Interview with Robert Charles Wilson
Redakteur: Markus Mäurer
FantasyGuide: Hello Mr. Wilson, thank you for giving use some time. Could you please tell u some facts about your person?
Robert Charles Wilson: I was born in California, but I’ve lived most of my life in Canada and I finally became a Canadian citizen a couple of years ago. (When people ask me whether I consider myself Canadian or American I usually quote Mark Twain: “I have the morals of a Southerner and the culture of a Northerner, and this is the combination that makes the ideal man.”) I have two adult children and I’ve been married twice. I live outside of Toronto, Ontario with my wife Sharry, a professional proofreader.
FantasyGuide: According to your homepage, you have been “a full-time professional writer” since 1986. What have you done before?
Robert Charles Wilson: The longest and most interesting job I held before I took up writing was as a transcriptionist for the Ontario Human Rights Commission. It was great work for an aspiring writer. Basically, people came into the Commission with complaints about racism in the workplace; the interviews were recorded and I transcribed them. It taught me a lot about the way people talk and how dialogue looks on a page, how nuances like punctuation can become incredibly important. It taught me a lot about the darker side of human nature, too.
FantasyGuide: How did you find your first publisher, and was is hard?
Robert Charles Wilson: It was almost embarrassingly easy. I had sold a short story to Shawna McCarthy back when she was editing Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Shortly after that she left Asimov’s and became a book editor at Bantam. She remembered my story and wrote to ask whether I was working on anything at novel length. I wasn’t, but I lied and said yeah, sure…. That was the genesis of my first novel, A Hidden Place.
FantasyGuide: Have you been a science fiction reader before you start writing your own sf and do you read current sf? If so, what could you recommend us?
Robert Charles Wilson: Science fiction has fascinated me since childhood, and I was always an avid reader of it. I read less of it now than I used to, however. Not because I love it less, but because there’s so much else to read. Of the current crop of writers, I like China Mieville, I like Paolo Bacigalupi, and I like some of the literary authors whose work verges on SF: Michael Chabon, for instance, or David Mitchell, whose novel Cloud Atlas is truly superb.
FantasyGuide: Could you please describe the development process of one of your books?
Robert Charles Wilson: It’s more intuitive than methodical. When a really good idea strikes, it’s pretty obvious. I do like to have ideas for new projects percolating even while I’m working on a book. Currently I’m finishing Vortex, the final book in the Spin sequence. But what I’m really looking forward to is a book I might call Logos – a kind of odd alternate history in which, when human beings first discover radio waves, we find a radio station already broadcasting…
FantasyGuide: Parallel to Julian Comstock I read Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History Of The United States. I found a lot of conformitys, not only in the historical facts, but also in the perspective that you have chosen to describe the situation. Is the American Revolution the time that inspired you the most for this novel?
Robert Charles Wilson: Really, it was the Civil War era that inspired me. Not the war itself – that’s a pretty tedious subject, over which many Americans still obsess – but the cultural history of the era, with all its gaudy contradictions and moral insanity. I began reading the popular literature of the era, not the classic works of Melville and Hawthorne but obscure and forgotten writers who were enormously successful in their day: the adventure writer Oliver Optic, for instance. Those books are hardly great literature, but as cultural artefacts they’re hugely revealing.
Howard Zinn offers a useful counterpoint to the usual patriotic histories of the United States, though he can be a little one-sided too. In my research for »Julian Comstock« I came to think of the U.S. not as a utopia (though it had more than its share of utopian aspirations) or a dystopia (in which a significant portion of its population was literally enslaved), but as a utopia and a dystopia locked in a bloody carnal embrace.
FantasyGuide: The power of the written word is very important in this story. The writings of Adam and it’s effects on the people remembers me on the writings of Thomas Payne, which have been a big bestseller and one of the most important influences on the Revolution. Do you think that today a book could still cause a social or historical change?
Robert Charles Wilson: When I think of books and social change in America, two contrasting titles spring instantly to mind: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which empowered the white abolitionist movement and was a tremendous force for positive social change; and Thomas Dixon’s 1902 novel The Leopard’s Spots, a huge bestseller that peddled the most repulsive kind of racism imaginable and romanticized the Ku Klux Klan. Stowe’s book made emancipation a plausible idea for millions of Americans; Dixon’s book (and its sequel The Clansman) helped entrench the segregation and systematic disenfranchisement of blacks that made emancipation a hollow victory.
Today’s culture is more diverse, and it’s hard to imagine a single title having that kind of influence. But how much did the novels of Tom Clancy contribute to the warlike posturing of the Bush years, for instance? Books still matter.
FantasyGuide: The American Revolution was the revolution of rich, white, male americans and every president from George Washington till the 10th president John Quincy Adams was an “aristocrat”. Do you think, this situation has changed today?
Robert Charles Wilson: I’ve said elsewhere that the spectre haunting America isn’t dictatorship but aristocracy. But there’s also a venerable American tradition of distrusting aristocracy in particular and authority in general. America also has a rich tradition of progressive and “freethought” movements to draw on, should it choose to do so.
FantasyGuide: In »Julian Comstock« all digital knowledge is lost. All knowledge that remains from the past is written down in books. What do you think about the current digitalization of our knowledge (like the “Google Book Search Project”)? Is this “monopolization” of knowledge a dangerous development, like it happened by the dominion in your book?
Robert Charles Wilson: I don’t really feel qualified to answer. I do understand that there are forces that would love to find new ways of monopolizing (and thus charging money for) what we used to call “the free exchange of ideas.”
FantasyGuide: The next question came up on a reading circle, that we did on an science fiction forum. Why did you not translated the french and dutch sentences, and how could Adam remember them, when he did not understand them?
Robert Charles Wilson: The French and Dutch passages just seemed funnier in the context of Adam’s incomprehension. I figured the average reader could more or less puzzle them out (or resort to an Internet translation tool, if necessary). The question “How could Adam remember them, when he did not understand them” is answered in the final pages of the book. The Dutch, of course, he can quote directly from the Dutchman’s letter, which he still owns. The French phrases were supplied to him by Calyxa – and I suspect she may have been having a bit of joke of her own.
FantasyGuide: Another question that came up in our reading circle: Why is the novel called “Julian Comstock”, although „Adam Hazzard” is the central character?
Robert Charles Wilson: Adam is of course the central character, but he doesn’t believe himself to be the central character. As far as Adam is concerned, it’s Julian’s story. He would never be so egocentric as to name a book after himself.
FantasyGuide: Do you think that you can fight the described dominance of the creationism with books like »Julian Comstock«? Or do just want to show the possible consequences?
Robert Charles Wilson: I wanted to comfort the afflicted Darwinists, and afflict the comfortable Creationists.
FantasyGuide: Is the book, with it’s ending, not to pessimistic?
Robert Charles Wilson: It doesn’t seem so to me. Historical change is incremental. I couldn’t plausibly write a book in which Julian overthrows the Dominion and ushers in a new age of reason. And the model I was drawing on, in part, was the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate – which is not a story that ends happily.
FantasyGuide: A question from one of my colleagues: Parallels to Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day made me think, how big the influence of the 19th century is on a society that is obligated to an original freedom of the individual. Was this your intention, to chose this epoch as an basis for the new future?
Robert Charles Wilson: I wanted to write about an age of contradictions and paradoxes, and I wanted to do so in a very American voice. That’s what drew me to the 19th century.
FantasyGuide: Enough nitpicking. What are you're next projects?
Robert Charles Wilson: Finishing »Vortex«, writing »Logos«.
FantasyGuide: Mr. Wilson, thank you for the interview.
Robert Charles Wilson: You’re very welcome!