An Interview with Tobias Buckell
Like Nashara in Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin, readers will be propelled across zero-gravity space by the power of the mini-guns found in Buckell’s first short story collection, Tides from the New Worlds. This collection of nineteen old and new stories does much more than offer a retrospective of a young writer’s career.
Certianly, these stories do show Buckell exploring the infinite possibilities of the genre, but more than that they show the range of his abilities, his fearlessness, and his line-by-line control of the craft.
Imagine all the Caribbean-flavored world-building, all the action and characterization of his novels Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose, compressed into the dozen pages of a short story. This isn’t squeezing coal into diamonds; this is squeezing diamonds into . . . something hard-edged, new and brilliant.
Buckell and I spoke recently about his short fiction, novels, zero-gravity action scenes, and the future of the writing business.
The release of Tides from the New Worlds reminds a lot of fans of your novels that your earliest publications were very compelling, very powerful short stories. How is writing a short story different than writing a novel?
A short story is a dash, or a sprint, and a novel is a marathon. The writing muscles and training and approach are about as different, even though some of the basics are still the same.
In that regard, the time and effort involved in writing a novel vs. a short story are vastly different. The novel is a year of commitment and focus. A short story a week or so.
A novel also involves a great deal of juggling: plotlines, characters, things you’re trying to achieve. This is different from the arrow-like focus a short story is for me.
To be honest I enjoy the novel a bit more. I like the room it gives me to play, and I prefer reading novels, so I tend toward enjoying the way things play out and come back to surprise you later. I like the room for character growth and change.
The novel is really a far more immersive experience, so I find it a great deal more freeing.
Has the writing of novels changed the way you write short fiction?
Well, it certainly has reduced the time I have for writing short fiction! I do notice that it’s harder for me to reduce all the elements down to the one piece of focus, I still have an urge to want to spread out that I really trained myself out of when I was writing short fiction (more proof I’m more of a novelist).
But I really appreciate the gratification of finishing something in a week or so, something I don’t get very often anymore.
Did creating Nashara challenge you as a writer at all? Did she surprise you at all during the writing process?
Nashara begins Ragamuffin as a very focused action/adventure character: she’s on the run, she’s a soldier/cyborg with a wide range of skills. Where she got fun to write was when I got to show her thinking outside the box (the 0-gravity fight with the minigun), and when she begins to fracture all her various personalities.
As for surprising me, I’m very much an outline-oriented writer, so I don’t have a lot of that ’characters changing narrative’ sort of thing happening to me. All of that is taken care of in conception, so I had a solid idea of who she was from page one.
What did John deBrun of Crystal Rain and Nashara teach you about character development in time for you to write Timas and Pepper of Sly Mongoose?
Well, I wanted a lot more struggle between Timas and Pepper. Timas struggles back against Pepper a lot more actively, he’s also a lot more questioning of Pepper’s actions, something that I’ve been developing over the series.
Do you connect with any one character more than the others?
Oaxyctl, in Crystal Rain. He was the antagonist, the bad guy, but I felt like he had the toughest journey, and when he faces the Teotl at the end I felt like he’d had the best journey of all the characters and changed the most, and was the hero in his own little world.
You mentioned earlier that you’re an outline-oriented writer? How do you go about building the plot of a novel?
It’s a messy organic bubble for me. I start creating lists of things I want in the novel. They range from concepts, to specific scenes, to characters, to an emotion. They’re all just things too cool not to use. As the list grows, I start working on how to connect them all into some form that makes sense and figure out linearity. After that, I start looking at stuff that no longer fits in the emerging picture to cut it, or possibly to bend it to fit everything else.
I remember in Crystal Rain I wrote down wanting to have a blimp chase sequence. That’s specific. I also wanted to have a sequence in which three people were in flight, with two of the people knowing something the third doesn’t, which creates tension. That’s an emotional note I wanted, I eventually worked that into the polar chase scene more specifically, but at the organizational stage it was just "I want to write a scene with this kind of tension in it."
Once the rough linearity is laid out, you can see the early skeletons of a plot, and that’s when you have to start figuring out rising and falling action, how the scenes will break down and hook into each other in a way that keeps the reader flowing from one to the other.
Your novels and stories are filled with action—action that is far from gratuitous. How do you make violence meaningful?
A really good action scene is something that you’ve integrated into the plot so that it makes sense and that raises the stakes a bit, I think. It should add depth to what you’re trying to create. This could mean the character is put more at risk; whether their psyche, relationships, or just their life (although putting their lives in danger is the easy route).
The action can build the world around them: it could reveal what another character is about, it could reveal the nature of the world these characters are in, and so on.
In the first draft of Ragamuffin, in order to get the characters from one side of the space station to the other in my original outline they battle their way across. I even wrote a rough draft of that scene that ran 15,000 or so words. But as I was looking at it later, I realized I could strip those out, and propose the “rocketing through the weightless middle of a space station using guns to propel themselves” scene. It has slightly less action/adventure hand to hand combat, but it would add more to the SF-nal nature of the book.
I love reading crazy action/adventure that is integral to the story. Particularly in SF/F, where you have characters in situations that could only occur in that particular milieu the novel posits.
My two favorites are the zero-gravity gun battle from Ragamuffin and the destruction of the floating domes from Sly Mongoose.
What was the process of creating Nanagada and the larger universe it inhabits?
Nanagada is mainly a world-building vehicle for the Caribbean. It’s a world settled by Caribbean expats that I created to allow me to set up a Caribbean themed and infused science fiction novel.
The larger universe is developed out of a series of short stories I was playing with in college: a set of worlds all connected via wormholes in orbit. I wanted to introduce my readers to the Caribbean peoples and their place in things, and then spin it all out in following books. But there are also a lot of other worlds lurking around.
In terms of introducing readers to the Caribbean, what does science fiction allow you to do that mainstream fiction wouldn’t?
SF/F allows me to say that there is a future out there, and Caribbean people are invited. A focus on the mainstream means a focus on where things are now, or where they were. That’s necessary, yes, but SF/F I think is the daydreaming and imaginative side of literature, right? So everyone should have a place in the imagination of our species. The sense of wonder, the fun, the think tank experiments and so on of SF/F, that should be granted to peoples of the whole world.
Did the Teotl develop much from your original conception of them?
The Teotl were this alien race representing themselves as Aztec gods, but I really wanted to make them really alien. In books we keep getting humans with bumps on their foreheads. Or someone will read about a culture somewhere in the world and give those attributes to some aliens. When I created the Teotl, I really worked hard to make them as alien as I could without making things too hard for readers.
So some of their actions and reactions are hard to ferret out. They don’t even look the same from individual to individual because they can reshape themselves by cocooning, so it’s all up for grabs. Why they created the Azteca is even somewhat vague, though I hint that it’s because they wanted human foot soldiers bred, and thought that reinventing the Azteca and their culture would serve their needs.
When it’s "all up for grabs" how do you balance things so that the reader isn’t completely lost?
That’s a tough act. In my first novel I went out of my way to set it on a planet, make it accessible. No ’sf-nal’ stuff really leaps out until further into the book. It’s an easier book to give to my friends who don’t read SF/F.
I somewhat eschew that in the next two novels, just jumping into the weird and enjoying it.
SF/F always has a problem, in that SF/F readers are well trained to puzzle out the differences and figure out what they imply. They love it. Mainstream readers don’t appreciate that as much, so trying to walk between the two is a tightrope act. I have no idea if I pull it off, to be honest, I just try to be entertaining!
In what ways have you used the internet and other technologies to shape your career?
I started a blog back in 1998 to chronicle my attempts to become a published writer. I owe a lot to the blog. It allowed me, living by myself and not knowing any writers in Bluffton, Ohio, to meet and network online with a large group of upcoming writers. It gave me all sorts of leads: like me discovering the Clarion SF/F workshop, which helped me learn a great deal about writing and helped jump start my career a bit. After I started selling pieces, people started finding me online and following the blog, and rooting for me. And that support has found me all sorts of gigs and extra readers. I doubt I’d have a career if it weren’t for that whole online presence.
How do you suppose a novelists’ job will be different ten years from now, twenty years?
Probably a lot more being-the-head-of-your-own-fan-club type activity, or direct interaction with readers, as we’re seeing today.
The truth is, we’re in a turbulent period, and it’s hard to see what’s on the other side. I think that whatever happens, if a writer wants to make a living at writing, he’ll still spend a significant chunk of his time writing words of some sort for delivery to some sort of content box and/or boxes (be they online, phone, reading device, for audio, or what have you).