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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
Ruaud: Are you a full-time writer, or have you another job
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
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
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
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
The Terminal Experiment,
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
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
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
Sawyer: At university, the only science I studied was
psychology which you can certainly see reflected in my novels
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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