Mike R. Underwood is a writer from Baltimore, MD. A graduate of Clarion West in 2007, he published his first book, Geekomancy, in 2012. He followed with five other novels, including his most recent installment in the Ree Reyes series, Hexomancy. I was lucky enough to meet Mike a few years back at one of the meetings organized by the Science Fiction Association of Bergen County. Today, I am interviewing Mike to find out how his career has unfolded since, and share some insights into his overall path as a writer.
You can learn more about Mike on his website, http://michaelrunderwood.com/, or on Twitter @MikeRUnderwood.
Iulian: Mike, I’m eager to talk about the books and about the present and future, but I’d like to start with a lookback: how and where did you grow up, who and what influenced your life? Give us a gist…
Michael: I moved around a lot as a kid—I went to six different schools by the time I was in eighth grade, which meant I had to make friends over and over. But one constant in my world was books. I was originally a bit of a reluctant reader, but then I took to it with a vengeance, reading fantasy, SF, and comics voraciously as we moved around. Living in NYC (Brooklyn to be precise) informed my view of the world in terms of diversity and de-centering my own white experience as universal, as well as providing my mental archetype of what a city meant.
You attended Clarion West in 2007 and then it took about 5 years for your first book to see the light of day. Tell me a little bit about you before Clarion, and after Clarion. What happened and how did your writing life evolved?
I took creative writing classes in undergrad, having already done a bit of fiction writing, mostly character backstory pieces for RPG characters. I wrote two novels before attending Clarion West, one each during the summers before starting my MA and then between year one and two of that degree. I attended Clarion West right after graduating (I literally packed my bags for Clarion West the last day of finals and drove up the next morning to start the workshop).
One of my short stories at Clarion West would turn into the seed of my novel Shield and Crocus, which my classmates and teachers were eager to see me expand into a novel. I sold a couple of my CW shorts after the workshop, but mostly focused on Shield and Crocus. I spent a year and a querying and revising the novel, then eventually started writing other books.
I remember you telling the story of putting a part (or whole?) of Geekomancy on Book Country and getting a publisher’s offer from there. You went on and got an agent, even though you had a publisher behind the book. Tell us about that. And, by the way, Sara Megibow is a wonderful agent and someone I happily follow on the interwebs…
I started writing Geekomancy over a Thanksgiving break – initially as a distraction from another project. Geekomancy took precedence, and I finished it in the fall of 2011. Then I put up a still-messy first draft on the community critique site Book Country, where an editor found it and asked to see the whole manuscript. A week or so later, I had an offer. I knew that I wanted a literary agent, so I took the offer and went on a lightning round of agent queries. Sara and one other agent offered, but I got along best with Sara, and we partnered up for the deal, and have worked together since.
For those who are not familiar with your work, give us a brief overview of the Ree Reyes’ universe. What’s the premise, where is it now, where is it going? How fun was writing these books?
Geekomancy and the books that follow are my multi-volume love letter to Fandom and SF/F pop culture. In this world, there are a variety of magic systems, and one of them is called Geekomancy—where a magician can take their love of SF/F pop culture and use it to do incredible things. The lead, Ree Reyes, can watch a favorite movie and then emulate a character or power from the story—watch The Matrix, do Wire-Fu, watch Die Hard and emulate John McClane’s indomitable willpower. Geekomancers can also use geek culture ephemera as one-shot magical items, and can take props/artifacts and bring them to life by tapping into the collective nostalgia that flows into them from fans around the world – the end result is that Ree goes into battle with a Lightsaber, a sideboard of CCG cards, and empowered by a specially-chosen clip for a contextually-appropriate super-power.
The Ree Reyes series are astonishingly, almost embarrassingly fun to write. I get to share my thoughts about not only some of my favorite SF/F properties, but also what I think about fan culture in general. I basically got to write the topic for my proposed PhD dissertation into my fiction and get a much larger readership for it, on top of getting paid.
Geekomancy was the start of the series, and there are now four books – Celebromancy, Attack the Geek (a novella), and Hexomancy, which just came out in September. Hexomancy concludes the first major arc of the series, though I have ideas for another 5 or so novella-to-novel-length stories in that universe.
You clearly love Urban Fantasy, and so do I, even though it is not my absolute favorite when it comes to fantasy sub-genres. What attracts you to this sub-genre? I know you also wrote an epic fantasy (Shield and Crocus)-how different was writing that?
I came to my love of Urban Fantasy through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series alongside the World of Darkness RPGs (especially Mage: the Ascension and Changeling: the Dreaming). I love the way that urban fantasy allows writers to juxtapose the fantastic with the mundane, the impossible with the every day. Especially when the city itself is also interesting and vibrant, and where fantasy can be used to reexamine familiar elements of society (like fandom, celebrity, etc.) by literalizing metaphors or estranging the familiar. Also, urban fantasy stories tend to be action-packed and call for witty dialogue, two of my favorite ways of writing.
Shield and Crocus is quite different, though it is both fantasy and set in a city, therefore technically urban. But Shield and Crocus is more properly described as Weird Superheroes, drawing on the New Weird as well as the supers genre. While both Shield and Crocus and the Ree Reyes books are action-oriented, the ensemble in Shield and Crocus is much larger, the city is more dangerous and nuanced as a setting, and the scale is equally larger – the heroes fight for the fate of an entire city.
Tell us a bit about Ree Reyes. How would her eHarmony profile look like?
Ree would probably not ever sign up for eHarmony. OK Cupid, maybe.
Ree is stubborn but loyal to her friends, she’s sarcastic and often snarky, but snarks because she cares, and she’s deeply passionate about her SF/F loves. She’s the kind of person that grew up on hero stories, and as a result, quickly embraced the chance to be a hero, to change the world by stepping up to fight on behalf of something bigger than herself. Ree values her friendships and nurses her grudges. She’ll bite off more than she can chew and then knuckle through to win in the end.
What is new and different about Hexomancy in the context of the series? Give us a hint about the story line.
Hexomancy is a departure for me and for the series, because it covers an entire year in Ree’s life, told in four sections – one each for a season as threats roll in to town in sync with equinoxes and solstices (magic stuff, natch), requiring Ree to load up and do battle several times over the course of the year. This let me decompress the storytelling, and to show more character growth for the leads as time passes and their relationships shift.
Old enemies return, slow-burn relationships flare up, and no fewer than two of the major relationships in Ree’s life change in a big way.
Are you going to continue the series? You already made a side-story (Attack the Geeks); will there be others, or was that just a one-off, spur of the moment kind of thing?
As above, I have ideas for several more stories in the setting. I’m also considering some short fiction (much shorter than the novella) in the world, since readers really like the characters, and I like writing them.
I wrote Attack the Geek as a side-quest kind of story, but it has turned out to be really central to the plot line of Hexomancy – I couldn’t resist the chance to take the novella’s ending and use it as the rocket fuel it really was to propel the story forward.
What about science-fiction and other sub-genres of fantasy? Will we see something along those lines from you in the future?
We’re just a month away from the debut of Genrenauts, my new series in novellas – and not only is Generenauts overall a science fiction series, each episode also delves into a sub-genre.
Here’s the premise—Genrneauts is set in a multi-verse, and every other dimension besides our Earth Prime is the home of a narrative genre – Western, Fantasy, Romance, Action, and so on. These worlds play out their traditional tale types ad infinitum, but when entropy sets in and a story goes off-track, the broken stories ripple over to damage Earth. So when a story breaks, the Genrenauts deploy to find, evaluate, and fix the broken story. Think Leverage, but for stories.
The first Genrenauts novella—The Shootout Solution, comes out November 17th in ebook, paperback, and audiobook from Tor.com Publishing.
I’m also working on a space opera project and some comics pitches. I like to keep busy.
Who are some of your favorite authors and some of the books that left a mark on you in a way that only a good book can?
Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea was one of the first fantasy novels I read, and it taught me from a very early age that fantasy could have rich worlds, intriguing societies, and beautiful language. I have to give props to Chris Claremont and other writers of Marvel and DC comics in the late 80s and early 90s, who comprised a bulk of my comics reading. I got back into comics in college, reading Waren Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary alongside other independent series that helped me appreciate non-superhero comics. I’ve also learned a lot from the beautiful and brutal work of Octavia Butler, the brilliance of Samuel R. Delany, and the challenging conceptual boldness of China Mieville.
More recently, I’ve been blown away by the rallying cry of an epic fantasy that is Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, as well as other weird fantasy novels like Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. I get to read amazing, inspiring work for my job with Angry Robot, from Wesley Chu’s delightful Lives of Tao and sequels to Ramez Naam’s mind-melting Nexus series and Lauren Beukes’s revelatory gut-punches like Zoo City. I loved Saladin Ahmed’s 21st-C update of sword & sorcery in Throne of the Crescent Moon, as well as Seanan McGuire’s endlessly readable InCryptid series.
My recent comics loves include Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro’s Bitch Planet, Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman’s Invisible Republic, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine, younger reader books like Lumberjanes, as well as Big Two books like The Unbeatable Squirrel-Girl, Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, and Grayson.
What do you do in your free time (e.g. when you are not writing)? And sorry for implying that a writer has free time…
In my vanishing free time, I try to keep up on geek culture stuff like comics, books, movies and TV, as well as making homemade pizzas – cooking/baking is like meditation for me, it’s a great way to calm down after a long day of work.
What can we expect from you over the next year or so? Will you be attending and conventions? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve got the two Genrenauts novellas out in November and next February, and after that, it all depends on what happens with the projects I have out there on submission. I’ve committed to releasing all 6 of the Season One episodes of Genrenauts, so they’ll be out over the course of the next year, circumstances permitting.
I attend a lot of cons. You’ll be able to see me at ConFusion in January, and then I’m likely to attend some of the comic-cons (Emerald City or Phoenix), as well as BaltiCon, GenCon, WorldCon, and so on.
Mike, thank you so much for this interview!
Thanks for having me!
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