Author Robert J Sawyer in conversation with Mark Askwith at BookMarkIt! 2019. Rob talks about television adaptations of his books, dream projects, and provides advice to up and coming writers in this wide ranging, entertaining conversation.
Author Robert J Sawyer in conversation with Mark Askwith at BookMarkIt! 2019. Rob talks about television adaptations of his books, dream projects, and provides advice to up and coming writers in this wide ranging, entertaining conversation.
Maybe you’ve heard of our book fair by now.
It’s called BookMarkIt!, complete with capital letters in strange places and exclamation marks that Elmore Leonard would almost certainly frown on.
BookMarkIt! happens May 4th—Star Wars Day—at the Whitby Curling Club 815 Brock Street North in Whitby, 10am until 5pm, rain or shine.
Many authors from all over Ontario will be present. Award winning science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer is our Special Guest. Well known producer, author and interviewer Mark Askwith of Prisoners of Gravity fame will also be on hand to interview some of our amazing authors. Which authors? So many to choose from! We are pleased to have Dale Sproule, Sarah Tolmie, Douglas Smith, Bernadette Dyer, A.A. Jankiewicz, Maaja Wentz, Lesley Donaldson, Yahaya Baruwa, and many more. We are also honoured to have publishers Bundoran Press, Brain Lag, and ChiZine Publications taking part. ChiZine authors David Demchuk, Stephen Michell, Michael Rowe and Brent Hayward will also be dropping by.
BookMarkIt! is designed to introduce books to to readers and readers to books. Our mission is to promote the work of Canadian, Small Press, Independent, and genre authors. All of our resources and efforts are focused on these tasks.
We are proud to be sponsored by the following terrific and generous organizations: SF Canada, Amazing Stories Magazine, On Spec Magazine, Constellate Publishing, Groupa Concrete, and Bookshelf (Writer’s Community of York Region).
If you’re an author or deal in book related products, it’s not too late to join us. Tables are $75 apiece. You can sign up at www.bookmarkit.ca
If you’re a reader, reach out to us on one of our social media feeds. And by all means drop by the Whitby Curling Club May 4th to meet your favourite—or new favourite—author in person!
Once upon a time I made my own radio show. I mean one that was actually mine, as opposed to someone else’s (I’ve made plenty of those).
I only ever made one of these that actually aired. You might well ask, what’s the big deal? So you made one lousy radio show. Other people make their own radio shows all the time. What’s so special about this one?
Nothing, really, except to me, and maybe those who helped me make it.
It was, of course, a science fiction radio show. (This is me we’re talking about, after all.) It was a radio show about science fiction, featuring science fiction, hosted by a science fiction writer, and, on a meta-level, was science fiction itself. I still think it’s a cool idea.
You see, I’ve loved science fiction ever since I was six years old. I’ve loved it since I stumbled upon this crazy low-budget television show from Japan called Johnny Sokko and His Giant Robot. Johnny Sokko was extremely low budget and super cheesy, but it didn’t matter. What kid doesn’t want a giant robot as a best friend? Especially one that can fly, and clobber alien villains. Once I could read, it was Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles (Have Space Suit Will Travel, Rocket Ship Galileo) and James Blish’s adaptations of the original Star Trek scripts (unlike most people, I read most of the original Star Trek television episodes before ever seeing one on TV), and then Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, and Cordwainer Smith (The Ballad of Lost C’Mell) and A. E. Van Vogt (Slan), and David Brin (The Postman), and on and on and on.
It so happens that the CBC has produced some excellent science fiction and fantasy over the years. My pals Bill Howell and Matt Willcott both worked on Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space, a radio space opera that aired for two years (featuring music by the Canadian Progressive Rock band FM). There was also Vanishing Point, a science fiction anthology series produced by Bill Lane, and Nightfall, a supernatural/horror anthology series created and produced (for the first two seasons, at least) by Bill Howell.
Working for the radio drama department, I aspired to join this select club. One day I mentioned this to producer Barbara Worthy, who doubles as a ball of enthusiasm. She promptly suggested we pitch a science fiction show, so off the top of my head I suggested a show based on science fiction magazines such as Analog, Asimov’s, and The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy. I thought it would be fun to produce full cast radio adaptations of classic science fiction stories interspersed with interviews of science fiction luminaries and other fun, fantastical elements. Never dreaming that anything would come of it.
James Roy happened to be Deputy Head of the Radio Drama Department at the time. Shortly after our conversation, Barbara marched into his office and pitched the idea. To my astonishment, he gave us a greenlight, providing a budget and a broadcast slot for a pilot.
Barbara and I got right to work. The first order of business was finding a host for the show. Years earlier, I had worked on a couple of episodes of Ideas about science fiction produced by a young freelancer by the name of Robert J. Sawyer. Rob and I had a lot in common. We both loved science fiction and we were both interested in writing. Rob told me that he had a novel coming out soon called Golden Fleece. I told him I’d keep an eye out for it.
Secretly, I thought that Rob Sawyer would vanish into the ether like so many other freelancers I’d met and never heard tell of again. After all, I was going to be the famous author, not him. But in the time it took me to write one novel (debuting this coming October, 2017, thanks for asking), Rob wrote twenty-three novels. He also won many (if not all) of the field’s major awards, such as the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In short, Rob became one of the most successful writers on the planet (of any genre, let alone science fiction).
I read Golden Fleece, along with many of Rob’s other novels, and watched his growing success from afar with something akin to amazement. From time to time I would send him notes of congratulations. Rob always responded warmly. Once, he suggested I call him to chat, but he was already pretty famous by then, and I was kind of shy, so I didn’t. Until it became time to produce a science fiction radio show.
“You know who would be the perfect host?” I told Barbara. “Rob Sawyer.”
“Call him,” she said.
I was still kind of shy. I emailed him instead.
Rob was interested.
Rob, Barbara and I met to talk about it. We agreed that it would be modelled after classic science fiction magazines. That Rob would host. That it would include one adaptation and an original drama, the latter of which would be the first part of a potential serial. I would write and adapt the dramas and Rob would contribute an essay. Rob would also interview a science fiction personality still to be determined. Rob was enthusiastic and perfectly willing to collaborate.
I wrote what I thought was a fun opening involving Rob taking off in a spaceship of his own to launch the show (this was the meta-science fictional component, which grew more elaborate in subsequent pilots). We picked Canadian science fiction author Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber) to interview in between the two radio plays. Once we had part one of the original drama (Captain’s Away) and the adaptation (Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations) in the can (more on them in separate posts) we recorded all the other bits, including SF poetry by Carolyn Clink (read by Barbara Worthy) and Rob’s intros and extros. I also included a brief station ID recorded by William B. Davis, aka “Cancer Man” on the X-files, which I’d asked Davis to record when we worked together on a radio adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
I had some corrections for Rob’s essay. I feared this was rather presumptuous of me, considering Rob’s track record of having written several award-winning, best-selling novels versus my track-record of having (at that point) sold a mere short story or two.
I apologized as I gave him the corrections. “Who am I to correct your work?”
“You’re the producer,” he reassured me. “If it needs correcting it needs correcting!”
We needed a name for the show. Early on I considered “All in a Dream”, a lyric from a favourite Neil Young song—I even wrote a draft of the script using that name—but even now, a decade and a half later, I cringe at the thought. Fortunately, somebody—probably Rob—suggested Faster Than Light, which, in three simple words, perfectly encapsulated what we were up to. You could shorten it to FTL and literate fans would still know what we were talking about. We all loved it instantly.
Creating Faster Than Light was the most fun I’ve ever had making radio. I loved every single second of it. All the fussy producers I’ve ever worked with—and I’ve worked with some damned fussy producers—didn’t hold a candle to me on this show. Everything—every line, every level, every edit—had to be absolutely perfect. And it was, by the time I was done with it.
Faster Than Light broadcast Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo). We had a listening party at my home. Barbara Worthy, Rob Sawyer, Rob’s wife Carolyn, my family and several friends attended. It was great fun, though I have one regret. I happened to be watching my pennies at the time (public broadcasting, remember) so I purchased flimsy 4 ounce hamburgers to barbecue instead of nice plump 5 ounce burgers. What a cheapskate! Nobody complained, but I still wince every time I think about it. On the plus side, the show was well received by Rob and my friends.
The response from our listeners was even more positive. Faster Than Light did pretty good for itself. It was named a finalist for the Prix Aurora Awards 2003 for the Best in Canadian SF and Fantasy. One of its elements, “The Cold Equations,” a full cast adaptation, was selected by CBC’s internal jury for the New York Awards. The show received an unprecedented response for the drama department. Many listeners wrote to convey unbridled enthusiasm for the show. Particularly gratifying was feedback from as far away as California and Australia, from listeners who tuned in over the internet. James Roy informed me that it was the biggest response any Sunday Showcase show had ever received.
I would like to think that the response was a consequence of the effort we’d put into the show, and I’m sure that was indeed a factor—but I know it also had a lot to do with Rob Sawyer’s role in the production. Faster Than Light had been quite well promoted by Rob and his fans before the broadcast. I suspect that many of those who wrote in were already fans of Rob’s. Still, the feedback boded well. Everyone wanted more.
Adrian Mills, the Director of Programming at the time, invited me into his office to talk about the show. He asked me what I thought of it. I told him honestly that I thought it was the best work I’d ever done in my life on anything. I was inordinately proud of it. I still am.
We were asked to make a second pilot, and then a third, and even a fourth, but with each pilot the concept seemed to stray further and further from its original conception. In the end, I’m afraid the stars never quite aligned for Faster Than Light.
I treasure the experience just the same. I became friends with Rob Sawyer and his wife Carolyn Clink. I learned how to adapt a short story into another medium. I got to write, mix, and broadcast an original drama of my own. I discovered that directing was a lot harder than it looked watching from behind a console. And I acquired a modicum of empathy for fussy producers.
In a sense, Faster Than Light lives on. In the fictional universe of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel Rollback, published a few years later, Faster Than Light did become a regular series on CBC Radio. Where, for all I know, it continues to be broadcast to this day.
Much will be written of David Hartwell over the years. This may be the least of it, because I didn’t know him well, or hardly at all, but we did cross paths a few times, and he was a bit of a towering figure to me.
I first became aware of David Geddes Hartwell when I was hanging around with author Robert J. Sawyer for a bit, trying to make a CBC Radio show called Faster Than Light. In between attempts to get our radio show off the ground, I made a couple of documentaries on science fiction. For one of these, Robert suggested I attend one of Allan Weiss’s Academic Conferences on Science Fiction. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was quite a who’s who of Canadian SF attending this particular conference, maybe because Allan had snagged Margaret Atwood as one of the guest speakers, or (more likely) because they’re always like that.
Sitting a few rows up from me was a distinguished looked fellow in his early sixties, one of the few fellows present wearing a suit. Rob pointed him out to me. “That’s David Hartwell. He’s the Senior Editor of Tor Books.” Tor is a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy. Hartwell was Rob’s editor. At this time Hartwell had already edited hundreds of books, working with authors such as Frank Herbert, Gene Wolfe, and Philip K. Dick. He was nominated for the Hugo Award over forty times. The man was a legend in the SF field.
I decided right then and there that I wanted Hartwell to edit my books. He was the goal, the Holy Grail of editors. I wanted access to Hartwell’s brain, to his knowledge of how to write effectively, how to write books that other people wanted to read, and not just read, but read compulsively, and weep and laugh, and afterwards go wow, what a book.
But Rob didn’t introduce us and I didn’t have a complete novel at the time. I didn’t see Hartwell again until the World Science Fiction convention Anticipation in Montreal in 2007, when I drove up with my pal Fergus Heywood and hung out with the Rayner boys, Mark and Mike. In between all the panels and the boozy nights, I made it a point to attend one of Hartwell’s talks.
I don’t remember much of what he talked about, but during the Q&A I got up to ask him a question, because I still really wanted to pick the brain of this man. I asked him this: “You edit professional writers who are presumably quite advanced in their craft. What do you as an editor have to tell them that they don’t already know?”
He said, “That’s just concise enough a question that I can answer it in less than half an hour.” Everybody laughed. He went on to tell us that the big thing that professional, experienced authors mess up is setting. Their books often have no proper sense of place. There’ll be lots in the way of dialogue and ideas, but no sense of where it’s all happening, to the detriment of the story.
I was heartened by this, because I had spent a lot of time on setting in my novel (which still wasn’t quite finished), and ultimately set it mostly on Prince Edward Island, except those parts that take place on other worlds.
Hartwell also mentioned that Canadian writer Karl Schroeder had given him a 180,000 page manuscript that was obviously too long, and he quickly determined that 80,000 pages of it was a digression, which he urged Schroeder to cut, which Schroeder did. This prompted me to look over my own manuscript for digressions, and I concluded that there was a chapter about seagulls that was a digression, so I cut it. Until my sister Susan said, “You cut the chapter about the seagulls? I loved that chapter!” And my daughters Keira and Erin said the same thing, and I realized that it wasn’t actually a digression; in fact, in some ways it was the heart of the whole story thematically. So I put it back in.
I didn’t see Hartwell again until 2014, when I attended Rob Sawyer’s Academic Conference on Science Fiction, which was also celebrating the inclusion of Rob’s personal papers into the McMaster University library. At the time, I was almost finished my novel. Actually, shortly before the conference I had convinced myself that it was done, because I was tired of writing it. I knew I needed to finish it and get on with the next one, so I ended it, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t really done. I gave it to some friends to read and they weren’t too keen on the ending, so I picked it up again, and by the time I attended Rob’s conference I thought I could wrap up this new draft in about five pages.
I was nervous about attending the conference, which I’ve written about elsewhere. In the end I had a great time, mostly because I met a friend and we spent the day hanging out and attending the panels. Hartwell spoke at the end of the day, and I asked him another question during the Q&A. He said he was always on the lookout for talented writers. I asked him to define talented, and he provided a flip response that got a big laugh from the audience. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what he said, and I don’t want to do the man a disservice by guessing what it might have been, though I will say that I don’t believe it was particularly encouraging. After the Q&A I got a chance to have a proper conversation with him. He apologized for being flip with me during the Q&A.
I’m a little embarrassed about what happened next. I was on a mission. I wanted him to look at my manuscript. What began as a conversation with me, Hartwell and a couple of others quickly became a conversation between me and Hartwell as I monopolized the conversation. I was basically buttonholing him. I remember the look on one woman’s face as she realized what was going on, that she was not welcome in the conversation anymore. I wince remembering it. Looking back, I could no doubt have negotiated that moment infinitely more graciously.
Finally, I came right out and asked Hartwell if he would consider reading my manuscript. To my surprise and delight, he agreed, and offered to take it right then and there. But I hadn’t brought the manuscript with me. I hadn’t even thought to put it on a USB key. I figured I would just email it to him.
Also, there was the business of last five pages. I asked him if that was a problem. He said, “No. Just make sure the first five pages are perfect.”
I assured him that I would.
He invited me to dine with him and Rob and several others. I would have loved to, but I had already accepted an offer from my friend to drive me home.
When I got home I was quite excited about getting my manuscript to Hartwell. I realized I hadn’t asked Hartwell for his email address. I emailed Rob and asked him for it. Rob responded right away. In his email, Rob warned me that Hartwell was notorious for taking forever to respond. This fact was quite well known in SF circles, I think, but it was the first I’d heard of it. It was my first hint that Hartwell might take, well, forever to respond. Rob also suggested I only send the first five pages.
I opted to send the entire first chapter, but I didn’t send it to Hartwell right away. I took his advice about making the first five pages perfect. I enlisted the aid of a couple of friends to edit the first chapter. This was another instance of obnoxiousness on my part, presuming upon my friends to get their edits to me quickly. Which they did. Brilliant edits, which improved the first chapter immensely.
I sent it to Hartwell, reminding him of who I was, that we had spoken, and that he had generously agreed to look at the manuscript.
He never replied to tell me got it. I thought, this doesn’t bode well. He’s seventy years old, I told myself. Maybe he doesn’t have email etiquette down. Or more likely, I’m just some pipsqueak who’s not actually important enough to respond to.
For the next year, though, I felt like I could tell people that, hey, yeah, my manuscript’s at Tor Books with their senior editor, they’re taking a look at it.
A little over a year later I decided, well, enough of that nonsense.
I wrote Hartwell a friendly email with the intention of letting him off the hook, to make sure I could show the book elsewhere with impunity. I did not expect a response.
To my absolute astonishment, he replied within two hours. He apologized for not having gotten around to reading my submission. He said I was free to show the book around elsewhere, but promised to find the time within the next couple of months to read it. He wrote that he was “really sorry to have disappointed” me.
It was a humble, gracious note.
I never heard from him again, at least via email.
I met Hartwell for the last time at the CANCON writer’s conference in Ottawa in October 2015. We ran into one another in the hall in the Sheraton, where (again, somewhat to my astonishment) he greeted me like an old friend, and we stood and talked and he told me personal details of goings on in his life that I might have expected from a close friend. I told him that I was considering a publishing deal with another publisher, Five Rivers Press (I signed the contract two days later). Hartwell said he didn’t mind losing out to another publisher, so long as the book got published. I thought, he didn’t mind losing out? He thought he was losing out??! I didn’t pursue it.
We spoke again the next day, when fellow author Melissa Yuan-Innes and I ran into him in the hotel bar, after he insisted on taking a picture of Melissa in her faerie wings (did I mention it was Hallowe’en?). I happened to remark that I was rereading Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant trilogy. He said (as I have written elsewhere), “I rejected that trilogy.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t see the value in the series. He explained that Donaldson had originally submitted the first three books as a single volume. To make it work had ultimately required a massive amount of work on the part of Lester Del Rey, an investment in time that Hartwell couldn’t commit to at the time.
Knowing that Hartwell had rejected one of my favourite series, I immediately felt better about him not accepting my book (technically, he never did reject my novel).
A fact I have observed about my life: whenever I want something really bad, I often don’t get it. Instead I get something else. Something that, at first glance, doesn’t look anywhere near as appealing, but that in the end is really just a weird-ass portal to something beautiful (to paraphrase author Lidia Yuknavitch). For instance, when I was in Grade Seven, I wanted to play the trumpet in the junior high school band. I got the baritone instead. I came to love the baritone, a sweet sounding brass instrument which frequently played the melody of whatever piece we were playing. As was so often the case, it was only much later that I realized I’d lucked out.
I wish I could believe that I have some kind of guardian angel protecting me, steering me towards what’s best for me. I know that’s not the case. Probably I view what actually happens as positive because I’ve cultivated a positive attitude. Because the fact is we are not guaranteed positive outcomes. Bad things happen. Good people, talented people, important people fall down stairs and die.
I have lucked out with my novel, though. I’ve found a Canadian version of David Hartwell in the form of Robert Runte, who is currently editing A Time and a Place for Five Rivers Press. He’s the perfect man for the job. I couldn’t be happier about it.
In the meantime, I was privileged to have known (however briefly, however tangentially) a man many believe to have been one of the three greatest, most influential editors in the history of science fiction.
David Geddes Hartwell passed away January 20th, 2016.
All right, I’ve finished the novel. Now what?
First step, seek representation. I know in this day and age you can self-publish but I don’t want to do that. I’ve spent so much time getting the writing portion of it right that I would prefer to do the rest right as well. And I’m in no hurry. I will take my time querying agents and publishers and if I’m lucky, perhaps I’ll find one. I will do so with no real trepidation. I’ve long since come to terms with the reality of the publishing world. There may not be a place for my novel out there. But if there is, I will find it. Slowly, painstakingly.
I was talking to my nephew last night. Not the same one as in the novel (I just made that one up…the one I was talking to last night I’m pretty sure I didn’t make up). Anyway, my nephew loves writing as much as I do, if not more. (He stayed up ’til eight this morning writing.) I was trying to express an idea to him. The idea of savouring every part of the writing process. If you write, and don’t sell what you write, you might feel like you’ve wasted your time. I will not feel that way. Every minute I spend writing, even now, writing this blog post, I enjoy. I know not everyone feels that way, but I do. I’m not saying it’s not hard work. Sometimes it’s excruciating. But it’s always my favourite part of the day. (Well, right up there with spending time with my girls, and eating lunch. I like those times a lot too.)
My nephew was afraid that I was telling him to “settle.” He says people are always trying to get him to settle. I understood right away what he was talking about. He thought I was trying to tell him that he probably won’t be successful, so he should be happy with the process itself, and settle for the satisfaction that brings. But that wasn’t what I was suggesting at all. You should absolutely go for the brass ring, which I intend to do, and which I would expect him to do. I will do my utmost to get my novel out there. Whatever it takes. But I will also completely enjoy every part of the process, from the conception to the writing to the selling process.
Years ago the inevitable rejections I’m about to receive would have bothered me. No longer. Now it’s just a part of the process. Just business. The trick is to keep the book on the market, while writing the next one.
Am I going about this properly? Don’t know.
I expect I’ll learn a lot as I go along.