Robert J. Sawyer is a Canadian science-fiction writer who has authored 23 novels. His novel, FlashForward, was adapted into the ABC show of the same name, and he has earned Hugo and Nebula awards. Sawyer took time from his schedule to allow me to interview him about his career, thoughts on writing, and his latest novel, Quantum Night.
Nicholas Yanes: What were your favorite stories growing up?
Robert J. Sawyer: The short fiction of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, two of the giants in the science fiction field; also, the short fiction of Larry Niven — also a giant, but when it came decades later.
Yanes: Do you think any of these stories are what pushed you into becoming a professional writer?
Sawyer: Absolutely! I followed what for many is the standard route: I read these wonderful gems, and thought I’d like to try my hand at the same art form. These days, Larry Niven and I are friends, and I got to visit Isaac Asimov once in his penthouse apartment overlooking New York’s Central Park. Sadly, Sir Arthur passed away before I had a chance to shake his hand and tell him how inspiring his work had been to me.
Yanes: You have taught writing at several schools. What are some common mistakes you think young writers make?
Sawyer: Not actually reading. They’ve seen Star Wars, but they’ve never read modern science-fiction literature let alone the classics in the field. Their hopes of getting published or practically nil until they become familiar with the genre they actually want to produce. It’s no wonder that the Amazon Kindle store is filled with crappy self-published Star Wars knockoffs; that’s the only way to salvage the imitators of that film; no traditional publisher would touch them.
Yanes: Your novel, FlashForward, inspired the TV show of the same name. What professional insights did you take away from this experience? Specifically, did you leave with a better sense of what types of novels television producers are willing to consider for adaptation?
Sawyer: Virtually no one involved in making a decision to bring a book to the screen will have actually read the book; almost nobody in Hollywood reads much of anything, not even scripts. So the key always is to have something that will survive the “elevator pitch” — something that has a high concept that can be described in only a few words. For FlashForward, that was essentially the text of ended up being used on the opening credits: everyone on Earth blacks out for two minutes; those that survive have memories of the future.
Yanes: Quantum Night is your most recent novel. What was the inspiration for this story?
Sawyer: Most of my books are quite optimistic to the point where some reviewers have suggested I was naïvely Pollyannaish. Well, I don’t think that’s actually true; I do think the world is steadily getting better. But I decided it was time that I wrote a novel with a darker theme. I started by asking Google “Is there any science of evil?” As soon as you put that in you get answers about psychopathy and some of the dark experiments from the past of the field of experimental psychology, including the work of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. And — boom! — I was on my way.
Yanes: The science discussed in Quantum Night was brilliantly deployed. How much research did you conduct for this novel?
Sawyer: I spent an entire year doing nothing but the research for this book. That’s the problem with the kind of books I write: they require an enormous amount of preparation, research, and so on. I spoke with experts on psychopathy, quantum computing, and the nature of consciousness; I read voraciously and in depth. Now, don’t get me wrong: research is my favourite part of the process; I sometimes quip that I write my novels to support my research habit.
Yanes: What are your long term goals for Quantum Night? Will there be sequels? Also, are you hoping to adapt this into another medium?
Sawyer: There won’t be any sequels; this book, like most of mine, is a standalone novel. That said, I’ve had several conversations with people in Hollywood and in Toronto about possibly adapting it as a film or TV series. That’s a long shot, of course, but, then again, I’ve already had one success with FlashForward being adapted into a TV series on ABC, so I’m hoping to repeat that bit of luck.
Yanes: When people finish reading Quantum Night, what do you hope that they take away from the narrative?
Sawyer: The sad reality that psychopathic authoritarians can easily bring giant numbers of mindless followers under their thrall. It’s only by being alert to that possibility that we can prevent it from happening again.
Yanes: Finally, what are you working on that people can look forward to?
Sawyer: I’m working on a new novel with the working title of Tube Alloys. It’s an alternative history of the Manhattan Project, and I’m hoping to have it out in 2020, which is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bombs.