Creating Genrenauts: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. Underwood is the author of a number of urban fantasy novels, including Genrenauts and the Ree Reyes series. He was kind enough to answer some of our burning questions and give us a few hints about his future work.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Genrenauts is the first in a series. Can you share your plans for future books?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Oh, what plans I have. I had so many plans that Lee Harris, my editor, had to get me to dial it back a bit (I was ready to sell 30 novellas all at once off a full series proposal. I admit that was a bit ambitious).

Genrenauts is structured to evoke a television series – it’s organized into six-episode ‘seasons,’ with five seasons planned for the complete arc. The first two episodes are in the can for Tor.com Publishing, and I have four more episodes written and in various stages of revision. My plan is to publish all of season one, preferably by the end of next year if all goes according to plan. Once the whole first season is out, I’ll see how folks are liking it and decide how to continue.

Episode 1 – “The Shootout Solution” takes our heroes to the Western genre to confront a bandit posse, and Episode 2 – “The Absconded Ambassador,” shows them visiting a region of the Science Fiction world inspired by works such as Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9, to track down and return a kidnapped ambassador in order to salvage a nascent galactic alliance.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What is it about the novella format that drew you to write one?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: I really enjoyed writing a shorter story in the Ree Reyes series with Attack the Geek, so when Tor.com announced their novella project, I jumped at the opportunity to play in that space again, to focus on shorter, but still rich stories, with enough words to flesh out a world but without the need to fill it with sub-plots. I thought a lot about the format of TV and TV miniseries when designing Genrenauts, as well as the serial storytelling in comics. I’ve written a whole season for the series so far, and I’m really enjoying the novella as a form, which means I’ll probably be writing more, even outside Genrenauts.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: It’s been called a fresh take on the portal fantasy, although you’re billing it as comedic SF. Can it be tied down to any one genre?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Part of what I love about Genrenauts is that it’s very intentionally playing with genres – it’s a story about stories, how and why we tell them. Each episode will have some of the feel of the genre world the heroes are visiting, and the sense of humor and play with genres will always be present, but I can definitely see why people would interpret it as portal fantasy – it has some of that sense of enchanted estrangement, where people from our world visit strange and exciting realms.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: If you could travel to any of the worlds in the Genrenauts multiverse which one would you travel to and why?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: If I were single, it would definitely be the Romantic Comedy region of the Romance world, since I’m a big fan of Rom-Coms, even with the big heaps of cultural baggage that most of them carry. But since I’m very happily involved, I’d say that my #1 wish would be to travel to the Traditional Fantasy region of the Fantasy world. To get the chance to walk among dwarves and elves, to see magic in a marketplace, to lift a glass of ale in an inn, to put on a cloak and sit in a corner and give a group of adventurers a task to go clean out a nearby cave, would be about the coolest thing for me as a life-long fantasy geek.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What drew you to stand-up comedy as a job for Leah?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Genrenauts, being all about stories, is also about storytellers. Each member of the team has a different perspective and set of skills as a storyteller, so when designing Leah as the main POV character (she’s the new recruit, and therefore serves as the reader’s self-insert character in being introduced to the Genrenauts), I wanted a style of storytelling that required analysis and humor, but also improvisational skills, the ability to work on your feet. I’ve been impressed by stand-up over the years, especially comedians like Eddie Izzard, and stand-up is also a form of storytelling that is explicitly comedy-focused (at least for many performers), and I wanted to bring a comedian’s perspective to the story, being a comedy-minded writer myself.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: She’s a very interesting character. Did you draw upon any real people to create her?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Thanks! I didn’t so much draw on any one specific person so much as bits and bobs from a lot of women that I know and have known over the years. Leah has my curiosity about and love for narrative genres and how they’re put together, but she also has really high-end emotional intelligence/empathy skills. She’s great at reading people, in a way drawn from a few wonderful people in my life (wonderful for many reasons, including the fact that they use their empathy to try to help people). That ability to read people made sense as a non-supernatural super-power for a stand-up comic with an improv background, and her skill lets me unpack a lot in the stories as well as making it easier for me to lean into characterization and interpersonal dynamics, which is a part of craft and storytelling I’ve always been fascinated by and have been working into my fiction more and more.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Is this a departure from your usual oeuvre?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: I actually think of Genrenauts as being a big return to form for me. It’s my first straight-up science fiction book series, but in tone and topic, Genrenauts shares a lot with the Ree Reyes books, my first (and longest) published series. It’s a fun action-adventure with sharp, sarcastic characters while the structure of the world (magic in Ree Reyes, the multiverse in Genrenauts) lets me do a lot of work in examining stories and why people are passionate about them – what stories do personally and socially.

The format is a departure, as I’d only written one novella before starting Genrenauts. I thought a lot about other novella series I’d seen (fellow Tor.com Publishing novella writer Matt Wallace’s SLINGERS, for one), as well as ‘fiction in TV seasons’ series like Yesterday’s Gone by Sean Platt & David Wright, online serialization like Catherynne M. Valente’s first Fairyland book, as well as the more recent round of digital serials from Tor and Amazon. Of course, now there are even more serial fiction setups like SerialBox in the world, so it seems like I’m in good company, which helps me from feeling adrift in terms of format and structure.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Which genre world are you most looking forward to writing about and why?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: This is a tie for me right now between Wuxia and Horror. I want to write a Wuxia story because I like the genre, and because I have plans to explore non-Western/European storytelling genres as the series goes on, to talk about different cultural context, how stepping into and engaging with stories from an unfamiliar genre can tell you about the culture that created it. I’ve got plans to do this kind of story in Genrenauts a few times throughout the series as the team heads to other bases around the world (which cover those non-Western genres). The team in Genrenauts is intentionally multicultural and multi-national, which gives me a bigger range of character subject positions to investigate those differences from.

I want to tackle horror because it’s a genre I didn’t grow up loving, but am coming to appreciate more as an adult, largely through my fiancée introducing me to the milestone texts (mostly films) for her as a big horror buff. Horror has a lot of deconstructions and meta-narratives, but I have an idea for a Genrenauts Horror story with a deconstruction/metafictional angle that I don’t think has been done before, nor do my expert sources.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but that will probably never come up in an interview?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Let’s go with ‘if you could have beers/drinks with any deceased author, who would it be?’

There are an almost infinite number of answers for this, especially if I got to apply the Star Trek Universal Translator rule and chat with people whose language I don’t speak.

Some strong options: Chuang Tzu, author of book of the same name – an important Yin/Yang school writer who would later be rolled into the Taoist tradition. Chuang Tzu was a very compelling storyteller, more literal and narrative than the Lao Tzu (the better-known book associated with the Taoist tradition). I’d ask where the stories came from, what he meant by cutting through the empty space in the tale of Cook Ding, and more.

William Shakespeare – because seriously, Shakespeare. I’d ask about re-contextualizing new stories, about story-crafting for multiple social classes all at once, about reading a crowd and about refining work through performance. And I’d see if I could break the time stream by having him write an allusion to one of my stories into a play which people can then gripe at me for ripping off. But I’ll know better.

But ultimately, I think the one I’d have to pick is someone I might have only missed by a few years, if fate had gone just a bit of a different way – Octavia Butler, who died suddenly in 2005, just as I was getting into the world of SF/F prose publishing. I’ve read and been incredibly moved by Butler’s fiction, but also her essays, especially those in her collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. Her work tackles power and oppression and worldview head-on in a way that totally kicks my ass, and I would have loved the chance to speak with her about writing and social justice. If by ‘speak with’ one means ‘mostly listen and occasionally ask follow-ups,’ which I do.

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