Tobias S. Buckell e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (March, 2006)
Tobias S. Buckell, winner of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Award, just released his first novel, Crystal Rain. It's set in a multi-cultural (societies include variations on Caribbean and ancient Aztec cultures), low tech world where humans and aliens continue a conflict begun in space. John DeBrun, the book's ageless amnesiac hero, is sought by several groups, each believing him to hold the key to a powerful technology, the Ma Wi Jung.
This story has it all - seaborne, sky, and space conflicts, diverse cultures, old secrets, mysterious protagonists (human and alien), and a desperate race to save humanity. The author has very generously made available an excerpt of the entire first third of the book on his Crystal Rain Website. But be warned, this story is addictive - if you start reading, you will have to finish it!
Q: I don't usually enjoy books whose dialog is heavy in dialect, but that spoken by the Nanagada reads smoothly and easily. How close is it to the voices that were part of your Caribbean childhood?
A: Well I'm glad it read smooth and easy for you. I tried many different ways of representing dialect, and found that I didn't like phonetic renditions. As much as I loved Mark Twain and James Herriot, apostrophes slow down my reading and clutter the page for me as a reader, so I decided I would focus on word choice and grammar structure.
I had hoped that the Caribbean readers of the novel would see the words and add the pronunciation they knew of as they read, and that non-Caribbean readers would get enough of a sense of the difference but without being kicked out of the novel entirely.
It's a somewhat watered down version of what I would have come across in the US Virgin Islands, rather than what I grew up with in Grenada. The Caribbean has a whole range of Caribbean dialects, from a very light and British-infused Barbadian to very heavy dialects that verge into other languages when you consider the French patois in some parts of the Grenadines.
Q: Press releases for the novel speak of your living through an island revolution. How old were you at the time, and did this experience color your writing about DeBrun's son Jerome's reactions to the Azteca invasion?
A: I was born in 1979 for the Grenadian revolution, and was four years old when the Americans showed up in Grenada in '83. It slightly colored my impression of Jerome, but the truth was I turned more to biographies of war children than I did my own experiences there. The invasion of Jerome's world was much more violent than the one I experienced, which was very brief. I did draw on my feeling of being moved to a safe place and the frustration of being young and having to sit and wait and find out whether a family member you loved is still alive. In my case I had no idea where my biological father was during the invasion.
Q: I enjoyed Jerome's descent to underwater caverns. Have you done much diving, with or without equipment?
A: I've done some SCUBA diving, and a great deal of unaided diving, called 'free diving.' I was able to hold my breath for almost 3 minutes before I moved to the US, and my best free dive was to 84 feet, on the wreck of the Rhone near Salt Island, British Virgin Islands. It's not a record, but I made money on the weekends cleaning boat bottoms and untangling anchor chains at 30 and 40 feet, so I loved being in the water.
Q: For such a loving husband and father, it seemed to me that John DeBrun got over the loss of his wife and son awfully easily, with minimal anguish. Why did you write it that way?
A: Well, I didn't do that on purpose. Most of John's actions throughout the novel are in direct response to his thinking that he's lost his family, and his desire for revenge. By the last third of the novel things are so quick I don't think he had time to think much beyond his immediate survival, so I think it was just a case of the environment overwhelming him.
Q: Your Nanagada warriors are named mongoose-men, which sounds like it comes from a real African culture. Is that the case or did you invent the term?
A: The mongoose men are a case of appropriation on my part. During the collapse of the Grenadian revolution the secret police that were moving around to suppress political activity were called mongoose men. I felt it was a shame that the term would historically be a negative thing, because the name sounded perfect for a group of Caribbean special forces types, so I decided to bring them into the novel as protectors of Nanagada.
Q: How much did you research Aztec culture before writing about the Azteca? Did the former slaughter conquered peoples with as much cruelty as you portray?
A: I read at least 20 books on the Aztec culture, I've been obsessed and fascinated by them since I was a kid. Any details that are wrong are completely my fault, by the way. And I'm bummed I only could get away with showing as much as I did when I did, there was so much more about them that fascinated me.
Did they slaughter conquered people with that much cruelty? Yes. I had to tone down the Aztecs as much as I could to make them believable to a modern audience. The most famous celebration of human sacrifice the Aztecs had involved the sacrifice of tens of thousands over a four day period of celebration. It's almost unimaginable. The Aztecs fell not just because of Cortez bringing disease and guns, but because by the time Cortez reached Tenochtitlan, every neighboring society sent armies with Cortez to hit Tenochtitlan to attack the Aztecs.
It's completely alien, and yet, when you read some of the interviews and dialogues between the Aztecs and the priests you find this befuddlement on the part of the Aztecs as to why Christians would be so disgusted by blood and human sacrifice when if featured so prominently into their own belief systems.
Q: I found the Azteca spy Oaxyctl an interesting, conflicted character. Did you have any parallels in mind with our modern world, for his loyalty, despite obvious misgivings, to his own culture and belief system?
A: It is an incredibly hard thing to buck your belief system. I didn't want to make the Aztecs token evil villains, so the conflicted Oaxyctl was my response. I didn't intentionally parallel him anymore than I think it's a universal truth that we all interpret the world by our belief systems, and being faced with the reality that something may be different than the belief, or need to be changed, is very hard. It's human. Oaxyctl becomes a sympathetic character for many who told me they ended up caring very much for him by the end, because in his own way he's a hero for trying to make everything fit and failing miserably.
Q: I was once up in a balloon in Tanzania and found it a very serene experience. You write a much more turbulent and violent balloon ride for DeBrun. Did you ride a balloon before writing those thrilling scenes?
A: Balloonists usually take people up during a cool part of the day. Turbulence hits lighter than air travelers just as much as planes. I haven't ridden a balloon, but I'm a blimp fan. I read every book about lighter than air travel I can get my hands on, and I live not too far from Akron where the largest blimp hangers in the world are. They're so large they generate their own weather inside!
Q: The sea seems to have been a big part of your own life to date, as well as your protagonist's. Have you ever sailed through icy seas as DeBrun did, and do you still get back to the ocean now that you live in Ohio?
A: I've never sailed through icy seas, I read up on a great deal of polar adventurers and the trials they faced to get some of my source material. I don't get back to the ocean anymore, I'm pretty landlocked now.
Q: Though the Nanagada god/aliens, the loa, are portrayed as more benign than their Azteca equivalent, the teotl, they seem awfully sinister to me. Was that intended?
A: Yes, they're cousins to the teotl, and somewhat ambivalent in their stewardship, more interested in frustrating the teotl than helping the humans. My thinking is that anyone who sets themselves up as gods on purpose is manipulative and in it for their own good, so the loa come with their own set of dangers.
Q: Will we see any more of LeBrun, Jerome, Pepper or other Crystal Rain characters in future books?
A: I'm very fond of Pepper, I've written a number of short stories that feature him, so I imagine I'll continue to use him to stir up trouble.
Q: Your weblog mentions that you've just finished Ragamuffin, which you call a 'semi-independent sequel'. Can you tell us any more about it?
A: Yes, I just finished an intense three week push to get the second book done and had a full night's sleep for the first time last night. You asked about more of the characters from Crystal Rain, and that's what Ragamuffin does bring. I wanted to open up the scale of things a bit, so I decided to introduce the reader to the wider universe in which Crystal Rain is set. Ragamuffin does that, as well as introduces a whole new cast of characters who all get in each others way.
I called Crystal Rain my 'Caribbean Steampunk' novel, and I'm hoping Ragamuffin works as my 'Caribbean Space Opera' novel and that readers enjoy the hijinks and adventure in Ragamuffin as much as they did in Crystal Rain.
Q: What else do you have in the works?
A: Well, I will have a short story out in the Year's Best Science Fiction #11 edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, as well as a handful of short stories scheduled to come out in a bunch of other anthologies and magazines, and I'll be gearing up to start my third novel early next month. I just don't know which third novel to start quite yet, as I'm working on outlines and ideas for three different ones. Choices, choices, choices.Find out more about Tobias S. Buckell, and enjoy his weblog at TobiasBuckell.com. Read more about Crystal Rain, including the extensive excerpt and other exclusives, at Crystal-Rain.com.
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