Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Robert J. Sawyer on why his characters probably hate him

The author of Quantum Night answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Robert J. Sawyer is the author of the novel Quantum Night. (Bernard Clark)

Robert J. Sawyer is Canada's most successful science fiction writer, not to mention a 2016 Order of Canada recipient. His latest novel, Quantum Night, is about an experimental psychologist who has developed a new method of detecting psychopaths. This book was on the Canada Reads 2017 longlist.

Below, Robert J. Sawyer answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Vincent Lam asks, "Does your personal relationship with your characters change over the course of writing a book? If so, how?"

If I'm doing my job right, my characters should grow to hate me. After all, I'm the puppet master doing horrible things to them — getting them beat up, shot at, causing their love affairs to fail, putting endless obstacles in the way of their happiness and so on. If you love your characters, you make it easy on them — as you would for a real person you love — and that's anathema to drama. As for my side of the equation, my feelings progress as they do in any personal relationship: Hmm, that person seems nice. Oh, he's a bit more complex and needy than he seemed at first blush. Hey, he's got a bit of an attitude, doesn't he? Okay, yeah, it's been fun hanging out with him, but enough for now; let's take a break (meaning changing to a B-storyline and exploring someone else for a while). And, oh, I miss so-and-so; time to check in (and to switch back to the A-storyline).

2. Cordelia Strube asks, "What makes you believe what you write has worth?"

External validation, I suppose; certainly, internally, I suffer, as many people do, from the imposter syndrome. But in terms of the former, there are three major awards for best science fiction novel of the year: the World Science Fiction Society's Hugo Award, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. I'm one of only eight people — and the only Canadian — to have ever won all three; that fact is buoying when the demons come a-calling.

3. Rachel Cusk asks, "Name some of the rituals or habits you indulge in while writing."

Not to be dismissive, but the answer is (a) none, and (b) it should be none. A writer needs to write, period. He or she can't wait for the muse, shouldn't need peace and quiet and isn't entitled to perfect conditions or the perfect spot. Rituals? Fingers on the home typing row. Habits? Getting down to work, whether it's in my home, on a plane, in a hotel room or (among other places I've actually opened up my computer and started writing) in the ruins of Pompeii, on a ferry in Australia or on a park bench in the Yukon.

4. Bill Richardson asks, "If you were to see someone reading your book in a public place — a plane, a café — would you introduce yourself?"

I have, and I have. It's always been a very pleasant encounter. I've pointed to the author photo on the dust jacket a couple of times to prove that I really am the writer. Honestly, though, more often it's the reverse; someone recognizes me when I'm out in public. Being a writer is the perfect amount of celebrity: you're recognized often enough that it's a pleasant treat when it happens, but not so often that you feel you are overwhelmed or have no privacy. 

5. Dianne Warren asks, "What do you think of the creative writing adage, Write what you know?"

It's ridiculous. The heart and soul of good writing is research; you should write not what you know, but what you can find out about. Writing is transmogrifying, not just for the reader but also for the author; an author becomes someone he or she isn't by living the lives of his or her characters. We wouldn't have had Uncle Tom's Cabin — a novel that changed the world and galvanized the abolitionist movement — if we'd said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, oh, sorry, missy, you don't know the slave experience because you're a privileged white woman. Go write what you know and leave the hard topics to, well, no one, 'cause otherwise you might upset things. Puh-leeze.

6. Kate Pullinger asks, "What relationship does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"

I grew up in Canada, which seems like a trivial observation for a Canadian writer to make — but in my field of science fiction there were almost no Canadian writers when I was a child (Phyllis Gotlieb was the only significant Canadian SF writer, and — speaking as the person who ultimately was the editor of her final novel — her work had not a single hint of her national origin). I decided to ignore the advice I heard constantly when starting out: "Don't set your stories in Canada; they'll never sell to the States or internationally." Twenty-three novels for major New York publishers later, the flagrantly Canadian settings, Canadian values, Canadian multiculturalism and Canadian humour in my books has proven to be one of the most popular elements of my writing worldwide; my books have been translated into 20 languages, and I was recently flown to China to receive an award as the most popular foreign science fiction author there. 

As for my childhood, yes, I know the quintessential CanLit novel is the angsty boy coming of age on the prairies or in Montreal; done to death. Perhaps writing is a form of therapy, but it should never be self-indulgent or self-important. I'm much more interested in writing about the things that engage and enrage me as an adult rather than in wallowing in childhood sorrows.

7. Marina Endicott asks, "What is the line of prose or poetry that comes to you in the dark night of your soul?"

"The wide awe and wonder of the night," a phrase from the Canadian poet Archibald Lampman; John Robert Colombo introduced me to his work many years ago. The notion of the infinite, of stars vaulting overhead in their profusion, reminds me both that my own travails are inconsequential on a universal scale and that there are marvels aplenty to be discovered yet; the Copernican revelation that we are not the centre of the universe is simultaneously humbling and uplifting.

8. Will Ferguson asks, "If you weren't an author, what would you be? (And don't say architect. Everyone says architect.)" 

A vertebrate paleontologist. In fact, I was accepted to study paleontology at the University of Toronto after high school. It was an 11th-hour decision to give this writing thing a try instead. I'm good buddies with Phil Currie, Canada's most prominent dinosaur expert. When Phil was a kid, he wanted to grow up to be a science fiction writer, and I wanted to grow up to study dinosaurs. When we're together, we like to quip that there's an alternate universe where he's me and I'm him.


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