Best wishes go out for a speedy recovery this week to the subject of our interview, Tobias Buckell. Soon after we conducted our interview, Toby suffered a heart embolism that left him hospitalized. Such a medical condition is actually one of the dangers of the writing life. Spending long hours planted in a chair with little physical activity puts a person at risk for blood clots, so get out there and exercise, people!
Tobias Buckell is a professional blogger and speculative fiction writer, born and raised in the Caribbean on numerous tropical islands, and has successfully published stories in several magazines and anthologies. He is a Clarion graduate, Writers of the Future winner, and a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer.
TB: I started submitting completed short stories to magazines/anthologies at 15 years old, while growing up in the Caribbean. I started selling short stories after attending the Clarion SF/F workshop at 20, and my first novel, Crystal Rain, was written just over a few years later and appeared in early 2006, with two more that came out in 2007 and 2008. In a couple weeks, my fourth book, written in the popular videogame HALO universe, will be out.
TH: How old were you when you made your first professional sale? And to what publication?
TB: I was 20 and it was to Science Fiction Age, the late sister magazine to Realms of Fantasy.
TH: What is The Story of Tobias? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick? An epic saga?
TB: One hopes I’m not reduced to a limerick easily! My life is no longer too full of drama, so I’d strike the epic saga. I think I’m a novel. Part one was growing up in the Caribbean. Two was my move to Ohio and throwing myself into practicing writing and trying to become one, and part three begins when I was cut from my dayjob and decided to make a go of writing and freelancing full time. Not sure what the next parts will be…
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
TB: It’s always something I dabbled with when young, part of just being creative. But the real crystallization came at 15 years old, when I started to finish the stories I was working on instead of writing snippets, and I started submitting them and garnering rejections.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
TB: I’m a bit stunned in that I have achieved most of my hopes here already. To make a living writing, to sell novels, to get nominated for a major award, and so on. My hopes now are mostly around how to achieve greater readership and success, as well as constantly hone my writing for the sake of getting better and enjoying the craft. I would like to see my original novels do better, I’m still a solidly lower midlist writer who hustles hard to stay afloat. But those two goals are always ones you can’t really ‘achieve’ but just do more of, as they’re very vaporous. ‘Sell more’ and ‘get better’ will always be moving goalposts.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
TB: I get jazzed up by interesting science. The stuff we know about the world is always expanding and fascinating. The more we tinker the more we discover, and I’m endlessly fascinated by new discoveries about everything to do with the world around us.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
TB: Making things up. I really enjoy the phase where a novel is new to me, and I’m writing down scraps of ideas, looking at varying plot lines and events and figuring out which is coolest.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
TH: My blog has been a big success for me. Through it I’ve found many friends and business contacts that have all helped me do as much as I have. I have yet to really get good at finding synergy between my own fiction and traditional media interest with a platform. It’s something some very savvy authors I see are able to channel, and it’s something I should explore. Traditional media still has the eyeballs. I’ve thrown myself into online venues where I’ve tired myself out, and seen that via Bookscan, I’ve sold just a handful of copies. Compare that to the time I was one a cable TV show and my agent called me up not too long after the show aired and said ‘what the hell did you do in metro area X, your book sales just spiked.’
TH: So traditional media is still where it’s at. Do you actively pursue media interest for more exposure, or does it just happen to come your way?
TB: So far it’s just happened. I need to be more proactive, but I only have so many hours in the day and I’m still learning the ropes (29 years old and 3 books, right).
TH: You bring up an excellent point about how friends and contacts bring a lot of work one’s way that isn’t expected. How much of the publishing business is about “who you know”?
TB: Friends and contacts bring me non-fiction and freelance work sometimes. The novel fiction business, while some people think is about who you know, is about the work because there are always more people submitting potential first novels than there is need for novels. Different market dynamic. I see people who are great friends with editors and agents, who still can’t sell their stuff. Now ‘who you know’ can make it easier to get your proposal read, or get your foot in the door. But selling the manuscript from what I’ve seen is still about the publisher footing the bill to produce a product, a novel which has to have thousands of copies printed and good art and someone to design the book and market it to bookstores and edit it which all costs a lot of upfront money, and they’re very focused on wanting some sort of return. Getting an assignment to write an article, or even a short story, because a friend referred you, that’s pretty low risk for the person doing the assigning. As a result friends and contacts can help you find work.
TH: What kind of non-fiction do you write?
TB: I do some finance blogging, articles, some copy writing, that sort of stuff.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you have “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
TB: For many authors making a living at their profession is ‘making it.’ That transition was crazy enough I didn’t really stop and say one day ‘I made it’ but rather I walked into where I was working out the end of a contract and then being cut and resigned 5 months earlier than they were planning for. That felt a bit like ‘making it,’ as I knew I was leaving the 8-5 for writing non-fiction, blogging, and writing fiction full time.
It was more relief, due to the circumstances. But right now, once a week or so, when I’m up at four in the morning working on some project, I smile because I’m leading the life I always had wanted now.
TH: You have said that you have turned down various offers to write in established universes with which you were not familiar. What kind of intellectual properties would totally thrill you to work in besides HALO?
TB: I’d write a Wolverine novel in a heartbeat LOL.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
TB: Well, you *are* a business. I know that because I have to file a tax return. Therefore it behooves me to know a lot about business and figure out where the creative part of this ends and where the nuts and bolts and numbers begin. Ultimately, my ability to continue writing books depends on how they sell.
As far as branded commodity, your books do sit out in a business environment, on a shelf, where consumers take a look at them and decided whether to buy them, or videogames, or a movie. So you are fighting it out with other brands and commodities. It doesn’t hurt, once you’re done writing, to have a cold, clear look at what you’re up against: other authors who readers are already familiar with, books associated with media brands already well established, books that are being marketed by the publisher because they’re front list, and so on.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
TB: Right now my editor and I are planning my next book. Details will be forthcoming in late December/early January.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
TB: The first time I sold a short story for professional rates, Scott Edelman called me via phone to let me know he wanted the story. After I hung up I completely went ape-shit in my dorm room. It was a total rush.