Photo credit: Left: Marlon James; Right: JT Thomas Photography
Describe your latest book.
The Tangled Lands
is a sequence of fantasy stories set in the city of Khaim. Khaim is a city besieged by bramble, cloying thorny vines that choke the land and cause any who touch them to sink into unending sleep. Worst of all, the bramble is caused by the inhabitants of the city itself. Every time they cast a magic spell, more tangling poisonous vines sprout up — and everyone has a good reason to cast just one more magic spell, whether to heal a loved one, or to lift a curse, or to find a lost valuable. And so the problem grows worse and worse.
By the time of the story’s opening, whole empires have been swallowed by the bramble, and Khaim looks to be the next victim. The stories of The Tangled Lands
follow the inhabitants of Khaim as they seek to extricate themselves from their thorny conundrum. There's an inventor obsessed with saving the city from the vines. A housewife who finds herself shedding blood to save her kidnapped children. A refugee boy seeking a cure for his sister’s bramble sleep. A blacksmith’s daughter whose family is on the brink of poverty. The stories weave through Khaim, from its incense-choked temples, to its spice alleys, its brothels, the colonnaded manors of the wealthy, and to the fields beyond the city walls, where black smoke rises into the sky and people daily burn back the bramble, hoping to hold on for just another day against the plague that they are creating.
What was your favorite book as a child?
PB: The Hobbit
by J. R. R. Tolkien. I remember racing home from school to read more of it. It was my father’s hardcover collectible copy, so I wasn’t allowed to bring it with me to school, and I remember school took forever to end.
TB: Childhood’s End
by Arthur C. Clarke. I got my hands on a copy somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10 and it seared itself into my mind. The great big science fictional questions and thoughts in it just blew my mind, and I spent the rest of my young years hunting down books that would do the same.
When did you know you were a writer?
I started having some hope when I went to a writer’s workshop and the instructors told me that I should submit the story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
. It sold immediately. It was the first short story that I’d ever written. Of course, then I didn’t sell anything else for years after that. But that was the first time I had an idea that there might be a future out there for me.
The idea that I wanted to be a writer formed in my mind during the summer right before eighth grade. I started submitting short stories to an anthology series and buying books about writing. The bug really got me, and I started telling people that I wanted to be a writer.
What does your writing workspace look like?
It’s a mess. I moved into a new office while I was working on a book deadline, and I never got around to hanging the art. It’s all still stacked along the walls. I’ve got a treadmill desk, which feels a little like a torture device, but it’s healthy, so that’s something.
I have a basement office with a sit/stand desk and a dock for my laptop. I use a lot of NSF restaurant chrome wire shelving for books, because you can use it to cobble together franken-structures and do just about anything you can imagine for cheap. It’s a little cold in the winter, despite the space heater, so I’ve been hiding upstairs on a recliner with the laptop a lot.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
The fact that we’re driving the planet toward environmental collapse and have no idea how dangerous that will be. I wake up at night with anxiety about that. Most other people still seem to sleep soundly.
It’s not the environmental collapse that terrifies me so much as the current inability of the world’s largest economy, the US, to agree that it’s even happening. I remember, once upon a time, that scientists said the ozone layer was dying off and that if we lost it we were screwed. So politicians created cap and trade for CFCs. We have the tools. But this time around, there is a tremendous lack of agreement that anything even needs to be done. Spread that across a wide variety of topics, not just climate change, that are solved in other countries (other countries have solved school shootings, healthcare bankruptcies, massive student loan debt, public transport) and there is this systems paralysis that’s spreading — and that keeps me up. The citizenry can’t even agree about whether the country’s political system was attacked by a foreign country even though its intelligence services say it was. How does that story end?
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I heard from a reader who met their future spouse because they were both fans of The Windup Girl
. That was really cool.
A reader of mine once posted a pic of their kid reading another friend’s book in a hammock in the Caribbean. This friend tagged me saying it reminded them of me. I saw the photo and recognized it was one harbor over from where I’d grown up, and near to where the ship my sister was working on might be anchored. Poor sister was freaked out when, under my suggestion, my reader rowed over to her ship to say, "Toby said to say hi." I have secret agents everywhere!
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
Let me get back to you on that…
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
PB: Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman. It’s about common human cognitive errors. It’s useful for understanding why we’re as screwed up as we are.
I really enjoyed Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts
. One of the most striking debuts I’ve read, and probably now my favorite generation starship novel. I’ve given out a few copies as gifts and I don’t want to describe it, I just demand everyone read it!
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
Because I grew up on a boat, the impulse to collect never really developed in me. I just didn’t have the space. Everything was carefully curated and culled. And the more I return to a sort of practical minimalism, the more freeing I find it.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I once went to The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, England. I wanted to drink a pint in the same pub where C. S. Lewis
and J. R. R. Tolkien
drank with their writing group, the Inklings. I really like the idea of people working at their craft, before they’re famous. Just kind of chipping away. I liked being in that low-ceilinged room, with the beers on tap and all the old wooden benches. It was pretty atmospheric. I suppose my other literary pilgrimage was going to the Château de Vincennes where the Marquis de Sade
was imprisoned for a time. That was interesting, too.
I tend not to lionize or have personal heroes. The closest I've come to a literary pilgrimage was a trip to Musso and Frank Grill, which I thought was cool because I like Raymond Chandler
What scares you the most as a writer?
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
PB: Grim Meathook Futures: A Better Career Than Expected
TB: The Stars in His Eyes: Story of an Island Son
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
“'The Guide says there is an art to flying,' said Ford, 'or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.'” Douglas Adams
. So damn funny.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“The demagogues whipped up the people, and the people bit on their own tail, and they chewed and they chewed until there was nothing left except the snapping of teeth.” My snapshot of American politics. That one continues to resonate with me.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
The fact that copy editors are often correct.
I’m an Oxford comma guy all the way.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I like teen dramas. Gossip Girl
is a favorite of mine.
My kids discovered America’s Funniest Home Videos
and I love watching it with them. I even ended up reading Tom Bergeron’s autobiography
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Well, it’s not something I can go into on a public forum. But obliquely, if I was giving advice to others, I would say that it’s worthwhile to be a decent human being to the people around you. Sometimes, it means that they’ll reach out and save you from bear traps you never even noticed existed. I’m deeply grateful that a few people have done that for me over the years. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am.
One of the things I am so grateful for in science fiction is that so many people in the genre believe in paying it forward. I have gotten a great deal of advice.
Five Books That Guided My Writing
Mona Lisa Overdrive
by William Gibson
Citizen of the Galaxy
by Robert A. Heinlein
by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Wump World
by Bill Peet
Empire of the Sun
by J. G. Ballard
by C. J. Cherryh
A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge
Islands in the Net
by Bruce Sterling
by William Gibson
by Octavia E. Butler
÷ ÷ ÷
is the New York Times
bestselling author of The Windup Girl
, Ship Breaker
, The Drowned Cities
, Zombie Baseball Beatdown
, The Doubt Factory
, The Water Knife
, Pump Six and Other Stories
, and The Tangled Lands
. His writing has appeared in WIRED, High Country News, Salon, OnEarth Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine
. He has won the Michael L. Printz, Locus, Hugo, Nebula, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell awards.
Tobias S. Buckell
is the New York Times
bestselling author of Halo: The Cole Protocol
and The Tangled Lands
. His other novels and more than 50 short stories have been translated into 17 languages. He has been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, the Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. He lives with his family in Ohio.