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

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Amazon.com Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Conducted May 24, 1998

Amazon.com: How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for writing each book?

Robert J. Sawyer: I've been a lifelong fan of science fiction, and always wanted to write it professionally (and, indeed, I'm now the President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). The very first SF novel I ever read, Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse, began with an introductory essay by him on the joys of being an SF writer. So instead of going through the usual process of first discovering SF as a reader and then only years later have it dawn on me that real people actually wrote these stories, and then, even later, have it occur to me that maybe I could try writing them myself, for me writing SF was something I'd always thought of doing right from the outset. Still, it wasn't until I was an adult that it occurred to me that I might be able to make a living as an SF writer; I thought I was going to become a paleontologist instead (anyone who has read my dinosaur-related SF novels, including End of an Era and Far-Seer, can see that I never lost my love for paleontology).

[Robert J. Sawyer] Amazon.com: What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

Sawyer: My favorite SF authors are Arthur C. Clarke and 1970s-vintage Frederik Pohl. Clarke's 2001 was clearly an influence on my first novel, Golden Fleece, but my favorite Clarke book is The Fountains Of Paradise; my fondness for poignant epilogues — such as the ones in Foreigner, Frameshift, and Factoring Humanity  — clearly comes from Fountains.

I think Pohl's Gateway is the finest SF novel ever written, and it probably inspired to some degree my own SF novel of psychoanalysis, Foreigner.

Outside of SF, my favorite novel is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which I ruminate on at length in Frameshift (Hugo finalist), and I suspect its sense of the courts as a mirror of society and its exploration of racial issues were part of the genesis of my own Illegal Alien. I'm also a big fan of mystery fiction, including Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels and especially Eric Wright, who is a huge name in Canada but never seems to have found the recognition he deserves in the U.S. The best novel I've read this decade is Carol Shield's The Stone Diaries, which I love in part because she breaks — to great effect — every one of the silly rules creative-writing teachers try to foist upon students.

Amazon.com: Could you describe the mundane details of writing: How many hours a day do you devote to writing? Do you write a draft on paper or at a keyboard (typewriter or computer)? Do you have a favorite location or time of day (or night) for writing? What do you do to avoid—or seek!—distractions?

Sawyer: I'm a huge believer in treating writing as a business: if you're going to be a writer, you have to actually go to work every day by sitting down at the keyboard (or else heading to the library to do research). Most of my books take between nine and eleven months to write. That breaks down as two to four months of research, two to four months to produce the first draft, and another two to four months polishing and revising — those are solid months of forty-hour weeks. I love the research part; I like to say writing is like being in university, but you get to change your major as often as you like. For Foreigner, I immersed myself in the writings of Sigmund Freud; for Starplex (Hugo and Nebula finalist) I devoured books and articles on cosmology; for Frameshift (Hugo finalist), I spent months learning about genetics; for Illegal Alien, I spent months learning the American legal system (and I went to Los Angeles, where the book is set, three times while researching it); for Factoring Humanity, I dug into everything from the debate about repressed memories to the works of Salvador Dali.

When I'm writing the first draft, I try to do 2,000 words a day. Sometimes I can do that in ninety minutes; sometimes it takes ten hours, but whatever it takes, I do.

I write on a computer exclusively; I put my right hand through a plate-glass window in 1985, severing the tendons; my longhand writing has been almost illegible ever since. I write with WordStar for DOS; I know a lot of people think that's a primitive, obsolete, and difficult program, but it's actually enormously popular still among SF writer; I explain why at length in an essay on my web site.

To avoid distractions, I get away to the country; I've been doing more and more of my first drafts on retreats. It's an enormous relief to get away from the phones!

Amazon.com: Do you meet your readers at book signings, conventions, or similar events? Do you interact with your readers electronically through e-mail or other online forums?

Sawyer: I love meeting my readers! I go to as many science-fiction conventions and authors' festivals as I can (and almost every year make it to the World SF Convention). I do lots of bookstore signings, library readings, and so on — in fact, just this week, I did my one hundredth public reading from my work.

I've been online in earnest since 1987; my first love was the science-fiction forums on CompuServe, and I'm still a regular there. I get lots of electronic fan mail, which really is a treat; I also get some paper fan mail, of course, but I probably get fifty fan E-mails for every one paper one. Writers who aren't online are really missing out on a chance to interact with their readers.

Amazon.com: When and how did you get started on the Net? Do you read any newsgroups such as rec.arts.books and rec.arts.sf.written, mailing lists, or other on-line forums? Do you use the Net for research—or is it just another time sink? Are you able to communicate with other writers or people you work with over the Net?

Sawyer: I have a very elaborate web site at www.sfwriter.com — 400,000 words of text, 400 separate documents, and 4,400 internal hypertext links; The Oxford Companion To Canadian Literature calls it "the most elaborate and interesting home page of any created by a Canadian writer."

I got started online early in 1984 with an old Novation CAT acoustic-coupler 300-baud modem. I regularly read rec.arts.sf.written. I'm using the web more and more for research; it's an incredible resource. Still, everything on a web site has been put their by a vested-interest party; I miss the weighing and filtering that paper journalism brings to information. It's so easy to be misled into thinking something is a proven fact on a web site, when it may really be wild speculation or a deliberate distortion of the truth. My main online research source is actually a commercial database called Magazine Database Plus on CompuServe; it lets me do Boolean searching and download the full text of articles from magazines like Discover, Science News, Astronomy, Sky and Telescope, plus general-interest publications such as Time, Newsweek, The Economist, and Maclean's for a buck an article; I probably spend about $300 — meaning I read 300 articles — for every novel I write doing research through that service, but it's worth every penny. [Note: sadly, Magazine Database Plus went out of service in August 1999; I miss it a lot.]

As President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, I do a lot of the organization's business via E-mail, although I still prefer to actually pick up a phone and talk with somebody interactively: E-mail always seems so harsh, so much like taking a strong, intractable position. I rarely have misunderstandings with people over the phone, but E-mail seems to escalate every little issue into an argument. Still, for hammering out bylaw wordings, or exchanging large blocks of text, it's obviously an ideal tool.

Amazon.com: Any final comments?

Sawyer: I write science fiction not just because I love the genre — I do — but also because I think it's an important form of communication. SF lets us talk about really fundamental issues: whether or not God exists, what it means to be human, and so on; it's a laboratory for thought experiments about the human condition. I really love the chance to tackle big issues — whether its creationism in Fossil Hunter, abortion in The Terminal Experiment, socialized medicine in Frameshift, racism in Illegal Alien, recovered memories of child abuse in Factoring Humanity, or the concept of destiny vs. free will, which is what the novel I just finished, tentatively entitled Mosaic, deals with. Of course I want to entertain my readers, but I also love the fact that SF also lets me help them to think about new things, or about old things in new ways.

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