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.

Creating Giant Thief: An Interview with David Tallerman

David Tallerman’s short fiction has appeared in dozens of professional magazines, and his story, “Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place”, is featured in this month’s issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine. But he is also a talented novelist. The Easie Damasco trilogy, which consists of Giant Thief, Crown Thief, and Prince Thief, was published by Angry Robot books in 2012/2013. We’re excited to hear his thoughts on the world and characters that he’s created.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What is it about the fantasy thief trope that attracted you to write the Easie Damasco trilogy?

DAVID TALLERMAN: Partly distrust, I think. Thief and rogue are almost synonymous in fantasy, and we’ve seen an awful lot of thieving rogues and roguish thieves. But thieves aren’t quite so entertaining in real life, and the ones I’ve had personal experience with weren’t charming at all, so I thought it would be interesting to write about a fantasy thief who just plain wasn’t a nice person – as Easie Damasco most definitely isn’t, especially at the point when we first encounter him.

On the other hand, it was really appealing to have a character who could say or do the things that no one else would; as some reviewers have pointed out, Damasco really isn’t the protagonist of the books so much as a hanger-on who sometimes manages to nudge the plot one way or another and generally gets to comment on it from an outsider’s perspective. Having someone who’s a thief and a genuinely dishonest human being who has no place in the company of more traditional fantasy heroes, but who still basically thinks he knows better than they do, that was a lot of fun to write.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Is the door closed to any further Easie Damasco books?

DAVID TALLERMAN: The short answer is, yes. The slightly longer answer is that I did have the bare bones of a fourth Damasco novel in my head, and the keen-eyed will find the odd clue as to what it would have been about in Prince Thief. It’s a fun story, and one I’d have liked to have shared. But the truth is that I don’t own the universe or characters – the publisher, Angry Robot, does – and the response to the initial trilogy wasn’t strong enough for them to express interest in more books.

Truthfully, though, there are so many other things I want to do, and as far as Easie Damasco goes, I feel like I told the story I really wanted to tell. I was hugely lucky to get to do that. So while my thoughts sometimes drift back to Damasco and what the future might hold for him, it’s not an itch I’m desperate to scratch.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: The transition from amusing fantasy rogue to someone with a burgeoning conscience feels very natural. How hard was that to get right?

It was definitely tricky. I wanted any developments in Damasco’s character to feel genuinely hard-won. Here was a character with a clear philosophy of why it was basically okay for him to do the things he did, who was immensely good at justifying his own wrongdoing, and someone like that doesn’t just change overnight. So, yeah, a lot of work went into trying to make the character development convincing, to have Damasco sometimes backslide, to make it a conscious process rather than just him waking up one day with a fully-formed conscience. After all, even when you want to do the right thing, it’s not as though it’s easy to see what that is.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Was this always the planned character arc?

DAVID TALLERMAN: I always intended that Damasco would be a somewhat better person by the end of Giant Thief than he was at the start, even if that wasn’t entirely the same as him ending up as a “good” person. But until I sold the first book, I only had vague ideas of what a sequel or sequels would involve. Once I knew I had two more books to play with, it seemed sensible to continue with what I’d begun. On the other hand, like I said above, I was adamant that any kind of continuing moral development couldn’t be smooth sailing. So if Damasco’s conscience grows more involved as the story goes on, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he makes better decisions on the back of it!

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Although the Tales of Easie Damasco are pretty light hearted there are some complex moral issues explored. Do you feel that fantasy is a good medium for exploring complex moral issues?

DAVID TALLERMAN: Absolutely. Fantasy lets you talk about huge issues in the abstract, without getting bogged down in the specifics that tend to derail real-life debates. A fantasy world can serve as a great Petri dish in which to fling ideas about and to set ideologies up against one another; in the real world we tend to moralise after the event, whereas in a fantasy novel you can present these difficult situations and face them head on, as they’re happening.

One of my goals with the Tales was that there would be no easy answers and no clear right and wrong: all the characters have good reasons for the things they do, and the ones with what may seem like the best intentions don’t necessarily achieve the most good. You know, it’s easy to pick on the fantasy warlord, to present that kind of character as being flat-out evil, but in real life they would have their motives, their people they’re trying to do right by. So I wanted to write characters, both good and bad, who genuinely believed that they were doing the right thing, even when it was obvious to the reader what the negative consequences of that were.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Your stories have appeared in a great many markets – is there a binding theme to them?

DAVID TALLERMAN: I hope there isn’t. I always try to fit the themes, and everything else, to the particularly story rather than the other way round. I find preaching boring, in or outside of fiction, so I try never to push a standpoint or an agenda. For me, the debate is more interesting than the conclusions, so often I’ll let characters voice opinions that run directly contrary to what I think, or use stories to challenge my own ideas; which means, I suppose, that any themes that do get through are ones that have escaped my self-vetting!

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What would you say your voice in short stories says about you as a writer?

Again, I write in so many different genres and sub-genres and styles that I hope there isn’t a characteristic voice; if there was then I suspect I’d be doing something badly wrong, because you can’t approach fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime all in the same way. The main thing I’d want a reader to take away from my short fiction is that they enjoy a given story and consider it well-written, and if that should make them seek out something else by me then that’s great.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: If you could travel inside the world of any fantasy novel, which world would you want to visit and why? Which one would you never want to visit?

DAVID TALLERMAN: I wouldn’t mind hanging out in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse books; they seem like a fun place, and it might even be possible to survive the experience. As for ones I’d avoid, I’d have to say absolutely everywhere else. Fantasy worlds tend to be pretty hideous places, especially for those of us who just want a quiet corner, a glass of wine and a good book. I mean, I can’t imagine that attitude going down too well in Westeros!

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?

DAVID TALLERMAN: That’s a tough one. I guess for me, since as many of my influences come from things like comics, video games, films and anime as they do from genre literature, I’d find it interesting to get to talk about how those other media have fed into my work. If only because I don’t get to geek about comics, video games, films and anime as much as I’d like to!

Creating Shadow Police: An Interview with Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell is probably most well-known in the fandom for his work on Doctor Who, particularly the creation of the Seventh Doctor’s companion, Bernice Summerfield. We sat down to talk about some of his original works, starting with his urban fantasy novel series, SHADOW POLICE.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What is it about police procedurals that attracted you to write the Shadow Police series?

PAUL CORNELL: I always enjoy it when a group of professionals in one field is blindsided by something completely outside their experience. It’s that feeling in Jaws of our hero being out of his depth. I also explore it in This Damned Band, where it’s a famous rock band who encounter the supernatural. I especially loved the idea of using real police methods and training against the ineffable.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: There is, so far, a book one and book two, can you share your plans for the future?

PAUL CORNELL: Book three is finished and will be out next June. I can’t as yet share the title. There’ll hopefully be five books in the series.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: The books have been described as The Sweeney, with ghosts – is that a fair description?

PAUL CORNELL: Ish, in that I like that grim copper humour, but The Sweeney also says 70s to me, and these are modern police officers. Also, there’s more to my London than ghosts. The city remembers the horrors that happened in it, real or fictional, and various people, groups and monstrosities make use of that.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: The books have been optioned for TV, how involved will you be, anything you can reveal?

PAUL CORNELL: I have a licence to meddle, but right now I’m stepping back and letting a talented showrunner with a good track record pitch it to various broadcasters. We’re about to start that process, so no news as yet.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Football is integral to the first book, are you a big football fan?

PAUL CORNELL: Not really, more of a cricket fan. I did learn a lot about West Ham lore for the first book, though. I’ve done interviews with their fanzines.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You made the unusual decision to have a real person (Neil Gaiman) as a character in the series, how did this come about? Was it difficult to get right?

PAUL CORNELL: I had some specific reasons for including a real person (spoilers) and he was very keen on those reasons. I started watching his body language and speech patterns when we met, which must have been really weird for him. I had someone else in mind initially, but then talked to him about it, and was delighted by how into it he got. I still get outraged tweets from fans of his, as if I’d do that without his permission.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: How do you go about doing research, London is a massive place with a long and complex history, how do you go about bringing it alive & choose what will make it in the books?

PAUL CORNELL: I have a big reference collection about weird and supernatural London, and I know the place really well. It’s largely about choosing stuff nobody else has done, which is getting harder all the time.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You had a novella published on the 9th of September. What can you tell us about that?

PAUL CORNELL: It’s called Witches of Lychford, it’s the second in Tor.com’s new ongoing novella line, and it’s about three diverse women in a modern Cotswolds town who have to band together to fight supernatural evil in the form of an arriving supermarket chain. Lots of comedy, but real horror too, and I hope it talks about the real world.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What are the challenges specific to the novella format?

PAUL CORNELL: It’s about being concise, but using the space given by this not being╩a short story. You need to bring the big idea for a novel, then do it crisply. A writer should really be better than that at describing the process.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You work across many formats; do you have a favourite? Why not or why is it your favourite?

PAUL CORNELL: Prose is my favourite medium. You get to use all the dimensions, and everything else is about not having as much of something. I hope to end my career (not soon) being remembered as a novelist.

Creating Rot & Ruin: An Interview with Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times bestselling writer and the author of this month’s pro story, “Ink”. One of his most popular series is ROT & RUIN, which follows a group of teenagers struggling to survive in a zombie-infested wasteland. The latest book in this series, BITS & PIECES, is out in stores September 22nd.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You’ve written successful series for both adults and teens. Do you feel like there’s some crossover between the two audiences?

JONATHAN MABERRY: There’s always been a crossover between the adults and teens that read fiction. That goes back a long, long way and it’s only now that we’re deliberately marketing to teens and adults as separate demographics that it’s being viewed as a phenomenon. When I was eight or nine I was reading Conan stories, Ed McBain mysteries, and Edgar Rice Burroughs along with the Hardy Boys and that sort of thing. In my teens I devoured John D. MacDonald, Roger Zelazney, Richard Matheson, and countless others, while reading To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Most of the adults I know read some YA books, and virtually all of the teens I know ‘read up’.

This is one of the reasons I brought characters from my adult-oriented fiction into my teen novels. Joe Ledger, who stars in his own ongoing series of weird science thrillers, appears as a much older man in the final three books of my post-apocalypse zombie teen novels, Rot & Ruin. So does Iron Mike Sweeney. And there is a crossover character, Sam Imura, older brother to the Imura brothers who star in Rot & Ruin. I did this partly for fun (because I always want to have fun while writing), partly for business (because crossover audiences are good for sales), but mostly so that adults and teens will have a common ground and a book they can share.

Urban Fantasy Magazine:: Rot & Ruin has been featured as an ideal book for reluctant readers. What do you think makes a book appeal to a teen who’s struggling to stay engaged? Any suggestions for adults who feel like they have a hard time “getting into” fiction?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I write the books I would read. Rot & Ruin was written for the fifteen-year-old who is still very much alive inside my head. I’ve loved zombies, swords, martial arts, rough-and-tumble action, girls, adventure, and the end of the world ever since I was a kid. I read about it, I made up games for my friends and I to play, I day-dreamed a lot about surviving a zombie apocalypse. Even though I was an avid reader as a kid, many of my friends were not. I used to find books they’d dig. The reprints of the Doc Savage novels, the Conan and King Kull adventures, anything with space ships, exotic princesses from other worlds, swords and ray guns. I did a bit of Tom Sawyer by playing up the adventure elements to draw my friends in, and then we’d hang out and talk about how we’d fare if we wound up in Pellucidar or at the end of time or whatever.

When I sat down to write Rot & Ruin I didn’t plan the book as a campaign for reading, but I knew what kinds of things would have appealed to me –and to my friends– when I was a kid. I wrote that book. The fact that it went on to appeal to reluctant readers is great, it validates the con-man approach I’ve used all my life to get my friends to read the kinds of books I want to talk about with them.

The same goes for adult readers. Write books that you’d want to read, have a hell of a lot of fun with them, make them fun for anyone to read, and you’re doing it right.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Tom Imura is the closest thing Benny has to a parental figure in Rot & Ruin. Yet unlike many parents in the genre, he takes an active role in the story and advances the plot along with Benny. What made you decide on this approach?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Although I had no reliable parental influences (my father was a career criminal and a very, very bad guy), I had solid and very positive role models in some of the older students and instructors at the dojo where I studied jujutsu. Tom Imura is a blend of some of the best qualities in those role models. Kind and strong, and someone who accepts that compassion is a strength rather than a weakness. Humor and patience. Those are qualities I genuinely admire. So, since I had these ‘older brother’ role models in my life, I wanted to explore than dynamic in Rot & Ruin. As a result, Tom became one of my most fully realized characters, and he is a runaway fan favorite.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Zombies are never just shambling monsters in your books. Each series places some emphasis on the idea that “zombies were people, too.” How is this concept important in your work?

JONATHAN MABERRY: First, let me say that I’ve been a fan of the zombie genre since I saw Night of the Living Dead on its world premier in 1968. I was ten. Having grown up with the genre and watched it evolve over the years, I saw an alarming trend toward a dehumanization of the living dead. Granted the zombie is scary and dangerous and lethal, but in virtually all of the books, movies, and comics the zombie is a mindless shell. It has no malice, no evil intent because it’s incapable of emotion. That’s one point. The second is that too many of the genre’s entries tend to make killing a zombie in funny ways a trope. It totally disregards the fact that every zombie was once a person, and each of those people died in fear and pain. Their lives, their world, their futures were stolen from them by the disease that killed them. So, while it is necessary to defend against the zombies, it is a definite step away from our own humanity to forget those facts. It’s typical of a certain kind of war mentality that we demonize and dehumanize our enemies. We see it also in video games and movies where the ‘enemy’ is just another thing to be killed. It becomes about body count rather than a connection to our shared humanity. When I wrote Rot & Ruin that was a core element of the entire story.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Some characters inevitably get more time on the page than others. How do you go about planning a character who isn’t going to get much space?

JONATHAN MABERRY: ‘Stage time’, as I call it, depends on a character’s importance to the story. Even in character-driven novels, in the end every scene and every character has to serve the plot. I always start a story by thinking about the experiences and reactions of an individual character, and I work outward to create a cast of supporting characters. Those characters whose dynamic will either help deepen the overall understanding of the story or drive the narrative forward get bigger roles.

That said, sometimes characters grow in the telling. In the first draft of Rot & Ruin the character of Nix was very minor, originally intended for one or possibly two small scenes. She was there to help Benny, the main character, come to grips with what he wants in life, at least in terms of friends and possible romance. I had every intention of having Benny fall in love with Lilah, the Lost Girl. But in the writing of those early scenes Nix became much more interesting than I’d anticipated. I based her, to a great degree, on a girl I went out with in ninth grade, and in the writing the personality traits of that girl blossomed in Nix. She became much more complex, more opinionated, more dynamic, more nuanced, and therefore she clearly needed a bigger part in the story. Eventually she became the costar of Rot & Ruin. Like my own girlfriend of ninth grade, Nix Riley refused to be only ‘someone’s girlfriend’ and had no intention of being relegated to a minor supporting role. Benny grew in his understanding of girls in pretty much the same way I did. Good lessons for both of us.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: In a genre that’s historically featured a lot of damsels in distress, you’ve written some complex and capable female characters. I believe Dead of Night was your first book to feature a female protagonist. How was that experience, and are there plans for more leading ladies in future books?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Dead of Night was the first of my adult novels to feature a female lead character. There were very strong female co-leads and secondary characters –Val Guthrie in my Pine Deep Trilogy; Grace Courtland, Junie Flynn, Aunt Sallie, and Lydia Ruiz in the Joe Ledger novels; and Nix Riley, Riot, and Lilah in the Rot & Ruin novels. But Dead of Night started with the character of Dez Fox. She IS the book. It was all about her and how her childhood damage made her at once very strong and very vulnerable. She is a hard-assed redneck police officer in a tiny Pennsylvania town. Her damage is the core of her strength, and that’s a delicate balance for a character. So much fun to write. And she was such a huge hit with the fans that I brought her back in Fall of Night, which takes place one minute after the end of Dead of Night. She makes a brief cameo in the 8th Joe Ledger novel, Kill Switch.

I am about to start writing Glimpse, which is one of my rare solo-point of view novels. I generally like a shared POV told via an ensemble cast. However Glimpse is a horror novel about a young woman –a recovering junkie– searching for the child she gave up for adoption six years earlier. It’s also one of only three standalone novels I’ve written. And the lead character is in no way a typical action hero. She isn’t a cop or soldier, she isn’t tough in any action-movie kind of way. She’s a mother who knows that her child is in danger, partly because of the mistakes she made earlier in her life. That will make her fierce and relentless in ways I haven’t previously explored. I’ll start writing that book in a couple of months and I cannot wait.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You’ve also done quite a bit of writing for Marvel. Could you describe your first experience writing a comic book?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I grew up as a Marvel Comics kid. My first comic was Fantastic Four #66. I had been planning how to approach Marvel with a pitch when I got a call out of the blue from Axel Alonso, the editor-in-chief. He’d read my novel, Patient Zero, and thought my skills in action, character and dialog would be a good fit for comics. I jumped at the chance, and my first two projects were a Wolverine short (“Ghosts”) used as a back-up piece for that year’s annual; and a 32-page Punisher Max (“Naked Kills”) for their adult line. I went on from there to do a slew of projects for Marvel, including a short stint on Black Panther, and lots of limited series, DoomWar, Captain America: Hail Hydra, Marvel Zombies Return, Marvel Universe vs The Avengers, and others.

I’ve also explored some creator-owned projects because I love horror comics and Marvel doesn’t do a lot of horror books these days. So I did Bad Blood for Dark Horse, with amazing art by Eisner Award winner Tyler Crook, and it won the Bram Stoker Award for best graphic novel. And I’ve two projects so far with IDW. A limited-series Rot & Ruin adventure and V-Wars, which is my franchise with IDW. It’s a series of prose shared-world anthologies, it’ll be a board game this Christmas, and we have a TV series in development. So far I’ve done two V-Wars graphic novels.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: If Marvel suddenly asked you to create an original superhero series (not based on any of your existing work), what do you think that would look like?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I’d love to do a story with the daughter of Doctor Doom who becomes a hero. International celebutante by day, armored crime-fighter by night, and working to save her own country from its dictator who happens to be her father.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Okay, last question. You’ve already shared some of the fun parts about writing for Marvel, but what about the challenges? Is it a struggle to write about characters that are already known and loved by the audience?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Well, a lot of the heavy lifting is already done in terms of establishing who and what the character is. However a writer’s job is to find something new, something interesting to say about that character. When I did Black Panther: Power and its spin-off DoomWar, I went old-school. Doctor Doom was the central villain and I’ve always loved Doom when he was written as a nuanced, sophisticated, and introspective head of state who also happens to be a super villain. I don’t like versions of Doom where he’s raving mad or merely there to be the villain du jour as opposed to having a reason to appear. My Doom was very political, as was my take on the two Black Panthers in the story, T’Challa and his sister, Shuri. So my approach to the whole book was to focus on a national crisis, an economic crisis, and the ways those things impact political brinksmanship. When I did Captain America: Hail Hydra, I set each of the five issues in different eras of Cap’s life, starting with the 1940s. There are elements of the character that have remained essentially the same –the personal honor and integrity, his problem solving, and his courage– but at the same time he’s changed with the times. So I did five different personal interpretations of Captain America at five key points of his evolution. Those kinds of challenges are what a writer lives for.

Creating The Magicians: An Interview with Lev Grossman

The Magicians first hit shelves in 2009 and has soared in popularity since then. The story follows Quentin Coldwater, who gets accepted into a magic college, only to become disenchanted when it’s far from the perfect life he imagined. Lev Grossman has written two sequels, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land. He has also written a thriller novel, Codex, as well as articles for Time and The Wall Street Journal.

Q: You wrote outside the fantasy genre for quite a while before you wrote The Magicians. Are there other genres you’ve thought about giving a try?

A: Science fiction. I’ve read at least as much SF as I have fantasy if not more. But I can’t figure out where my place would be in that genre. When I think about fantasy, my mind is full of ideas for new books that haven’t been written yet, that I want to read. But when I think about SF, all I can think about is how great Iain Banks was. I’m worried I would just end up writing bad Iain Banks fan fiction.

Q: A lot of modern high fantasy has a dark edge to it, but the world of Fillory leans more on the whimsical side. What were your thoughts while you were creating Fillory? Do you feel like there’s still a place for whimsical high fantasy in the current market?

A: That was one of the questions on my mind when I started writing. I’ve always been pulled more strongly towards the non-epic side of the genre, the Lewis/Pullman/Rowling side, which is more whimsical. Plus anything I could ever want to say in epic fantasy, George R. R. Martin had already said. But Pullman and Rowling are doing pretty well for themselves, I figured the marketplace could support one more.

Q: Quentin experiences some pretty traumatizing stuff in The Magicians. Were those scenes especially difficult to write?

And Quentin doesn’t even get the worst of it. I don’t think of myself as a horror writer, or for that matter a horror reader, but there’s always a scene or two in my books that tips over into horror. I write those scenes in a state of icy detachment, almost automatically, and with very little effort. But I find it almost impossible to reread them once they’re done.

Q: If you could travel inside the world of any fantasy novel, which world would you want to visit and why? Which one would you never want to visit?

A: It’s a good question. I was going to say Narnia, but I wonder if after a while it might start to seem a bit chaste and nurserylike there. Westeros, Nehwon… far too rough. Earthsea, perhaps a little too rural. Xanth would probably be good fun, but embarrassingly I would really have to say it’s probably Fillory; I guess I tailored it to my own needs. But Fillory after The Magician King and before Magician’s Land. You wouldn’t want to catch it on a bad day.

I would never want to visit Westeros. I wouldn’t last 5 minutes.

Q: How did it feel when you first sold the rights for The Magicians TV adaptation? Have your feelings changed as the show’s production has progressed?

A: It was a strange experience. It felt great, in that I needed the money, and like a lot of writers I sort of embarrassingly craved the approval of Hollywood. But it was scary too. It was hard to give up control. I panicked a few times along the way.

But now that the series has been picked up, and I’m seeing the various season and episode outlines, I’m just looking forward to it. It’s not my show, I’m really just cheerleading from the sidelines, but it’s definitely a show I want to watch.

Q: Any advice for us fantasy fans who are still trying to explain to our “normal” family and friends just what makes the genre so appealing?

A: I just stress to people that if you look at the history of literature, fantasy just isn’t that weird, in the long view. Since the 18th century the West has been kind of obsessed with realism, but if you go back before that everything was fantasy. That’s just what literature was. Shakespeare wrote about magic and fairies and witches and monsters. So did Milton, Spenser, Dante, Homer … if anything fantasy is a return to the norm.

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

A: I often get asked about my influences, but people rarely ask about non-book influences. But there are a lot of them. Dungeons and Dragons, obviously, but also video games like Quake and Myth and Halo, and recently the iPhone game Monument Valley. The Bourne movies. The painter Caspar David Friedrich. A band called Metric, to whose music I wrote most of the Magicians trilogy. They all feed into my writing, the same way books do.

Diversity in Speculative Fiction

Human beings have a huge range of perspectives and experiences. It can be easy, as readers, to gravitate towards the familiar, to read about same types of characters again and again. But if we do, we miss seeing the full spectrum of beauty and art that our favorite genre can offer.

Djibril al-Ayad, general editor of The Future Fire, discusses the topic with us further.

Q: Congratulations on ten years of The Future Fire. For those unfamiliar with the magazine, could you fill us in on the basics?

A: Thank you. Basically, The Future Fire is an online speculative fiction magazine that specializes in social-political themes—which is to say we’re more interested in the way cultures differ in future/past/alternative worlds, and what that says about our own society, than we are in all the jazzy tech, magic, war or royalty. That also means we’re interested in diversity—stories by and about under-represented groups, and stories that explore issues like gender, sexuality, race, disability, class and other axes of privilege. And we are devotees of the traditions of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, so we love stories that are slightly surreal or magical realist, ekphrasis, hoaxes, and the absurd.

Q: You’ve published several anthologies featuring under-represented voices in speculative fiction. Could you give us some more details about them?

A: Oh yes, we’ve now published three anthologies, and there are a couple more in the pipeline. The first was Outlaw Bodies, proposed and co-edited by Lori Selke, which features nine stories of worlds in which bodies that are different, modified, imperfect or transformed are prohibited, required, disadvantaged or otherwise constrained. There’s a lot of variety in there, and I’m pretty proud of the strong reactions we’ve received, from love to the occasionally reviewer who was offended by some of the content. And then we published We See a Different Frontier, co-edited by Fabio Fernandes, a postcolonial-themed anthology, which was the first time we paid professional rates for fiction. We See a Different Frontier featured stories from all over the world, earned a huge array of nominations, reprints, and honorable mentions, and is also being taught in a couple of college literature courses. And finally, out this month is Accessing the Future, co-edited by Kathryn Allan, full of stories and artwork that tell stories about futures in which disability is handled differently—sometimes better, sometimes not, but always recognized as the social and political phenomenon that it is. (Disability is not a medical issue; it’s a political one.) I think I’m being fair when I say that not a single story in any of these anthologies is a single-issue story, nor is any piece a dull, earnest tract or screed; they’re all great stories in their own right.

And right now we’re reading for a new anthology, Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, co-edited by Valeria Vitale, for which we’re looking for stories of ghosts, sea-monsters, pirates, hallucinations, dreams, legends, horrors and wonders from and about the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (including and especially the under-represented North Africa and Near East).

Q: How has the fantasy genre changed in recent years? Do you feel it’s including more diverse voices than it used to? What are your thoughts on the urban fantasy genre, specifically?

A: I don’t know how it has evolved as a genre, necessarily, although there are no doubt trends and patterns that we could pick out in publishing. What I have noticed is that there is a certain kind of diversity that has probably always existed—there has always been fantasy by and about women, people of color, queer issues, class and disability—but that the mainstream is more aware of these days. This is obviously a good thing (or at least, obviously I think so), but it has also let to various push-backs and regressions: we’re seeing a lot of appropriation of non-European cultures by neo-colonialist authors, which is sometimes, but not always, deeply problematic. And we’re seeing the more sinister harassment and abuse campaigns against authors of color from groups who feel threatened by this new acceptance of diversity. Maybe this really ugly reactionary behavior is a sign that we’re winning, in the long term, but that doesn’t help people whose lives are destroyed by it.

Urban fantasy has long included diversity of characters in its menu of features, I think, and the inclusion of diverse authors is improving, too. There are common issues of cultural appropriation and stereotypes, of course, and gotchas like the “unique kick-ass heroine” with no female friends or relatives, but there are plenty of great women and authors of color writing UF, so we certainly don’t need to read any of the boring stuff if we don’t want to!

Q: What would be your advice to writers who want to write from an under-represented POV that they are not familiar with?

A: My first comment would be a warning against cultural appropriation—for me, it’s much more important to hear the voices of under-represented writers than it is to give the same cishetwhiteabledanglo privileged authors more variety and color to write about. Ask yourself why you want to write from an under-represented POV. Read works by people from that POV (nonfiction as well as fiction in the genre you write). Talk to people. Most importantly, ask someone from the group you’re writing as to read and critique your work. But then, don’t try too hard—remember that whoever’s voice you’re trying to write is human, too. 99% of the time they’ll have the same fears and motivations and reactions as your other protagonists who look like you. I’ve never understood (e.g.) male writers who are afraid to write female protagonists because they don’t know how. C’mon, guys, women are human! Have you never met a woman? They’ll react to meeting a ravening werewolf pretty much exactly the same way you will. Mutatis mutandis.

Q: What would be your advice to readers who are seeking books about diverse characters?

A: Firstly, I’d congratulate them on an excellent idea! I’ve hardly read any books by cis/het white anglo men for the past several years, and I’ve discovered some wonderful new work as a result of it. (Nothing against straight white men, of course, but they get 75% of the attention at the expense of the other 99% of the world, so they can afford to lose my custom for a bit!) But the main thing I’d say is look for books by diverse authors—that will give you the diverse perspectives you’re looking for far better than looking only at characters’ backgrounds. And if you don’t know where to start looking for and , then ask around: there will be a good deal more out there than you thought. I started asking around about diverse/minority SF/F anthology themes a few years ago (I was looking specifically for short stories), and received more recommendations than I’ve been able to make much of a dent in.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: Since you’ve been so kind as to let me talk a bit about TFF and our tenth birthday this year, I might mention that as a celebration we’re planning an anthology to reprint a few stories from the last decade plus a bunch of new material, which is tentatively titles Ten Years of The Future Fire or “TFFX” for short. Since we’ve never made any profit from this online magazine and small publishing venture (we’ve never aimed to), we’ll also be running a Kickstarter to raise the funds to pay authors properly for reprint rights and new stories. As stretch goals we will also try to: (1) raise the pay-rate for the Fae Visions anthology; (2) raise the pay-rate for authors and especially artists in the magazine itself for next year or so. You will find details of the fundraiser and other celebratory activities at our Editors’ Blog: Press.FutureFire.net

Thank you so much for giving us this space to chat with you and your readers!

Down the Rabbit Hole with Julian Mortimer Smith

Julian Mortimer Smith is a writer, resident of Nova Scotia, and a board game enthusiast. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, AE, and Crossed Genres. Julian’s story, “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium,” appeared in the December 2014 issue of UFM, and I’ve since had the opportunity to chat with with him about plotting, character arcs, writing workshops, and a few other choice digressions:

LM: For those unfamiliar with the terms, “architects” are writers who completely plan out their stories before they begin to write them. “Pantsers,” on the other hand, fly by the seat of their pants, making their stories up as they go along. Where do you fall on the architect/pantser spectrum?

JMS: I do a bit of both. I usually start out pantsing, building out from a specific image or character or idea, but eventually hit a point where the story becomes unwieldy, and I have to take a step back and play the architect for the bit. Occasionally, I’ve had one of those great runs where I just sit down and bang out a complete story, carried along by a wave of inspiration — the way I used to imagine writing happened — but I find it’s only really feasible with very short stories. For longer pieces I always end up needing that scaffolding to keep things from falling apart.

LM: I’m pretty much the same, pantsing my way through the first draft and then using it as a foundation to build on. What to keep and what to kill is always a trick part. “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium” leaves a number of things to the reader’s imagination, such as the growler behind the curtain, the nature of the fox-like man, and the means by which the narrator extracts the final price. As a writer, how do you decide what to explain and what to obscure?

JMS: One of the things I love about speculative fiction is feeling as though I’m entering a world that’s ripe for play and exploration. Sometimes, the second half of a novel or movie is a process of slow disappointment as all the fantastical elements are explained and all the mysteries resolved. Tying everything up in a nice tidy package can be clever and satisfying, but also makes the world of the story feel smaller, less rich with possibility. My favourite stories are rough-edged — the ones that leave you with more questions than answers. I find that small details, mentioned in passing, are often more compelling than even the strongest plot.

I guess I try to explain enough to give readers a kind of guided tour while leaving as many open doors and windows as possible, so they can get a glimpse of a much larger world beyond.

LM: Your story certainly provided us with a tantalizing glimpse of a world that felt ripe with mystery and narrative potential. Will you ever revisit the world of Mr. Handlesropes and The Aficionados?

JMS: I’m working on a novel set in the same world as the Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium that will climb through some of those doors and window. I have also previously published two stories set in a place called Fumblers Alley [Barb-the-Bomb and Yesterday Boy and The Mugger’s Hymn]. Are all three set in the same world? I’m not sure yet.

LM: In “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium,” we’re presented with a desperate narrator who, until the final scene, appears to be a violent, drug-seeking gambler. As a writer, how do you get a reader to invest in a character like Mr. Magpie?

JMS: The protagonist isn’t very fleshed out in this story. In fact, I never even specify a gender; although, I’ve found many readers assume one way or the other. But right from the start, the character wants something, and that’s an easy (lazy?) way to ensure a certain amount of investment, whatever the motivations for wanting that thing.

LM: Many writers would be loathe to discuss their protagonists in such honest terms, so kudos for that. In collegiate writing workshops, writers are often encouraged to write stories where the protagonist changes in some way. They’re also told: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” When I reread the story to prep for this interview, I remember noting that the narrator was flat (our perception of her/him changes at the end, but s/he doesn’t). It’s one of the things that I really liked about this piece: the protagonist didn’t need an arc. I was totally invested the quest for the phial, drawn in by the intensity of the narrator’s need.

Have you done any writing workshops?

JMS: Yes, I’ve taken some writing workshops. During my undergrad at McGill University I took a creative writing seminar taught by Claire Rothman. Then in the summer of 2012 (about 10 years later) I took a class on writing dark fantasy through the School of Continuing Education at the University of Toronto, taught by Eve Silver. They were very different from each other in tone and structure, but both super useful. Writing classes force you to write and let you talk to writers about writing. Great instruction is the icing on the cake.

LM: What was the best and worst advice you’ve received in a workshop?

JMS: “Write what you know” is probably the worst piece of writing advice in circulation, at least if taken at face value. (Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually received this advice — does anyone give it without giving careful disclaimers alongside? Maybe it’s an urban legend.) Having said that, I think there’s a kernel of good advice there. “Find out as much as possible about your subject, and don’t try to just make it all up” is good advice. The most inventive fantasy worlds often lean heavily on research (like Tolkien).

But for me, the most useful advice has often been tips about staying motivated and working hard rather than craft stuff. The idea that writing just flows out of you on a wave of inspiration is extremely attractive but extremely damaging to productivity. The most useful advice I received didn’t come from a writing class, but from an argument with a musician friend, who claimed that musical talent doesn’t exist, and that the best musicians are just the ones who work hardest at it. At the time I argued with her: “What about this prodigy?! What about that person with perfect pitch?!” Implicit in my reaction was the hope that I might have that kind of natural talent. I didn’t want to give up that possibility, and a part of me still doesn’t. But abandoning that notion has been the most useful thing for my writing.

This attitude also gives you a certain amount of distance from your work. I no longer think of my stories as an expression of my inborn talent. I think about them as things I’ve made. Like meals. If they turn out well, I’m proud of them, and enjoy sharing them with people. If they turn out badly — well, maybe I used a bad recipe, or put in too much salt, or whatever. It’s not a reflection on me. And I think that’s the best way to view advice from craft workshops — as reliable recipes to be followed or tinkered with. If you follow them too slavishly you’ll never really get a good feel for your ingredients. You can ignore them altogether, but don’t be surprised if your dinner turns out gross.

LM: You worked as a collegiate teaching assistant. Was your work related to writing, and if so, how did that experience influence your craft?

JMS: I worked for two years as a TA for a class called “Film & Society,” so it wasn’t a writing class, but it did deal a lot with narrative and form. I spent a lot of time trying to teach students to write (essays) with clarity and precision and avoid the kind of rough edges and open questions that I enjoy in fiction. I think good academic writing makes everything as explicit as possible.

LM: I think you bring up a good point about the stylistic differences between academic and creative writing. Aside from a sense of mystery, what else would you say that good storytelling needs?

JMS: I don’t know that a good story “needs” anything in particular (I’ve read a lot of great stories that violate many of the traditional rules of storytelling), but there are some ingredients that a lot of good stories share: specificity of setting, compelling characters, tension (and resolution of that tension).

What would you say good storytelling needs?

LM: For me, good storytelling requires an awareness that the reader needs a reason to keep turning the pages. Craft elements such as solid prose, creative premises, and deep characterization aren’t enough if I’m not invested. During my first week at Clarion West, instructor Elizabeth Hand talked about the way a compelling painting commands the viewer to look. As a reader/editor for several publications, I reject a fair number of well-written stories because they failed to draw me in. They didn’t command me to look.

JMS: That’s interesting. Do you think it’s more true for short stories than novels?

LM: With short stories, readers are typically looking for something they can finish in a single sitting. Novels have more breathing room; the reader expects to have an extended engagement with the narrative, so if a novel starts off slow, the reader knows that the author still has hundreds of pages to work with. If you’re two pages into a short story, and it hasn’t captured your interest yet, the next story in the publication (or a different book, or the TV, or the clickbait about the top 5 celebrity amputations) starts to compete for your attention. With novels, the reader expects to take breaks, but with short stories, if a reader stops reading voluntarily, there’s a good chance s/he won’t go back.

JMS: What about authors who are “difficult” or “hard to get into” but that you end up loving? One of my favourite fantasy authors is Mervyn Peake. The first book of his Gormenghast series, Titus Groan, famously starts with a long, dense description of the architecture of a castle. It goes on for pages and pages before introducing any of the main characters. It’s a bit of a slog. And yet that series is among my all-time favourite books. Would the book have been better if it had started out as a real page turner? I’m honestly not sure. Maybe it would have been.

LM: Some publications instruct their slush readers to reject a story as soon as it loses their interest. I think that the bottom line is this: don’t bore the reader–but that doesn’t mean that stories need to open with gunfire, mushroom clouds, or whirlwind sex. How a story keeps the reader’s interest doesn’t matter, just so long as it does. Take Nabokov’s Lolita for example: the narrator’s sheer audacity commands the reader’s attention as s/he wonders what Humbert will say or do next.

Since being published by UFM, another of your stories found a home at Crossed Genres. You’re on a roll! Any parting advice for aspiring urban fantasy writers?

JMS: Be patient. Magazines can take months to get back to you, and you might have to shop your story around to a dozen different markets before you hit the right editor, so selling your first story can take literally years. This can be dispiriting, but time and quantity make it easier to deal with.

Any given story sent to any given market has a very small chance of getting published, but if you submit 10 stories to 10 different markets you’ve increased your chances by an order of magnitude. And if those 10 stories get rejected, you can rotate them one market counterclockwise and send them out again.

It’s a bit like gambling, but playing the game is free, so there’s nothing to lose and your expected return is always positive. If you can think about it like this, then simply having stories out there in slush piles will start to feel like real progress.

To read Julian’s other stories set in Fumbler Alley, check out “Cabaret Obscuro,” “Barb-the-Bomb and Yesterday Boy,” and “The Mugger’s Hymn,” or visit his website julianmortimersmith.com.

LiamsquareLiam Meilleur is a submissions editor for Urban Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He attended Clarion West in 2013, has an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Binghamton University, where he teaches for the English department and serves as an editor for Binghamton Writes and the Harpur Palate literary journal.  You can read about his adventures as a genre writer in the literary world at a Rainy Day in Eden or follow him on Twitter at @illivander.

Down the Rabbit Hole with John Wiswell

John Wiswell’s work has been published in Weird Tales, Flash Fiction Online and SF Signal. His short story “Wet” was featured in the first issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine. I recently had the opportunity to pick his brain about craft, the nature of urban fantasy, and participating in top tier workshops.

LM: Worldbuilding is a balancing act between too much and too little detail. In “Wet,” the narrator’s immortality is never explained. Why not?

JW: When we tell our own stories, we typically ignore things that are common to us. The narrator has always been immortal and doesn’t care to explain it any more than I care to explain having brown hair. That they take this undying existence for granted is a theme of the story, and the reason for why they behave with such offhanded altruism. I’m very fond of stories that teach us about characters through what they don’t think is worth explaining; Nabokov’s Pale Fire is probably the ultimate example. In “Wet,” we need to know some of the rules of ghosts, and eventually what this ghost’s trauma is – we need to know it, so it’s what our narrator cares about, pursues and explains.

LM: That’s an excellent point. On that note, your narrator describes a sound by comparing it to GWAR, and he mentions one of their songs by title. Using specific pop culture references can be a risky move: some readers won’t get them. As a writer, what made this one worth it?

JW: GWAR was the first form of sound I could think of that was appropriately ridiculous and otherworldly. Then I couldn’t top it. That’s a terrible reason to exclude part of an audience, but there was a specific quirk to comparing the noise coming out of a little girl to the bombast of GWAR that makes the opening for the people who get it (and I left the stealth note about Satirical Metal for those who don’t). I’m obviously into [pop culture references], conjuring One Direction, snuff film, Twizzlers, pool noodles. I should ask – what did you think of the GWAR appearance?

LM: As a long time veteran of the gamer scene (I speak Thac0), I’m no stranger to GWAR, so using them in the story worked for me. The specific song mentioned at the end was one of my favorite touches: a last dollop of sentimental irreverence that so perfectly characterized your narrator.

Many urban fantasies are set in what is ostensibly the current “real world.” Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments” series comes to mind, with its frequent nods to specific anime & manga franchises. Do you think pop culture references are almost a necessary evil, especially given the genre’s target audience?

JW: I wouldn’t even call them an evil! I’m attracted to cultural references in fiction, Pop and otherwise, because they’re a natural part of expression in real life. We quote and reference and relive in every conversation, from arguments in the Supreme Courts over textual intent to a Jurassic Park joke during an uneventful car ride. Cultural fluency is one of the big things Urban Fantasy has over invented worlds, because you have to do so much groundwork establish Elvish before you can present the Epic Fantasy equivalent of an Elvis impersonator. In Urban Fantasy, your life experience has done half the world-building work already. The other half is in my hands, to remix those things you might already know about. It can be used to render the familiar in novel ways, or to render the unfamiliar relatable. They’re beautiful access points.

LM: How would you describe your writing process?

JW: You know how Eudora Welty claimed to have written “Where Is The Voice Coming From?” in a white heat? I love writing in a white heat. I’ll jot down a plot skeleton, often just the few key beats I need to get excited, what scenes must happen, and what absolutely must happen in them, but these are all appetizers for myself, to get myself excited about gushing words. “Wet” is so short that I only had a few notes – the ghost had to appear, had to disappear over water, and had to have a second incident of some kind regarding water later (which became the burning building rescue when I got to it). And I knew the ending. I subscribe to the Pixar dogma of knowing an ending so you can build up your payoffs.

Often I’ll keep evanescent things in my head, because either I’ll be so excited that the story starts on a train platform that I’ll remember it, or it can go. I’m a very excitable composer, usually playing music to block out ambient sound. I only wrote “Wet” to silence because it was the middle of the night and nothing else was awake to make noise.

LM: Do you use alpha/beta readers?

JW: Absolutely! It’s too easy to get too familiar with my own intentions, to experience the structure I expected. I’m blessed with both some very eager readers, and some very critical writers, who can look at my work from any angle I’m wondering about. “Wet” was actually only gone over by Michelle Ann Fleming (@Makani on Twitter), who talked me into seeing that it was close to done. Typically I’ll have more eyes on a project. Do you use alphas and betas?

LM: Always. My wife first. After her, some come from collegiate workshops, others from online communities (like LitReactor). And, of course, there are the other members of my Clarion West cohort. As a graduate of Viable Paradise, you’ve had some experience with by-audition workshops, too. Can you tell us a little about that?

JW: VP is an intense week-long writing workshop. It’s organized by James MacDonald and Debra Doyle. Everyone lives in the same hotel, eats together, and often winds up writing and sobbing together. You give a writing sample, and like most applicants I went with a novel excerpt, which gets critiqued in a roundtable with two pros and three of your peers. Being a peer, you’re also critiquing people’s work a good deal. Most days are packed with lectures; in addition to MacDonald and Doyle, we had master editors from Tor, Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, as well as Steve Brust, Steven Gould, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch, all of whom put on some lengthy demonstration.

LM: What was the workload like?

JW: You are always going to something while working on something else, which is a bootcamp aspect a lot of emerging writers need. The beautiful thing, at least for my class, lies in how students wound up supporting each other. The staff – Mac, Chris, and Bart in particular for me- are very supportive, and will outright feed you if you’re losing your mind. But throughout, you’d catch a lot of students sharing ideas, helping let off the stress. It’s the best writing group I’ve ever had, and luckily it’s rolled over into sharing critique over e-mail. Our group still calls each other for crits.

It’s an intense week. With my health, I was only able to do half of what I wanted, and always hit bed far before most of my peers. It’s not easy if you have hard medical conditions, though they are very attentive and flexible. Coming away, I knew I was physically incapable of a Clarion-length workshop of any such intensity. But VP is also attractive for people who can’t take the month off for other big workshops. I couldn’t recommend it enough, for the luminaries you can learn from, and the wonderful people you’ll be working with for years after.

LM: Any parting advice for aspiring urban fantasy writers?

JM: My advice is the same for any aspiring authors: write as much as you can, finish everything you can, and be unafraid to write an idea terribly, because you can always write another take on it afterward. The worst thing I did in my career was writing so little for two years until I had the “great” idea. That novel stunk because my writing stagnated in the interim. You get ready by consistent practice, and by finding people at your level or above it to help and work with. Then, a time of writing and critiques later, the ideas you wouldn’t have thought were great start making readers laugh or cry or sleep with a nightlight on. It’s worth all the work.

To read more of John’s work, check out his blog: The Bathroom Monologues or follow him on twitter at: @Wiswell.

LiamsquareLiam Meilleur is a submissions editor for Urban Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He attended Clarion West in 2013, has an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Binghamton University, where he teaches for the English department and serves as an editor for Binghamton Writes and the Harpur Palate literary journal.  You can read about his adventures as a genre writer in the literary world at a Rainy Day in Eden or follow him on Twitter at @illivander.