Opal Interview with Robert J Sawyer
From the Archives – March 2017 Opal Magazine.
WITH ROBERT J SAWYER
OPAL: Can you tell us what prompted you to write Quantum Night?
Quantum Night is my twenty-third novel. Most of my previous books had been very optimistic in tone, so much so that a few people have suggested I was perhaps naïve or Pollyannaish about the future. I don’t think that criticism was justified but I decided nonetheless to write a novel asking a simple question: is there any science of evil? As soon as I started researching that, I discovered there was tons: evolutionary psychology, game theory, experimental psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and more. You see the concept of evil dealt with all the time in fantasy fiction, where it’s considered to be an elemental force or supernatural power, but rarely if ever in reality-based a science fiction, and so I decided to tackle that topic.
OPAL: Your newest novel, Quantum Night, is set in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon. There are wonderful and completely accurate details about each; have you lived in any of these cities?
Cumulatively, over numerous trips, I’ve spent a couple of years in Calgary, and more than a year in Winnipeg. And I was writer in residence at the Canadian light source, Canada’s national synchrotron, in Saskatoon, in the summer of 2009. I fully agree that the only way to write with authority about a place that really exists is to have visited it, walked its streets, eaten in its restaurants, and talked to its denizens. I was proud to be able to showcase three cities that I love so much in this novel.
OPAL: Were you concerned that a Canadian set novel would be accepted by publishers?
Not in the least. Of course, that’s easy for me to say now, with all the awards and bestsellers under my belt. The real question is: was I deterred when writing my first novel about setting it in Canada or having Canadian characters? At that time, the late 1980s, everyone I knew cautioned me against setting my work in Canada. But I am a Canadian patriot, and I think this country has much to teach the world. And so way back then I went ahead and did it — and, in all the time since, I’ve never had any pushback from any American publisher, editor, agent, bookseller, or reader. If a Scandinavian-set novel like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can be an international bestseller, why the heck can’t a Canadian one?
OPAL: Are any of your characters based on real people that you know?
In some of my books, yes — although they’re more likely to be amalgams of several people I know. In this novel, Quantum Night, the main character Jim Marchuk is not me, but he is certainly who I’d like to be. Jim is a committed utilitarian, sacrificing even his own best interests for the collective good and eating only a vegan diet. He’s a better man than me.
OPAL: The experiments and facts about psychopathy and quantum physics in the story are fascinating and chilling. What amount of truth is there in the story – for example, are there really 3 categories of the population out there: Q1’s, Q2’s, and Q3’s?
Everything I say the novel about psychopathy and quantum physics is true and rigorously researched. As an appendix to the novel I do something very unusual: I provide a comprehensive bibliography for those who want to follow up on my research. My contribution to the discussion is the notion of the three distinct categories of consciousness. Is that actually true? I don’t know; no one knows. But I was invited to lecture on the topic at the 2016 Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson. It’s certainly a topic worthy of further investigation.
OPAL: For our authors out there, can you tell us how you outline your novel when you are writing? Do you have a preferred method?
When you begin a career as a novelist, you have no choice but to write the complete book before getting a publishing contract. Later on, a publisher will give you a contract if you provide sample chapters and an outline of the complete work. Even later — at the stage I’ve been at for more than a decade — a publisher will give you a contract pretty much just for what ever your next book is going to be without really anything much up front. So, because I’m not economically obligated to produce outlines anymore, I don’t, at least not in any great depth. The only thing I consider it crucial to know is how the book ends, and then I’m very content to take the scenic route as I write generally ambling towards that destination.
OPAL: What is next for you? Any ideas for the next novel?
Well, I’m not super-thrilled with the current state of publishing, to be honest. I was lucky enough in 2009 to have a network TV show based on one of my books, FlashForward, on ABC. And so I’ve been concentrating my energies on getting more TV projects off the ground. That said I do have a terrific idea for another novel, one in which most of the characters would be real historical figures. The challenge of that appeals to me: nobody knows Jim Marchuk or Kayla Huron, the main characters of Quantum Night, better than I do; nobody can say I wrote them incorrectly. But millions of people are familiar with the lives and work of the great twentieth- century physicists, and trying to capture their characters and distinct voices in a novel strikes me as a very interesting undertaking.
Thank you Robert!