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By Michael F. Stewart

This interview is with … uh.


Oh, yeah, Robert J. Sawyer! His latest novel TRIGGERS explores the nature of memory in all its imperfection.

Robert J. Sawyer is best known for his science-fiction, being the winner of all three top science-fiction awards: the  Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His novel FLASHFORWARD was adapted into the ABC television series of the same name.  He is one of the most lauded SciFi author in history and has written twenty-one novels. But this novel TRIGGERS … this is his very first thriller.

On the eve of a secret military operation, an assassin’s bullet strikes President Seth Jerrison. He is rushed to the hospital.

At the same hospital, Professor Ranjip Singh is experimenting with a device that can erase traumatic memories.

Then a terrorist bomb detonates. In the operating room, the president suffers cardiac arrest. He has a near-death experience — but the memories that flash through Jerrison’s mind are not his own.

It quickly becomes clear that the electromagnetic pulse generated by the bomb amplified and scrambled Dr. Singh’s equipment, allowing a random group of people to access one another’s minds. And now one of those people can retrieve the president’s memories — including classified information regarding the upcoming military mission, which, if revealed, could cost countless lives. But the task of determining who has switched memories with whom is a daunting one — particularly when some of the people involved have reason to lie …

Is Robert Sawyer mad? Was he tired of winning so many awards? Was there nothing left to question that warranted an entire SciFi book?

Watch out my thriller writer friends, a great author just crossed the genre chasm and he’s looking for your readers’ eyeballs.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY agrees calling TRIGGERS, “A turbo-charged techno-thriller.” BOOKLIST says it “combines a thriller’s pacing and a chilling near-future world.” And LIBRARY JOURNAL say calls it “a tense, race-against-the-clock adventure with a surprise ending” that “should appeal to mainstream thriller readers.”

To tell us all about it, please welcome, Robert J. Sawyer!

The back copy above gives us a sense of plot but who is the book about? Is there a central character and if so what are his or her defining characteristics?

TRIGGERS tells the intertwined stories of several characters; in fact, there are twenty people affected by Dr. Singh’s experiment.  But the main character is Susan Dawson, the Secret Service agent-in-charge of the presidential detail when President Jerrison is shot.  She’s a level-headed take-charge sort, very efficient. But I wanted to go a bit against the standard thriller tough-as-nails hero, and when Susan actually has to shoot and kill somebody, she’s devastated by it.  My goal was to make her, and all the characters in TRIGGERS, as conflicted and human as possible.

You’ve mentioned in another interview that your interest in the nature of memory was prompted by a haunting memory of a personal event. Was it the ensuing research into memory that formulated the premise? How did you come up with the high concept?

Actually, the high concept came first, and then I dove into the research.  Research is my favorite part of being a writer; the months I spend researching prior to writing word one of a book are the thing I enjoy most.  But it very much started with a search for a high concept. Back in 1998, when my Hollywood agent read the manuscript for FLASHFORWARD, he said, “This is the one that’s going to sell,” and I asked why; to me, it seemed no more or less filmic than any of my other books to that point.  But he said it could pass the elevator test:  you could pitch it in two sentences — everyone on Earth blacks out for two minutes; when they wake up, the survivors find they’ve had a glimpse of their future.  So, I spent a lot of time trying to come up with something equally tight:  On the eve of a secret military incursion, someone is reading the president’s memories.  Once I had that, I dove in to do the science research to make the premise as plausible as I could.

Philosopher John Locke posited that memories are what make the person so if you swapped memories with someone you’d literally swap personhoods. It’s about mental continuity, or said another way, it’s about survival. I can see that the stakes are high enough, but can you approach these sorts of themes in any depth in the construct of a thriller, which tends to have frenetic pacing?

In the science-fiction genre, you have an audience who is willing to sit still for — indeed, looks forward to — interesting, detailed discussions of science.  The closest you get to that in thriller tends to be the Tom Clancy sort of interlude that explores a piece of technology, and that’s not for everyone’s taste; it does tend to throttle down the pacing.  So, in TRIGGERS, I went a little easier on the detailed explanations, but, you know what? Reading has changed in our connected world.  I make sure to throw in the right technical terms so that a curious reader can find more on the topic in two seconds with Google.  I do think the exploration I’ve managed in TRIGGERS is in great depth; in fact, if I may be so bold, I think it’s one of the most in-depth treatments ever in fiction of the notion of mind reading, a topic that is usually quite poorly handled.  There’s no hard drive in your skull accurately recording everything you see and do; instead, you code a few cues that can be used to confabulate — often quite inaccurately — what actually happened, and another person accessing those same cues might reconstruct a very different memory.  I give that a lot of attention in TRIGGERS.

As a follow up to that, you’ve written your mission as: “to combine the intimately human and the grandly cosmic.” A very SciFi statement. In TRIGGERS, were you able to hold to that?

Oh, my, yes.  I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it is quite literally mind-blowing.  In fact, it’s as full of that core science-fiction virtue of  “the sense of wonder” as anything I’ve ever written.

Is this really your first thriller? I’ve read your WWW series, FLASHFORWARD and ROLLBACK, these may be quieter than a James Patterson novel, but they’re still page turners. What distinguishes TRIGGERS as a thriller where the others are not?

FLASHFORWARD, ROLLBACK, and the WWW series of WAKE, WATCH, and WONDER, are actually very internalized novels.  There are whole chapters in which only single characters appear and they do nothing but think about things — there’s no external action at all, although there is much turmoil.  TRIGGERS, on the other hand, is driven by events.  Boom! The president is shot.  Boom! The White House blows up!  Boom! A military strike is about to be launched!  The pacing is very, very different, and the focus on outer lives rather than inner lives is different, too.

But part of the premise includes a professor working on a device to erase traumatic memories. Isn’t that science-fiction?

Nah, it’s the cover story of the March 2012 WIRED magazine, as it turns out — a fortunate coincidence for me; neuroscientists really are beginning to understand how memory is encoded and how to get rid of the bad ones.  But if you’re using the term “science-fiction” to mean wild and improbable, I never write that, anyway; science-fiction is the literature of rigorous extrapolation from what’s already known into what plausibly might be, and TRIGGERS is precisely that.

Are the challenges different in writing a thriller? Did your first manuscript notes come back saying you were still too SciFi here and there? If so, where?

Nope.  TRIGGERS was in fact sold to four separate editors, in four separate English-language editions.  All my editors agreed I’d hit the correct balance right off the bat.  I’ve done crossovers before — principally science-fiction and mystery — and I’ve been doing them for 22 years now, so I’ve got a good feel for how to make something work for multiple audiences.

What did you do to prepare for writing within the thriller genre? What challenge did you set for yourself to achieve? Who do you read and what influences your thriller writing?

Well, I’ve long read thrillers, so it wasn’t as though I had to explore a new genre.  That said, I’m a huge fan of my fellow Canadian Linwood Barclay, and I was certainly reading his thrillers while I was writing TRIGGERS.  As to challenges, there were two:  TRIGGERS has a large cast, much bigger than I normally use, and I wanted to try to flesh out and intertwine the stories of all these people.  The second challenge, of course, was to appeal to the thriller audience without alienating my established science-fiction audience; that second one was actually easier, because science-fiction is a very flexible genre:  it’s easy to write science-fiction thriller, science-fiction romance, science-fiction mystery, and so on.  In fact, the only genre you can’t easily combine with science-fiction is fantasy, because they are in fact antithetical genres:  things that plausibly might happen and things that never could happen.

How does a thriller reader differ from a science-fiction reader? How can you keep both readerships happy when your SciFi audience has come to expect a book a year?

You’re asking for a generalization, so I’ll give you one, but of course it’s fraught with the difficulties associated with any generalization.  The thriller reader is much more interested in plot; the science-fiction reader is much more interested in premise.  A thriller reader wants to know, “What happens?”  A science-fiction reader wants to know, “What’s it about?”  So, when speaking to the former, I’d say, “TRIGGERS starts with the president being shot while giving a speech shortly after a terrorist attack on Chicago,” and when speaking to the latter I’d say, “TRIGGERS is an exploration of the nature of memory and how our reconstructions of it don’t always reflect reality.”  The way I hope to keep both markets happy is by doing books that work in both those ways, books that can be thought of as either science-fiction thrillers or as thrilling science-fiction.

The Canadian market has always known you’re mainstream and you’re published domestically there in a mainstream imprint, whereas in the USA, you’re published via a genre imprint. Why do you think that is? How much does the categorization of novels help or hinder an author? Is it easier to breakout in genre?

Genre is a very tricky thing.  On the one hand, it lets all the readers who already know that they like a particular sort of story find what they’re looking for.  On the other hand, it separates you from readers who don’t yet know that they like science-fiction, or thriller, or what have you.  My Canadian publisher realized that the kind of books I write – combining big ideas and sophisticated characterization — could easily appeal to people who don’t think of themselves as science-fiction readers, and they’ve had great success positioning my books so that all sorts of people who wouldn’t normally have discovered them read them; that’s made me at top-ten mainstream bestseller in Canada, and that obviously benefits the publisher as well as me.  Of course, far, far fewer books are published in Canada than in the US (although we get all the US titles, too, as imports).  In the US, if you’re published by a genre imprint, the chances of breaking out of that genre are very slim, because the editor your working with simply doesn’t have the flexibility to do that; his or her job is to fill the monthly allotment for that category, not to step on the toes of the mainstream editor down the hall.  In Canada, we don’t have genre editors per se; we just have either fiction or nonfiction editors, and that makes things much more flexible.

Are their major points of departure between genre imprint and mainstream marketing and publication plans?

Oh, yes, indeed.  The number-one way genre is marketed is mere presence in bookstores:  put the book in the right genre section, and count on it selling.  Mainstream is much tougher.  Penguin Canada advertises my books on Toronto subway cars, took out the entire back cover of the Toronto Star’s book review section as an ad promoting me, creates book trailers and dedicated websites for my books, and tours me coast-to-coast.  It all pays off, but it’s a non-starter to suggest most of those things to a genre publisher; most are convinced that you can’t market genre, and so give up without even trying.

There’s been a general decline in the quantity of science-fiction published over the last decade. Is the solution to rebrand oneself into the mainstream thriller market? Or do you see the science-fiction genre making a comeback just as the fantasy and horror markets have?

At most publishers, fantasy and science-fiction are done by the same editorial department, and it’s a zero-sum game:  fantasy is very hot right now, and if a genre publisher has six slots a month, it used to be five science-fiction novels and one fantasy and now it’s five fantasies and one science-fiction.  The result has been huge numbers of really fine science-fiction writers squeezed out of the game.  Sadly, I don’t see a resurgence of science fiction in the near future, so I’m doing everything I can to reach out to new readers, while still writing the kinds of books I myself like to read.

You presented a recent TEDx talk (To Live Forever  —  or Die Trying) where you discussed the future of humanity’s longevity and the very real prospect that we’ll one day live forever. If you could live forever would you still be writing novels? Or do you write books because you can’t live forever?

I love being a novelist; I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. Sure, there’s a kind of immortality in writing books, but Woody Allen said it best:  I don’t want to live forever through my works; I want to live forever by not dying.  I look back now on the novels I wrote twenty years ago, and they’re so different from the ones I write today.  The books I’ll do twenty years  —  or two hundred years  —  from now will likewise by very different, and I look forward to writing them.

You have two further novels set for publication in 2013 and 2014. Into what genres would they fall? Do you intend to write more thrillers? What can we expect next from Robert Sawyer?

The 2013 book, called RED PLANET BLUES, is a noir detective novel that happens to be set on Mars; it should definitely appeal to mystery readers, and it has a thriller’s pace.  And the one after that, with the very tentative working title of DOWNLOADED, is a science-fiction thriller; people who like TRIGGERS will also like that book.

Welcome to the genre, Rob, you’ll find us a fun bunch.  Your dragon print shirts will fit right in with the plethora of Hawaiian many of us wear. Good luck with the launch of TRIGGERS!


Robert J. Sawyer was born in Ottawa and lives just outside of Toronto. He has won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. He has also won the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his book of the same name. TRIGGERS is his 21st novel.

Find out more about Robert J. Sawyer on his website.

Michael F. Stewart
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