Interview with Author Robert J. Sawyer

1) Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?

My father was an author of books on macroeconometrics, his field of specialty, and my great uncle had written a definitive volume on antique salt shakers, so the concept of writing a book was never daunting to me.

I had some great school teachers—particularly in the fifth and sixth grade, where it happened to be the same woman, although she was Miss Matthews the first year and Mrs. Jones the second!—and also in high school who were very encouraging.

In fact, I’ve got a phone message on my answering machine right now from one of those high-school teachers, Bill Martyn, that I need to return. It’s been forty-one years since I graduated from high school, but he just called to say he’d loved my latest novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative.


2) What inspired you to write your book?

This is the 75th-anniversary year of the birth of the atomic age, with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It seemed like a good time to try to delve, as only a novelist can, into the inner lives of the people who were responsible for unleashing hell on Earth: Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, General Leslie R. Groves, and, most notably, the scientific leader of the Manhattan Project, the mercurial, tortured J. Robert Oppenheimer.

3) What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?

The theme of not just The Oppenheimer Alternative but some of my 23 other novels, too, is that the world would be a far better place if the brightest people simply stopped making the things the stupidest people wanted them to make. No general, president, or dictator can make an atomic bomb—only geniuses could do that—and instead of saying nope, they dove right in.

The great irony is this: it’s arguable that, although Oppenheimer and others were salivating at the notion of an essentially unlimited budget—the spent two billion 1945 dollars, which is the equivalent of $28 billion today—to create the atomic bomb, the head of the German bomb project, Werner Heisenberg, knew the folly of letting a madman like Hitler have such a thing and so he may very well have deliberately failed to build one.

4) What drew you into this particular genre?

Well, “this particular genre” is one that actually I may well have created: hard-science fiction secret/alternate history.

My novel is a real, honest-to-goodness accurate and carefully extrapolated science-fiction tale built on sound science woven into the gaps about what we know really did occur between 1936, when The Oppenheimer Alternative begins, and 1967, when the novel ends. Nothing in it contradicts anything we know to be true, but the reader will be treated to what I hope they’ll consider a mind-blowing science-fiction tale as well as a heart-wrenching historical-fiction story.


5) If you could sit down with any character in your book, what would you ask them and why?

Perhaps surprisingly, it would not be my main character, the J. Robert Oppenheimer of the book’s title, but rather his erstwhile friend and then betrayer, Edward Teller.

Although ironically Teller wrote his memoirs and Oppie never did, it’s Teller—the man often cited as the principal inspiration for the title character in the movie Dr. Strangelove—who leaves me scratching my head.

Teller really said, “No amount of fiddling will save our souls” and he really did go to see his dying colleague, Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, to, in Teller’s own words “confess his sins.”

But even with such apparent misgivings he just went right on pushing for bigger and bigger bombs—ranging in size from merely genocidal to ones that would trigger the extinction of most life on our planet—as well as shilling for Ronald Reagan’s fatally flawed Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) until the day he died.

What the hell was Teller thinking? He was great with kids, often carrying candy for them in his pockets, and he loved his own children and grandchildren—and yet he was monstrous.

6) What social media site has been the most helpful in developing your readership?

Facebook, for a few reasons.

One: I’m a long-form writer—a novelist!—and so the character-count constraints of Twitter make it ill-suited for me.

And two, as all good writers know, the heart of good writing is revision: you can’t edit a tweet, and but you can go back even years later and correct typos or ambiguous phrasing on Facebook.

I long ago hit the hard-coded 5,000-friend limit Facebook has built into its architecture, but you can still follow me there—as 6,500 additional people do—and join in the daily lively discussions and debates we have there.

7) What advice would you give to aspiring or just starting authors out there?

In 1997, I came out of a deli in Los Angeles and saw Gordon Jump, one of the stars of WKRP in Cincinnati standing on the sidewalk, so I went up to him and said, “I’d just like to shake the hand of the man who uttered the funniest line in sitcom history.”

We chatted for a bit, and I asked what he was doing just hanging out in front of a deli. He replied a young wannabe actor had said he’d take him to lunch here in exchange for some advice about getting into the industry. I asked, “What advice are you going to give him?” And Gordon replied, “Don’t get into the industry.”

Seriously, this is an awful time to be a traditionally published author. In the thirty years I’ve been a novelist now, there have been enormous cost reductions for publishers—no more re-keyboarding typed manuscripts, no more sending page proofs by courier, instead of servicing thousands of small bookstore accounts mostly just servicing a few big ones, having authors do their own promotion via social media instead of publishers advertising their books, etc.

But every penny of those costs savings—every single one—has been kept by publishers, with none passed onto authors. Meanwhile, in addition to the production of print books for distribution to bookstores—the one thing publishers are good at—they also demand ebook rights, audiobooks rights, and they’re trying to get a piece of the film and TV action, too.

So, my advice is simply this: license your intellectual property as narrowly as possible and only let a licensee have rights to specific aspects of it that they have a great track record with, and make sure they’re making real money not just for themselves but for you, too.

8) What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?

I’ve been asked to write a lengthy original audio drama, and I may, or may not, sign the contract for that; we’ll see. But really, the new books on my horizon right now are books that are new to me: I’m just catching up on my reading!


About the Author

Robert J. Sawyer is one of Canada’s best known and most successful science fiction writers. He is the only Canadian (and one of only 7 writers in the world) to have won all three of the top international awards for science fiction: the 1995 Nebula Award for The Terminal Experiment, the 2003 Hugo Award for Hominids, and the 2006 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Mindscan.

Robert Sawyer grew up in Toronto, the son of two university professors. He credits two of his favourite shows from the late 1960s and early 1970s, Search and Star Trek, with teaching him some of the fundamentals of the science-fiction craft. Sawyer was obsessed with outer space from a young age, and he vividly remembers watching the televised Apollo missions. He claims to have watched the 1968 classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey 25 times. He began writing science fiction in a high school club, which he co-founded, NASFA (Northview Academy Association of Science Fiction Addicts). Sawyer graduated in 1982 from the Radio and Television Arts Program at Ryerson University, where he later worked as an instructor.

Sawyer’s first published book, Golden Fleece (1989), is an adaptation of short stories that had previously appeared in the science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories. This book won the Aurora Award for the best Canadian science-fiction novel in English. In the early 1990s Sawyer went on to publish his inventive Quintaglio Ascension trilogy, about a world of intelligent dinosaurs. His 1995 award winning The Terminal Experiment confirmed his place as a major international science-fiction writer.

A prolific writer, Sawyer has published more than 10 novels, plus two trilogies. Reviewers praise Sawyer for his concise prose, which has been compared to that of the science-fiction master Isaac Asimov. Like many science fiction-writers, Sawyer welcomes the opportunities his chosen genre provides for exploring ideas. The first book of his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, Hominids (2002), is set in a near-future society, in which a quantum computing experiment brings a Neanderthal scientist from a parallel Earth to ours. His 2006 Mindscan explores the possibility of transferring human consciousness into a mechanical body, and the ensuing ethical, legal, and societal ramifications.

A passionate advocate for science fiction, Sawyer teaches creative writing and appears frequently in the media to discuss his genre. He prefers the label “philosophical fiction,” and in no way sees himself as a predictor of the future. His mission statement for his writing is “To combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic.”


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