Rob Boffard Interview
Rob Boffard is a South African author who splits his time between London, Vancouver and Johannesburg. He is an award-winning journalist who has written for publications such as The Guardian, Wired and io9. Tracer is his first novel.
Some more interesting facts about Rob: He permanently lost his sense of smell after falling out of a tree in Zimbabwe, aged four. He runs a hip-hop podcast. He once spent two months traveling 11,000 miles around the United States. He’s a really good cook. In junior school, he wrote to Nelson Mandela, complaining about having to study Afrikaans, and got a reply. He speaks Zulu, and French. He is the last person on the planet who collects CDs.
What draws you to science fiction as a genre? Would you say you stick to one sub-genre of science fiction, or do you like to mix it up?
I didn’t grow up reading science fiction, really, I read the odd book, but I was more drawn to mysteries. Things like Ed McBain and Jeffery Deaver, and stuff like that. I became fascinated with space and space stations later, but I never grew up reading sci-fi or fantasy or playing Dungeons and Dragons. That’s just not the background I came from. That came a lot later. I’m not drawn to it because I’m a die-hard sci-fi fan, I’m drawn to it because I like space and I like spaceships and I like the physics of it all. I like zero gravity, and I like situations that allow me to play with those particular elements. It’s a love of the elements of science fiction rather than science fiction itself. One of the things I’m pretty sure I won’t really write about any time soon is something to do with aliens or alien species. I’m less interested in that than I am just the elements of science fiction, the space and zero gravity.
So, would you say you strive towards real, true science in your works?
Yes, very much so. I’m not anal about it, I’m not hard sci-fi about it, but everything you read in Tracer is entirely scientifically possible. There’s nothing that breaks the rules of physics and it can absolutely happen. When I was starting to research the book, I chatted to an actual rocket scientist who told me my idea for a space station sucked and I could do it better, and he helped me do it better.
What was your inspiration for Tracer? Why bad-ass postal carriers?
I wanted to write Tracer because I read Hunger Games. It wasn’t the content of the Hunger Games, it was that I got the first one at a bookstore, went home, read it in about three hours, just completely locked into it, and literally put the book down, walked back to the bookstore, and I bought the two sequels. After blasting through them that weekend, I was left with the impression that I wanted to write a book that does that to people. I want to give people that experience. That was the inspiration to start, I just wanted to write something that action-packed and that addictive. In terms of the hard core postal workers, I was playing around with the idea of a space slum. A massive dilapidated city in orbit. I was thinking about, I knew I wanted this to be the setting, and I was thinking about what kind of people would live there and one thing that I kept pausing on was that there probably wouldn’t be public transport, especially if the station has been up for a while. Things break down, things don’t work, maintenance is quite difficult, getting resources is quite difficult, so you wouldn’t have public transport, so how would you get messages from place to place? The second I thought of that I thought, “Well, you have to use human power.” And, because I have a little bit of a background in parkour, it was immediately one of those “Huh, wouldn’t it be cool if you had messengers and couriers that used parkour to get around and deliver messages and they have to escape from gangs and get into all sorts of crazy situations?” The story just exploded from there. Before I knew it, I had Riley running around my brain. Then I sat down and wrote the story.
Why did you decide to make your main character a female? Did you find it difficult to write from that perspective?
I didn’t decide anything. She was female from the start. I am firmly of the opinion that, with characters, you don’t decide anything about them. They just present themselves to you. You don’t get to pick who they are, and the second you try to fit them into boxes or change something fundamental about them, they push back and they push back hard. If I had tried to make Riley a man, it wouldn’t have worked, because she was just there inside my head. I didn’t have any choice but to write her story. In terms of writing from a female perspective, it’s a tricky question. The answer is that I tried to make her a good character above anything else. I figured if I could just make her believable and make her realistic and make her someone the reader would fall in love with, then it would be a lot easier to get away with writing her as a woman. I’m aware that, as a man, there are certain things that I wouldn’t be aware of, but I thought the only way I could deal with that is to make her a believable character and let everything else take care of itself. From the sounds of things, from the reader feedback I’ve gotten, that’s something that’s never been an issue. Nobody has ever come up to me and said, “You’ve done a terrible job of writing her as a woman.” After I’d written the book I was a little bit worried about it, but at the same time it’s great that it’s worked out how it has.
There were a lot of twists in the plot of Tracer. It can be difficult to keep things straight—as a writer and a reader—when there are so many twists, but you managed to keep logic and flow. Did you do a lot of planning to make this possible, or do you prefer to figure things out as you go along?
That only worked because I have an editor that knows what she’s doing. She said, “No, I don’t understand any of this, what’s going on, what’s happening?” In the beginning, I did plan, but I know the traditional orthodox way you see from people like Stephen King who say, “No, don’t ever outline, just start writing,” and when I started writing Tracer I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to write a novel, if that makes sense. I thought it’s going to be big and scary, so let’s just do a quick outline of each chapter. And that obviously worked, because the book ended up getting published and people have enjoyed that. So I’ve stuck with that. I do very rough outlines just so I know what’s happening in each chapter. The worst thing for me, as a writer, is not knowing what’s going to happen. Sometimes that can be fun, but most of the time it’s me sitting there going “I have no idea where this is going to go, I’m not going to get my work done today, am I?” So I’ll have that rough plan, but I will very happily go off the path. If I see something cool and it’s something I want to explore, I will abandon that plan in a second. It’s very rough, it’s very loose, it’s my safety blanket. There was one book that I’ve written that I didn’t have a plan at all, I just wrote it. Right after I finished writing Zero-G, the sequel to Tracer, I decided to give myself some time off and I lasted exactly one day and I said, “I can’t do this. I have to keep writing.” So I dived into a completely new series without a plan. I’m really happy with how it turned out, but it was the most frustrating experience in my life and I will never do that again.
Throughout your career as an author, you’ve written long-form novels and short stories (including a collection set in the Tracer universe), which do you prefer writing and why?
Can’t beat novels. For one thing, they’re a lot easier. I find short stories fun, but crazy difficult to get right. You’ve got such truncated space to paint an entire world. With a novel, you can go off on weird tangents and the reader invests a lot more patience in you. With a short story, if you haven’t hooked the reader in the first 1,500 words they’ll say, “That’s trash, skipping forward.” So, I like short stories, they’re a cool little pallet cleanser between novels, but I would never, ever, ever, profess to be good at them. They’re not my natural environment. They’re cool and I like writing them, but I’m much more interested in getting my novel writing to the standard I want it to be at than work on short stories. I’ll still write them, they’re great fun, but novels are where it’s at for me.
Ellen is a freelance fiction editor, book reviewer, research assistant for Simon Fraser University, marketing coordinator for WCSFA, and member volunteer for Editors’ Association of Canada. As of September 2017, she will also be a master’s student of publishing at SFU. You can contact her via ellenmichelle.com for any editing queries and at firstname.lastname@example.org for book review queries.