Interview with Tobias Buckell

Tobias Buckell has been honing his craft in the Speculative Fiction genres for a number of years now, having published over 25 short stories. Tor will be publishing his debut novel Crystal Rain in February 2006 (sffworld.com review). In this interview, Rob and Tobias discuss the novel, short stories vs. novels, and a new author community, SFNovelists.

Rob Bedford. First off, how about the TV-guide version of you and then Crystal Rain?

Tobias Buckell: I’m a Caribbean born science fiction and fantasy writer in his mid twenties. I’ve had 25 or so short stories published in various magazines and anthologies.

Crystal Rain is my first novel, and in it I went back to the islands for my inspiration. Some have called it a ‘Caribbean Steampunk’ novel. The book is about John deBrun, a man who lives among Caribbean exiles on another planet. His country faces an impending invasion by Aztecs and he has to find out a lot about himself in order to to do something about it to save his family.

RB: How long was the story gestating before setting it to the page?

TB: Not too long. I wrote the proposal over a couple months, but it was first turned down by the editor who requested it. I sat on it a year until I met my agent, who asked to take a look at it and fell in love with it (agents almost never take on partial first novels, it was a one in a million thing).

RB: Who would you consider your strongest fictional influences?

TB: The strongest fictional influences or the authors I like to read the most? I’m not sure what influences me, because I read such a wide range and so quickly. I was always a fan of the big three, I started reading when I was five, or maybe even younger. I started off with Clive Cussler, Arthur C. Clarke, and Heinlein, and then started reading lots of Hardy Boy novels! I’ve always loved a ripping good adventure tale, with a sense of wonder buried somewhere in there to jump out and surprise you.

In my teenage years I was quite taken with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling for using the Caribbean in a way that didn’t paint it as a tourist destination, but as a play within its own right. Bruce Sterling in particular, with Islands in the Net, which was set on Grenada where I grew up, really opened my eyes to the idea of mixing SF and that particular background of mine.

RB: When did you start writing fiction and when did you publish your first piece of fiction?

TB: My mother says that when I was five or six she used to leave me with a matchbox full of printed out words in it. I would sit on the floor and create sentences for hours. I wrote my first short story at fifteen and submitted it to the Writers of the Future contest. In college I got very serious my sophomore year, writing and submitting stories to the detriment of class attendance. And grades. My first sale came when I was nineteen, and I saw it published just after my twentieth birthday. The story, Fish Merchant, published in Science Fiction Age, has a character who plays a very important role in the novel Crystal Rain.
RB: The world you laid out in Crystal Rain is pretty intricate, yet it seems there is much more than you have revealed. Are there plans to revisit the characters or the world of Nanagada?

TB: Yes, actually. I’m working on a new novel called RagamuffinCrystal Rain was my Caribbean Steampunk novel, and I’m hopingRagamuffin is my Caribbean Space Opera.

RB: That said, along with the short stories you’ve written published which take place in this world, would you say these books form a series?

TB: I’d like to explore the worlds around Pepper a lot more, which is what my next book Ragamuffin does. I’ve been conditioned to hate the word series, so I’m trying to do series much like Bujold, or Pratchett have done them, wherein I use a cast of characters and worlds but in a very loose manner. I hope to set it up so that you don’t have to read each previous book, and I’d like to leap around the various characters and locales and let others rest for a while. However Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin are fairly closely linked to each other, sharing some characters and focusing on the area around the world of Nanagada.

 

We’ll see if that works :-)

RB: Every month it seems a new debate over Fantasy vs. Science Fiction seems to spark on the Internet, with some interesting ideas put forth. With elements of both of these, which branch of Speculative Fiction would you say Crystal Rain falls into, or like a lot of readers, do you find the more encompassing term “Speculative Fiction” the better way to go?

TB: Well, what would the internet be without vociferous debates that ended with someone calling someone else a Nazi? It’s like heat death, something we plunge into despite ourselves. I usually use the term Speculative Fiction just to head it all off. One can argue about the definitions all they want to, I try to avoid being proscriptive as I enjoy both.

I feel Crystal Rain is SF, though I did set out at the beginning to give the feeling of the world as a world with myths, as all worlds have, about how it was founded. It was part of the worldview of the inhabitants, so I tried to bring that into the novel so that we could taste some of this from the character’s perspective.

RB: You’ve been very prolific with your short stories, how different is your approach to novel length fiction? Is it an apples and oranges thing or is there a closer similarity?

TB: Vastly different creatures, novels and short stories. Short stories I usually write in a couple days to a week in feverish surges of activity, often staying up all night to finish the piece. Novels offer up no such instant gratification, taking a year or so each. I found I had to develop a lot of persistence to remain in love with the piece over such a long period of time. Taking occasional breaks to work on short fiction helped!

RB: Are there any plans for a collection of your short stories?

TB: I have enough published stories out for a collection, but so far getting a collection together hasn’t worked out. So not yet, alas. I certainly wouldn’t mind it. I tell myself that the longer it takes the more critical we can be with what stories are included, but I should work harder to see about getting something going. There’s just only so much time in the day, and the second novel needs finishing yet, so the collection has gotten the short shrift.

RB: What types of writerly goals do you set for yourself on a daily and/or more protracted basis?

TB: I try to get my butt in front of the keyboard every day. I used to be a lot better at it when working the night shift, as I’m pretty much an insomniac. I now work an eight to five, and struggle to find the best time to write. Just for laughs I’m often up at 5:30am to workout and write these days, in the hope that if I apply some elbowgrease to my career maybe I’ll one day soon be able to work those weird hours again. I keep a spreadsheet with what I wrote every day on it, and I seem to average about a page a day. Nothing spectacular, but it gets the job done.

RB: What form do you prefer, short story or novel?

TB: I prefer the novel. I’m sure its heresy to some, but the novel is a very mystical thing for me. My mother sat my down when I was four or five, and told me reading was ‘like creating a movie inside of your head, but even better.’ When I read I immerse myself into a world and carry it with me, and I read most books in one sitting, a handful of hours or less, so the experience of a novel is richer than the all-to-quick experience of a short story. I also never really encountered short stories until I first moved to the US. Until then I read SF in novel form, so that remains my preference.

RB: You’ve recently started up, http://www.SFNovelists.com, a community Web site for first-time novelists. Can you tell us a bit about the whos and the whys behind it?

TB: SFNovelists.com is a community website for readers and novelists. The public side is a group weblog. It’s really just an aggregated republishing of all our members weblogs, but it’s still cool. We have some very slick authors like Tim PrattCherie PriestNalo Hopkinson,Jeff VanderMeer, and Charles Coleman Finlay, to name a few. About 20 of us have their blogs on the SFNovelists.com page, you can visit it and see their names there. There is a forum for readers, and my hope is that we’ll spend time talking to readers there. The idea of the site is to provide a place for readers and writers to intersect. I’m not sure how else the public side of it will grow, but we’re tossing around some ideas, we’re barely over a month old, so forgive the growing pains!

The private side of SFNovelists.com is a password protected area for novelists to talk shop. A lot of it is traded information on all sorts of aspects of the trade. It uses a wiki, a page that any of our authors can markup, as the main engine behind the site. There is also a forum for regular discussion. There are just under 50 novelists at all stages of their careers collected there, though I admit we’re slightly tilted towards young turks who have a lot of energy and who have a lot to learn. Like myself…

RB: One thing that seems quite evident is how well you are promoting the book. How important is your role as promoter of the book to your role as author of the book?

TB: Well, I’ve never thought of myself as a good promoter, though I seem to be getting that moniker. I really hope no one ever gets to the point where they think all I do is self promote and talk myself up. Mainly I just like adding value to the whole author/reader experience. I started my weblog years ago as a way to initially force myself to write and submit short fiction by being in the public eye. There’s something to publicly declaring you goals that makes you try that much harder. Eventually, once I started seeing my work come out I started realizing that readers were following the weblog, and emailing me, and sometimes commenting. It was a very organic thing, not something I really tried to create.

For Crystal Rain we created a website at www.Crystal-Rain.com to showcase the book. The cover, done by the awesome Todd Lockwood, lends itself well to being used as the book’s advertisement. Then I got to thinking that it would be cool to add some extras for the book, so in the ‘extras’ section of www.Crystal-Rain.com we’ll be posting related short fiction, deleted chapters, alternate chapters, as well as chapter by chapter commentary. I just thought that if I were a reader I’d love to see that stuff myself, so why not make it so?

The other thing we’ll be doing is posting the first third of the Crystal Rain up at that website, a chapter at a time, a new chapter each day. Again, I just though what I’d love to see as a reader, which is a sample of a book to tell if I’d like to read it. But a lot of samples are just a chapter or so, not enough to get me really hooked in. But the first third of a novel, I’d know for sure whether it was up my alley or not (and I understand how hard it is to risk hard earned money on some unknown idiot who has a reputation for tootin’ his own horn, so I figured this would be putting up or shutting up!)

All this cool stuff starts January 15th, by the way!

RB: In the same vein, good literature can be seen as a connection between reader and writer on paper. Do you see the Internet as a extrapolation of this thought?

TB: I agree with this. I don’t think I would have stood in line to have my favorite author sign one of my favorite books if hadn’t been looking for some sort of connection above and beyond the words on a machine produced slab of paper, right? I think the internet is an extrapolation of this relationship, which is why I think so many writers have taken well to weblogging. It allows them to build on the author/reader relationship, and one of the reasons why I think its such a wonderful thing.

RB: Writers often state their job is very individualistic and self-contained, yet there are many writer’s groups and workshops. How important is feedback from one’s peers in the growth for one’s writing?

TB: You know, I think that depends on the writer. Personally I find being part of a community I can turn to very important. I have enjoyed workshops since my first, Clarion, in 1999. While I daily sit by myself in the basement to tap away at the keys, going to conventions or visiting other writers is a huge release for me. I get to bounce ideas off them, listen to their ideas, and grow a little. But certainly this stuff isn’t necessary. I know John Scalzi (www.scalzi.com/whatever) who lives not too far away from me in Dayton, doesn’t workshop or feel the need for writers groups, and he is certainly a successful author by any means you choose to look at it. There are many different approaches to writing.

Thanks for having me over, by the way. I enjoyed this chance to answer some questions and blab on a bit.

 

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