Q: Tell us about yourself-where you grew up, et cetera.
I was born in Canada's capital city of Ottawa in 1960, but have lived most of my life in and around Toronto. I'm a lifelong science hobbyist -- fossil hunter, amateur astronomer, and so on -- but my degree is in broadcasting from Toronto's Ryerson University. My parents both taught at the University of Toronto, which I suppose explains the academic settings of so many of my novels, particularly Factoring Humanity, which takes place mostly at the U of T. I'm part of the generation of SF fans who first got hooked by television: Gerry Anderson's shows (Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds) and the original Star Trek. It was my older brother and my father who introduced me to science-fiction books --not that my father read SF, but he saws that I was interested in it, and wanted to encourage me in reading more.
Q: What is it about writing that hooked you?
I suppose there are two things. First, I loved that you could create something out of nothing. A number of my friends when I was young were gifted at drawing, and they felt the same thrill, I'm sure: start with a blank page and end up with something meaningful. Second, of course, was that writing was a part of every grade's curriculum in school. I was always a good student, in the sense of getting good marks (I was a bad student, in that I rarely did homework or studied; I suppose I wasn't sufficiently challenged by what they were putting it front of me), but, with one exception, my teachers always reacted very positively to my writing, and that sort of encouragement goes a long way when you're young. The one who reacted negatively was a viscous old crone who had doubtless been dead for a couple of decades now.
Q: Your new series, THE NEANDERTHAL PARALLAX deals with an alternate earth, where the Neanderthal species survived and the Cro-Magnons died out. How did this idea come about?
Both dinosaurs and Neanderthals have long fascinated me, and I've now written trilogies about alternate realities were they each survived to the present day. (The dinosaur trilogy consists of Far-Seer (1992), Fossil Hunter (1993), and Foreigner (1994).) In the case of both dinosaurs and Neanderthals, they were physically much more robust than our contemporaneous ancestors, and that presented the question of why we survived and they did not. Well, one answer in the dinosaur/mammal case is that mammals were much brighter than dinosaurs. But in the Neanderthal case, not only were they physically much stronger than Cro-Magnons, they also had bigger brains. It's a real poser why they died out but we did not, and that sort of vexing question is the perfect springboard for a science-fiction work.
Q: What can we expect in the next book, Humans?
Humans is a direct sequel to Hominids. Although I think Hominids has a very satisfactory ending, there are nonetheless large issues still to be explored. In Hominids, a temporary portal between the Neanderthal reality and our own opens accidentally as a result of a quantum-computing experiment. In Humans, that portal is made permanent. In Hominids, the main story was off a Neanderthal in our world; in Humans, we see the flipside: a Homo sapiens - Mary Vaughan, whom we met in the first book -- in the Neanderthal world.
Q: You seem to have a fascination with dinosaurs and prehistory-you've tackled the death of the dinosaurs and also the "what if", if Neanderthals never became extinct. Do you know what your next visit to prehistoric times will be?
My most-recent Hugo nominee, Calculating God, has a paleontologist as its main character. So, all told, I've done eight novels (out of fifteen to date) with paleontological themes. Although I do find this very fertile ground, I suspect it'll be a while before I go on to write more in this area. Certainly, the next three novels I plan to do, three standalones with the working titles Skins, Nurture, and Up to Code, have no prehistoric angles.
Q: What is your favorite novel that you've written and why?
For a long time, I said 1998's Factoring Humanity, which certainly does a good job of fulfilling the Robert J. Sawyer writerly mission statement: combining the intimately human and the grandly cosmic. But I've come to think that Calculating God is equally good; it tells of an alien coming to Toronto, on an interstellar mission to scientifically prove the existence of God. The human he hooks up with is a paleontologist dying of lung cancer, and, again, the book strives to melding the intimately human and the grandly cosmic.
Q: Who is your favorite living author?
Within SF, it's still Arthur C. Clarke. Outside of SF, it changes. I enjoy everything from the private-eye novels of Robert B. Parker to the literary fiction of Carol Shields.
Q: What is the best experience you've had, as an author?
Well, certainly winning the Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year has to rank way up there. The ceremony was fabulous, held aboard the Queen Mary, and there's no doubt that the reason I'm reasonably well-off today is because I won that award six years ago: it boosted me out of the midlist. But, actually, I think the best overall experience was being a guest speaker at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, as one of six "Distinguished Canadians" invited to speak there during the year 2001.
Japanese fandom came out in force to attend my event, and since my 41st birthday party happened to fall during the week I was there, they threw a fabulous surprise party for me. It was truly wonderful.