The University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. These are the three institutions that have given me the chance to go from being a sixteen-year-old runaway and a high school drop out, to graduating at the top of my class with honours at UBC, obtaining a Master’s degree in English lit, becoming an award-winning teacher, and now living my dream of being a best-selling author and working full-time at the career I love and have pursued since I was just 6 years old. It was a crazy, 20 year journey to go from the low of sleeping in a shopping cart on a January night when I was just sixteen, to having one of the most popular series in science fiction all over the world. I could fill up an entire book with the ups and downs, but since I’m busy living my dream of writing fiction, I’ll keep the non-fiction to this short bio for my blog and website:
So, if you really want to know about it, (thank you, Holden Caulfield) I was born in Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1977. My parents actually lived in Belfast at the time and were on a weekend trip when I showed up, six weeks early! Thanks to the quick work of a nurse one cabin away, I was delivered safely. Apparently I was too excited about getting this whole “life” show on the road, so I didn’t stick around the womb long enough to get born in the hospital like everyone else. That story should’ve been a sign to everyone around, my family, the nurse, the whole world, that I’d have a career in edge-of-your-seat drama and that I’m not a fan of doing things in the conventional way!
Fun fact! I’m a descendant of Robbie Burns on my grandmother on my mother’s side of the family. This was only discovered a few years ago by my aunts who were doing a family tree. It made sense to all of us in the family, because the “writer gene” is strong like the Force in my family. My siblings and my mother’s siblings all seem to have it in one form or another. I was only able to ask my grandmother about this once, just months before she died, and she surprised the heck out of me by telling me that she always assumed the writerly tendencies came from my grandfather, and not her, because he’d write short stories and had an active imagination. At any rate, once I learned of the ancestral connection, I looked Robbie up. The people who are close to me who I told about the connection were sure they could see a family resemblance. What do you think?
My parents left Northern Ireland because of “the troubles” just weeks after I was born and moved to Canada, where my father had a job waiting for him in a bakery in British Columbia. My earliest memories were of living in Northern B.C., where the snow would pile up past the rooftops in the winter. My older brother was my almost-constant companion back then and we’re still very close to this day.
When I was six, my teacher assigned us to write a chapter in a Stuart Little book, which was the first moment that I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I wrote in a flourish, several times the amount of the other students, and discovered that I seemed to get a “high” off of writing down the scenes that I conjured in my own imagination. Yep, it’s true, when I write my novels, even to this day, I’m getting a “fix.” I love it that so many of my readers feel the same way and refer to my books like they’re a drug of choice. They get it!
I’d say my early years were pretty stable. Although my parents moved often (I’d been to ten schools by the time I was in the 10th grade) I didn’t feel that I was having that unusual of an upbringing. Moving across the country and meeting lots of new people certainly helped me to expand my worldview.
Unfortunately, the early stability was short-lived. I don’t feel like it’s appropriate for me to divulge too much or to blame anyone in particular. I’m a public person now, but my family haven’t signed on to that level of openness, and it wouldn’t be right for me to dredge up tragic events that might portray one or more of them in a bad light. Suffice it to say, when I was sixteen, my family fell apart, my parents separated, and I ran away from home, never to come back.
I know what some people might think when they read that: immature kid, rebelling and getting into drugs and booze and just being stupid, right? Well, I never did drugs, didn’t even drink during my teen years at all, and, twenty years later, if I were in the same spot, I’d do the same thing again. The truth was, things had gotten bad enough that I felt I was safer and had a better chance on my own. It was a desperate move during desperate times, but as much suffering as there was to come for a sixteen-year-old with no money, no education, and no home, I still know I made the right choice.
When I ran away, my family had been living in Nova Scotia, which is on the East Coast of Canada. I headed for Toronto, where I’d lived previously during one of my family’s migrations. I had friends there and my older brother (only nineteen-years-old himself) had a job after having left home himself just weeks before. I’d hoped we could live together and make it on our own (as did he) but it didn’t work out for reasons I don’t blame him or myself for, and I found myself on my own.
Those were dark days.
But you know what? There was also a lot of laughs. Though I never confided in my friends just how bad things were, my best friend’s family knew enough that they let me stay with them for a few months, and they were some of the best months of my life. I saw how a family is supposed to treat each other, what life could be like without the constant threat of fear of violence, and I saw that I could build a better life.
Eventually, after years of living different places with different friends for periods ranging from months, weeks, or even days, I eventually found myself a tiny, roach-infested apartment that I could just barely afford on the minimum wage I earned selling shoes at a mall. That period of my life, although it sounds lousy, was actually helpful. It gave me time to work on my first novel, a book that was about the only thing I could possibly have known anything about back then—being a runaway—and it taught me the extremely valuable lesson of what life is like on the bottom. I learned what it was like not to have a safety net, how ignorant people could be as they fell back on stereotypes and made assumptions about me, and it taught me that I had to be true to myself. I had to believe in myself. As long as I had that, it didn’t matter what other people thought of me.
But my dreams of being an author seemed very, very far away. I finished my gigantic first mess of a novel after two and a half years of a writing and I submitted it to a plethora of publishers, and like just about every story you’ve ever read about an author, I was rejected by every one of them. The rejections ranged from form letters to really encouraging personal notes from the editors, but they were all rejections, and my dream of being an author seemed even further away.
I’m not going to deny it. Those days were the darkest. I was pretty down and depressed for several months, and really didn’t know what to do. I’d turned twenty, had toiled for years for almost no money, had written a seven-hundred page book in my spare time, and was now faced with the reality that I only had a grade ten education and life wasn’t opening any doors.
And in the story-telling business, this is what we call, the “turn,” and it came just in time.
I discovered a program that seemed almost too good to be true called “Academic Bridging” at the University of Toronto, the university that was, at that time, the top-ranked school in Canada. It would allow anyone, from any background, to take a class. All you had to do was be at least twenty-one, and that was it. If you could pass the class with a C, they’d let you try one more time (but you only got two tries.) If you could get a B, they’d admit you part time to the university on a probationary basis and if you managed a year of success, they’d let you in full-time. But, if you could get an A in the class, they’d admit you full-time right away!
Those days were magical. I mean, I can’t even describe it (I know writers are supposed to be able to describe everything, but I just feel like it was beyond words). For a kid with a tenth grade education, who’d been living in a truly roach-infested apartment and who’d been toiling at minimum wage jobs for five years, being able to walk around the buildings at the University of Toronto and sit in a classroom, being taught by a Cambridge/Oxford educated professor about the greatest literature ever written by the world’s greatest masters of the art form…there are no words. Those are days I’ll cherish forever. I used to keep the professor, David Nimmo, behind after every, gruelling three hour lecture he gave for at least an extra thirty minutes because I couldn’t stop talking about Conrad or Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Pound or Plath or…you get the idea. What a kind, patient man he was. He never got sick of me or behaved rudely to me, and he sure could have. Really extraordinary.
And, wouldn’t you know it, after studying my heart out all year while still working full-time at my day job, I received an A, was accepted in the University of Toronto full-time, and my whole future just opened up like a dream!
I leveraged my acceptance to the top ranked university in Canada to gain acceptance to the second ranked university in Canada (not too shabby), the University of British Columbia in my favourite city in the world, Vancouver, B.C. I’d miss Toronto and my friends there, but I’d always known that B.C. was my home and that Vancouver was where my destiny was, and my goodness, I loved my time at UBC just as much as I loved my time at U of T. It was magical. I savoured every class, every summer that I took classes (I was trying to do a four year degree in three years), reading Shakespeare on the beach, every taping of “Smallvillle” or “Battlestar Galactica” that I had to side step around (everything seemed to be filmed on campus back then). It was heaven.
Then, one day before my third year started, I had a call from the head of scholarships for the English department, and they informed me that I was their top student. I’d had no idea. Honestly, I was working as hard as I could and I knew I had an A+ average, but I had no intention of going to graduate school or Law school…I was just trying to get the most out of the education that I was paying for with student loans. I’d owe a lot of money after my education, so I didn’t want to see anything worse than an A on my manuscript (it would’ve felt like I’d been ripped off!) I considered an A- a failure. My friends still make fun of me for this ridiculous standard. At any rate, I found out I was due for some help with those loans, about to win a number of scholarships because of my grades, and informed that they’d like me to be nominated for the Rhodes scholarship. I was blown away. They insisted that I join their honours program, as it would be embarrassing for the top student in English to “only” be a major, and I found myself talked into doing a four year degree (something I don’t regret in the slightest, as it allowed me to take a number of extra courses outside of English just for fun…yes I took courses for fun!) Unfortunately, because of my late start, I’d end up being six months too old for the Rhodes, but I won just about everything else I could’ve won at UBC, which greatly helped to reduce the debt load I would’ve been carrying after graduation (although that was still pretty high!)
By the end of my fourth year, it had become clear that UBC wasn’t ready to let me go yet, and offered me another fine scholarship for remain and do my Master’s degree. While, at the time, I was impatient and wanted to get my focus back on my writing career, I look back on that experience now and realize how lucky I was. My classmates were thrilled to be doing Master’s and PhD’s, but I’d felt as though I was there through an accident—a detour—little did I know that it would lead me to the most valuable gift I received in my academic career: teaching!
UBC’s English department is the largest department in a university with more than forty thousand undergraduates, and because of the requirement that all first year students take at least one year of English, there was a heck of a lot of teaching opportunities to go around. As a result, I was given a TA-ship, and had the chance to walk into my first ever teaching position only four years after my days of toiling for minimum wage selling shoes had ended. Our classes were pretty huge, with 150 students in each one, and we were assigned our own sections of about 30 students. I loved each and every class that I taught—nothing made me feel the way teaching did—except for writing that is—and Chinua Achebe, the most famous African writer’s words, “Writers are teachers,” suddenly made so much sense. I finally understood what the point of writing was, to take a lesson worth teaching and teach it to the largest classroom possible, and to make the world a little bit better because of doing it. I’ll never forget that.
Lucky for me, one of my lectures was witnessed by a group of professors who spread the word that there was a TA that was teaching in a way they hadn’t seen before. I loved multimedia, and I loved science fiction, and I was teaching my students about The Matrix and its connection to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. They were impressed enough to offer to pay me to give the lecture outside of my own TA-ship, and this led to me gaining the reputation of being one of the best teachers in English at UBC, which led to them nominating me for the Killam Teaching Prize in 2007. Considering the sheer number of teachers the English department at UBC had at its disposal, the nomination was a huge honour.
But it was during this time period that I made another discovery. In February of 2005, I read an article about a futurist, Ray Kurzweil who, despite being nearly sixty, was sure he wouldn’t die. He described a near-future world of nanobots in people’s bloodstreams, of artificial intelligences sending upgrades to them over the internet, and of people upgrading their own biology and intelligence. Again, it was like destiny. Post-Human, the first book I’d write in what would become my most popular series, came to me in a flash of inspiration. I was so inspired that night that I wrote the entire outline and the first chapter, and, if I’m being honest, I knew when I went to bed that night that I’d written the first words of what would be a hit. But there was still a long path yet to walk.
Completing a Master’s isn’t easy, and writing my thesis and completing my coursework demanded too much of my time for me to continue with Post-Human (which actually had the working title of The Mind’s Eye). I left it for almost two years, but returned to it in 2007 after completing my thesis. I’d promised myself, after acquiring almost superhuman discipline during the final weeks before I had to hand in my thesis and defend it, that I’d use this discipline, despite how desperately poor I’d be for not immediately working a full-time job, to “finish that darn book I’d started.” I only worked part time for three weeks despite barely making my rent, so that I could get the book finished. I believed in it, and I believed in myself, and so I took the risk.
Unfortunately, I was pretty close to being the only one who believed in me at the time! haha! That’s the way it is with all of us, of course, and despite all the wonderful success I’d had as a student and teacher, the literary world hadn’t budged an inch in their view of me. In fact, it appeared to have gotten even worse. Whereas my first novel when I was twenty had at least been read by a few publishers, I couldn’t even get a publisher or agent to read Post-Human, let alone reject it. Again, it seemed that my dream of being a novelist was far away.
But it wasn’t as far away as it seemed. I started teaching, working as a private tutor so that I could begin climbing the mountain of debt I’d incurred as a student, and I continued writing. There wasn’t much time to spare, but I was able to complete two more books in the next two years, a horror novel that has been a cult hit called The God Killers, and a sequel to Post-Human called Trans-Human. I didn’t even bother sending these ones to publishers, however, instead paying to have them published by a program Barnes and Noble offered called iUniverse, which would put your books into print and even put them on Amazon and other platforms to sell.
Unfortunately, although iUniverse got my books out into the world, they controlled the price and marketing, and my books just wouldn’t sell. They were too darn expensive as paperbacks, and it seemed, once again, like my career as a writer was a long way off.
And I’d become way too distracted by happiness!!! Yes, that’s right, I was happy! I found the love of my life, Jenny, and I got married! I was building my tutoring business, I moved to West Vancouver to be closer to where the majority of my students were, and I’d finally found the small, stable, happy family that I’d always dreamed of.
But life wasn’t finished throwing curveballs at me yet! It was around this time that, similarly to my experience when I discovered Ray Kurzweil, in November of 2011, I discovered a twenty-seven-year-old writer named Amanda Hocking. There was a news article about her, and in the article, they said she was the second indie author ever to sell over a million copies of her books on the Amazon Kindle! Wow!
My heart was racing. My wife watched me pace back and forth across the floor of the living room. Here, finally, was the answer! Amazon Kindle Direct publishing for authors! Amazon had taken away the gatekeepers! There would be no more form letters from people who claimed to be “industry professionals” that “knew” that science fiction didn’t sell and wouldn’t even waste their time to read my work. Here, finally, someone had come along and given writers the chance to sink or swim on their own! Just as I’d done my entire life, I realized that I didn’t have to worry about what anyone else thought of me. It didn’t matter if a publisher or editor didn’t believe in me. All that mattered was if I believed in myself, and if I believed I had a great story to tell, I could publish it on Amazon and prove it once and for all!
Oh Amazon! How many dreams have you made come true? How many authors have you taken from nothing and obscurity and turned into stars? Just a month after finding Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) I sold 100 copies of my books in a single month, a number that, for a new author, was astounding. A month later, I sold 250, and then a month after that, in February of 2012, I sold more than 250 in a single forty-eight hour period! My dream had finally come true!
Since then, the distinctions I’ve had as an author have been incredible and beyond belief. In late 2012, my Post-Human series, published by some guy from Canada and promoted by his wife (and that’s it) was the second most popular book on amazon.com, one spot ahead of Game of Thrones, which was at its height in popularity thanks to the HBO series. I sold over 800 copies in a twenty-four hour period. After that, I was contacted by several publishers. I turned down an offer from Amazon’s science fiction imprint to buy Post-Human because I believed I could do better over a longer period of time promoting it myself, but I did accept a deal for an Audible version of the series as well as a German translation of the ebooks. I also accepted an offer from a company whose name I’m not yet allowed to reveal, who were so impressed with the series that they were going to create a publishing wing just so that I could write a new series on a similar subject for them. This new series has already been turned into other entertainment spinoffs (though I still can’t reveal what…but soon!) Post-Human also spent a couple of weeks in 2013 ranked as the most popular science fiction series on Amazon in the US and I was ranked as the most popular science fiction author.
Recently, the books 1-4 edition of the Post-Human series was the #1 most popular sci-fi book on Amazon in the UK and Canada, #2 in Japan, Spain, and Brazil, and #4 in Germany. It appears that the series is popular all over the world, and how could I possibly have done that without KDP?
It was also downloaded over 32,000 times in the US in March of 2014, and I’ve added hundreds of new readers to my “advance” reading list of hardcore fans to go along with the 900 fans I’ve attained on Facebook and, as we near the eve of the release of book 5 in the Post-Human series, I’ve had over 350,000 downloads of the series on Amazon since the books first made it big in 2012.
And you know what? As long as the road was, and as much suffering as there was during some parts of it, I really feel like I’m just at the beginning. I guess it’s because I’m only getting started living my dreams, even though laying the groundwork for them took decades. As incredible as what I’ve accomplished so far is, it’s nothing compared to the dreams I still have. I’m working on a Post-Human graphic novel adaptation and, come hell or high water, there will be a movie series based on the books. Mark my words!
None of this would’ve happened if it had not been for the democratization of publishing that is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. Amazon removed the gatekeepers—the self-proclaimed industry professionals of publishing—and made the choice to trust the people as the best judge of what books are good and which are not. My readers, the mighty and growing Post-Human tribe, have proven that the series has a vast and loyal readership, and besides Hugh Howey’s WOOL (another of the indie authors who has found incredible success thanks to KDP), I’m hard pressed to find another science fiction series, indie or not, that has garnered a more positive base or reviews and generous readership. It’s a phenomenon, and one that never would’ve happened without some people in Seattle who believed that they could change a 500 year-old industry for the better, and make stars out of people no one believed in.
Amazon, just like the University of Toronto’s Academic Bridging program, gave me the opportunity I needed to prove myself. Because of them, a runaway who had to sleep in a shopping cart at sixteen, a high-school dropout with seemingly no prospects, went on to live in the best city in the world, meet the best woman in the world and marry her, attain two degrees from one of the top forty universities in the world, before achieving his dream of being a full-time author and having one of the best-selling science fiction series in the world.
Wow. What a life. And just weeks before my thirty-seventh birthday (which makes me just a baby in author years) there’s so, so much more left to do.
So what’s the takeaway? I’m incredibly grateful to U of T, to UBC, to Amazon, to my amazing wife for giving me the loving family I always wanted, and to my readers for being so incredibly amazing. The guy who used to be given up on by everyone, now has more support than he could’ve ever imagined.
And that is how life is. You might be having your darkest day today, be more down and out than you’ve ever been, but if you have a dream, hold on to it. No matter how bad things ever got for me, I never gave up believing that I could be a novelist someday with a huge audience all over the world, and it really happened. Can you believe that? I’m getting a bit teary-eyed so I better stop writing this now. Besides, I have a deadline to meet! Book 5 is still on the way and there are thousands and thousands of people waiting for it.
What a cool life. :) Thanks, everyone.