Michael R. Underwood: The Terribleminds Interview

So, here’s how I met Mike: he’s — well, I don’t know what he does for Angry Robot in precise terms, so I’m just going to say that he’s the leader of their “Authors-Be-Awesome” initiative, wherein he sends a series of steel overlord robots to people’s houses and the robots use their crushing claws and laser eyes to convince those people to buy Angry Robot books. Anyway. Thing is, Mike is also an author — he’s the Michael R. Underwood behind the much-buzzed-about geek-themed urban fantasy, Geekomancy. You can find mike at MichaelRUnderwood.com, and on the Twitters @MikeRUnderwood.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

There once was a boy who wanted to write, but he spent far less time writing than playing expensive collectible card games made on cardboard laced with crack, telling stories with friends, and playing video games that subliminally commanded him to build an idol to an Italian Plumber.

Eventually, that boy went to college and decided to spend less of his time sniffing cardboard crack and building Obelisks and more time actually writing, as well as trying to figure out how to attract members of the opposite sex.

Following that resolution, the boy’s life subsequently got way more awesome, even if the dating part didn’t go terribly well right away. All things take practice.

Why do you tell stories?

No one has ever given me a satisfactory reason why I shouldn’t. I’ve been playing pretend since I could talk, and haven’t seen fit to stop yet.

Also, it’s a way of re-assembling the millennia-old bones of story to emotionally and socially process life lessons over and over again for each new generation. Like you do.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Accept that revising is a skill just like first drafting is a skill. When you first start learning how to revise, you will suck and it may feel terrible and ineffective. But if you practice and persevere, you will get better at revising. And when that happens, you can stress about first drafts less and end up with overall more-awesome work.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

One of my writing instructors in undergrad told me that every writer should get a law degree. Unsurprisingly, she had just gotten a law degree. I know lots of writers, and a very small number of them have law degrees. I have noticed no discernible correlation between having a law degree and being a more successful writer, though I imagine it would give you cool stuff to write about just like any specialized knowledge.

Considering the fact that if I’d gone to law school right out of undergrad, I would probably have graduated right into one of the worst markets for freshly-minted attorneys in quite a while, and with six figures of shiny debt to go with it, I think I did okay with my Folklore M.A. and career in publishing that gives me sekrit knowledge of the industry which I get to use as a writer.

You have a folklore degree? Favorite story or character from folklore?

Folklorists, being a famously whacky people, were the perfect group of scholars to bamboozle into giving me a graduate degree for hanging out and playing tabletop RPGs, once I convinced them that it was part of an elaborate complex of overlapping subcultures where emergent collaborative storytelling persisted in multiple existence and constituted the largest oral tradition in North American popular culture.

Actually, I just found a great deal of support from the University of Oregon, especially since the Folklore M.A. is an interdisciplinary studies program – that meant that I got to combine Theater Arts classes and English/Film Studies work in with my Folklore to create an ad hoc Geek and Gamer studies M.A.

For part 2, I’m going to go with some hero legend action and choose Odysseus. I love Odysseus because he’s literary proof that pirates and ninja are not always enemies and certainly aren’t mutually exclusive.

How is that you say? Well, in The Illiad, Odysseus would rather be at home with his smart and hot wife, so he comes up with tons of tricks to end the war early, all of them involving being a sneaky bastard. The Greeks win the war because Odysseus was a ninja.

And then, in The Odyssey, he pirates his way around for a while before having a series of awesome and dangerous delays that Cap’n Jack Sparrow could only wish for.

What goes into writing a great character? Bonus round: give an example.

For me, writing a character often comes down to voice. Once I figure out a character’s talks, what their cultural frame of reference is, everything clicks. Through voice, most of the rest of the character becomes clear.

Say I’ve got a currently-undefined character who just learned something , and their reaction is to be incredulous. But how are they incredulous? In deciding how they express their incredulity, I learn who they are.

A character that says “No! It’ can’t be! AAAAH!!!” is someone with a lack of mental fortitude, who reacts directly.

A character that says “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” with a sardonic tone is more world-weary and crass.

And one that says “Blasphemy! The scrolls forbade it!” is obviously religious and defines their world by what they’ve read.

In a one-sentence response to a situation, I can open a door to the character through voice and start rolling.

Speak to me of Geekomancy: Give us the 140-character Twitter pitch.

Snarky geek barista discovers the secret crazy #UF world and learns geekomancy, the magic of fandom, to stop a string of suicides.

See, I even used a hashtag! I r l337 Twittarer. Or something.

How is that a story only you could’ve written? Why does it matter to you?

This story combines experiences from my time working at a game store, my graduate studies of subculture and narrative theory, my personal sense of humor, and my lifetime-thus-far of experience and fandom. I’ve read and seen a lot of urban fantasy, but no one had incorporated geekdom in quite the way I wanted to. I wanted a novel where fannishness wasn’t a trapping or just a character trait, it was integral to the magic and the organization of the secret magical society.

Geekomancy matters to me because it is, in my opinion, an optimistic but balanced depiction of geekdom. The magic system itself is a literalization of the metaphor of fannish love being empowering. Where I grew up learning mercy from Gandalf and Bilbo, loyalty to friends from Luke Skywalker, responsibility from Spider-Man, acceptance from the X-Men, and more, the heroes in Geekomancy gain literal power, able to fight demons both external and internal. And hell if that isn’t an awesome wish to be able to make true in a story.

In addition, I really wanted to show a different kind of geek protagonist. Therefore, I chose to write a queer female geek of color, because they exist, and are sorely under-represented in popular culture.

What should we expect with the sequel?

In Celebromancy, you can expect:

• Skyrim playing a critical role in a set-piece fight scene.

• Ree finding herself in a love rhombus (33% more awesome than a love triangle!)

• Lots of jokes and commentary about the weird nature of fame and Hollywood.

• More buddy-comedy action with everyone’s favorite steampunk adventurer out of time, Drake Winters.

• And more geeky in-jokes and pop culture references in the fine tradition of Geekomancy.

All of this and more, available 7/15/2013! </shill>

Geekomancy is an e-book only release: why that choice and how has it worked out for you?

When I got the offer from my editor, it was to publish Geekomancy as one of the launch titles for a re-branding of the Pocket Star imprint of Pocket/Gallery books, which had been all about media tie-ins, but was now going to revolve around e-original novellas and novels. I was hoping for a print-and-ebook deal, but the ebook original aspect turned out to have a number of advantages, the greatest of which being that it was less than six months between selling the novel and it being released.

Many debut authors have to wait 12-18 months from sale to pub-date, and I felt like everything went super-fast leading up to Geekomancy’s release, which kept me from going “wah, I can’t wait for the book to come out!”, at least too much. I got tons of support from my publisher, including the novel being featured at both San Diego and New York Comic-Con, awesome d20 sticker for the book, and some choice advertisement. Plus, it’s fun to be on the leading edge of a company’s foray into a new business model. It means a lot of people are invested in and excited about your work, perhaps even a bit moreso than normal.

The response to the book has been inspiring and delightful, and I hope to keep being able to play in this universe for quite some time to come, since I think I could write ten books in the series without exhausting all of the cool weird things to joke about and reference in geekdom, especially since new awesome things come out of the geek worlds all the time. I didn’t even get to include The Avengers and Prometheus in Celebromancy, since I set the novel in the late spring of 2012. Those will have to wait for the next one!

What are your three geekiest obsessions in order from least-most to utter-most?

#3 – Historical Martial Arts

This one would be ranked higher if it were more in the central wheelhouse of geekdom, as it’s one I’m very passionate about.

I can do a solid impression of German, Spanish, and Italian martial arts of the late medieval and Renaissance eras, including some wrestling and hand-to-hand techniques, several different rapier styles, as well as the use of the longsword and the greatsword (2d6 damage dice FTW!) I know enough Italian and Spanish rapier to teach the basics. I can give a solid fight mostly in the style of late 16th Century Spanish fight masters (even better if I get to cheat by including some Italian tricks).

And, most useful for cocktail parties, I can explain (with demonstrations) the entire logic behind the chain of styles the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya discuss in the duel on the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride.

#2 — Batman

These top two aren’t a claim to Real Ultimate Power in terms of knowing more about the property than anyone in particular, but are more about time spent thinking about and engaged with the property.

If there’s one superhero I could talk about for a whole day ad still have something to say, it’d be Batman. I’ve presented on Batman at academic conferences (the paper was titled “Holy Genre Trouble, Batman!: Batman as Pulp Vigilante Trapped in a Superhero World”), have a Batman wallet, a Bat-Mug, and more.

I love how many times the character has been re-invented and re-interpreted, from two-fisted vigilante in the late 30s through being the whacky victim of Sci-Fi transformation of the week in the Atomic Age of SF, camp New Pop closeted hero in the 60s TV show through grim Paternalistic anti-hero in the Dark Knight Returns and beyond. The character has achieved an indelible place in the English-speaking pop cultural world, and far beyond in some areas. And for me, he’s a character who is tremendously useful in discussions about the nature of heroism, societal norms, and the role of violence, power, justice, and obsession.

#1 – Star Wars

I saw Return of the Jedi before I was one year old. While developmental psychology may not back me up, I feel like that fact says a lot about me. Star Wars might have been my first fandom, watching and re-watching the original trilogy a bajillion times before I was in grade school. From there, I watched the Ewok movies, listened to countless expanded universe novels as books on tape, read the Jedi Academy books, etc. I’ve played the various SW RPGs, MMOs, and am eagerly awaiting 1313. I often find myself defending parts of the prequel trilogy (there’s some great stuff in there!) and am cautiously optimistic about the new future of the universe under Disney’s umbrella – after all, it’s worked wonders for Marvel Studios.

And when all is said and done, one of my proudest achievements is getting to write a character using a lightsaber in a published novel.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

I’ll go with a slightly older book that I think doesn’t get near enough love: Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. Stover combines Sci-Fi and Fantasy in an exciting way, and paints a character who is far deeper than the Action-Hero gruff badass he presents as at first. It’s got great action scenes, solid romance, and might be the only narrative to combine Sword & Sorcery with Cyberpunk this side of Shadowrun.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Cafune – a Brazilian Portuguese word for ‘to caress someone’s hair.’ It’s a tremendously precise word to describe a primal and tender motion. It’s schmoopy.

Asshat – It’s short and straightforward without being overly OMG IN YOUR FACE TEH CUSSING! Plus it’s not sexist, homophobic, or any of the other less-than-awesome -isms that are often the source of why a word counts as profanity.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Red-Headed Sister – Jagermeister, cranberry cocktail and peach schnapps, in equal quantities. Add soda to turn it from a cocktail into a sipping beverage.

What skills do you bring to help the us win the inevitable war against the robots?

Aside from my historical martial arts fu, I’m also working undercover for Angry Robot, learning how our Future Robot Overlords operate. When push comes to shove, I will use my cybernetic upgrades to turn the tide of battle. Assuming the obedience protocols programmed in don’t keep me fighting for the robots.

What’s it like working for the Grumpy Cyborgs who publish my novels? Do they beat you? Do they hunt humans for sport?

A: Aside from the long recovery time from the mandatory cybernetic upgrades, it’s great! I get to read incredible novels for work, sell those novels (including some really cool ones about a pottymouthed seer where the voice is so sharp it’d cut a monofilament wire by this guy called Wendig).

Most of all, I get to be an even larger part in helping support and grow the SF/F readership community while helping writers get their work into the most numerous and most receptive hands possible. I spend my day helping other writers’ dreams come true, which inspires me to work on my own dreams when I head home for the day. I couldn’t ask for a better day job.

And yes, they do hunt humans for sport. But because they are strange beings with inscrutable motivations, when they catch the humans they shake them down for stories, then keep the ones who provide the best ones. Some people juggle geese.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I’m revising the sequel to Geekomancy right now, and have a New Weird Superhero novel heading out to market shortly. And while that’s shopping around, I’ll get back to a YA fantasy which features magic fencing, skyship warfare, and geo-politics.

16 comments

  • Great interview! Was totally delighted when my Google Reader showed Wendig was doing this interview (am a fan of both of you). Mike, if we ever meet, I’d love to hear the entire logic behind the chain of styles the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya discuss in the duel on the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride!!

    • Thanks, Paul! I really hope I can find a good home for that series, since I was extra-inspired by the brilliant swordplay in Doug Hulick’s AMONG THIEVES. It helps that Doug’s historical martial arts knowledge makes mine look like dabbling. :)

  • Great interview! The series sounds fun and fabulous. Mike, I’m pretty sure you could fill a conference room at a Con with the chain of logic behind the duel on the Cliffs of Insanity – I’d be there for sure – but then, I’m a true Geek (it’s my honest-to-goodness maiden name). Plus…I may have (yes I did) used the music from The Princess Bride during my wedding ceremony. Ahh…marrwage…

    • I’d love to get a panel full of historical martial artists together at a convention to talk sword geekery. There are certainly enough practitioners who are also authors to fill a panel, and if we could get Neal Stephenson to participate, we could fill up a ballroom. :)

      “Wuv, two wuv. Is wat bwings us togevah, todawy.”

      • Yes, and yes please! Historical martial arts should be a bigger part of everybody’s worldview. Plus, there’s a chance of geese juggling. Many ‘Verses, many geese.

  • I still kick myself for not reading Geekomancy when I saw it floating around on Book Country. Glad to know Mr. Underwood is doing well. Looking forward to the sequel to Geekomancy so I have another book to recommend to geek cultured readers.

  • An excellent interview, not enough people in my life reference juggled geese. (well, baby geese, goslings). And geekomancy is honestly one of my favorite pieces of Urban Fantasy, much in the vein of MiddleMan for favored television show. I cannot wait for Geekomancy’s sequel. /fanboyish squee

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds