots of my friends in the arts would kill to have what I have — the freedom to work in the United States. They're desperate to get a green card. But Canada is my home, and, I honestly believe it's the best nation on Earth. In a very real sense, I'm married to Canada; I've never been tempted at all to move away, but, if I do, I'll do so with the understanding that if you're no longer living together, then you're no longer really married.

van Belkom: Several of your novels have strong mystery elements, Golden Fleece and The Terminal Experiment for example, and you've even won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Mystery Story for "Just Like Old Times." Have you considered leaving SF for the mystery field, or perhaps writing a straight mystery in addition to your SF?

Sawyer: I've considered a lot of things, but winning the Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year made one thing absolutely clear: being a science-fiction writer is my first, best destiny. In SF, I've been able to explore an incredible range: I've written mystery stories, love stories, and adventure stories, all in an SF context. I've gotten to do stories about marriages in trouble, such as The Terminal Experiment; I've gotten to do stories about contemporary ethical concerns, such as Frameshift; I've even gotten to do a courtroom drama (Illegal Alien). Some SF publishers do try to pigeonhole you — they want your next book to be just like your last. But there are others, such as my current publisher, Tor, who give you a very wide latitude. I asked David G. Hartwell of Tor when he became my editor what he wanted me to write next, and he said, "Write whatever you're moved to write, and we'll find the best way to publish it." That's music to a writer's ears.

If I'd started out as a mystery writer, I'd be stuck working a very narrow street. Sue Grafton, with her series that began with A is for Alibi, embarked on doing 26 novels about the same character; that would be absolute purgatory for me. I love the freedom SF gives me, and can't imagine leaving it. Even the so-called "mainstream" is more constraining than SF. I'd make more money and sell better if I wrote nothing but novels like those of Michael Crichton or Robin Cook, but I wouldn't be nearly as satisfied artistically, and that is very important to me. If all I'd wanted to do was get rich, I would have become a lawyer.

van Belkom: You've won major and minor awards for both your novels and short stories and served on the jury for the Philip K. Dick award. What's your take on the awards process and their value to the field?

Sawyer: All award processes are inherently flawed, of course. The whole idea that there's one "best" book or movie of the year is ridiculous. But I've benefited enormously from the fact that all sorts of award-bestowers have admired my work. I've won the Nebula once, been nominated for it a second time, been twice nominated for the Hugo, won the Arthur Ellis Award, been twice nominated for Japan's Seiun Award, won France's Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, and won more Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards ("Auroras") than any other English-Canadian author. Is all of that gratifying? Hell, yes — particularly since so many of them were things that came out of the blue. Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire is the top SF award in France; I never dreamed I'd win that; an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada for an SF story seemed an equally improbable event. But the award wins clearly mean I'm doing something right. Have they helped my career? Damned straight. Do I care about awards? No more than I care about reviews — of course, I'm interested in anything that has an impact on my livelihood, but I don't write for reviewers and I don't write for those who give awards. I write for me.

van Belkom: The Terminal Experiment was a definite turning point in your career. How much did things change for you after the book was published and won the Nebula award?

Sawyer: Winning the Nebula Award had a major impact. I won it Saturday, April 27, 1996. Greg Gatenby was on the phone to me three days later, inviting me to be part of the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors. Prior to winning the Nebula, my novels had sold in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, and Russia. After winning the Nebula, they were almost immediately snapped up by France, Germany, Holland, Poland, and Spain, as well. My advances in the U.S. and the U.K. doubled, and my advances in Japan went up five-hundred percent. As my editor put it, I went overnight from being a promising newcomer to an established, bankable name. My career would have continued without winning the Nebula: I had sold one novel to Tor for hardcover publication, had a second under contract to them, had Illegal Alien under contract to Ace, and motion picture rights to The Terminal Experiment were already under option. Still, it was a huge boost.

van Belkom: You recently did a stint as an anthology editor. What was it like co-editing Tesseracts 6 with your wife, and was there anything about the process that surprised you?

Sawyer: "Surprised" is too soft a word. I was stunned by the utter lack of professionalism of most aspirant Canadian writers. They hadn't bothered to learn proper manuscript format; they couldn't spell; they didn't understand basic grammar. We had people submit previously published stories, or stories that had already sold somewhere else, without disclosing that fact — a blatant, and pretty damned unforgivable, violation of the etiquette of the genre. It was a real eye-opener. A number of these people, to my surprise, had publication credentials to cite, but they were all in genre small-press publications. These days, any joker with a LaserJet can start his own magazine. It used to be meaningful to say, "I am a published author." Now, apparently, it doesn't mean anything; certainly many of these people placing stories in magazines with circulations of 100 or 500 copies aren't writing at a professional level.

We had people email us submissions without our permission, people who sent us abusive letters, people who sent a dozen different submissions on a dozen different days but only one self-addressed, stamped envelope, expecting us to dig through the pile to find theirs. I used to doubt the horror stories editors tell at writers' conferences; I don't anymore.

That said, Carolyn and I were very pleasantly surprised by some of the writers we discovered. If you do another edition of Northern Dreamers in twenty years, I'll bet you'll be interviewing many of the writers who had either their first, or one of their first, stories in Tesseracts 6: Katie Harse, Nalo Hopkinson, Catherine MacLeod, Douglas Smith, Jena Snyder, Hayden Trenholm, and Michael Vance are all going to be big names in twenty-first century Canadian SF.

As for working with my wife, it was terrific. We enjoyed it so much that Carolyn decided to quit her job and come work with me full-time. Obviously, if we hadn't had a blast editing Tesseracts 6 together, that never would have happened.

van Belkom: Where do you see yourself in regards to the SF field say, twenty years from now?

Sawyer: Exactly where I am today: writing novels and stories that please me and hopefully my readers as well. I'm already making a comfortable living, I've already won the field's equivalent of the Academy Award; what more could I ask? I've got the greatest job in the world, and I hope to continue to enjoy every minute of it.

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