Author Interview: Michael R. Underwood, author of “Geekomancy”

Today I’m so pleased to welcome Michael R. Underwood, author of the super fun and super geeky book Geekomancy (Pocket Star, July 10, 2012). I read it this past summer and loved it, and reached out to Mike via Twitter. He was gracious enough to answer some questions about his book, his writing process, path to publication, and what’s in store with him for the future!


First, the blurb for the book!

Clerks meets Buffy the Vampire the Slayer in this original urban fantasy eBook about Geekomancers—humans that derive supernatural powers from pop culture.

Ree Reyes’s life was easier when all she had to worry about was scraping together tips from her gig as a barista and comicshop slave to pursue her ambitions as a screenwriter.

When a scruffy-looking guy storms into the shop looking for a comic like his life depends on it, Ree writes it off as just another day in the land of the geeks. Until a gigantic “BOOM!” echoes from the alley a minute later, and Ree follows the rabbit hole down into her town’s magical flip-side. Here, astral cowboy hackers fight trolls, rubber-suited werewolves, and elegant Gothic Lolita witches while wielding nostalgia-powered props.

Ree joins Eastwood (aka Scruffy Guy), investigating a mysterious string of teen suicides as she tries to recover from her own drag-your-heart-through-jagged-glass breakup. But as she digs deeper, Ree discovers Eastwood may not be the knight-in-cardboard armor she thought. Will Ree be able to stop the suicides, save Eastwood from himself, and somehow keep her job?

Hi Mike, thank you for being here. (I then attempt to do a virtual geek secret handshake/fist bump thing–Represent!–and promptly mess it up. Mike’s giving me a weird look). Ahem, moving along… Right when I saw the cover and blurb for your book, Geekomancy, I instantly bought it. How has the response for your book been so far from fellow geeks?

I’ve been overwhelmed by the love Geekomancy has gotten from geeks from all walks of life. When I set out to write Geekomancy, I wasn’t specifically intending it to be a love letter to geekdom, it just kind of ended up that way and I ran with it. Every time I see a recommendation or review come across Twitter, it hits me again how special it is to have been able to get out a story that connects with people and their passions. I’m very lucky to have gotten a chance to share the story, and even luckier that the response has been so positive.

What was your inspiration for the book? Was it one ‘a-ha’ little seed that then grew through a series of ‘what-ifs’ or did it come to you some other way?

Geekomancy started as a distraction. I was busy working on another novel, Codenamed Metaphysical Fencing Academy, and was having some trouble figuring out what to do next. My brain, industrious and insidious as it is, took this delay as a chance to pipe up with an idea about an urban fantasy where the magic came from pop culture. I took the Thanksgiving weekend to let the idea play out while hanging out with my girlfriend (as she worked on her thesis for grad school) and before I knew it, Geekomancy had totally taken over my attention, demanding to be written first.

This is more a comment than a question, but I, of course, loved the Firefly references. Thank you for including them! It made me feel like it was indeed a legit geek thing, making it into a book geared to fellow geeks :)

Of course! I’ve been a Whedonite since the early days of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer show, and I loved Firefly most of all, with the fun slang, the great characterization, and the amazing community which built up around the show and the story. It was only natural to work Firefly references in, especially once I figured out Eastwood’s voice (and his cursing style in particular).

Your protagonist is female. What made you decide to have the main character be female? And thank you for doing that, as it was refreshing not to have it be a boy geek…

I’ve seen a lot of stories about male geeks. And even more about white male geeks, and straight white male geeks. And I know many female geeks, geeks of color, and queer geeks. So when I picked my protagonist, I wanted to feature a protagonist to partially represent the diversity in geekdom. It also let me give myself the challenge of writing a tight-POV with a female lead, which I will talk about in the next question.

How hard was it, as a guy, to write from a female POV?

Great follow-up question! I tried to make Ree a person who was female more than a female person. I didn’t want her to be female first, and for that to somehow be my brain’s overriding control on interpreting how she’d act. My female friends and family, when compared to one another, are just as diverse as my male friends and family, so I just used my experience of female friends, how they talk, act, and respond to things, grabbed a few characteristics, and then tried to stay consistent to my internal conception of who Ree was as a character, merits and flaws, skills and talents, and go from there. I made sure to consult female friends as first readers and critique partners to make sure I wasn’t going off the rails, and made a number of tweaks based on their feedback.

Your B.A. is in Creative Mythology. That sounds totally awesome and cool, but then my head tilts and I wonder what that exactly means, specifically the ‘creative’ part?

I blame Joseph Campbell. I was a perfectly happy freshman intent on declaring an East Asian Language and Culture major, then I read The Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and had a huge lightbulb moment. I wanted to go all the way down the mythology and storytelling rabbit hole, and rather than triple majoring in Folklore, Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies (because at the time you couldn’t triple major at IU), I found the Individualized Major Program. It required a lot of legwork, but ultimately it let me build my own course list and synthesize classes from all over to inform my writing. My approach for creative mythology was to learn about how various world cultures formed worldview using mythology and folk narrative, then try to apply that same structural approach to write new myths that would symbolically resonate/inspire contemporary audiences. In reality, I just learned a bunch about worldview and storytelling, which helped me a great deal, maybe just not in the ways I originally intended.

You also have a Masters in Folklore, which I also think is tres cool, I concentrated in folklore studies for my Masters in Heritage Preservation. How much did your BA and Masters influence your writing? Hmm, just realized your whole book could be an example of Creative Mythology… (am a little slow on the uptake this morning, takes me a while to fully awaken since I don’t do caffeine).

My writing very much flows out of my academic work. Geekomancy is quite directly informed by the work I did at my master’s program, studying tabletop RPG groups and geek culture, since it was that work that got me to really start seriously thinking about what geekdom meant, why people invested in these clusters of hobbies, why those hobbies overlapped, and what this overall ‘geek culture’ thing was, especially as various aspects of geek culture were becoming very prominent in mass culture (Superhero movies, the seemingly-unstoppable rise of video games, continued tech ascendance, etc.)

The other major academic -> writer influence is my general folklore and mythology background, which prepares me to be more effective in fabricating non-earth cultures with some sense of authenticity. I know how cultures fit together, how tradition clashes with and adapts to innovation, and I have a big bucket of tradition, ritual, folk narrative and cultural stuff to draw upon, mix together, and apply for my own work. This means that I generally lean more towards fantasy than SF, but both of my published short stories so far are SF, so who knows.

Your book is chock full of nerd and geek references– I described it once to someone as Nerd Porn, as there’s one fun reference after another. Did this make it more difficult or easier to find an agent and then an editor?

My path to publication for Geekomancy is a very non-standard one, but I think that this era of rapid change in publishing is making stories like mine radically more common.

If I’d submitted Geekomancy as a first novel the traditional route, I think it might have. But I got very very lucky.

Shortly after I finished the rough draft of Geekomancy, I posted the first few chapters on a site called BookCountry.com, which is a writing and critiquing community for genre fiction writers. I’d posted a previous project there, and gotten good feedback, so I decided I’d post the rough draft for Geekomancy and share my whole revision process on the site. Make it a Thing.

I got a few reviews, and started revising based on that and other feedback. Then in January of 2012, I got an email from Adam Wilson at Pocket/Gallery that he’d read my excerpt at Book Country, liked it, then found a post on my blog saying that I’d just finished a full draft and could he see it?

Despite my trepidation about submitting a barely-revised super-rough-I-mean-like-bleeding-raw-rough draft to an editor, I did it. And just over a week later, I had an offer for a book deal. I took the window of consideration he could give me on deciding on the deal to go out and try to find an agent, and did a Lightning Round of agent searching, drawing on my experiences trying to get an agent with a previous project. I sent out around a dozen full manuscripts to agents per their requests, ended up with two offers of rep, and happily signed with Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency.

I think that some agents probably ended up passing because it was so All-Geek-All-The-Time, but I had a passionate and supportive editor who was willing to sign a debut author off of a 2nd draft, and found an agent who was willing to jump in on a deal that had already started being made because she was that invested in the project and in my work.

Your agent is the fabulous Sara Megibow. How did you go about ensnaring her? A lot of my blog readers are fellow writers and would love to get a little peek into your journey.

This is mostly covered in the previous question, but I can give a little more detail. Sara said that Nelson Literary gets 2-3 queries a month for authors that have deals on the table, but that mine was the first time either she or Kristen Nelson, the founder of the agency, has ever offered rep on such a query. I believe that I snared her with a query letter that was reflective of the voice of the novel (sarcastic, very verbal, comedic, and geek-tacular) and then delivered the kind of voice and kind of story that I promised in the letter, and that she connected personally with the character and the story, being of the Geek persuasion herself. When we talked on the phone, we got on swimmingly, and since then it’s just been marvelous. I’m working on notes for new projects now, and will be chatting with Sara about those soon, moving forward with my career as a novelist, and I couldn’t be happier to have her as my professional partner.

What has been the best experience so far, now that you’re a published author?

I said this above, but it’s totally the coolest thing. The hands-down best thing for me so far has been seeing the stories from readers about how they personally connected with the novel and with Ree. I’ve gotten emails and reviews where the reader talked about their personal connection to the shows/books/movies that are referenced in the novel and how seeing that love mirrored in the novel resonated with them. The novel is in many ways a love letter to geekdom, and it’s been amazing how many people in geekdom have written back to reciprocate and echo that love – love of the stories, the characters, the worlds that bring us together.

I see a sequel is in the works. Can you share anything yet about it? What can we expect (besides awesome geekiness abounding)?

I’ll give you a bullet list of things to expect:

  • Romance
  • Show Business
  • Rooftop chase
  • An Upgraded Geekomantic arsenal
  • A new magic system
  • More buddy action with Drake Winters

What was your favorite part about writing Geekomancy? Was there a character that surprised you along the way?

I can’t give the singular best part, but one of the best parts was taking a lifetime of passion for and knowledge of pop culture and geek stuff and weaving it together into a narrative. I got to look at the big wing of my brain that’s labeled ‘Geekdom!’ and rummage through with abandon for fun jokes, plot points, cool artifacts, whatever I wanted, it was all fair game. I didn’t have to water anything down, be coy about alluding to this that or whatever. If I wanted to make a joke, I made it. Some of them would later be edited out, but that sense of freedom was really invigorating.

I found Drake endearing. Will we see more of him in the sequel?

For sure. He’s far and away my favorite secondary character in the series, and he’s tremendously fun to write, especially as a straight-man to Ree’s sarcastic jokester. They turned out to be a better buddy-adventure pair than I’d initially imagined, and I feel like I can get a lot of mileage out of that relationship. Especially as other parts of their relationship change…

And the question always near and dear to a writer’s heart– are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between?

I live somewhere in-between, which I attribute to my time playing tabletop RPGs, specifically as a Game Master/Storyteller. As the person who had to provide an entertaining and fulfilling story for 3-6 people, I learned to make a variety of half-ready plans, then jump on whatever the players ended up choosing. This means that I do a decent bit of rough sketching, usually involving figuring out the ending and then backtracking to lay down a few way-points where the story turns, so that when I start the draft, I know where I’m going in the end, and I know what big turns I have to take to get there. But it still leaves me with big huge chunks of undiscovered territory, and even knowing the plot turns in general doesn’t mean I’ve got them totally crystalized in my mind. This means that I still get to surprise myself, and if I come up with something that I think is even cooler, I’m happy to go off the rails in certain places.

I’m hoping to experiment with a bit more structure for some future project to see how that works out, especially if I want to get to a point where I can produce two novels a year while still working a day job and having a social life. I get the sense that that pace of production would require a bit better pre-planning. But then again, I wrote the rough draft of the Geekomancy sequel in just about 6 months, so maybe I can get there as is.

Do you have any words of wisdom to fellow writers struggling to land the elusive agent?

When constructing your query, go out and find the back cover copy of a bunch of novels in the same genre, both for novels you’ve already read and ones you haven’t. Figure out what the copy on the novels you’ve read communicates about those books, what it draws out to tease a reader. Then look at the ones for books you haven’t read and try to figure out which ones most compel you to read more.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to re-create that marketing magic for your own novel. The absolute only thing a query letter needs to do is convince an agent to read more. But in doing so, it must also tell the truth about your novel, because if you promise one thing in the query and then don’t deliver that thing at all in the novel, chances are you won’t hook their representation.

Again, thank you so much for agreeing to do this! Us geeks need to stick together :)

Thanks for having me! In the words of our people, may the Force be with you.

———

Me again! So enjoyed this interview and his answers. Here’s more about Mike:

Hello! I’m Michael R. Underwood (I go by Mike Underwood, but the full name + initial makes Google happier), speculative fiction writer and North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. This blog was formerly called 21st Century Geeks.

I hold a B.A. in Creative Mythology (through the Individualized Major Program) and East Asian Studies from Indiana University and a M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon.

In 2007, I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which was the biggest boost to my writing career I’ve had yet. I’ve worked as a fiction reader for Fantasy Magazine, as well as writing for PopMatters.com as a DVD reviewer and essayist.

My first novel is an urban fantasy called Geekomancy (published July 2012 by Pocket Star, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Geekomancy was inspired by stories like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clerks, the Dresden Files, and The Middleman, as well as my experiences growing up geek. I am currently working on the sequel to Geekomancy, which will be coming in 2013.

Where to find Mike:

website | twitter

Where to find Geekomancy:

Amazon | iTunes | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

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