Writers on Writing: Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is a professional science fiction writer and Ryerson alumnus living in Mississauga, Ont. He is one of Canada’s most prolific and celebrated authors, having published 22 novels and countless pieces of short fiction. He also won the Nebula Award in 1995, the Hugo Award in 2003, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2006. He remains the only Canadian science fiction writer to ever collect all three.

Sawyer is currently working on his next novel, Quantum Night, to be released in March of next year. He recently spoke with Folio on the writing, business, and life of the Canadian novelist.

When first starting out, did making a career of fiction writing seem possible?

Sure, it was an awfully long shot, but also I was in my 20s, and that’s the time to take your long shots — when you don’t have a mortgage, don’t have kids, don’t have anybody else who’s depending on you. Yes, of course it was a long shot, but so is being a professional athlete, being a professional actor, being a professional musician. But the world would be devoid of arts and culture if everybody said, “Ah, it’s not easy, I’d better give up now.”

Why science fiction? What about that genre appealed to you?

I was born in 1960, so the background of my childhood, the first 10 years of my life, was the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, culminating in landing a man on the moon when I was nine years old; the original Star Trek series running between the years that I was six and nine years old on TV; and the great, seminal science fiction film in 1968, when I was eight years old, 2001: A Space Odyssey. So it was really the absolute golden age, both of human space travel, of science fiction television, and of science fiction movies coming into their own, being top box office blockbusters. I think it was almost inevitable that a geeky kid like me would grow up loving science fiction in that era.

Much of your early work appeared in the magazine Analog Science Fiction — an American publication. Do you think Canada needs more outlets for writers?

Canada has its own, very fine science fiction magazine called On Spec, published out of Edmonton. But, in its infinite wisdom, the Canada Council for the Arts chose two years ago to deny them their funding, and chose again this year to deny them their funding. The magazine has been published since 1989, never missed a quarterly issue, and, for the first time ever, they’ve been reduced to being an electronic-only publication with no print edition — thanks to your tax dollars not at work on behalf of genre fiction.

Are you concerned that what’s happening to On Spec represents something of a trend?

Of course — it’s outrageous. It’s a fully-professional magazine, well-recognized not just domestically, but internationally. It is the crucible from which two generations of science fiction and fantasy writers have emerged. And the Canada Council, well-known for its antipathy toward anything but a very narrow range of English-language fiction, has allowed itself to be part of a cultural genocide in this country.

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Genres like science fiction give writers a lot of freedom, but how important is it for a story to remain grounded in reality?

Science fiction is the literature of the plausible — it’s the literature of things that plausibly might happen. It’s the literature that takes our history, up to the present day, and extrapolates it forward. Obviously, realism and believability are the cornerstones of a genre that, unlike most fiction, actually has an awareness of history, politics, culture, and anthropology — understands how we got to where we are today and tries to move us forward. It’s crucially important.

As for your own writing style, it’s been described as very clear and cogent — is that part of the effort to maintain that believability?

Not necessarily. I made my living through the 1980s as a freelance journalist. I think it, more than anything, came out of that era, where I was writing lucid prose because that’s what paid. I don’t think that what I write is in any way simplistic. But, if you know what you want to say, you should be able to express it clearly to anyone. There’s always a certain degree of sleight-of-hand among literary writers who substitute flowery language for actual substance. And I think many of the phrases that I’ve written are beautiful, and much of my prose is moving, but it is always clear to the reader what I intend to say.

How would you describe the professional fiction landscape in Canada today?

The problem is that there isn’t much, and it’s getting worse all the time. In Canada, there are very small circulation magazines that are devoted to fiction — very few of them have circulations greater than 2,000 copies, out of 35 million people. So, you know, rounded to the nearest per cent, zero per cent of Canadians read Canadian short fiction in magazines.

We used to have domestically owned Canadian publishers and, one after another, they’ve been gobbled up by multinational conglomerates who really don’t give a damn about angst-filled stories about coming-of-age on the plains of Manitoba. All they care about is the corporate bottom line. It’s probably in the worst condition it’s ever been in, the domestic Canadian market for fiction.

Wow. Well, that being said, what advice would you give to those trying to break into that market?

The same advice that I took myself, which is that demonstrably Canadian stories — Canadian in theme, Canadian in setting — are not in any way disadvantaged on the world stage. I started off very early on selling stories to American short fiction magazines, and selling my novels to American publishers — I had an American publisher first, a British publisher second, and only a Canadian publisher third, [19 years later]. The reality is it’s way easier to be successful abroad and then come home triumphantly.

There’s always this propaganda circulating in the literary community that Canadian stories are so idiosyncratic, off-beat, or delicate, that Americans will not understand them — that’s used as a crutch by beginning writers who are getting rejected by American publications. They’ll say, “Oh, well, they didn’t understand my genius,” or, “They don’t get Canadian stuff.” The fact is, it is not, in any way, a barrier to not be American. The only barrier is lack of quality. 

Photos courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer