The Freedom of Science Fiction: A Conversation with Tobias S. Buckell
Tobias Samuel Buckell was born in Grenada. He grew up there, as well as on the British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands. He moved to Ohio as a teen, after Hurricane Marilyn destroyed the boat his family lived on. Buckell attended Clarion in 1999 and shortly after graduated from Bluffton University with an English degree.
Buckell sold “The Fish Merchant” to Science Fiction Age via Clarion instructor Scott Edelman, also editor of the magazine. “In Orbite Medievali” was a Writers of the Future finalist, and by 2002, Buckell had a dozen short stories published, including “A Green Thumb” in Analog. Buckell was a finalist for the Astounding (then Campbell) Award for Best New Writer in 2002.
Debut novel, Crystal Rain (Tor), began his four-book Xenowealth series in 2006 and was a Locus Award finalist for Best First Novel. Sequel Ragamuffin was a Prometheus and Nebula awards finalist. But this was just the beginning. His fiction has landed him on nominee and short lists for the Sidewise Award, the WSFA Small Press Award, the Sturgeon Award, the Eugie Award, and the Hugo Award. In 2019, he won a World Fantasy Award for The Tangled Lands (Saga), a novella collection put together with author Paolo Bacigalupi.
Tobias S. Buckell is known as a thoughtful author with incredible range, shifting from fantasy to weird to hard science fiction at will. He’s written powerful narratives rich with subtext as well as bestselling video game tie-ins. In 2019 he added It’s All Just a Draft to his already impressive bibliography, a nonfiction book about writing. He currently serves as the vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Buckell lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife and twin daughters. He is an instructor at the University of Maine’s Stonecoast MFA in creative writing. After fifteen years freelancing, he recently joined the English department at Bluffton. “It is my huge new experience,” he says, “and there’s little room for much more. I play Ultimate Frisbee (badly) on the weekends.”
Buckell’s latest novel is A Stranger in the Citadel, an Audible Original published May 2021. His latest collection, Shoggoths in Traffic and Other Stories, is to be published in November 2021 with Fairwood Press.
ISFDB has your first publication as “The Fish Merchant” in the March 2000 Science Fiction Age, while your site lists one title earlier: “Waiting for the Zephyr” in Jackhammer in June of 1999. Either way, you’ve been writing and publishing for over two decades. What does it take to stay in the game for so long and to sustain a career?
Jackhammer was one of the first online paying magazines I knew of and it used to be edited by Rachel Henderson Moon (IIRC). That was the first check I ever got for a piece of written fiction, back in 1999. I was a junior in college, and the eight dollars paid for a first date and the laundry quarters so I could clean up for it! And since then, I’ve just always been submitting stories. What does it take? A deep commitment to persistence, I think.
A few weeks ago, I did an interview about the ups and downs of a writing career. I wrote an article on my Patreon about how I view my career as having a series of roller-coaster moments, or that it’s like a stock market, with bull and bear runs (but over time slowly rising on average as you get more and more tools and experience). I can think of five, if not seven times, that my career felt like it had stalled or slumped from my point of view being inside the machine. And the only thing I did was just keep sending things in to see if someone would take it. I just kept making things even when people weren’t breaking down my door to ask for them.
I have submitted things, whether stories or novels, nine hundred and sixty-seven times. I count now that I have well over seven hundred and fifty rejections. I honestly really do view those rejections as progress, proof that I’m swinging for the fence. It sounds trite, because whenever I get together with others who’ve been doing this for more than a decade, we all remember amazing talents who just . . . stopped. And I get why: better jobs, more security, other hobbies, burning out on the chaos of publishing, the way publishing’s fundamentals change every five to ten years. There are great reasons to not break your heart doing this. I am just one of the ones who kept making, revising, submitting, and seeing where that lead me.
In retrospect, there’s a ton of stuff I wish I’d done differently, ways I could have maybe shone a bit brighter or been smarter. But I know after over twenty years, the only person I’m racing is me, and I get my best work done by keeping my head down, focusing on my lane, and focusing on staying in the game while trying to tell stories I care about. I’m going for the “wait, he’s still around?” career plan! It’s been good to me.
I have so many ideas still, also. I have a notebook with easily fifty plus story ideas in it, and it’s always growing faster than I can draft them! I guess when I stop being able to see something and have it suggest a story or novel idea, that’s when I’ll know it’s time to stop. But I’ve never been able to turn that voice off, so here we are!
The original publication dates of stories in your new collection, Shoggoths in Traffic, reach all the way back to the year 2000. Is there an organizational principle at work behind which pieces are in the collection—do you see a theme, or underlying elements?
I worked really hard on what order the stories appear. Shoggoths is like this mixtape I spent weeks thinking about for someone special. The stories are all fantasy stories, but the kinds of fantasy pieces that are delivered to the reader in careful stages with varying moods. I’m hoping the reader goes on a journey from fantasy intruding on our world as it is today, into weirder and weirder pieces, and then back again into slantwise looks at our world today through the lens of fantasy.
How did the collection come about, and what was putting it together like?
I realized a while back that I had a ton of uncollected short fiction just . . . out there. I think it was three hundred and fifty thousand words of it. Between my Patreon, where I write and post stories for people frequently, and the fact that I started saying yes some years back to way more short fiction commissions, when novel publishing and I were in the doldrums, I had somehow created this body of short fiction. So, what to do?
My agent, the awesome Hannah Bowman, and I, we put our heads together. I started mining all the stories and creating some sample groupings and spent a few weeks working on tables of contents for three or so of these various possible collections. My agent started reaching out. Patrick Swenson at Fairwood had done some cool collections for friends of mine, and they’ve said good things. So, I’m super excited. Patrick worked hard to make the look and feel of the collection come together just the way I dreamed. In fact, one of my favorite pieces of reference art for what the cover could be is what he figured out how to buy for the actual cover.
Does your collection reveal a career trajectory, or perhaps a shift in style or skill? Since 2000’s “Spurn Babylon,” originally published in Nalo Hopkinson’s anthology Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root, all the way up to “Brickomancer,” which is an original piece, do you feel like your writing has changed in specific ways?
I was a twenty-year-old college junior when I wrote “Spurn Babylon,” and now I’m in my forties, so I dearly hope I’ve gotten a little bit better at writing them? The stories are mixed in, there are a handful from early in my career, and then a handful from my Patreon, and then another handful come from commissions for original anthologies. Deep down, I hope the collection shows a curated look at my range and what I’m capable of. But mainly, I hope it engages.
What are the top stories that you are excited for people to read in this book—perhaps those which were most challenging to write, or which are most important to you—and why?
It’s always strange because I can never tell ahead of time what will have the most impact and what had the biggest effect on me to write. I deeply, deeply love “Sundown,” the weird western story, because the real-life story of Willie Kennard is amazing, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Most challenging to write were the two anchor stories, “A Different Kind of Place” and “Zombie Capitalism.” Before the current chaos of the pandemic, I was struggling to process some of the same behavior and beliefs that I was seeing, but preemergent, and those stories took a lot out of me. And I hate that they ended up being so predictive.
In terms of writing short fiction, what is important for you when you write—what are you focused on the most?
There’s so much you juggle as a writer that it feels more like a basket of varying things I focus on. I often focus on what I want a reader to feel when I write something, a mood, a sensation, a feeling. Failing that, it’s sometimes a mood or sensation that I want to invoke in myself. Sometimes a purge, like trying to process anger, or pain, to see if there’s something there narratively that I can transmute. That sounds very airy and a little woo, because when I teach, I’m often talking about story components, structure, and threads like that. But the fun thing about a story is that it is short, so you can be indulgent and start one with just a vague impression and see where it may take you. What I love about short fiction is just how much freedom I have. If I want to construct a story with a lot of structure and outline it, I can. Or I can grab the slightest idea and just try it out. I love that.
I was in the back of a class when Sofia Samatar at Shared Worlds, a teen writing camp, happened to mention a story could use anything for structure. Even a grocery list. And within a minute, I’d sketched out a story idea around a grocery list that I later sold to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Short fiction begs you to experiment and play, and I love it for the breadth of possibilities.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Shoggoths in Traffic?
It comes out in November, and I’ve seen a few really nice reviews already, so I’d love for people to take a peek at it and see what they think.
In 2019 at the World Fantasy Convention, you had just won your first World Fantasy Award for The Tangled Lands. Through the course of your career you’ve received a number of major nods and nominations. Do the awards nominations and wins have an impact on your writing, your process, or productivity? Do you feel like they have an impact career-wise?
I really appreciated sharing that moment with you. I’d never won an award before, and I’d made my peace at the time with never winning one, and I’d really come to value the fact that I’d been nominated for awards and that my stories had been reprinted a bunch. It can be so easy to focus on what you’re not achieving, or what’s missing, and miss just how amazingly lucky it is to see your work in print and have it read by people. So, winning the World Fantasy Award, no joke, I didn’t expect it, it rocked me pretty hard!
I don’t know if it’s had an impact, career-wise. It certainly hasn’t hurt! I’m grateful for all the work I did to not focus on things outside of my control, because we often can get stuck on wanting that thing that lets us know we “made it” or that suddenly accelerates everything. But the day after I won the award, I still had work due, my bank account was the same. There’ve been some new gigs, and maybe they came from that win? Or maybe it’s just all a drip, drip, drip accumulative stalagmite of a career. That’s what it feels like to me!
I will say this. I’ll never forget the time my first Halo novelization came out and a high-level SMOF stopped me a Worldcon sometime after to explain that I’d never be up for an award again for doing that. At the time it scared the crap out of the baby writer I was then, I’ll be honest. I don’t know if I’ve changed any minds, but I’m super grateful to have been nominated for awards since.
But when I write, I am not thinking about awards. I’d just end up like the millipede that, when asked how it walks, promptly falls over. Stories that I think might get attention when I’m done sometimes do, sometimes don’t, and others I thought were fun sometimes are quickly forgotten, and others get a ton of attention. What I’ve learned from that is . . . just keep making stuff. It could be that more generations of awesome writers appear who surpass me in totality, and I never get nominated for anything again, and that would be just great for the field! I’ve made a pact with myself to focus on enjoying my process and keeping on writing no matter what may come.
You have several collections and well over seventy-five short stories out at various markets. As mentioned, you’ve received a certain amount of acclaim. Are there one or two short stories that you thought would make more of a splash, which really excited you or meant a great deal to you, but which just didn’t get noticed the way other pieces did?
Oh, yeah, I have a number of those, totally. I deeply, deeply love my short story “By the Warmth of their Calculus,” and I am writing a novel based on it. I really had hoped the story would make more of a splash, because I put so much into it. It just lit me up, all the cylinders fired while in the middle of that one. The other story I most recently hoped would get more attention is “Scar Tissue.” It came out from Slate in their Future Tense series that they partner with Arizona State University for, right as the shutdowns happened. No one read it. It’s about parenthood, and AI, and bodies, and I thought it was a story that twenty-year-old author me would never have had the chops to even attempt.
This is why you have to focus on what you can control. I loved writing the story, and I got paid to do it. There’s the win. You never know what is going to happen, some of it far, far out of your control. So, I got paid to write something cool. That is just cool, and I’m grateful for these opportunities.
We see a fair number of writers utilizing Patreon and similar platforms. Is Patreon a good model for authors, is it the future of publishing? Or is it a tool some may find to be ineffective?
Some may find it to be ineffective because you have to have a following to begin with, or you have to work hard to publicize it. And that locks out a lot of people. If you run a Kickstarter, you’ll notice like twenty to thirty percent of your Kickstarter backers come from outside of your circles because Kickstarter shows backers of one project other projects. Patreon’s discoverability is a disaster, and they really tend to promote their winners. Because of that, I see more mid-career and late-career authors getting a lot out of it than beginners, whereas on Kickstarter I see more first-time ideas find success. However, Patreon offers a chance to get repeating, monthly income, which is so important for authors.
Honestly, I’m still floundering around with Patreon, so I’m not the best to look to for advice!
Earlier this year you also had the release of Audible Original A Stranger in the Citadel. What are the advantages and the challenges of an Audible Original release?
The advantage is that Audible markets it to their massive base of listeners! I imagine this is the most read book of mine now, based on the number of reviews on Audible. I loved working with my editor, Steve Feldberg, there, and I loved that they asked Janina Edwards to read it. Her performance is so amazing!
The challenge is that we agreed to an audio-only exclusivity period, so a print version can come out later this year, but it’s a delay. And many publishers won’t look at it because they want audio rights and won’t consider a book without them. Finding someone to bring out a print version has been more of a search than I expected.
The story centers on Lilith, whose life is upended when a librarian comes to town, and the secrets of Lilith’s father are revealed. What is your favorite thing about Lilith, and what was the most challenging aspect of writing her?
So many of the reviewers at Audible hated Lilith, but so many for the characterization I was trying to do. Lilith is a bit sheltered, and at the same time, she’s a part of a system that’s complicit in oppression. That’s a tough character to depict, and I appreciate that I got the room to explore that in this book. The book is about Lilith’s journey out of ignorance and into understanding how her world really works, and her impact on it. There’s growth and journey there, and that was challenging to write at times.
What are some of your favorite things about Ninetha and the world you’ve created?
I loved the postliterate world of Ninetha. I’ve always been attracted to worlds where Earth is a hazy memory, and they’re slowly uncovering clues about the past. I don’t know why I keep coming back to stories like that, I can’t help myself. I love a fantastical, mythological-feeling world, where we’re no more than an echo.
We talked a bit about this title back in 2019. You described it as a “deeply weird project” and like “Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 meets Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.” Besides the title (originally The Musketress) did this story change in important ways, from when you first conceived and started working on it to final product?
I think I stayed pretty close to the fever dream that bloomed inside of me when I told you about my weird project! The title changed because they pointed out to me it sounded like an American frontier novel, so it became A Stranger in the Citadel. But it still hewed close to that description!
What is the heart of A Stranger in the Citadel to you, what is important for readers to know about it?
It’s about growing up, but not in that “coming of age” sort of way, but about becoming more realized, mature versions of who we could be.
What else are you working on, what else do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?
I’m working on a novel based on my story “By the Warmth of their Calculus,” where people live around a dust ring with counterrotating bands who sail “dust ships” around while trying to avoid being killed by machines hunting for anything technological. I guess my pitch would be Master and Commander in a living dust ship meets The Expanse? I hope it’ll find its way to publication! It’s fun working on it.
There’ll be another short story collection in 2022, I just signed a contract for that. It’ll be all spacey science fiction stuff. I’m looking forward to people, again, seeing the range of stories there. And there’s a whole fantasy novel I have about dead gods that are being mined so that mages can snort their bone dust or drink their blood to cast spells. I need to revise that so it can go out. I love the world in there, I put months into creating it with big charts and thousands of words about history and lore in my note files, but I really need a deep revision and it’s been tough to find the time and space to dig deep into a rewrite these days. Sometimes the new words are faster and easier for me than trying to untangle a draft that needs another big pass. We’ll see what wins out, the weird SF novel or the weird-ass fantasy!