Tobias Buckell’s got class.
Not only did he have this interview back safely in my hands only hours after sending him the questions, but he was also kind enough to send copies of his first two novels, Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, in a nice padded envelope with a handwritten note thanking me for taking a look at his novels.
Buckell has a great personal web site where he runs a wicked blog (that is updated much more often than A Dribble of Ink, I must grudgingly admit…), and has a whole bunch of cool content. The best of which includes the entire first third of Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin (found HERE and HERE, respectively). He’s been a pleasure to work with (and his novel is pretty darn good, too!), so I hope you have as much fun reading the interview as I had conducting it!
Q.Your web site happens to be one of my favourites of any author for the simple fact that you cram so much into it. Similar to Brandon Sanderson, your web site contains everything from samples of your work (including the first third of your two published novels!), short fiction, commentary on your work, a shop and a whole whack more. What drove you originally to create such a content rich web site and why is it so important to you to maintain it?
Thank you, Iâ€™m a bit further behind on the amount of content Iâ€™d like up there right now, but I appreciate that you like it! You know, itâ€™s really just an organic thing. I started out a long way back with a GeoCities account. I was a college student, unpublished and unknown. Iâ€™d created a personal site as a project for class and then had to figure out what to do with it next. I liked having a personal site, but I hated all the other sites out there, so Iâ€™ve always been driven by this fear of being boring that stems from those early days when I created the blog that is on the site just out of a desire to do something new and interesting with the website.
Q. A Blog since â€™98? I donâ€™t even think the term â€œblogâ€ was around back then! This obviously shows a respect for the blogging medium and Iâ€™m curious to hear how you feel that blogging in general (your own and other bloggers) has affected your young career as an author and the publishing industry as a whole?
A friend of mine not so long ago emailed to catch up and said they remembered me as the first person I knew who had a eblogâ€™ as such. Iâ€™ve been keeping the blog since 1998, when I started it as a way keep myself motivated to write, submit stories, and try to get published. I felt that doing it in public would keep me on track. The longer I keep it the easier it is to keep it updated.
Blogging has been extremely important to my career, to be honest with you. Itâ€™s been beneficial on a lot of fronts. For one, it keeps me honest, writing in public. I donâ€™t get sidetracked and forget that there is an audience for my work. Theyâ€™re always there, commenting, reading, emailing, and checking in. And hearing from them really helps me get even more excited about my work. I think it has also extended my reach quite a bit more than I would have if it werenâ€™t for it, finding me new readers. Secondly, it has also gained me a whole community of other writers and professionals whoâ€™ve found me via the blog. Which has been fantastic.
Iâ€™m not sure how much of an effect itâ€™s had on the industry. It does seem that editors and publishers do look for writers who have a strong online presence now, but I think itâ€™s had an effect on making sure readers donâ€™t forget about their favorite authors. With a year or so between each novel, people can easily forget authors and names. I think websites, particularly high content ones, let readers know their authors are still in play, so to speak.
Q. Itâ€™s clear almost as soon as you crack open one of your novels that your Caribbean background has had a huge impact on the stories you tell, the universe you have created and the characters that fill that universe. Yet you now live in Ohio, a far cry from the live you lived as you grew up. What sort of measures do you take to make sure that you donâ€™t lose touch with that side of who you are?
You know, the longer Iâ€™ve been away the more I question myself about my own authenticity, sure. But thanks to the wonders of the modern world, I actually follow a ton of Caribbean news and commentary written by people still back in the islands. Newspapers online, music, blogs, and so on all let me keep up. And whatâ€™s great about new media is that its all personal, not dry accounts of things that have happened, which is what youâ€™re looking for. I wish I made the kind of money to get back, but Iâ€™m not quite there yet. Iâ€™m hoping in the next year to make my first big trip back with my wife, whoâ€™s never yet seen the places I grew up.
Q. Every author has their own approach to the craft of writing and Iâ€™m curious to know what kind of quirks, routines and habits make up your day as you sit down to work on your latest novel.
I donâ€™t have too much in the way of routines or habits. Iâ€™m thinking of two or three. One I know is that I have a soundtrack for every session. I will often blow half an hour trying to find the right online radio station, or genre of music, or an hour flipping around iTunes to buy an album to get me in the right state of mind.
One thing Iâ€™m legendary for is not being much of a daytime person. This continues, I gear up around midnight and write until I drop. Anywhere from a few hours to all night. Itâ€™s just the most magical time of night. No one emails me, no one calls, there are no chores to be run, no one really expects anything of you because no one is around. Itâ€™s just me.
Another quirk is that Iâ€™m unable to sit in my office for the entire day. I added a laptop to my office and now duck out to go write in different places around the village I live in. The park, the coffee shop, or even the bar are all places Iâ€™ll show up at with my headphones and trusty MacBook. Itâ€™s nice being around the bustle of other people during their busy day, and itâ€™s really nice just to get the hell out of my house.
Q. As mentioned earlier, youâ€™re quite a prolific blogger and Iâ€™m just curious how you find the time to fit both blogging and being a novelist into the short 24 hours of a day!
Iâ€™m a speed reader, and non-fiction comes pretty quickly to me, so blogging and me get along quite well. I scan a number RSS feeds, a few hundred or so, and I also keep a number of notes on my day. It takes me under an hour a day to get everything read and a daily post put together.
Q. As a reader Iâ€™m always thrilled to get my hands on a novel that not only tells a story in a single volume, but also manages to do it in less than 350 pages! Was is your intention when you set out to write short novels? Or was the length simply dictated by the story that needed to be told?
I really enjoy the lean novels. In fact, Iâ€™ve been reading a ton of YA fiction, thereâ€™s some great SF/F being written right now that a lot of the usual genre folk are missing. And itâ€™s refreshingly free of meandering and fat. I think itâ€™s rubbing off a bit, as Iâ€™ve been writing fairly lean novels myself.
Q. YA fiction is a caveat of mine as well, for many of the same reasons it seems you enjoy them. Care to plug some of your favourite YA authors/novels?
I’d love to. If you’re not hearing about Justine Larbalestier or Scott Westerfeld you could be living under a rock, but both of them are rocking out from Australia and need picked up. Another great Australian YA writer is Garth Nix, I recommend Sabriel as a great magical and yet at times slightly steampunky novel, as well as the rest of that series. Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion just blew me away with an all to real near future, some of the best SF I’ve read in a while, set in this strip between Mexico and the US where US politicians have ceded the area to drug lords – as long as they stop immigration to the US. But easily my favorite books have been recently by Kenneth Opel and Philip Reeves. Philip’s Hungry City Chronicles have just utterly been among my favorite books of the last couple years. Giant cities on treads roaming around a post-nuclear Atlantic seabed practicing ‘municipal darwinism;: eating each other up for spare parts! Opel’s airship novels are a total treat as well. Philip Pullman, of course, had an intriguing set of books with his Amber Spyglass trilogy as well.
My little brother just gave me some Artemis Fowl books, but I’ve been under deadline wrapping up my third novel, so I regret I haven’t started them yet, but they come highly recommended from him.
Q. Have you yet been drawn to try your hand at writing a multi-volume Space Opera spanning thousands of pages?
Of course, how much fun would that be? I love Space Opera, itâ€™s my favorite genre, and Iâ€™d love to write something epic and multi-volume that sets suns asunder and shakes the fabric of the universe. But thatâ€™s something I occasionally scribble notes on for the future.
Q. Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin are both stand alone novels, but are set within the same universe. Is there going to be any sort of over-arcing storyline/themes to your novels? Or do they all stand entirely independent from each other?
Iâ€™m doing my best to make them stand independent from each other, but there are a couple small connections. The biggest one in the first three books will be the development of the Aztecs, and the direction that society grows in throughout these books from almost over-the-top villains to nervous allies to important elements of a new society being built. Iâ€™m also interested in a narrative in the book about how societies trying to free themselves from oppression can make the sort of mistakes that lead them down into a path of then further repression. Often, when oppressors are kicked out, the kind of person necessary to take the kind of power needed to kick them out and lead their people, often tends to be just as bad. In Ragamuffin one of the side points is that the freedom fighters are looking to be just as bad as the alien overlords, and in my third novel Iâ€™m going to quantify that a bit more.
Q. Can you remember what initially kicked off the idea of the Azteca and this growth that they will potentially go through in the three novels?
The initial idea for the Azteca (they were actually the Mexica, not Aztecs, that was a later appellation, but we’re allowed to have some over-the-top fun in adventure genre) came from my grade-school fascination with them. You know you’re in world history and the teacher mentions that they performed human sacrifice and then just glosses and moves on. I was like ‘they did what?’ So after doing more research over the years, the idea of a culture that codified that practice (which can be found in various early religions, but on a small scale) fascinated me. On the one hand, they made a freaky catalyst for an adventure story, I thought, Aztecs with blimps and rifles and steampower would have just been scary in a war. Of course, I chose the character of Oaxcytl because what is really chilling about the Aztecs isn’t how weird the idea of human sacrifice is, but how similar in religious thought it can be to any other religious belief. The idea that sacrificed blood is the ultimate sacrifice. The order of zeal was just vastly different. I wanted to show how human someone with those beliefs could be, which was why that character was in there. Oddly enough, he’s a reader favorite, I get email asking what happens to him after this book.
Q. One element of your novels that really stands out is the dialect used by many of your characters. Were you ever worried that this strong, Caribbean dialect might be a deterrent for some readers?
I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to handle dialect. I know this sort of thing can interrupt readers, yeah, but Mark Twain used to get dissed by readers and critics for doing the same thing (and uses a more phonetic spelling, which I try to avoid by using grammar and sentence structure) and his response was ‘this is the way I hear people around me talking.’ Now, I’m no Mark Twain, but I thought, life is too short not to try to do something original and unique. I did my best to write it in a way that would not get in the way of the reader, and many people seem to have gone with the flow. Some don’t, and I can understand that, it is a small bump for some at first. Others reject it for varying reasons that have more to do with lingua-centrism, calling it bad English.
Q. Similar to this, many of your characters have names that will be very foreign to some of your readers, Oaxyctl, for example. while others have â€œnormalâ€ names such as Gordon, Edward, etc… was this balance and intentional one and how did your editor react to the more exotic names?
I used traditional names for each. Oaxyctl is a period Nahuatl name. The section of the Caribbean I’m most familiar with has heavily British names. Gordon, Jerome, Edward, that’s par for the course. It wasn’t intentional, it was just my trying to be authentic. My editor mainly just wanted to make sure that I had the characters explain how to pronounce Oaxyctl’s name: O-ash-k-tul
Q. Ragamuffin expands greatly upon the Universe created in Crystal Rain, in fact it expands to 48 times the size! How exactly does one go about creating 48 different worlds? Many authors have trouble creating just one!
Heh, if you look very carefully I actually only show a handful of these worlds in the whirlwind wormhole tour of that corner of the 48 worlds. We had Agathonosis, the O’Neill type cylindrical habitat, which wasn’t one of the worlds, New Anegada, Astragalai with its human reservations, and so on. I gave everyone a glimpse of the wider worlds, but then tamped back down to focusing on our little corner again.
I’ve also been working on this setup for a long while, the 48 worlds are in a lot of short stories I’ve written that have never been published, early attempts at my sketching out the larger canvas.
Q. Todd Lockwood is one of the best cover artists in the business right now, what was your first reaction when you found out that he would be handling your cover art? And how did it feel when the first drafts of the cover for Crystal Rain started appearing on your desktop?
Todd is one of the best, and what I love about him is this sense of implied action and adventure implicit in his covers. When the first drafts started showing up I was excited beyond belief. I had steeled myself to expect the worse. Not because I didn’t trust my publisher, but every writer, it seems, who mentored me, just told me to expect to be disappointed. And I was so used to seeing disappointed writers when it came to their covers. So I steeled myself. And then my editor told me who was doing the cover and I looked at Todd’s site, recognized his artwork from other places (I’d admired it before without realizing who he was), I was completely gob-smacked.
The new cover, for my third book, Sly Mongoose, is his best yet. It’s just incredible, I fell out of my chair when I got it and I get wait to see the cover flats so I can hang them on the wall next to the two other awesome ones I have.
He wasn’t kidding about the cover for Sly Mongoose! The various photos you’ve seen leading up to this question have been sketches of the various stages of the cover and above you’ll find an almost final version. Pretty kickass, I must say! -Aidan
Q. What can we expect to see in your third novel, Sly Mongoose?
My favorite novel yet. I’m showing off a new world, called Chilo, in this book. It’s a Venusian sort of world, which doesn’t sound hospitable, but actually is. Venus is 800 degrees or so on the surface, more than twenty times normal of crushing atmospheric pressure, and it rains sulphuric acid. But at a 100,000 feet, other than not having air, it’s got normal pressure, normal temperature, and no acid rain. And because the atmosphere is denser, breathable air is a lifting gas, so anything you enclose and fill with air floats. Like really big cities. That’s the backdrop, this world where everyone lives in giant cities, with the poorer ones lowering people to the surface to mine for stuff they need. I get to play with lots of airships, I’ve just had this big grin on my face the whole way through.
Q. Any tips, anecdotes or stories of self-deprecating nature for our aspiring writers out there?
My biggest tip is that the biggest part of the word writer is the word write. It’s the core base upon which the rest of the career is laid. So much time is spent online talking about blogs and promotion and whatnot, but it always comes down the fact that we have to sit down in front of a keyboard and create something where before there was nothing. That’s both the magic of it, and the hard gruntwork of it as well. That’s the part that loses so many people (like the ones who come up to me and say “I have this idea…” to which I respond, “it’s not the idea, but rather, the execution of it, that’s tricky.”)
There is so much of this business that is out of your control. The sales people buying the book at the chain, how people react to you, whether word of mouth spreads. The money isn’t big for the work you put it into it. So if you don’t enjoy the act of writing more than, say, the act of being published or having written, it is likely to be a soul-crushing business. I love that moment where I get a story in a magazine showing up on my doorstep, or the first time I get that shipment of author’s copies in a box and see my novel for the first time. It’s amazing, it’s a high, it’s a rush. So is seeing the book on the shelves of a bookstore. But you know what, the most important rush is the same rush any writer can access: the rush of turning a good phrase, nailing the right dialogue, or getting the right idea on paper.
In some ways being published is like crack: it’s an addiction. You get the quick high from the publication, or the check, but then you start hustling for the next one. And when you don’t sell the next one right away, or see your book returned from the book store shelves after the three month selling period, you lose that high. So the writing has to be the big one, the love you do it for, because the other stuff, it comes and goes and spikes and ebbs, but the constant thing about being a writer is that you’re out there, writing.
When I broke into the field in ’99, I sold a short story to a big magazine, and then two short stories to prestigious anthologies in December of ’99. I held my first short story in my hands in early 2000. But then, almost 14 months passed before I made another professional sale. It was tough, a very tough period, but after a certain point I just made peace with the fact that a writer writes, and focused on writing more, writing better, and continuing to submit things. And eventually I started selling again. I have over 30 short stories that appeared in various anthologies and magazines now, six years after that period as well as two books out, with a third book and a short story collection scheduled to come out in ’08, I’m rather glad I learned to just keep my head down and keep writing no matter what.
Q. Tobias, Iâ€™d like to thank you for taking the time to drop by A Dribble of Ink and wish you all the luck with your own blog!
Aidan, thank you so much for having me here and for all the great questions. This was a total treat, and I wish you luck with your own blog right back!
Keep an eye out for my reviews of Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin coming soon! Check out Tobias’ web site for a great round up of all the interviews and reviews floating around the net in regards to him and his novels!