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 written six novels, including the New York Times Bestseller Halo: The Cole Protocol and Arctic Rising, due out from Tor Books in February. He currently lives in Ohio with his wife and twin daughters.
The Xenowealth novels are awesome examples of your work, and I know a lot of fans are really excited that you’re going to be picking up where you left off with Sly Mongoose. Care to tell us how much time has passed between Sly Mongoose and the new project, The Apocalypse Ocean?
Roughly fifteen years. Just enough time for everyone to relax, and for some of our characters to have some bitter memories about the conflicts that were winding down and being sorted out at the close of Sly Mongoose.
As a fan of your universe, and especially of intriguing characters like Nashara, I thought the short story “Placa del Fuego” was a great taste of what the Xenowealth still had to offer readers. Part of me even feared that I was getting a peek at what might have been, rather than what is coming. Will that story be contained in the new book to some degree, or is that the end of Tiago’s story?
“Placa del Fuego” is a great taste of what is coming! It was originally the opening chapters of the book, formed into a short story for Clarkesworld after my editor at Tor and I decided to go in a whole new direction. I really want to use Tiago and Kay as important parts of The Apocalypse Ocean, and their points of view will feature heavily in the book. I’ve actually got parts of Kay’s chapters written already that come right after “Placa del Fuego” takes place, where she flashes back to her own life, and how she came to power at Placa del Fuego. Kay’s got these alien-bred abilities to manipulate people and read micro-expressions, and she’s had such a brutal life, she wants retribution for all that. And she has the tools to make everyone around her miserable.
While there were plenty of incredible ideas in Ragamuffin and Mongoose, one of the most interesting things I’ve seen you do in a story was the alien creature called the Doacq, the mouth of which is actually a wormhole. Was there any particular tidbit of scientific speculation that led you to dream up such a character, or did it come as something that was just artistically inspiring?
I’ve always loved the science of wormholes (what science there is; they’re somewhat more on the fantastic side of it all). The Doacq is a bit on the way-out-there side of things: an alien creature with a wormhole for a mouth. I imagine one would die of radiation from that. But the Doacq is an artificial biological construct, so I’m looking forward to revealing a lot more about it as the book goes along. The idea is mostly a horror image for me, a creature with an impossibly large mouth that can swallow you off to…somewhere, haunting the streets for purposes unknown…
You’ve written a lot of really fun blog posts about your writing process, especially back when you were working on Sly Mongoose and The Cole Protocol. Has drafting a novel changed much since you started to work on Arctic Rising?
Not really, to be honest. I’m still a huge fan of the software Scrivener for organizing myself and making a complex book understandable. I still prefer to write at night. From January to last month I’d actually been working at a morning shift writing and editing some copy for a company. It was a good contract, but the morning hours really hit the fiction productivity hard, I realized. The contract changed right as I was considering quitting to a different time, and I’m now back to writing late at night, and that means more fiction. That led me to feel that I could promise doing something like Apocalypse Ocean and not be over-reaching.
What are you looking forward to the most in returning to the Xenowealth books? Any particular character, or just the scope of your unique universe?
I find Pepper so much fun to write, but I’m honestly looking forward to bringing Nashara back into the mix. She’s really the only personality that’s going to work to balance Kay out.
You’re prefunding the fourth installment of the series through Kickstarter. Do you mind telling us about your motivation to go that route? How does it feel to see the amount of support you’ve been getting in such a short amount of time?
Well, there’s always a dilemma about what to do with a book that’s part of a series. I could shop it around and try to get someone to pick it up. After all, Sly Mongoose is about to come out in paperback around April. The previous books did really well in pre-orders, but hit that awkward bookstore spiral where they kept ordering fewer copies. So overall, people ordering directly compensated, and the core readership of those books grew, but I was getting fewer bookstore sales. Growth stayed flat, or just slightly up in sales for Sly Mongoose.
So I knew finding another publisher for it would be a long haul. Worth it, but a long shot as well, mainly due to the declining bookstore sales.
Then there’s the fact that I like to experiment. I have a short story collection up for sale with Wyrm Publishing, and then I did the eBook myself. I’ve written about how I experimented with the price and sales data. I also published a book about writing with some of my failed stories called Nascence. Again, I was experimenting with eBook sales.
So to me, I decided to use this as a way to test Kickstarter. I’ve seen a number of fascinating projects by people happen via Kickstarter. And Tim Pratt and Mur Lafferty’s successful projects convinced me that it might be a great way to continue the series faster than normal.
In general, I’ve been fascinated by Kickstarter since I contributed to Stacy Whitman’s project to create a new publishing company for multiracial science fiction and fantasy young adult novels. To me, the use of Kickstarter for creative projects was more of a real revolution than eBooks. To me eBooks are an evolution — we are changing some of the middlemen and royalty structures — but ultimately it’s very recognizable. But getting people to prefund a project solves a very real dilemma authors have about how successful the project is before you start it. Knowing that you have a hit in hand before going forward, to be capitalized for your project from the get go, is going to be incredibly empowering.
One thing that seems very exciting is how much more creative control this project is going to allow you. Can you tell us a bit about the design aspects, the editing process, your plans for marketing and so forth?
Pablo Defendini has been a friend of mine forever. He’s a fantastic graphic design guy I met back when he was doing all sorts of cool stuff at Tor. I’ve dug his graphic design ever since I saw a test poster he did for Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. He did the existing art you see at Kickstarter for The Apocalypse Ocean, and if we’re successful, at certain higher backing levels, we’re going to do even more, like create a custom map of the Xenowealth, and do some interior illustrations for the book! This is the sort of stuff I don’t find myself being able to do on a normal novel project, and that is so cool!
I recall reading somewhere that you’re under contract to write at least one more novel for Tor following the release of Arctic Rising. Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next?
I’m working on a novel called Infringement, based on a short story called “A Jar of Goodwill,” also published in Clarkesworld. It’s going to be a compact, near-future space opera about the nature of intelligence, humanity, and conquest.
Since most of us reading this are writers, is there any advice you’d like to offer emerging authors of science fiction?
Read lots of stuff outside the genre; don’t get too caught up in everything. Focus on the writing. Write as much as you can without breaking anything.
Given the current state of the industry — with everything from crowdsourcing to electronic publishing to print-on-demand and online magazines — do you think there’s any “best” or “safe” route to take, or is a career in writing fiction something that can only happen through happy accidents and persistence?
It’s a lot of persistence. No matter what route you take, there’s going to be that need for persistence. All overnight successes are over a decade in the making, or more. I’d say, pay attention to the authors who have the literary life you want, and see how they did it and what it took and is taking to be like them. Don’t buy hype from people telling you how to do anything. Go look at a career you like and see about what that platform is under it.
And in the course of learning about it, you’ll probably forge your own route.
I did the classic thing: I sold short stories to break in and get my name out there, but also to learn a lot of the fundamentals of writing. I sold to various professional magazines (online and print) and anthologies. That, and the fact I kept a frequent blog for many years, got me the notice of voters and an award nomination. That got me the notice of an agent. After writing and polishing a novel many times, we got many rejections, but finally sold that novel. That’s my approach from 1996-2006. It’s the old school way, and it worked nicely for me with a little bit of boost from the blogging.
I still work with Tor/Macmillan for my books, I’ve just added new channels to where my stuff goes. I’m always keeping an eye on how lots of people make a living at fiction! I tend to be platform-agnostic. As long as I get to keep writing fiction, I’m happy.
Any writers or books besides your own you’d like to recommend, especially to science fiction fans?
The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge is out soon, and I’m reading an early review copy of it.
Of all the fun technology you get to play around with in your work, which would you love to use in your own everyday life the most, if you could?
Back in the day, when I was writing Ragamuffin, I was obsessed with augmented reality devices and technologies. Now they’re here, but I live in an area where the data hasn’t spread really. I can’t wait to get out to NYC and use the Layar app on my iPhone soon!