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SF with an Accent: An Interview with Tobias Buckell

tobiascentralpark.jpgTobias Buckell is the author of Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, and the forthcoming Sly Mongoose, as well as many other short stories. He is also a professional blogger and blog consultant. He agreed to an interview after I read and reviewed his book Crystal Rain (which he was nice enough to sign and send to my home for free, along with Ragamuffin.) His writing is unique in SF, as I think this interview makes clear. I highly recommend this new science fiction author from TOR.

Grasping for the Wind: For those who don’t already know, could you give us an account of your unique upbringing?

Tobias Buckell I grew up in Grenada, and moved to the British and then US Virgin Islands with my family. I finally ended up in Ohio my senior year: quite a change! My mother’s side of the family is a family of sailors. I’m the third generation of a boat-centric lifestyle that began when my grandfather moved his family aboard a yacht and sailed down the Thames for the Mediterranean and then eventually the Caribbean. My biological father is Caribbean, so many of my relatives hail from Grenada. Both sides are scattered all over the islands and the US now.

GFTW: Where does your interest in SF come from? Do you have any heroes of the genre?

TB: As pretty much a single working mother mine taught me to read fairly young, and introduced me to novels. On a boat there’s no cable, and even transmitted TV was fuzzy at best. And with batteries, who wants to drain them? I got into SF thanks to Arthur C. Clarke. I read one of his novels at 6 or 7: Childhood’s End. It had an enormous impact on me, I felt like my mind was being stretched and my perspective on everything changed for a couple days. I loved adventure literature, mysteries, even Westerns (which seemed strange and exotic to me), but I really kept coming back for that ‘big idea’ kick I first got off Clarke.

GFTW: Much of the dialogue in Crystal Rain is a patois, a subtle blending of languages common in the Caribbean. As you were writing it, did you ever have the fear that readers might find it too difficult to understand?

TB: You know that’s always a risk. But by the time I was writing that novel I’d written a number of short stories experimenting with different ways to portray the rhythms and sounds I grew up hearing around me. I chose not to use a direct phonetic spelling, like many do when trying to depict a dialect or patois, because I felt that would slow readers down and distract them (I still struggle to read some James Herriot at times). If a word had an English analogue, then it would be spelled the same. It was structure and grammar that I aimed to replicate the experience.

I do get some readers who react negatively to it. I get charged with ‘bad English’ or that it is challenging, but most people find that they slip into reading the dialogue and enjoy it.

GFTW: Crystal Rain is primarily an adventure story, although you do touch on the themes of culture and belief and how they interact. This is especially evident in the relationship between John deBrun and Oaxyctl. Was there any reason you wanted to address these particular themes?

TB: I always seek to entertain first, so the adventure is always dripping and packed full. But I do have some secondary themes running throughout. The belief question that Oaxyctl faces is an interesting one. Here he has what he thinks is a god asking him to do something almost immoral. Who would defy the divine? Oaxyctl struggles with it. It’s the Abrahamic dilemma but with Aztecs: Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, and he eventually firms up his mind to do it. An immoral act becomes moral when his God asks him to do it. Of course, his son is spared, but I thought it would be very tense to give the same problem to Oaxyctl in this novel. I also wanted to give readers a character who represented the Aztecs as not a faceless evil, but a complicated and quite human group.

GFTW: Crystal Rain is filled with mysterious characters, whose past is shrouded in mist. Was it difficult to keep from giving away too much of the back-story before the appropriate moment in the narrative?

TB: It’s always a give and take sort of thing. You go through a lot of edits where you try and strike the right balance. In Crystal Rain I kept the back story as buried as possible until further into the book because I feel it helped ease readers in, and it also meant that the focus remained on the adventure and characters.

GFTW: Crystal Rain is a stand-alone novel. Did you intentionally try to avoid writing a series, instead setting your novels in the same universe, but with different stories? Are you planning to create an over-arching storyline?

TB: I’m trying to write each novel as a stand alone event with varying stories and a varying motley assembly of characters. Ragamuffin follows Crystal Rain, but so far people have read it without reading Crystal Rain and enjoyed it enough to seek out Crystal Rain. I’m trying to make each book stand alone because as a reader I just hate missing out because I got the wrong book in the series.

GFTW: You have been a blogger since before the term was even invented. What effect do you think the medium has had on literature in general and speculative fiction (fantasy and SF) in particular?

TB: I have a friend who once remarked that I was the first person she knew to say I had a ‘blog’ instead of ‘online journal.’ I started with a GeoCities account back in 1998 to impress a professor and get a better grade. Now, 9 years later, I make about half my income doing professional blogging and consulting.

As for effect, I’m thinking that at the least it’s given new writers a total leg up. They have access to information and resources I could only have dreamed of. Online communities, market listings, articles about how to write, and writers blogs where they can watch what writers are doing every day. It’s very nifty. For me I’ve enjoyed the increased sense of community and being able to keep up with writers from all over the world, I think there is more cross-fertilization and discussion going than when I was breaking in.

GFTW: What can you tell us about your upcoming project, Sly Mongoose?

TB: This is the third book in this loose collection of novels. It features a Venus-like planet: hundreds of degrees hot on the surface, crushing pressure, and acid rain. But at 100,000 feet you avoid all that. And with a greenhouse atmosphere all around, breathable air is a lifting gas. So if you fill up a large structure with air it floats. So you get Cloud City, but with scientific justification. You also get to have airships galore, so I had a lot of fun chasing airships, creating armadas of airships, and tossing hapless characters into the great big mix. It was really just a very fun setpiece that I got to explore.

I’m working on a final editing pass, and then it’s on to working on my fourth book.

GFTW: Any plans to release an anthology of your short stories? Or is there anyplace someone craving more of your writing can go to find your short fiction?

TB: Wyrm Publishing (they put out Clarkesworld Magazine) is doing a 500 copy Limited Edition of a collection. Tides From the New Worlds will be out this winter, I think January. It can be preordered at: http://wyrmpublishing.com/catalog/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=10.

The art will be by Brian Dow, I am looking forward to it and am very excited.

GFTW: In a fight between Pepper and the Terminator, who would win?

TB: It would be a very tough call. I think Pepper has a bit more style, but he’s not running on a nuclear battery thingey like the Terminator is, but he does have a strong survival instinct. I’d say it’d be close, no matter which way.

GFTW: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me. I wish you blessings for your continued success.

TB: No problem, thank you for all the questions.

Read more about Tobias Buckell at: Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist and A Dribble of Ink