Michael R Underwood is an alumnus from the world of Academia, who has turned his academic interest in mythology, and all things geek into being an author, a sales and marketing manager for Angry Robot Books, and a podcaster. His works have ranged the gamut of fantasy: superheroes in a fantasy universe Shield and Crocus. Near-apocalypse urban fantasy with The Younger Gods. And the urban fantasy geekery-as-magic Ree Reyes books.
His newest project, Genrenauts, further leverages his interest in geekery as direct fuel for fantasy and science fiction. After publishing two novellas in the series through Tor Dot Com Publishing, Michael has launched a kickstarter to extend the Genrenauts universe. I had a chance to talk with Michael about his writing, the benefits of Kickstarting, and just being a geek.
For those unfamiliar with you, who is Mike Underwood?
I’m a writer, podcaster, and publishing professional. My books include the Ree Reyes Geekomancy series, superhero weird fantasy Shield and Crocus, and Genrenauts, a science fiction adventure series in novellas. I’m a co-host on Hugo Award-nominated fancast The Skiffy & Fanty Show, and my day job is as the North American sales & marketing manager for Angry Robot Books. I keep busy.
When I’m not doing any of the above, I love reading comics, playing games (video, board, role-playing) and make home-made pizza. I used to be active in Argentine Tango and Western Martial Arts, but health and time constraints have pushed those to the side for now.
Most of the fiction of yours I’ve read has had strong elements with geeky ideas and themes. What draws you to work in that space?
It’s really a case of write what you know, or in this case, write what fascinates you. Love of SF/F and storytelling has been a major part of my life since I was very young, so my work tends to use the ways of seeing the world that are familiar to me, then made different or new by adding elements of the fantastic. The Geekomancy books came into existence as the result of asking myself “what would geek magic be?” and Genrenauts is a fictional manifestation of my fascination with story genres—how they shape narrative and put works into dialogue with one another, and how storytelling creates social and personal reality. A fair amount of my fiction is an extension of my short-lived academic career. I completed a M.A. in Folklore Studies, focusing on tabletop RPGs and geek culture. After leaving academia, the things that fascinate me end up as stories instead of essays.
What’s the elevator pitch for the Genrenauts verse? What was the genesis of the idea?
Genrenauts is like Leverage by way of Quantum Leap and Redshirts, where a group travels to worlds based on narrative genres to find and fix broken stories in order to protect Earth.
The seed for what would eventually become Genrenauts was a single bit scribbled down in a notebook—something like “Portal fantasy where the woman from our Earth can predict what’s happening in Fantasyland because she knows genre. She says “Of course the Vizier is the traitor! It’s always the Vizier. Also, look at that goatee!’”
The basic idea, then, was to be able to influence stories by knowing about tropes and story types. I wanted to have the series involve more than just one genre, which led to the idea of a story-based multiverse. From there, I started focusing in on what kind of series I wanted it to be—episodic, where each story was a mission. Ensemble-based, so I could have different characters with different story and genre specialties, and serial, where the individual episodes would build into a larger whole, with narrative momentum that would take it beyond the original ‘story of the week’ premise.
You’ve shown in wide release four worlds so far, Westerns (The Shootout Solution), Space Opera SF (The Absconded Ambassador), Post Apocalyptic (“There Always Will be a Max”), and Romance (The Cupid Reconciliation). How did you come to choose to write these stories first, as our entry into this universe?
When I was outlining the first season of Genrenauts, I knew that I wanted to have the team cover the bases of the major US commercial genres—Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, and Crime. And with a two-part season finale, I had just one more story to include beyond those four. I listened to a ton of Louis L’Amour books on tape as a kid, and I’ve been fond of Westerns ever since. Because the tropes and archetypes of Westerns are very well-defined, I thought that it would prove to be a good place to start, as it’d be easier to show contrast with the expectations most readers have of the genre.
And honestly, “There Will Always Be a Max” was written about 99% because I had just watched Mad Max: Fury Road and was so filled with joy and excitement that I had to write something riffing on the film. I have been a fan of Post-Apocalyptic fiction for a long time, so this was almost inevitable.
So with the variety of Genrenauts worlds, it looks like your world is designed to have cross-appeal to a bunch of potential readers. Are there any particular subset of readers you consider core to the concept? Who is the target readership?
I think the most likely Genrenauts readers are people someone whose taste is omnivoracious—they like books and media across a variety of genres, and moreover, they also like thinking about what genres mean and how they set reader/viewer expectations. Other readers that are a likely fit for the series those that like heist/con-artist stories, since the main team tends to use that style to get their way, from cover identities to social engineering, intrusion, and more.
Let’s talk about your campaign. Why a Kickstarter?
I’m Kickstarting a complete Season One collection of Genrenauts, collecting all six novellas from the first season. The campaign is going very well so far—we’ve passed the original funding goal, and are charging on toward audiobook stretch goals as well as the whimsy goals, where I’m offering to do ridiculous deeds if we hit certain landmarks (things like reading some of my early, terrible fiction, or video-recording a performance of a song from Hamilton, etc.)
As to why, there are a lot of reasons. I’d seen other writers using Kickstarter, and I loved how the campaign is an event unto itself, how it helps unify a bunch of people with the common goal of making a project happen. I’ve backed a ton of Kickstarters, and there’s a great sense of community as a backer, and I was excited to help foster that for the Genrenauts series.
Not long into 2016, I realized that there were two incompatible truths about Genrenauts: 1) as a TV-style serial episodic story, it needed to release quickly to find its rhythm—that would require all six episodes of season one releasing by the end of this year. 2) Tor.com wasn’t in a position to publish five novellas from me in one year. Even Matt Wallace’s very successful Sin du Jour series is currently only scheduled for three novellas in 2016.
To resolve that contradiction, I needed to take the reins for the series and publish them myself. Tor.com has been and continues to be supportive during this transition, and I’m very grateful to them. Logistically, Kickstarter was the best way for me to collect the funds necessary to pay for the production costs for Episodes 3-6 so they could release on time. It could let me raise the funds and bring more attention to the series in one fell swoop.
And, honestly, I wanted to see if I could pull it off
What parts of the Genrenauts universe most excites you to bring to readers?
The thing I love most about Genrenauts is that the series lets me combine my love of fun, action-adventure storytelling with fairly thorough examination of how story genres work, why we tell stories the way that we do, and the social use of stories. There’s a lot of very serious books out in the SF/F world, and they are some of my favorite works—they inspire and challenge me. My aesthetic as a writer tends toward lighter, more action-oriented storytelling, but as I saw in Fury Road, action stories can carry big, important messages. So with Genrenauts, I’m trying to combine adventure with insight in this series.