The Coping With Sanity Interview: Michael R. Underwood

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I first met Mike Underwood on Twitter. We had the chance to meet in person briefly when he was in town for ConFusion last year. But I didn’t really get to *know* Mike until last year at Bouchercon when I got to talk with him at length about the crime fiction community and sort of talked myself into contention for a dream job as an editor with Angry Robot Books. I enjoyed the last seven months I’ve spent as Mike’s co-worker and the only other American on the AR payroll. Now that Exhibit A has been disbanded, I hope to keep in touch with Mike as a friend and fellow author and I’m proud to present this interview that was prepared before the unpleasantness went down.

You’ve written some fun geek novels, some epic fantasy, and some weird ass story that takes place in the skeleton of a giant. Wait, that can’t be right?

I am doing my best to be living counter-evidence to the idea that authors should stick to one genre/sub-genre. Mostly, it’s because I’m interested in a lot of different kinds of stories, settings, and themes. I don’t want to just write urban fantasy or epic fantasy, or cyberpunk. I grew up reading across the full range of science fiction/fantasy and beyond, so I’m hoping to make my career as a writer be fairly diverse. I don’t have a genre bingo card…yet, but I do hope that readers will come with me across several different series in different parts of the sf/f world.

It was actually something of a surprise to me that urban fantasy ended up being where I got my first novel published. I started writing Geekomancy over Thanksgiving weekend in 2010 while staying with my then-girlfriend. She was (and is) incredibly studious, so rather than not seeing her the whole weekend, we had a work date over the weekend where she did her grad studies and I wrote. I took a break from writing the YA epic fantasy I’d been working on and dove into this idea for an urban fantasy where geekdom was the magic system. That detour ended up leading to my first novel publication, and is now a two-books-and-a-novella-and-running series.

So we can agree you’re kind of savant with the magical degenerates. Is there a field you’re still itching to try? Anything you have no desire to write? Will we ever see you write a mystery novel?

I’d love to write some for comics, both original stories and maybe even writing for the heroes I grew up with from Marvel and DC.

I know I will write a for-reals science fiction novel or series at some point, and not just the hybrid stuff like Shield and Crocus. One of the ideas I know I’m not good enough to write yet is a sociological space opera known in my head as “Anthropologists! In! Space!” That one’s going to require that I research diaspora narratives, disaster response, oral histories, and social work.

Since I’m reading a bunch of crime for my day job working with some crazy writer-editor guy, I’m definitely seeing the influences on my writing. One of the pitches I wrote up just over a year ago leaned hard on thriller structure and pacing.

And then there’s this ‘bright mystery’ thing someone’s been talking about, that definitely has my interest, since I’m a huge fan of Leverage.

In truth, I’m most likely to bring structures and themes from the crime/mystery world into my sf/f works, just because they can combine very effectively (mystery plots are super-common in urban fantasy, for instance, and some techno-thrillers are totally science fiction).

Tell me more about your social media habits. Why is it important in these days of tweets and privacy-whoring billionaires to have a presence out there?

I work from home, and I have friends and colleagues all around the word, so Twitter, G-chat and other social media platforms are very important for me in staying connected to the rest of the world.

The #1 challenge for any writer or creator these days is discoverability. If people don’t know who you are, they won’t read you, won’t talk about you, won’t recommend your work to others. Maintaining a reasonably high profile is a great way of getting your name and work out there, whether that’s Tweeting like it’s your job (it is, and I do), doing guest interviews on friends’ blogs, or participating in podcasts like the Skiffy and Fanty Show (see what I did there?), I think it’s pivotal to participate in the conversations that are happening in your field.

If you add to the conversation, help support other creators, and make friends, those folks are going to be more likely to help you out when you need to spread the word. Like any social group, people will help members who have contributed, helped out, and who are fun to be around.

You started off with a digital-first publisher before moving into print with Amazon. Talk about that because I NEVER get tired about hearing how dead the novel is.

Going digital-first has done a lot for me, in reality. The Ree Reyes books have a definite niche audience (readers who see a stat block that says ‘Geek 5 / Scholar 2 / Example 1 — Strength 13 / Dexterity 15 / Stamina 14 / IQ 16 / Will 13 / Charisma 14’ and go ‘Oh, this is going to be fun’), a digital-first deal let my editor take a chance on a niche book and get it to market very quickly. We inked the deal in March 2012 and Geekomancy went on sale in the third week of July 2012.

Selling Shield and Crocus to Amazon Publishing’s 47North gives me access to Amazon’s world-class marketing engines, which have incredible reach and effectiveness inside their sales silo. We’ll have simultaneous print, ebook, and audio release, as well as an original graphic novel in the universe (coming later), so readers will be able to engage with the world in the way that they want to. It’ll be my first print book, and the cover is a doozy.

There are more ways of publishing and getting books to readers than ever, so I’m excited to be following several paths at once, trying to go as wide as possible to connect my works with the readers who will enjoy them.

According to most published reports you have a fiancee. How? What’s being partnered up meant to you as a writer?

I started dating Meg (my fiancé) before I got my book deals, for one, and she’s more of a workaholic than I am, so my ~60 hour work weeks (40 for the day job, 15-25 writing) doesn’t faze her. Meg is almost always my first reader, and she’s got an incredible degree of insight into motivation and realistic characterization, so if a story passes muster with her, I know I’m on the right track, since character is really the core of all storytelling. She’s also incredibly supportive – she’ll listen to me prattle on about whatever is happening in publishing on that day, or help me work out my marketing and promotion battle plans.

I definitely recommend having a partner as a writer – be that a romantic partner or a BFF who has given you the thumbs-up to come to them when you need to talk about stuff.

Finally, tell me one thing you’ve never told any other interviewer.

I’m actually J.K. Rowling.

Okay, a real answer – even as I move on to writing what will be my fifth published novel, I still fear that this one might be my last book. The Fear doesn’t go away, even as my career builds – it just takes new forms. Instead of ‘you’ll never be published,’ its ‘you’ll never sell another book – this is it,’ or ‘everyone’s going to hate this book.’ The self-doubt doesn’t go away, but book after book, I get better, I learn more, and I’m better able to identify those bouts of self-doubt for what they really are rather than taking them at face value and running screaming.

Michael R. Underwood is the author of GEEKOMANCY, CELEBROMANCY, ATTACK THE GEEK, and the forthcoming SHIELD AND CROCUS and THE YOUNGER GODS. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike grew up devouring stories in all forms, from comics to video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, and books. Always books.

Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiancé, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines & stuffed animals. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he studies historical martial arts and makes pizzas from scratch. He is also a co-host on the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show.