Tobias Buckell is the author of numerous short stories and novelettes (many appearing in his collection Tides from the New Worlds); the “caribbean steampunk” novel Crystal Rain and its successors Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose; and the New York Times bestselling Halo novel The Cole Protocol. He is also a well-known blogger, a past Writers of the Future winner, and a fellow member of the Codex writers’ group. Knowing both about his many successes and about the surprising number of difficulties he’s overcome, I asked to interview him about his writing and his motivation through hard times. This is part two of that three-part interview.
Back in 2008, I was surprised and worried to hear that you’d had a heart attack–while not even 30, I think–due to a congenital condition. Did you have writing plans that were derailed through that period? What effects did the interruption have on your attitude toward your work? And what kinds of things did you do to get back on track: did everything fall more or less easily back into the way it was, or was it more effortful than that?
I actually didn’t have a heart attack, we just discovered that I had a congenital defect with my heart. But the events were certainly as dramatic as a heart attack, and the ER doctor ended up assuming much the same. It turns out I likely have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The quick and dirty is that under duress, my heart fails to fire correctly. I’d been doing some home remodeling, and went to bed exhausted. I woke up four hours later with my pulse still racing madly and having trouble catching my breath. Ended up in a cardiac specialty ward for a week and after they looked at my insides they declared my arteries clean and my heart strong, but that I’d either had pericarditis and the HCM together added up to a dramatic event, or I had just pericarditis, or I had an HCM episode. It’s a somewhat inexact diagnosis, but the best they could offer me. Since my grandfather had HCM, and my mother has it, and they saw very faint signs of the possibility I had it, it’s a good bet I have it!
I was very derailed. I went down for the count in November 2008. And after the event, got a pulmonary embolism (either from lying in the hospital for a week or from the heart cath or something that gave me blood clots) that put me back into the hospital a few days later again for another week. Recovering from both left me exhausted, I didn’t get much done throughout December, January, and February. Between the medical bills and having hardly any energy to work for three months, the financial fallout was really tough.
There were two issues that made it hard to get back on track. One was that some of the medicine I was on really affected me as far as energy. I had maybe two ‘golden hours’ of ability in the day where I was able to work at capacity, down from ten. I really had to plan my entire day around that. And because I only had two hours, I basically had to let a lot of stuff just go. My least paying clients, or freelance gigs, or potential jobs. I just had to let them go and focus on the best paying ones to get through the first half of 2009.
And that meant I got very little writing done, and had to make my peace with it. I wrote a few short stories throughout the year, and worked on the books I wanted to write as best I could. But my highest paying clients were freelance gigs, and I had over ten thousand dollars of deductibles (don’t get sick at the end of a calendar year, right? I had to pay deductibles for two different years at the start of 2009) and then outside bills to pay, plus I’d lost three months of work as I focused on just recovering. It was a pretty rough time.
On top of that, my heart is more sensitive to stress, both physical and emotional, now. So in December, January, and February, I made numerous trips to the ER for chest pain due to the after effects of the pulmonary embolism and events where my heart would go into overdrive. I was also dealing with enormous amounts of depression. I consider myself a pretty physical guy. I like to workout and jog. That was taken from me. I’d been making really good money in 2008 freelancing, and I was struggling to stay afloat. That stress, of course, didn’t help.
But I just kept my head down, tried to pay off bills as I could. I wrote as I could. My wife had twins that April, which, for a month or two, sucked up a great deal of time as we went through the initial newborn phase. But once we fell into a schedule with the twins, and I slowly got better, and inched ahead, I turned more and more toward the writing again. I built up a buffer of cash so that in October, almost a year after the event, I was able to devote most of my day to writing fiction once more, and have been since then.
A number of interesting things have come out of that whole experience. Wouldn’t want to do it again, though!