For now, enjoy the interview below.
April 11, 2009
AW: I read that you knew what you needed to do to make it as a SF novelist as your 30th birthday approached. Can you describe that process and how you knew you could make it as a novelist?
RJS: That was twenty years ago, when I was 28. I’d been talking since I was 15 about being a science-fiction writer, and, indeed, had sold a few stories, starting when I was 19. But I realized at 28 that the big three-oh was about to roll around without me ever having made the time to write a novel; I was just letting other things—mostly the lucrative freelance nonfiction work I was doing back then—distract me from that.
And so, even though my wife and I were saving to buy a home, I made the difficult decision to turn down guaranteed work to clear time to write a novel that I didn’t know for sure would sell. It was a total gamble—and I wasn’t at all sure it was going to pay off. Of course, in retrospect, it was the right thing to do, but it was a very scary move.
The bottom line, though, was that I realized I’d rather try and fail at it than never have tried at all; I’d never forgive myself if I let another decade slip by without taking my shot.
AW: Do some of your books seem to write themselves? Were any of your books a struggle?
RJS: All of my books have been a struggle—because I’m always challenging myself to do something that I consider difficult; if the book is coming too easily or too quickly, it means I’m not being ambitious enough.
Wake was one of the very hardest; it took four years on and off to do. Most of that was because of my own skepticism about the premise: I had a hard time believing the World Wide Web was going to wake up, and finding a scenario that rang true for me was difficult. Also, getting both the nascent consciousness’s voice and the voice of the blind 15-year-old main human character right was a lot of hard, hard work.
AW: How much time do you spend on rewrites?
RJS: Lots—at least as much time as I spend on the first draft, and sometimes twice as much. I find doing the first draft to be excruciatingly hard work, but I love doing revision. I liken it to being a sculptor who first has to make his or her own clay; that’s no fun at all, but once you’ve got the clay, molding it is a blast. I pride myself on handing in very clean copy, and leaving my editors, and even my copyeditors, very little to complain about.
AW: Who is your favorite SF author? Why?
RJS: Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Like me, he was a skeptic, and a rationalist, but he wasn’t afraid to grapple with metaphysical questions, and no one has ever done a better job of generating that sense of wonder science fiction is famous for than him.
AW: Tell me about your most memorable book tour moment.
RJS: In public school in Toronto, one of my best friends was a boy named Rice—but he moved away to Vancouver, British Columbia, in the 1970s and and I never saw him again. Well, two years ago, I was on tour for my novel Rollback in Calgary, Alberta—thousands of kilometers from Toronto and hundreds from Vancouver. The store I was signing at put a large sign out on the sidewalk in front of the store. Rice happened to be in Calgary on business and he literally walked into the sign, almost knocking it over—and he recognized my name, and came in to the store. It was an absolutely wonderful reunion.
AW: Do you ever write free-hand when nothing else is available when you get inspired? If yes, what’s the strangest thing you’ve used for paper?
RJS: I wish I could, but in 1985 I went through a plate-glass window and severed the tendons in my right hand, which is the one I write with. They stitched them back together, but the hand just doesn’t work as well as it should. I can type for hours on end, but I can’t do more than a few lines in longhand, sadly. So, I’m lucky to live in the computer age: I was an early adopter and have always been one of the first to buy the newest, smallest computers, so I can always have one with me to let me write whenever the mood strikes me.
AW: In WWW:Wake, how did you get the teenage girl so authentic? Did you have help with that or a ready model?
RJS: I spent a lot of time reading blog postings and Facebook postings by teenagers, and talking to teenage girls—including my own wonderful nieces and the daughters of friends. I really worked hard to make the voice authentic, and I had a number of teenagers read the novel in manuscript to check to be sure that I got it right.
AW: In WWW:Wake, you tease the reader with snippets from an awakening, an entity discovering consciousness. Did you do any research on human awareness for this?
RJS: I did years of research on that topic. I’ve been researching human consciousness and perception for over a decade now—and using that material in novels such as Factoring Humanity and Mindscan. To me, the single most interesting area of science right now is consciousness studies, and I love the way it combines computer science, neurobiology, quantum physics, and so many other disciplines.
AW: Your characters are so believable and have such depth. Do you model them after real people?
RJS: I model them after bunches of people: I take a little bit from person A and a little bit from person B, and so on. If you make a character based on a real person, then you have obligations to that real person—and you can’t turn the character into a murderer or a psycho or whatever, even if that’s what the story calls for. But a composite—well, a composite can do anything.
AW: Have you had any interesting or unusual speaking invitations from the scientific community or elsewhere in response to WWW:Wake?
RJS: Yes, indeed! I’m going to Penn—the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia—on May 6, 2009, to speak to the students and faculty at their new Center for Neuroscience and Society about the book, and when I was writing WWW:Wake, I was invited to the Googleplex—the international headquarters of Google—where I gave a talk on the notion of the World Wide Web gaining consciousness.
AW: Do you have any plans of revisiting the world of Hominids?
RJS: I’d love to. I think Caitlin Decter—the girl in WWW:Wake—is my favorite of all the characters I’ve created, but Ponter Boddit, the Neanderthal quantum physicist in Hominids and its sequels, is a close second. I really like to do social commentary with my science fiction, and those books were an ideal setup for that, a look at how our world might have been if it had been in the hands of a more peaceful, more environmentally aware, and more secular kind of humanity.
AW: What’s next?
RJS: I just finished final revisions on WWW:Watch, the sequel to WWW:Wake. Everyone is saying it’s even better than Wake, which is very gratifying. Although I think Wake tells a complete story, Watch takes things even further in the development of Caitlin and the consciousness on the Web—and it tries to answer the question of why evolution gave us consciousness in the first place.