Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work.
His novels and over 50 stories have been translated into 18 different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author.
He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at www.TobiasBuckell.com
TBL Author Q&A Series: Tobias Buckell
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
The idea that I wanted to be published wormed its way into my head when I was a young teen. I submitted my first short story to an anthology when I was 15. I mark that as the point where I began in seriousness, though I’d been writing stories and noodling the idea around since around 7th grade. I do remember being quite impressed that writers could keep their own hours.
Quite a few teachers or authority figures didn’t see this as making sense as I had a lot of trouble with spelling and focus. As an adult we found out I had mild dyslexia and was ADHD. Still became a writer!
I was always a creative kid. My mom always joked that my head was in the clouds. She figured I would become a librarian because I read so damn much. I grew up on a boat, we didn’t have TV. I started sneaking off to the adult section of the library to get the ‘good stuff’ as soon as I could.
You’ve published several books — what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?
I’ve been lucky enough to see ten novels published and have published a couple all on my own. It’s an interesting world, both slightly opaque in some maddening ways, and yet delightfully full of people who all love words just like you, so I love it. My experience is all over the place, there is this froth that happens when art and money intersect. On one hand, you are working with people to try and make the book better, who loved it enough to offer advance money. You get a copy edit, and that I love. You get a team that tries to get the book out to as many people as they can.
On the other hand, you’re also in a business. That means that at the same time, the world at large views your work of art, the thing you spent a year (or more!) creating, as another widget of many different widgets. You are competing for people’s hard-earned beer money, now. You can end up lost in fears and pressure about sales. That can be depressing. Writers can easily get lost comparing buzz, sales, and awards against their peers.
The further I get into the experience the more I have to take my own advice to love the work and then let it go once it is out there. As Henry Miller once said, ‘the writing is its own reward.’
Your short story, “A World to Die For” was probably one of the more captivating and poignant pieces of sci-fi I’ve read recently. Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?
Wow, thank you. That’s so awesome of you to say so. I’m grateful.
“A World to Die For” exists because Arizona State University’s Center for Science and Imagination invited me and several other authors out for a workshop in the desert at Arcosanti (the community built by Paolo Soleri). The remit was to write stories about climate challenges. I kept trying to figure out how to dramatize the differing RCP forecasts (estimates on carbon concentrations in the atmosphere) in a story. The story came out of that. I’ve been tackling climate in a few novels, and in some short fiction, over the years. It’s something I’m always trying to wrap my head around as a futurist.
I’ve also been trying to bring more diversity to my work since first getting published. Because I am from the Caribbean I grew up in a very cosmopolitan environment. In my first novel I used Caribbean peoples, like my I, my family, and my friends were. I got a bunch of hate mail for being ‘politically correct’ and some folk were really angry I had an adventurous science fiction novel full of people of color. I did it because they were the people I grew up around. I wanted to see Caribbean folk in an SF novel. But it opened my eyes to a big gaping hole in the genre I loved. I continue to disappoint those folks by having a diverse character line up in my books.
I’m always trying to learn more about my chosen craft. Whenever a writer I like puts out a book about writing I snap it up. Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Wonderbook’ is one of my favorites because it is so visual. I would have killed to have had that when starting out, as I’m so visual in how I think about structure and story.
I’ve been enjoying listening to audiobooks a lot lately because it slows me down and lets me pay attention to the poetry of a writer in a way that I struggle to when I read, as I’m fast. There’s an audiobook of the Aeneid I keep listening to over and over because the metaphors in it are so rich. I don’t know if the translator did that or if it is the original nature of the source, but I’m entranced by it. I just went and looked it up, it was translated by Patric Dickenson and narrated by Charlton Griffin.
What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?
We are such a mélange of our influences I always feel horrible after answering this because I know I have left out so many. And sometimes you are influenced by randomly mundane things that can be transmuted into such magic once you’ve run them through a filter of other work that you don’t even know you are reaching for.
I grew up listening to story tellers on the radio and around me in the Caribbean. I gravitated toward science fiction’s classics early on, Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, etc. In high school I came of age reading the cyberpunks heavily, so Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, William Gibson, etc. I really loved C.J Cherryh’s Merchanter’s novels deeply.
At the same time, I had these copies of Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, and other classics that my mother gifted me. How many ten year olds read Shakespeare for giggles? I did. Again, I didn’t have TV.
On your blog, you posted about your switch from QWERTY to an entirely different key format. One aspect of that switch was changing the type of keyboard you used, and you described that as one of the “greatest writerly life hacks” you stumbled across. Besides that switch, what other writerly life hacks have you found?
I have this ridiculously expensive office chair from Herman Miller. It’s the Embody. It’s the same chair Scarlett Johansen sits on at the end of ‘Lucy’ when she’s jumping through time. I got it because another writer asked me where I spent most of my day, then told me to invest in the item I sling my butt into eight hours a day. He said my back would thank me in ten years and I would save money.
I also have a sit/stand Ergotron desk.
The writing life is super sedentary, so I am trying to make sure I don’t end up breaking myself physically as I meet writers with damaged wrists, pain, back pain, and other such things.
I know a writer who walks around trails and dictates into a mic, then his secretary types all that up. I’m not enough of a baller to afford that, and when I’ve done it to type up myself I just listen to my audio and think ‘what a dweeb.’
In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? You have many books that have been published by different publishing houses. I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with presses.
I’m looking for anyone who will take my work and pay me well for it!
I know, I know, that’s so mercenary. But, I’ve found that money isn’t a bad indicator for how truly excited someone is about your work and what they’ll do with it.
If the money is the same, I am looking for a team that will get me more pumped up about what I’m doing and who care about the same things I care about in the work. When you’re all on the same page about why something has you excited it’s a neat experience.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
You know, from my perspective it has been seventeen years of small accomplishments that all build on each other. We are taught to look for that break out moment, that rush of success. But each previous moment is built on all the years of other work I’ve done. As a result, in the moment it never feels like any big jump forward, but more like another step on a long journey.
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
The writing is the thing, yeah? I teach workshops and often hear new writers talking about platforms, publishing contracts, newsletters, twitter followers, and other such mechanics. And the business stuff is important, absolutely. But, never forget that all that should be in service to the work. Platforms are there for you to promote work, which means the work has to be created. And in this social media world, I understand the pressure, I was an early user of all those tools to build my readership. But we have to have something to promote first! It never hurts to focus on the words and keep them as our pole star.
After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
My goals are to enjoy the act of writing, as it is writing that leads to what successes I have had. It’s hard for me to predict ahead of time what people seize on, so I’m really focused on having more fun. I am looking for more experimentation and stories that take risks. I’m toying with the idea of maybe writing a serial novel online. The idea of seeing audiences react live to what I do would be neat. Right now you write something, and then 18 months later, while you are on another project, people tell you what they think.
But mostly I’m interested in the joy of the act of creating a story where there was a blank page before.
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