Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer who grew up in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has published four books and numerous stories in various magazines and anthologies. He is a Clarion graduate, Writers of the Future winner, and Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer Finalist.
What drew you to science fiction?
In Grenada, my family lived on a boat and there was no TV, so I started reading at about 4 or 5. My mother needed something to babysit me, and figured out that if she taught me to read, I’d take care of myself for hours on end. I started reading Clive Cussler at young age, probably 6 or 7. After picking up an Arthur C. Clarke novel, I had the feeling that my imagination had been exploded and was never put back the same again. I thought, I want more of that. I look at literature as the dreams of mankind. Science fiction is the daydreams, the imagination of humanity.
Tell me about your first story.
My first story was for the Writers of the Future Contest, a military science fiction story. Being male, I’m almost stereotypical in the fact that I love action adventures. I’m horribly predictable in that regard.
Describe your writing process.
I read a lot about pertinent subjects, writing things down as I go along; themes, characters. I keep a file filled with random things that might fit the theme of book and once I have enough, I think about how it all fits together. It’s very much like cooking a stew – once you have the basics, how do I spice it up and make things fit together. I find that the more I plan ahead, the easier it goes, though I don’t plan to the extent that there is no joy or no discovery.
When I sat down, I had the background of being from and loving the Caribbean and a love of science fiction. So I wanted to write an adventure book and creating a lost world of Caribbean would be wonderful to feature as the setting. When writing about the future and saying “what if”, you remove any immediate markers and baggage about the subject.
How seriously do you take negative reviews?
It depends. There are some that are negative that are easy to dismiss because they are complaining about a feature. For instance, I’m from the Caribbean and write Caribbean dialect. Dante was critiqued for writing in the common tongue. On the one hand, people will get upset about it but then this is a representation of how these people speak and I think it is valid. Some dismiss it and call it bad English, that’s a meta issue, lingual-centrism. They think it’s ridiculous that people would speak like this in the future, but not ridiculous to still have American English.
I do my best not to respond, and some people do make good points. For instance, one review was negative of Crystal Rain — a pacing issue. I can agree with it, but years later, don’t see how it could be fixed. I’ve figured ways around that now; I start with way more of a bang. It’s intriguing to see how one person responds totally different than someone else, how people bring their own things to it. The thing is, I’d rather be talked about than not. The toughest are ones that are really excited and say, “How can he follow this up?”
What is most difficult thing about writing?
Butt in chair, day in and day out. As a student, it was fun to wait for inspiration and then sit down to right, but I don’t have that luxury now. The more experience I get, the more I find the words you put on the page don’t care whether you’re inspired or not. I kept a log of days when I was inspired and when I wasn’t. The inspired and non-inspired prose are almost identical. Inspiration is more important during outline phase.
How important was Clarion?
Pretty big. It was a chance to get away from it all — 6 weeks of writing, critiquing and talking to other writers. When you spend 6 weeks focusing on your passion, something good has to come of that. I also made friendships that continue on to this day. I was also introduced to the science fiction community as a whole. The instructors gave me business clues and advice that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’m more appreciative of the sacrifices made to get there, some people quit jobs and then there’s being away from family or a significant other for six weeks.
What’s on your reading list?
Tons of non-fiction, but as for fiction: David Anthony Durham, Karl Schroeder, Alastair Reynolds, Ken McCloud. Right now, my favorite author is Alastair Reynolds and over past 2 or 3 years, Karl Schroeder. My favorite author of all time is Arthur C. Clarke, I love his globalism.
What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
I wouldn’t have gone for higher education. I probably would have bought a small boat in the Caribbean and had day sailing operation or maybe piloting a larger vessel.
What advice do you have for new writers, looking to make that first deal?
Be more sparky, create something really original. Read lots of other books to determine if you’re doing a retread. Go for the unique, which I know sounds so vague, but really try to produce something interesting and try to give a hint in the first half page. A lot of writers feel like they need to hold back the cool thing, but you really need to introduce it as soon as possible. Most slush readers will read half a page. I read slush for a bit and found my opinion will not have changed from the first half page to the end.
There’s an exercise I use when I teach or lecture. Read the first lines, paragraph or half page of books you love. Write down what intrigued you and note why you liked it. That list may be 10 things, then ask yourself if your first lines do any one of those things. You’ll find that most great novels have the elements of the entire book right up front and that’s what got you interested in reading the whole book.