Interview: Robert J. Sawyer

Science fiction writer and futurist Robert J. Sawyer is one of only eight writers in history — and the only Canadian — to win all three of the world’s top Science Fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. The TV series FlashForward was based on his 1999 story. His latest novel, the techno-thriller Triggers (reviewed here) has just been published in North America, and arrives in the UK at the end of April. While embarking on the promotional tour for Triggers, he chatted via email with Paul Simpson…

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What were the triggers for Triggers? Was there a specific article or discussion that sparked off the trains of thought that led to the plot?

The novel solidified for me when I took a trip—one of several I’ve made over the years—to Washington, DC. I was born in Ottawa, which is Canada’s capital, and although the US and Canada are neighbours, it’d be hard to imagine two more different capitals. Washington is full of monuments; Ottawa has almost none—you won’t find the Macdonald Monument or the Trudeau Memorial in Ottawa. Americans do collective memory in a way that’s foreign to Canadians. Thinking about which things people collectively remember, about shared memories, definitely spurred the novel. The Gettysburg Address is carved into a wall at the Lincoln Memorial; ironically, carved in stone, are Lincoln’s words: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” In fact, through the monument, people who weren’t even alive when Lincoln gave that speech remember what happened all those years ago. I’d written a lot about consciousness in novels including The Terminal Experiment, Factoring Humanity, Hominids, and Mindscan, but in all of that I’d said very little about memory, and so decided it was high time I devoted a book to that topic.

There’s been a lot written, certainly over here, about the “falseness” of Facebook friends, and how people still only really have two-three close friends: was this expansion of social media and this false “knowing of other people” a factor ?

Very much so. I have 5,000 Facebook friends, which is the maximum the software allows, and yet I’m a very private person. Some people don’t understand that, but it is possible to be an extrovert and private: I like interacting with other human beings, but my thoughts are my own. The notion that someone might access those thoughts is quite distressing, at least at first blush. I’d written about online transparency in Wake, Watch, and Wonder, but I wanted to tackle interpersonal transparency in a novel. And what I found when crafting the plot for Triggers were that there were plenty of downsides, which of course I’d suspected from the outset, but also plenty of upsides, and that was a revelation.

Triggers is unlike most of your novels to date, at least in terms of its action quotient – how much was the FlashForward TV experience responsible for the change? Or is this simply a different way of challenging yourself through your writing?

The FlashForward TV series was based on my novel of the same name but was a liberal adaptation. Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, who did a magnificent pilot script, added terrorism, kidnapping, and thriller elements to what had been a fairly cerebral novel. That was fine by me, but the people came to my work through the TV series I thought might enjoy a new book with some of those same elements. And, yes, I try to challenge myself with something new in each book, and crafting Triggers as a thriller was a wonderful challenge.

The book deals with very adult themes – incest, rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, combat – but were there any areas you felt you didn’t want to investigate?

Never, never, never. A writer who is afraid, who pulls his or her punches, isn’t worth reading. You have to tell the honest truth as you see it; that’s a writer’s job.

Were there any characters you originally thought would fit into Triggers who “didn’t make the cut”?

Sort of. At one point, I cut out the entire Eric Redekop / Janis Falconi romance plotline; I just wasn’t happy with the tack I’d taken with it. But ultimately I decided the book did need that sort of story. However, I completely rewrote it to make it work. I also went back and forth over whether I needed the plot element of blowing up the White House; I didn’t want to do it gratuitously. But ultimately I decided to keep it in.

Although you describe yourself as an atheist, your writing shows a respect for people’s religious beliefs that is, perhaps, more unusual than it should be, and an ability to articulate those viewpoints. Do you ever find yourself questioning your own beliefs when researching and writing those scenes in the same way that a new piece of scientific evidence would make you re-evaluate currently-held theories? (Indeed, has it led to you changing your mind about such matters?)

Thank you for noticing. Yes, I’m an atheist, and when I was a teenager, I was arrogant about it. I’d had very little exposure to religious people growing up, and had it in my head that such people must be foolish, delusional, and incapable of critical thinking. But when I was 23, fresh out of university with a degree in broadcasting, I got a job working with a group that was putting together an application to Canada’s federal broadcast regulator for a multi-faith television channel; they wanted me because I was up-to-speed on all the regulations. Well, I’d assumed I’d be working with a bunch of simpletons. Imagine my surprise when I found myself working with brilliant, thoughtful, open-minded people of all faiths: Sikhs and Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and Christians of various denominations. One of the most brilliant was the man in charge of audio-visual production for the Salvation Army in Canada. These people believed things I didn’t—things I suspect I’m personally not wired at a neuronal level to believe—but I learned to respect their beliefs, and I like to think that when I discuss religion in my books, I never put forth straw-man arguments.

With both the WWW trilogy and now Triggers, you use a lot of “pop culture” references to make your points – do these spring from your memory, or do you seek out suitable ones that fit the point you’re trying to make?

You’re getting pure unfiltered Rob Sawyer. I used to be the captain of a pub trivia-league team; it’s all kicking around in my head. I really do go around in my day-to-day life saying things to my family or friends like, “You know, this reminds me of the episode of Columbo in which Leonard Nimoy played a surgeon,” or “Hey, the Great Gazoo is a terrific metaphor for terrorism.” When I was published by Tor, my editor wasn’t fond of my pop-culture reference; he didn’t follow pop culture and didn’t get them. But my readers have come to look forward to them, and I get a great kick out of including them.

What has been the most intriguing criticism of your work that you’ve read – or perhaps the one that’s made you see something that you really didn’t expect anyone to see?

In some ways, it’s a comment—I don’t know if it was a criticism or not—from my brother Alan. Both he and I are dual US-Canadian citizens, and although most reviewers have said that my work revels in its Canadian identity (and I self-identify as a Canadian), Alan observed that a lot of my work—and this certainly includes Triggers—deals with me struggling to understand my American identity. A few US critics, utterly oblivious to the many jabs I take at Canadian politics in my novels (one of my characters calls the current Canadian prime minister “a weaselly, petty man’ in Triggers), have taken that as anti-Americanism, but it isn’t. I love the United States, and am proud of my dual heritage. There’s nothing un-American about exploring America’s past and wondering about its future, and the criticism I get from some quarters when I do that always leaves me baffled.

David S. Goyer, Robert J. Sawyer and Brannon Braga discussing the TV adaptation of FlashForward. Photo by Carolyn Clink

After working on the TV show, did it feel like “coming home” to return to book writing, where what you’re writing is (subject to the exigencies of copy editors and other such luminaries!) what the reader experiences, rather than filtered through multiple other creative forces? What are the upsides of that sort of collaborative effort?

Yes, absolutely. Don’t get me wrong: I love, love, love working in television, and am pursuing more opportunities there. But whenever I talk to a TV writer, they are clearly envious of what we novelists have: the ability to tell our stories our way with no one rewriting us and no regard for budget. It’s absolutely the most fulfilling form of writing you can do. On the other hand, there’s a lot of wonderful collaborative energy in working on an American TV show. In the US, all shows are staff written, by a team working in what’s called “the writers’ room.” We had 10 staff writers on FlashForward, and sitting in the room with them, with everyone throwing out ideas, was an amazing experience. A well-run room has no ego in it, just super-creative people each contributing, and out of that something very intricate emerges in a surprisingly short span of time. TV episodes are scripted in a matter of days, whereas novels take months or even years. Working on TV is a headlong rush, and very exciting.

Tor are reprinting some of your back catalogue; which of your books would you particularly recommend to readers who have come to your work through either FlashForward or Triggers?

They’re just about to do a new edition of Rollback, which I think may be the finest novel I’ve ever written—but it’s a quiet novel, with none of the slam-bang action that characterized the FlashForward TV series or Triggers. So, I’m going to say Frameshift, which is about the hunt for a Nazi war criminal who might have infiltrated the Human Genome Project; it was a Hugo finalist and won Japan’s top SF award, and is a thriller with lots of action, as well as a lot of food for thought.

Click here to order Triggers from Amazon.co.uk

Click here to read our review of Triggers

And our reviews of Wake, Watch and Wonder

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