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

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On Being Interviewed as an Author

A Discussion with Robert J. Sawyer

In March 1997, Constance M. Hammermeister, a second-year journalism student at Centennial College in Toronto, sent me a series of questions about the process of interviewing authors for a presentation she was preparing for her class. Here are her questions and my answers:

Do you like being interviewed about your writing? Why or why not?

Yes, I enjoy being interviewed about my writing — but only because it's an important aspect of marketing the work. Although I have a pretty high public profile — including over two dozen national TV appearances last year — I'm actually a private guy; if I didn't have to do interviews as part of my job, I wouldn't.

Who do you like being interviewed by (specific names of journalists or publications would be great; types of people; types of media)?

I prefer television or radio to print; I've been interviewed over one hundred times, and two things have become apparent. First, the general public simply isn't aware of print interviews (The Toronto Star did over half a page on me, with a big photo, on August 22, 1992; not one person in my apartment building ever mentioned seeing that, but if I show up for thirty seconds on TV, it seems every one of my neighbors caught that).

Second, I've yet to have a print journalist get all the basic facts correct — sorry, but that's true. Obviously, the smallest publications are the worst offenders, but but even Val Ross in The Globe and Mail couldn't count the number of books I had in print correctly, even with a list of the titles in front of her, and she distorted quotes from me and Greg Gatenby (artistic director of the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors) in a way that simply could not have been done if they'd been on tape. Radio and TV interviews are interactive and verbatim: you can correct the host ("So Frameshift is your first novel, eh?" "No, in fact it's my eighth.") and no one can put words in your mouth, or get a quote wrong. (I was mortified when The Thornhill Liberal, a local newspaper, said I was devoted to astrology, instead of being interested in astronomy.)

The best interviews are unrelated to newspapers' books pages, or not on a books-related TV or radio show; indeed, I've heard Cynthia Good, the publisher of Penguin Canada, say she normally won't buy a book unless there's an angle that will get coverage somewhere beside the books page. The audience for TVOntario's Imprint books talk show is minuscule compared to the same network's Saturday Night at the Movies — I've been interviewed on both, and although the former was obviously at a higher level, the latter had much more impact. Likewise, when you can get interviewed about news topics — I've done several lately on cloning — that's "off-the-book-page" news, and it's the most valuable exposure of all, because it gets to people who aren't normally aware of books, and makes them aware of yours.

Favorite people to be interviewed by? Peter Gzowski of CBC's Morningside on radio; he's the most fun, and, of course, has the biggest and most important audience for book-related interviews in Canada. Michael Lennick on TV (he's the off-camera interviewer for the segments I do on The Discovery Channels's @discovery.ca TV series); his knowledge of SF is encyclopedic, and he asks great, provocative questions. Henry Mietkiewicz of The Toronto Star for print; he really knows science fiction, and doesn't affect the kind of literary snobbery that, say, those working at The Globe and Mail do.

What do you feel would enhance an interview?

An interview is obviously enhanced when the interviewer has read the books; I was interviewed by Toronto Life recently, and the interviewer went on about the covers of some of my books, but it was clear he'd never actually read those novels. Failing that, I prefer the person to have at least having some glancing familiarity with my genre — science fiction.

If you know the journalist has not read your book, how does that affect your interview? Would you rather they be honest and admit they aren't familiar with your work, or pretend they are when it is obvious they have only scanned your writing? What if the journalist explains that they had short notice prior to the interview, and/or literature is not their regular beat?

Very often journalists haven't read my books; I'm sympathetic to that. The interview is usually softer when the journalist isn't familiar with the books, of course. One of the best interviews ever done with me was by David Pitt in The Halifax Chronicle-Herald (September 20, 1996); he knew my books inside and out, and asked really good questions not just about individual books, but about the themes that run through all of them.

I've very rarely had a journalist fake being familiar with my books; I don't think any reputable journalist would pretend to have read them if he or she really hadn't. If the journalist says he or she is rushed, or not regularly on the publishing beat, that's fine. I'm rushed, too, after all.

What would you like to be asked but haven't been?

After over a hundred interviews, there really is nothing left that I haven't been asked. I'd prefer more questions directly related to my work and fewer generic "how many hours a day do you spend writing?" questions, though.

Do you like giving an interpretation of your books? (Or do you prefer the readers do that themselves?)

I don't mind giving an interpretation of my books; unlike some writers, I do know precisely what it was I was setting out to do thematically. And since in science fiction the overt content and the subtext are often quite different — my novel Fossil Hunter, for instance, appears to be about a struggle for power on a world of intelligent dinosaurs, but is actually about the Roman Catholic Church's stance on birth control and abortion — it's often useful for me to point that out in an interview, especially if the journalist hasn't read the book.

What is the best question you have been asked? The most bizarre/irrelevant question(s)? The worst question(s)?

The best questions I've been asked have to do with the social impact of literature: is it just entertainment, or is it a means for societal change (I hold that it's the latter). You get snotty interviewers who sometimes say my writing is unambitious, because the prose is clean and clear — but I'm trying to change the world, or at least challenge people's preconceptions; I don't think a fiction writer can get more ambitious than that.

The most irrelevant questions are about Star Trek and other media SF. No journalist in his or her right mind would sit down with Ruth Rendell and ask her what she thought of Murder, She Wrote, but many journalists seem to think talking about Star Wars or The X Files is somehow germane to my work.

The worst question is, "Where do you get your ideas?" The answer, of course, is everywhere.

What advice would you offer to inexperienced journalists about interviewing authors?

An inexperienced journalist should realize the author does not care one whit what you thought of his/her book; whether you liked it, disliked it, what your favorite parts were, and so on. A journalist is supposed to be impartial, but all that training often seems to go out the window when talking to an author about a book. Most journalists are incompetent to judge literature, as they are incompetent to judge the quality of most other things they report on — which is why they don't make value judgments. A reporter would never dream of saying to a lawyer, "I didn't like the question you asked in cross-examination" or "Do you want to know what my favorite objection was?" But they're constantly telling authors their opinions of the writers' works. A journalist should ask questions, and record the answers; if you want to chat about what you like and dislike in books, join a readers' circle at a local library.

Are authors different to interview than other groups of people? What makes them different or similar?

Authors are different to interview because they are trying to sell a product. The only reason the author wants to be interviewed is so that he or she can sell more copies of his or her latest book; they are not dazzled or flattered by having public exposure per se. They're already in the public eye, and have already got a prominent soapbox, often more permanent and enjoyed by a bigger audience than the work of the journalist interviewing them. On the other hand, because authors are, by definition, good with language, they are often very easy interviews, offering up great quotes or sound bites in profusion, and usually knowing exactly what the interviewer needs to make the piece work, so that the interview can often be conducted in less time.

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