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Writer Dad: Tobias Buckell


[clock] 14-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: November 13, 2013

Tobias Buckell

Back in the spring, VQR published an interesting article by Becky Tuch, “The Choice and Challenge of Being a Writer-Parent,” that raised an interesting premise but wasn’t terribly representative, as few of the writers quoted directly were actually parents, and only one was a male writer, inadvertently reinforcing cultural stereotypes around writing as a career and the challenges of “life with babies.”

As a married father of two who has long struggled with finding the right balance that allows for enough time to write, I was disappointed by the absence of voices that resembled my own experience, and was inspired to do something about it. And so, “Writer Dads” was conceived as a series of interviews with professional writers who are also fathers, discussing how they balance the two, what the real challenges are, and how it affects both their writing and parenting.

First up is Tobias Buckell, a married father of twin four-year-old girls, who is also the bestselling author of the Xenowealth Trilogy (one of my personal faves) and The Cole Protocol. He has a new YA series debuting next year, The Island in the Sky, and he’s also successfully experimented with self-publishing and crowdfunding, making him the epitome of what’s become known as the “hybrid author.”

Note: This interview was conducted via e-mail over the course of a few busy months in the summer and fall of 2013 because both of our schedules refused to play fair, as writer-dads’ schedules tend to do! You can read more about how the series came together on my blog. VQR will publish the interviews on a monthly basis.

GUY: How do you balance time for writing, time for family, and time for yourself?

TOBIAS: I’m very lucky in that we are able to afford daycare for the twins up to this point, and that writing/freelancing is my full-time job. As a result, I find the time to write during the regular workday while they are at daycare, and then when everyone gets home I focus on family.

Like many new parents, there’s less personal time, but that’s par for the course. I do find time in the evenings due to a strict early bed time that the kids have. I find it leaves them more rested, less crabby, and I get those moments to catch up on stuff.

Your wife is a high-school Spanish teacher, and you’re a full-time writer. How do you make ends meet?

I write fiction, which provides a good chunk of my income. I also design e-books for Subterranean Press on a freelance basis, and work for a gadgets blog as a behind-the-scenes editor.

What percentage of your income is from backlist sales vs. freelance gigs, and how do you squeeze in the latter with the writing required to fulfill your commitments for new novels?

I don’t easily have the backlist separated from new writing income the way I track it (I slap it into freelancing, e-book design, or fiction income). Roughly right now it’s one-third from each income stream, and the one-third that represents the gadgets blog I’ve been redirecting toward paying off debt from a health incident and not being able to work fully four years ago (as well as general idiot twentysomething-year-old debt). Once that’s all paid off, more options open up for me.

Royalties and backlist have to earn out the advance, I have all that tracked, but it’s too complicated to go into in a short interview. Suffice to say, there are many income streams (advances for new projects sold to publishing houses, royalties on existing properties with them, royalties from direct e-books that I sell online, money I make from speaking gigs) that are classified under “fiction writing.” I do have a very advanced spreadsheet for it all!

How have things changed versus five years ago? Is it easier, harder, or just different?

I find it different. I do have less leeway to have an unstructured day than I used to. When everyone comes home, it becomes difficult to have a “late day at the office” so I tend to save smaller, more administrative tasks for the end of the day. I have to be more disciplined.

Some days I think harder, but then I mainly just realize I wasted a lot of time before I had kids. You know the old story about the professor who points out that if you put sand in a pitcher and then try to add rocks you can’t pack as much in when compared to putting in rocks first then sand? Focus on the big important stuff, and let the little things sort themselves out. I have more big things in my life, but realistically, I’ve mainly cut out a lot more TV and video gaming, and other things.

You live in Bluffton, Ohio, where the cost of living is presumably much lower than, say, New York City or Los Angeles. What concessions do you think you’d have to make to live in closer proximity to major publishers or Hollywood, and why would they be worth it, if at all?

The cost of living here is much cheaper, and goes a long way toward allowing me to do what I do right now. I would need to make a bit more money (but not as much as you’d think: some of the perceptions of how different housing costs are between those areas comes from the fact that people comparing the costs don’t look at the fact that, really, most people don’t live *in* NYC, but commute in from a distance. Yes, Manhattan is expensive, but so is Manhattan when compared to a house on, say, Long Island, you know?).

Would it be worth it? I’ve looked at some communities that are two or so hours outside of New York. Once my debt is paid off, and I set a little aside, I am toying strongly with the idea of moving somewhere on the East Coast. Studies of innovation velocity in major cities show that people just being closer together increases random interactions, and more connections, and thus more innovation. I feel that I’m missing chances to fuse up with other cool cats by being outside. And I think that’s true in art as well as business. I want to get exposed to more interesting people doing more interesting things.

But it is out of my reach right now.

There are basically two stereotypes of fathers portrayed in most media, at opposite ends of the spectrum: the taciturn, man’s man, and the sensitive, philosophical font of wisdom. How would you describe yourself as a father?

Well, according to my kids I’m “funny a lot” and make them laugh. I’m a goofball. My wife says I’m excited because I have my perfect audience right now. I’m yucking it up for all I can get, because I know that shit’ll evaporate come twelve or thirteen. Hopefully by then they’ll like video games, or books, and we can continue bonding there.

I’m not sure if I know much wisdom. I can be a little taciturn, but I’m not much of a man’s man. I paint my nails occasionally to get a giggle, always remind them that daddy used to have long hair, and can be easily startled. I don’t like bugs.

This dad is mostly just trying not to screw anyone up too much and making it up a lot. I mean, the thing is, when I was their age I basically didn’t have a father. By the time my stepdad arrived, I was a thirteen-year-old pretty set in his ways, so I don’t really relate to anyone on that level. I don’t want to be the “best friend” of my kids, because I find that kids I knew who had parents who wanted that so badly that it was obvious were often either eerily co-dependent by my standards, or the kids didn’t have much respect for the parents. I did like parents who had a genuine easy warmth with their kids and were *friendly.*

Mostly I’ve tried to focus on what needs done and taught, and hope that warmth will be there. There are so many ways to have a connection with your kids, I’m not sure if there is a right one. I’ll be happy as long as there is one.

What do your daughters think of you being a writer, and what’s their relationship to books in general?

They’re four-and-a-half, so I’m not sure they really get it in terms of what I do. They’re somewhat confused about whether I work at the coffee shop or in my office, and they know I do a lot of stuff on the computer but that sometimes annoys them.

As for books in general, as a book-oriented household, they have a lot of books and have had a lot of them since birth. They’re not quite reading, but I read to them. Not as much as I should, but they have really gotten into kids books on the iPad of late (they really really like the Reading Rainbow app, and get a new couple of books every month for it), or the Leappad books that are read to them at their own pace by using the controls. It’s very fascinating. One of the twins is starting to work on sounding out words, and they’re both in pre-school, so they’re picking up more and more every week.

I don’t think they’ve realized or internalized the fact that daddy finds it near impossible to say no if they ask me to buy them a book in a store.

How has being a father changed your writing, whether style, process, goals, etc?

I have become a lot more empathetic. Having kids really gave me a greater capacity to feel, something that I’d clamped down a great deal on due to having a rough childhood. But that empathy has begun to sneak into places, and is letting me do a better job focusing on character.

Who is your favorite literary father figure you think defies the stereotypes, and how?

I’ve always liked the father figure of Fagin. Yeah, warped, but he took the orphan off the street and gave him a set of skills he needed at that particular juncture. Utilitarian in life focus, but with personal flair. I mean, Oliver would have died without him. Sometimes you need that. Not the high road of advice, but that stay-alive sort of no-bullshit advice from parents. The few people who’ve given me that will always have my warmest thanks for showing me how the world really worked, and not how people said it worked. Because landing in the gears of that reality can sometimes leave you chewed up and broken. Some parents give you a false view of what the world looks like and is, and what you can do in it.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give a writer who wants to have kids but is concerned about being able to balance being a full-time writer and being a father?

I find it strange that for art, some people believe children kill creativity. No one ever says, “Hey, if you’re a full-time accountant having kids will prevent you from being a full-time accountant.”

Now, here we need to separate some stuff out.

First off, if you are a full-time writer, then it’s similar in my head to being a full-time *anything.* So the trade-offs, etc, are similar to any other person trying to figure out the logistics of having a kid. With caveats. One, if you mainly write during a time that is not normal to society, having a kid, who will probably need to be at school and then home at a certain time, you may not line up well.

But even then, it can be worked around. When the twins were first born, as I write late at night, I just took on the late shift. My wife would go to bed at 10:30-ish, and I would be on. I’d write, and then wake the twins up with bottles, feed and change them, then put them back to bed every few hours until about six a.m. (at first they were on a strict feed-every-three-hour due to jaundice, and it became a regular schedule). Then I slept during the early part of the day. We teamed up for late afternoon and evening. We each got seven to eight hours of sleep.

If you don’t have a spouse taking care of the gig (the old-school arrangement), and you’re using daycare, then you’re making the same sacrifices and calculations as anyone else with two working parents. Daycare, how much, when, and so forth.

However, if writing isn’t a full-time gig, it’s tougher: I think this is where the myth of kids hitting creative endeavors hard comes from. If you work a job, and write as a hobby, or part time, then the question is, how do you continue fitting this third thing in? At that point, it becomes all about juggling and what you’re prepared to do. Can you work with your family to convince them you love writing and this is something you need to do? Have you really given up either TV or games, or the other hobbies? I never cease to be shocked at the number of people who tell me they don’t have time to follow their dreams, and then can recount in detail their favorite shows and the hours they’ve spent leveling characters up. I love games and TV, but I’ll be honest, it’s the first to get sacrificed on the schedule.

Women have a harder time of balancing this stuff. The expectations of society, the biological necessities of nursing, and so forth, plus the fact that women often end up doing more of the household and parenting stuff, means that it’s simply a matter of many women having less time. Many women writers who have kids don’t have the option of daycare, and the kids are around until kindergarten. If they’re doing the writing part time, it’s got to be tough. I can’t even imagine.

And yet, I see so many people succeeding at doing it.

My piece of advice is to say that: it’s doable. But it’s not easy. But nothing worth doing is. If you decide to have kids and are a writer, or a creative, then I hope you take the attitude that it’s not the family’s fault if your time to work takes a hit. But I think, no, I believe that if you really put your mind to it, you can find a place to carve out a space. One hour a day is the foundation you can build a good writing career on. One hour a day. Keep a time journal, what are you doing every 15 minutes. Do that for a month.

Then look for 40 minutes at least. Block it out. Make it hallowed. A lunch hour. An hour up early.

Even those without kids, all made some sacrifice to find that one moment, that time they put in writing day in and day out.

Kids or no kids, lots of people are wasting their time, their lives, doing things to just pass time by. But if you’re driven to create, you can still find the time while being a good parent, I hope. Sometimes it means not being the super-parent there is pressure to be. Sometimes you sneak in a few hundred words while the Smurfs is on.

I don’t want to be the parent who always is away from the kids writing, I want them to know I can be there for them. On the other hand, at some point, they have to learn I’m not just a father-robot. I am a fellow human being. It’s okay to not completely dissolve into this role of parent, kids are smart enough to realize we will have our own hobbies and careers. So will they.

Huh, that wasn’t one little thing, was it?

Born in the Caribbean, Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling novelist. His novels and over 50 short stories have been translated into 17 languages and he has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. He currently lives in Ohio.

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