The Busiest Geek in the Game

Michael R. Underwood’s 2014 will make you feel inadequate.


Michael R. Underwood is one of the busiest authors I’ve met. He’s juggling multiple book series, a podcast, and by day works for Angry Robot Books. Most recently, his fantasy novel Shield and Crocus, the opening salvo in a fascinating new saga, was published by 47 North.

Mike took a few minutes out of his complicated schedule to talk with me about his new book, and we ended up talking about everything from William Shatner to Argentine tango. Welcome, Mike!

Jason Gurley: You’re a writer with a day job, but your day job is deeply rooted in the publishing industry. What’s it like to work for a publisher while writing your own books?

Michael R. Underwood: It’s just about the perfect day job for me. I love talking about books, promoting books, and learning about the business side of publishing. Working at Angry Robot gives me the chance to do all of that, and to help make other writer’s dreams come true. And every step of my journey at Angry Robot makes me a better-informed writer, such that when I sold Shield and Crocus to 47North, I wrote up a complete TI (Title Information) sheet which I delivered along with the author questionnaire. Being able to show the 47N team how I saw the book in terms of marketability and strategy helped us get off to a running start with the project.

Personal question: Your author bio alternately refers to your girlfriend as a girlfriend and a fiancee. Which is she, and has she noticed yet?

(One of) the joys of having one’s life documented all over the internet is that when a big status change like getting engaged happens, all of a sudden dozens of articles and blog posts and author profiles on retailers are out-of-date. But my fiancée hasn’t seemed to mind the confusion. She knew what was in store when she shacked up with a disreputable genre fiction writer.

You’ve got some of the most interesting degrees I’ve ever heard of, at least in this combination: a B.A. in Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies, and an M.A. in Folklore Studies. This seems like the perfect training ground for a speculative fiction writer. Were you planning to be a novelist even then? What led you to writing books?

When I entered undergrad, I was certain that I was going to get an East Asian Language and Culture degree, move to Japan, and work for an anime or video-game company. But shortly into my freshman year, 9/11 happened and threw my world for a loop. I ran into the arms of mythology, and after a swim through the waters of the writing of Joseph Campbell, I went to my university and designed an Individualized Major of Creative Mythology, with the idea of studying ancient story structure to write stories that could be timeless and speak across cultural boundaries.

So writing was in the cards. It wasn’t something that caught you unawares, you’d been thinking of writing for a long time already.

I’d pretty much always wanted to be a storyteller, but it wasn’t until college that I figured out what was required to actually do the thing. I finished undergrad with the Creative Mythology degree, and had switched East Asian Language and Culture to East Asian Studies (the difference between an East Asian Studies minor and a major was basically the 2nd year of Japanese I’d just completed when I made the change).

Knowing that I probably couldn’t sell a book straight out of college, I pursued the M.A. in Folklore on the way to a PhD — being an academic was going to be my day job, and I’d write my novels in the summer. The M.A. in Folklore gave me even more research material and inspiration for my writing, but my academic ambitions ended there. So I managed to end up with degrees that are amazing for writing, while only ever intending one of the three to actually be for writing.

I know a few authors who have been through the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which you attended in 2007, and I’ve heard it described as both “pure heaven” and “brutal, brutal hell”. You’ve said it’s the biggest boost your writer career has had yet, so I’m guessing it was more heaven than hell. What was your experience like?

Yeah, the Clarion/Clarion West model was great for me, but it isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. The Clarions (the original, held in San Diego, and Clarion West, in Seattle — there was also Clarion South, in Australia) are six-week intensive writing workshops, focused on science fiction/fantasy short fiction. Each week we had a different teacher, and most of us wrote five or six complete short stories during the workshop. For me, it really felt like Writer Boot Camp (though almost all mental, and not to undercut the intensity of military boot camp).

What did you get out of the experience?

For me, it was a chance to shut out the rest of the world, and to live, eat, talk, think, and breathe speculative fiction writing. My classmates were all so talented, and so diverse in their styles, that I tried to take inspiration and lessons from each one of them, in addition to our amazing instructors. It really lit a fire under me, and gave me the rough draft material for two stories that would go on to sell, and the short story that would grow into the novel Shield and Crocus.

Oh, that’s interesting. How did that early short story differ from what the novel eventually became? Did it change dramatically?

The overall shape of the world, the cast, and the big ideas are pretty much intact, but the plot of the short story was thrown out entirely. I think the only passage from the short story that’s at all recognizable in the novel is one flashback for the main character, and even that one has been changed. I view that original short story as the midwife of the novel — one allowed the other to be born.

Let’s take a moment here to talk about your active series, because you’re a seriously busy author. You’ve got, what — three different series? There’s Geekomancy, its sequel,Celebromancy, and its sidequest novella Attack the Geek; there’s Younger Gods, which isn’t out yet; and then you’ve just released Shield and Crocus. Are all of these series ongoing? How do you divide your writing time among them?

Three series indeed! Yeah, I’m setting myself up for a whole lot of not sleep.

So, yeah, it’s been a weird, roundabout journey to having three series in or about to be in print. I started with the Ree Reyes series (Geekomancy, Celebromancy, Attack the Geek), and as I was finishing Celebromancy, I wanted to do anything in the world other than write another Ree Reyes book right away. Hindsight being 20/20 and all, I now know that was just my brain wanting a palate cleanser, rather than being actually burned out on the series.

But at the time, I asked my agent (Sara Megibow at Nelson Literary) if we could pitch some other ideas to my editor (Adam Wilson, Pocket/Gallery), and she helped me prep a number of different pitches, in a process I remember fondly as Pitchapalooza.

How many pitches were there? What ended up on the cutting room floor?

Five properties in total. There were three pitches with partial MSS and query letters, including The Younger Gods, which got the offer. I also included Shield and Crocus, and the partial MSS of a different epic fantasy which I’ve since entirely re-written with a different plot.

The two partials that didn’t get offers are waiting to be picked up and expanded. One I’m much more excited about than the other — a near-future inter-dimensional fantasy thriller. That one I think will go out on submission one of these days.

And from Pitchapalooza came two new series. That’s astounding.

Adam offered on one of the pitches, which then became The Younger Gods. And as I was writing The Younger Gods, (Sara) sold Shield and Crocus to 47North, since it was already written. The deal from Pitchapalooza included the novella for the Ree Reyes series, and so when all the dust settled and the ink dried, publication dates lined up for me to have Attack the Geek, Shield and Crocus, and The Younger Gods all scheduled to drop in 2014.

That’s amazing. What a year you’re having.

The best thing about where I am now is that I’m ready to pivot into whatever is working by the end of the year. If the Ree Reyes books are picking up, I can write more of those. If Shield and Crocus takes off, I can pitch more in that world. And if The Younger Gods goes gonzo, I can build on that world. I’ve been writing faster, but I’m not nearly to 3 books a year fast. I do have one more Ree Reyes book already under contract (Hexomancy, which has a finished first draft), but after that, I’m open for whatever opportunity comes up, and can work with my publishers to prioritize which series to pursue based on reader interest.

Can you tell us anything about The Younger Gods? Don’t make us wait, here.

The Younger Gods is the first in a new urban fantasy series — it’s very distinct from the Ree Reyes books in tone and content, more of a dark contemporary fantasy.

The book follows Jacob Greene, the only moral son from a family of demon worshippers. Jacob flees the family when he realizes how truly evil they are, and ends up in NYC, going to college. When his sister shows up to kick off the apocalypse, our socially-incompetent hero has to make friends and allies to stop her from raising one of the unborn gods who will usher in the Last Age.

Shield and Crocus is just out from 47 North, Amazon’s science fiction and fantasy imprint, and it’s a beautiful book. How in love with Stephan Martiniere’s art are you?

SO IN LOVE. When I opened the black-and-white roughs, I basically had to pick my jaw up off of the floor. I’d had an image of Audec-Hal (the setting of Shield and Crocus) in my mind, but Stephan brought it to life with such clarity and atmosphere that it totally blew me away.

Tell us a bit about the book, in your own words. Just the jacket description gave me chills, I have to confess.

Shield and Crocus is about an aging revolutionary who strikes a bargain with his most dangerous foe in order to tip the balance of a decades-long fight to free his city. It’s inspired by the New Weird and the superhero genre, and my perhaps-arrogant attempt to use each genre’s strengths to enhance the other. It’s got transmogrifying storms, giantesses, callous cyborgs, ruthless plutocrats, and more action than you can shake a stick at.

Where do you see the series going? Do you have a fixed number of books in mind, or are you discovering the world as you write?

I’ve got three novels in mind for the main storyline of Shield and Crocus. I have a synopsis for the second novel, and have a clear image of where the third novel would end. Additionally, and this is super-cool — Jet City Comics, the sister imprint to 47North, is contracted to publish an original graphic novel in the world of Audec-Hal, based on an outline I provided.

Since Shield and Crocus starts decades after the tyrants’ takeover, there’s tons of backstory I could dig into for ancillary stories, but everything I have in mind is to support and enrich the central three novels. I could definitely see more stories in the setting after the trilogy, if there’s reader demand and I can take those ideas and make them into a story that’s worth going beyond a trilogy with (if I could, it’d become a new series in the same world, rather than extending the trilogy into a saga.)

I’m fascinated by the world that you’ve crafted in the book. I’m just going to venture a guess here, but you strike me as a very thorough worldbuilder. Can you talk about the worldbuilding process a bit? How granular do you go?

I blame being a gamer, honestly. I’ve played tabletop RPGs since I was about eight, and spent many years as the resident Dungeon Master/Game Master of my various groups. I love rich settings — probably my folklore/mythology inclinations showing in another way.

Having spent so many years as a gamer, trying to find ways to build stories out of existing worlds, that I like to have a pretty good sense of a world when I design my stories. And often times, the world comes to me first, and then I try to figure out who would be the most interesting people to follow in that world, and how their story puts them at the crux of the cool conflicts in that world. That way, my protagonists are emblematic of my settings, and are prepped to interact with the coolest parts of the world from the get-go.

My level of granularity depends on the scale of the story, but for one project in progress, I got so detailed as to make up a chart of major imports and exports between cultures, to see which ways the trade deficits went, and where the various magical goods and natural resources were going between the cultures. That’s probably the most ridiculously granular I’ve gotten so far.

While we’re on the topic of worlds… About a year ago, Amazon introduced Kindle Worlds, their own licensed fan fiction program. Given the beauty of the world you’ve built in Shield & Crocus, I have to ask: if Amazon approached you about opening the world up for other people to write in, how would you respond? What’s your general take on fan fiction?

In general, I love that fan fiction exists, as I think it’s a way for a lot of people to find ways to invest even more in a world that they already love. Fan fiction also allows fans from underrepresented groups to imagine themselves into a world, to create a version of the story that reflects the world that they live in, that makes their lives intelligible.

I’d be potentially open to turning the Shield and Crocus setting into a shared world, but probably not until I’ve done a bit more with it. Once the main story was in place, I could definitely see bringing in other creators to tell stories in the setting, since there’s a rich history of shared world superhero settings.

Let’s talk about dancing. Hugh Howey dances on YouTube when he sets personal milestones. I spent a few years stomping around dance floors in cowboy boots. You’ve got your own specialty, and I bet nobody would ever guess what it is. How in the world did you come to be an expert in Argentine tango?

I definitely wouldn’t call myself an expert. At my best, I was a promising low-level journeyman.

I’ll rephrase, then: How in the world did you come to be a low-level journeyman in Argentine tango?

When I was in Eugene, Oregon, pursuing my M.A. in Folklore Studies, I got into Argentine Tango through the university and then with the local community. For lack of a social group in Eugene other than my housemates (I lived in a grad student co-op), the tango community became my scene, and my hobby life. It was a great counter-point to my academic, sessile, analytic grad work — an embodied, intuitive creative style, and one that meant I had to get out of the house.

I fell in love with the music, the dance style, the community, the whole freaking thing. It got to the point that I was dancing 5-7 nights a week, and was even the vocalist for a tango band (Los Bandidos del Tango) for a short time before I left Eugene.

Do you keep it up?

Since moving to Baltimore, I haven’t gotten to tango at all, and I miss it desperately. Of course, right now I’m recovering from a knee injury, so dancing is still out of the question. But the tango is still near and dear to my heart.

For music recommendations, I suggest folks check out Gotan Project, Astor Piazzola, and Bajofondo Tango Club. The first and last are electro-tango bands, and Piazzolla was a master composer and musician who helped redefine the musical genre of tango.

In your spare time — frankly, I’m surprised you have any at all — you’re part of the fandom podcast The Skiffy and Fanty Show (which I highly recommend you check out if you’re reading this interview). So let’s count ‘em down. Your top five favorite geek topics are:

Comic books, superheroes, Star Wars, SF/F TV, and gaming.

Favorite comic book series?

All-time favorites include Planetary, Y:The Last Man, and Sandman. Current favorites would be Ms. Marvel, Sex Criminals, Hawkeye, and Saga.

Any sci-fi or fantasy TV series you were disappointed to see meet their cancellation fate? (Because they all seem to, some faster than others.)

The Middleman, co-created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McLaine as a comic and then adapted for TV by Grillo-Marxuach for ABC Family.

The show was smart, strange, snappy, and totally too weird for TV. Each episode had a genre ur-text (for one it was Ghostbusters, another was Die Hard). Totally recommended for all fans of geeky comedy.

You recently conducted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit. First, congrats for surviving that — although, that wasn’t your first AMA, right? But second, one of the questions, and your very thorough answer, caught my eye. A redditor asked, “If I were to cross your line and thrust towards your left breast in seconda (with no offhand weapon), how would you respond?” Your answer was practically a short story, and fascinating in its detail. I was instantly lost, and instantly captivated. Do you get questions like this all the time?

It’s a bit hard to have thorough discussion about fencing using only text, which is part of what made it so hard for the fight masters of the middle ages and renaissance to write down their styles.

Most of my fencing knowledge comes from studying historical styles as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, though I’ve also branched off into non-SCA historical martial arts scholarship, mostly in pursuit of 16th and 17th century Spanish fencing in the style of La Verdadera Destreza.

When I was in the SCA, I also became a teacher (basically anything I do long enough to be more than a beginner at, I become a teacher: tango, fencing, writing, etc.), so being able to break down attacks and responses in a conversational fashion was important. Plus, there’s an intellectual thrill in being able to describe the physical chess moves back and forth with a partner/conversational opponent.

Okay, let’s do some rapid-fire word association: Carl Sagan.

Cosmos.

Joss Whedon.

Ensembles.

Lightsaber.

My chosen weapon.

Pepperoni.

Pizza.

Apocalypse.

Zombies.

Ghosts.

I ain’t afraid of no.

Richard Pryor.

Superman III.

What are your top three genres on Netflix?

Lighthearted Romantic Comedies, Science Fiction Action Adventure, Sociological Zombie Survival Stories. These may not all be real genres on Netflix, but they’re no less granular than Netflix gets.

Fair point. Since my two-year-old has discovered Yo Gabba Gabba and Mickey’s Clubhouse, my own carefully-calibrated Netflix recommendations are a thing of the distant past. Let’s move on to more important topics: William Shatner or Chris Pine?

Ooh, sneaky. Shatner’s given us more Trek overall, and I’m still grumpy about Into Darkness, though that wasn’t really Pine’s fault.

If you’re bedridden and unable to make your own pizza — a skill I hear you’re also quite leveled-up in — but you’re craving pizza, which pizza chain store gets your phone call?

What terrible fate! We have several great local pizzerias in Baltimore, so I’d order from Johnny Rad’s or HomeSlyce if I could. If I had to go with a bigger chain, I’d probably go for the greasy-but-comforting Pizza Hut.

Though you’re a busy man, I’m sure there’s something sitting on your bedside table or on your Kindle. What are you reading these days?

I have to read a lot for work, but on my personal bookshelf right now, I’m reading Brian McClellan’s The Crimson Campaign, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, and making ‘soon, precious’ eyes at Broken Monsters, upcoming from Lauren Beukes.

What’s coming up next for you, and when?

What day is it again? I’m putting the finishing touches on revisions to The Younger Gods, and from there I’ll be doing my first round of revisions for Hexomancy, the third Ree Reyes novel. After that, who knows! I have no fewer than five novel ideas sitting in the green room of my mind, waiting to be let in to expand into full-blown WRITE ME RIGHT NOW projects, so I’ve got no worries of running out of material anytime soon. My problem is keeping up with it all without working myself to the bone.

But that’s what video games are for.

Thanks for coming up for air long enough to chat, Mike. It’s been a pleasure.

Thanks so much for having me, and for providing the excellent questions! Now to dive right back into the writing fray!