Sunday, April 29, 2012


This is being written with a different motive. Instead of my usual vanity, I am writing for myself as an effort to remember some interesting things. As you age you realize that one thing that nobody can take away from you are your memories. Naturally I prefer the pleasant things, but I also realize that memory is one of the things that slips away, thus stealing some your most precious things.

Robert Sawyer spoke last Thursdayt at the Hamilton Library and a key theme for him was memory. He said a lot of little things that had a sort of profundity about them and I fear forgetting them. Writing his most recently published novel, Triggers he started with the theme of memory, before developing a plot or characters. He wanted to explore that. He pointed out that we don't remember in a scroll, but rather in little bits (not his word) that we re-assemble by filling in the blank spots.

A questioner asked for advice for beginner writers. He started off by saying what not to do. Don't write about what you know--that will interest you more than your readers. Write about what you would enjoy researching. He pointed that many successful writers spent most of their time researching--best to find something you think would interest the general public and find out things they might not know.

In reflecting on myself I actually do enjoy research and in one project I got to do quite a bit of it. Unfortunately it didn't work out, but I understand the thought.  For these blogs I have written about what interests me so my audience is limited to those who would care about what makes me who I am and those who are interested in a particular topic.  Not too many for the former, but possibly more for the latter on a good day.

Having written 21 books Robert can look back at his career and see patterns and appreciate some of his luck. One pattern is that there is not much action in his books. This was made clear when one of his books "Flash Forward" was made into a tv series. Although he consulted on every tv episode he found himself being pressured into adding action such as explosions. He didn't resent that as he pointed out the producers were investing $100 million in the venture and wanted to protect their investment.

He read an 8 minute segment of his new book making the point that it was internal thinking. He was a very dramatic reader. It held our attention with its philosophical and psychological wanderings.

Talking about characters, he doesn't believe in locking himself into a character description at the beginning.  As the plot flows the character can go in different directions.  He feels this is more natural and easier.  

Getting back to research he recounted a trip to Washington. A key part of the plot is an assassination attempt on the American president. He got tremendous co-operation from the CIA and medical staff at George Washington Hospital where protocol dicates an injured president would be taken. He was quite impressed with how helpful the staff was. After writing his draft Robert sent it down for them to preview. They assured he got every detail right except there were no drug addicted nurses. He doubted that as he was aware that it was a common problem in hospitals. However he thought about it and didn't want to offend those who had been so helpful to him and decided to make up a fake name for the hospital.

He prides himself on using the real names of institutions (many Canadian sites are named in his novels), but saw this as an opportunity. He chose the name of Leroy E Burey. Before repeating the name of the hospital he pointed out he wanted to honour the man who had saved more lives than anyone else in the world. He further pointed out that unlike today this man resisted lobbyists and threats. He not only published a study that established the link between smoking and cancer he also forced tobacco companies to reference it on every package they sold.

His experience with the tv series pointed out a few things. American broadcasters would not accept a European location as American viewers would not be interested in. In fact he said basically they were only interested in four locations--New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. A lot of truth, but I think that is breaking down.

In assessing his own success he pointed out he made a decision that he was advised against. He set his stories in Canada. He found that wasn't such a handicap. He sells about as good as his Canadian collegues in the American market, but also sells a bigger share in Canada. This decision could have worked against him, but in fact it worked to his benefit.

I had read two of his trilogies and like many found myself compelled forward to the next book in the set. He said he will never do that again. He gets bored. Publishers like them because they are easier to sell--at least the second and third in the series. But he prefers a stand alone book where he can study a subject in depth and then move on without obligation.

He said the book he felt most satisfied with was "Factory of Humanity," even though it was not one of his best sellers or most acclaimed works.

One women in the audience told him that she chose to study philosophy at university because of some of his philosophical thoughts in his books.

He mentioned that he didn't have any connections to Hamilton, but a few years back McMaster University had pursued him to get his papers for their archives. Although he had been pursued by other universities he chose them because they thought of him for literature not specifically science fiction. He was also impressed that McMaster already had archives of Bertrand Russel, Pierre Berton and some of H G Wells.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about how Barry Finn, my boss at The Rider had converted me to an interest in science fiction. Robert Sawyer was a big part of that. He was probably the best I could have read.

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