I first heard of Rob Boffard when he wrote a long piece for Huck about the world of battle rap (read it here). As a freelance journalist, fresh from his hometown in Johannesburg, South Africa, Rob had been writing and selling his articles to publications for years: from Music Tech to Wired to The Guardian. On this occasion he’d covered a Don’t Flop tryout event that I’d participated in, and had nothing but complimentary things to say about me. After reading it online, my fiancée hunted down a physical copy of the magazine for my birthday, and then I searched for Rob on Facebook to applaud him on his writing. Not only because he’d written such nice (and obviously true) things about me, but also because I genuinely enjoyed his work. I could tell this guy had a real spark with words. I suggested we meet up for drinks.
Over time we built up a friendship based on our mutual passion: writing fiction. We began to correspond regularly, sending short stories and novels back and forth, offering advice and criticism, and sometimes meeting up for more drinks so we could drunkenly rant at each other about the torment of novel writing. Eventually Rob snagged an agent, and a short while later a three-book deal for his Outer Earth trilogy with the Science Fiction publishing house Orbit.
Since then he’s moved to Canada with his fiancée, and been chasing deadlines.
He kindly took time from his busy schedule to talk with me.
We not only discussed his new book, but Rob also gave an insight into his writing process and offered some valuable tips for any aspiring authors out there.
Check out PART I below:
GK: Firstly, let’s talk about your debut novel Tracer. It’s set for release on July 2nd 2015. Can you tell us what it’s about?
RB: Sure. It’s set on a space station, Outer Earth, which holds the last of humanity. Outer Earth is old: broken down, rusted, falling to pieces. There are couriers, called tracers, who take packages and messages across the station. One of the couriers, Riley, discovers she’s been transporting something pretty gruesome, and uncovers a conspiracy that could destroy Outer Earth . . .
GK: It’s the first in a trilogy. When you originally wrote Tracer, did you envision it as more than one book? Or was that the publisher’s decision?
RB: I didn’t know what Tracer was going to be! I just wrote it. Only when I got to the end did I realise that I wasn’t done telling the story. Orbit liked that, and bought the books as a trilogy before I’d even finished writing them.
GK: And are they all finished now?
RB: I’m editing book two at the moment, and the first draft of book three is about two weeks away from completion. Crunch time!
GK: And then how long do we have to wait before we can read them?
RB: Book 2 is out in February 2016, and Book 3 in July 2016.
GK: Moving on to the book itself: as someone who’s been privileged to have read Tracer before it hits shops, one of the refreshing things I noticed when reading your novel is that you have a diverse cast of characters (a compelling mix of races, creeds, and sexes) without it seeming forced or done for the sake of filling a quota. Was it a conscious decision to have so many different — and many would say “marginalised” — voices in your novel? And do you think it’s important to provide a platform of characters that represents the true diversity of real life?
RB: I need to be very careful with this answer, because I know that it’s a tricky topic, particularly in the sci-fi community. We absolutely do need more diversity in fiction, including more protagonists who come from marginalised groups. That’s a no-brainer. That being said, the diversity in Tracer wasn’t a conscious choice, mostly because I was doing my very best to not write a crap story, and that was taking up most of my conscious brainpower! But I knew very early on that Outer Earth was likely to be a melange of different cultures, races, genders, religions. That’s just how, logically, a place like that would turn out. I let that guide me. I didn’t consciously try and make my characters diverse, but subconsciously that’s obviously what happened, and I’m delighted that it did.
GK: Your main hero Riley is a great character: a smart, witty, determined woman who manages to be both vulnerable and made of steel. What was it like writing from a female perspective? Did you find it any more challenging than writing the male characters? And did you get any input or feedback about Riley from the women in your life?
RB: I didn’t think too hard about the female perspective. I knew it was important, but I figured that if I concentrated on writing a believable character, that would come through. From the reactions I’ve got so far I think it came out okay. That’s not to say I have it perfect, or don’t have more work to do in future books. For someone like me — male — it’s an ongoing education.
GK: One thing that struck me about the world you created (Outer Earth) is how legitimate and realistic it seems. Did you do any research into how a space station would work before you started writing? Or did you just make it up as you went along?
RB: I did a huge amount of research on orbital physics, and what the station would be like. This was not something I was willing to make up on-the-fly. I went down and spoke to a genuine rocket scientist at Kingston University, and he helped me put together a station that worked. I also spoke to an expert on fusion energy, an entomologist, and a few other scientists as well. I was quite content to make up the actual story, but I wanted my physics to be straight.
GK: I can definitely see Tracer hitting the big screen one day. If that happens, do you have any ideas about who you’d like to play Riley (and any other cast members) in a film version?
RB: So many ideas. I would love this to be made into a movie, although of course that is a very long way off. There’s a New Zealand actress called Shavaughn Ruakere who I think would make a killer Riley. Either her, or Olivia Thirlby from Dredd. Michael B. Jordan would make an amazing Carver; or a young Ryan Reynolds, circa Blade 3 (not possible now, obviously). Man, so many other names . . . A young Zhang Ziyi as Yao, Sam Worthington as Kevin, Dev Patel as Prakesh. Jada Pinkett Smith would be the PERFECT Okwembu. Darnell, I don’t know . . . someone fucking huge. Basically what I’m saying is, if this ever gets made into a movie I am writing it into the contract that I have casting power.
GK: Many aspiring authors don’t understand just how long the process is from the sale of a book up until publication. Could you give us a little insight into what goes on behind the scenes once a book’s been accepted? And how have you found that process?
RB: After the hangover from celebratory drinks has faded away, it’s all about getting the book ready for publication. You work pretty closely with your editor on every stage of the book, making sure it’s as good as it can be. For me, this felt like lying under a car with my arms deep in the guts of the engine, endlessly tinkering. It’s a very difficult process, but absolutely essential. In the background, the publisher is busy with cover design, blurb copy, working on a marketing campaign . . . at this stage, that’s all still going on, as we’re a few months from publication.
GK: Any positive/negatives you’ve noticed since being part of that world that you were previously unaware of? Any pitfalls that you could advise others to watch out for?
RB: Good question. I think you have to be prepared for the amount of work needed to actually get a manuscript to a point where it can be published. To my mind, it actually felt like more work than writing the book in the first place. But I have to stress that it’s an enormously positive process. You come out of it feeling like you really accomplished something.
GK: There’s a common belief amongst many unpublished authors that finding an agent to represent their work is more about luck than talent: you either hit the lottery or you don’t. Could you tell us how you found your agent? What did you do — hockey mask and gun to the face? Fireworks through the letterbox? Or something more traditional?
RB: I’m a big believer in tradition, which for me meant duct tape and bolt cutters. No, I think you need a bit of both — luck and talent, that is, not assorted weapons. You not only have to have the drive and talent to get your manuscript to a semi-readable state, but you do need a tiny bit of luck in finding the right agent for it. Simply because an agent rejects you doesn’t mean that your manuscript is bad; it just means that they may not be the right agent for it. I got about eighteen rejections before I found my guy, and that came simply through the process of cold submitting. No shortcuts, no magic button. I just kept at it.
GK: Any advice you could give authors on how they should approach an agent?
RB: Be polite, accept a no and move on, and don’t think that submitting anything other than a standard cover letter and the first bit of your manuscript will work. Agents have seen every “clever” submission under the sun, and they’re far more likely to respond to you if you work within their parameters.
GK: When you signed with your agent, what was your initial reaction? And then, later, how did you feel when you found out you were finally going to be published?
RB: Both of them are among the best feelings in the world. It’s not just that someone has expressed interest in your work, it’s that they’re prepared to then work hard on your behalf (initially without compensation, in the case of the agent) to make sure that it gets out into the world. When I found out that Orbit had made an offer, I was sitting in bed in Vancouver on a Saturday morning. It was a bit early for whiskey, but we had the mother of all fry-ups . . .
That’s it for PART I. In the meantime, check out Rob’s website here for more information.
In PART II, we discuss Rob’s background in journalism, his writing routines, and the importance of rewriting your work before sending it off. Make sure you check it out here.