Robert Charles Wilson is the award-winning author of Spin. Some of his other books include the two sequels to Spin: Axis and Vortex, as well as Mysterium, The Chronoliths, and Julian Comstock. In the interview, Wilson talks about how he got into writing, where the idea for Spin came from, what he’s working on now, what he hopes people get out of reading his books, and what he likes to do in his spare time.
Alex C. Telander: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Robert Charles Wilson: I’ve been writing — writing science fiction, no less — since I learned to read. I don’t have an explanation for this, but it’s probably a diagnostic indicator for some kind of personality disorder.
Alex: Do you remember the first thing you wrote?
Robert: The stories I wrote in grade one survived for years in my mom’s attic. They were self-illustrated and usually involved astronauts landing on an distant planet, where they were attacked by monsters. One of them was called “In the Seas of Neptune.” Apparently, my understanding of the nature of the solar system needed some fine tuning.
Alex: How about the first thing you got published?
Robert: I sold my first story to Analog when I was nineteen years old. (Perhaps not coincidentally, it also involved a distant planet and a monster.) I didn’t sell another one for ten years. That was my real apprenticeship as a writer — the time you spend learning your craft by failing at it.
Alex: What were the steps that led to you getting your first book published?
Robert: I had sold a short story to Shawna McCarthy when she was editing Asimov’s Science Fiction. She moved to Bantam as a book editor and wrote to ask whether I had anything at novel length. “Yes,” I said — one of those lies for which young writers can perhaps be forgiven. The end result was A Hidden Place, my first novel.
Alex: Where did the idea for Spin come from?
Robert: For me, ideas seldom pop into existence fully formed; they accrete, like barnacles. So that’s a hard one to answer. But I guess I can say it emerged from some thoughts about the Fermi paradox, and some further thoughts about the age of the universe and what a small slice of geological and astronomical time we experience in a single human lifetime. I wanted to confront my characters with deep time, deep change — the aging and death of the sun, for instance.
Alex: Did you always plan for it to be a trilogy?
Robert: Spin is a stand-alone novel and can be read as such. I think of it as a book with two sequels.
Alex: Now with Vortex finished and published, do you feel your original idea with Spin has changed at all, or did you arrive at the final destination you planned on?
Robert: Any work of fiction, long or short, evolves as you write it. The trilogy wasn’t an exception. I guess you can say it arrived at the conclusion I expected, to a first approximation. But it surprised me often along the way.
Alex: Your books always feature strong, well developed characters, which can be rare in science fiction. Is this an intentional thing on your part?
Robert: I don’t see characterization as some separable or dispensable aspect of fiction. It’s one of the mainsprings. You can’t simply imagine a new world, you have to populate it, you have to inhabit it. That’s what characterization does: it particularizes the abstraction and renders it as human experience.
Alex: Do you ever plan to write more in the world you created in Julian Comstock?
Robert: That book was great fun to write, so I’m occasionally tempted to revisit it. But no, I have no real plans to do so.
Alex: Science and evolution feature in a number of your books. Why is this?
Robert: To me, evolution and the scientific vision of the world are perennially fascinating ideas. They take the long view. They tell us that what seems fixed and stable has changed over time. “All things flow,” as Heraclitus said. That’s the thematic heart and soul of science fiction, as far as I’m concerned.
Alex: What do you hope readers get from reading your books?
Robert: Entertainment. Maybe a shiver up the spine now and then. An unexpected thought.
Alex: Can you talk about what you’re working on now, and what your next book is?
Robert: I’ve contracted to write three stand-alone novels: Burning Paradise, The Affinities, and The Last Year.. Of these, Burning Paradise is three-quarters finished and I should be able to hand it in early in 2012. It takes place in an alternate history in which the twentieth century has been uniquely peaceful and prosperous — for a rather troubling reason.
Alex: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Robert: I still read and re-read the classic sf authors. Contemporary ones, too, though I know the field less well than I used to, simply because I read for research and because my taste in reading precludes a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy.
Alex: What are you reading right now?
Robert: The police procedurals of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo. I have Neal Stephenson’s Reamde on the shelf, and I’m looking forward to that. Recently enjoyed Steven Millhauser’s We Others — he’s a truly amazing talent — and Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear.
Alex: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Robert: Nothing extraordinary. Listen to music. Hang out with my wife Sharry. Some days I’ll head into downtown Toronto and poke around in the kind of shops — increasingly rare these days, alas — that sell second-hand books and vinyl records.
Alex: Is there a particular world in your books that you would like to live in?
Robert: God, no! There are characters I wouldn’t mind meeting, but the worlds they live in are generally way too threatening for my taste.