September 9, 2015

Michael R. Underwood on Geekdom and Speculative Fiction

Fanboy extraordinaire, Michael R. Underwood, is here today to talk about his latest novel, Celebromancy, and other geeky stuff.

**Note: This was originally posted July 2013, reposting because it's a fantastic article, and complements his upcoming book, HEXOMANCY.**

Braine: Hi Mike! Thanks for stopping by Talk Supe! For those of our Supies who are not familiar with being a Geekomancer, can you give them a quick run down of what a Geekomancer is and the awesome perks of being one! 

Michael R. Underwood: If you grew up reading comics, watching The Princess Bride or the Harry Potter movies until you could quote them by heart, if you’ve been to a Comic Con or ever hung out at a game store long enough to get drafted as an unofficial employee, GEEKOMANCY is for you. 

Simply put, GEEKOMANCY is the magic of fandom. Geekomancers can use props and merchandise as if they were the real thing they represent – a Star Wars blaster prop works as a blaster, Wonder Woman bracelets will parry bullets, and so on. They can also use comics and DVDs and collectible cards for one-time effects, though that requires destroying the item in question. 

The most powerful, and most rare form of GEEKOMANCY is genre emulation. Ree Reyes, the hero of the series, can watch a movie/show she loves and use that passion to embody some power of the character or the rules of that universe to do incredible things. Watch The Matrix -> do Wire-Fu. Marathon Buffy the Vampire Slayer -> get butt-kicking strength and extra-quippy wit. 

Braine: So, can you tell us a little bit about your heroine, Ree Reyes. How is she different from other heroines out there? 

Michael R. Underwood: I designed Ree Reyes to be a geek hero to represent part of the diverse range of people who make up the geeky world. Often times, in TV or movies, when you meet the ‘geek/nerd’ character, they’re a straight white male. There sure are straight white male geeks (I’m one of them), but the world of geekdom is a lot more than just people who look exactly like me. I chose a queer female geek of color as my lead because I wanted to put forward a more diverse geek hero. 

Ree is different from a lot of Urban Fantasy heroines because she starts the series out as a rank newbie in the world of magic. At the start of GEEKOMANCY, she doesn’t know that magic is real, and has to survive a crash-course in GEEKOMANCY in order to help fight monsters and save lives. 

In addition, Ree has a home life that she treasures and protects. Even as she becomes an Urban Fantasy hero, she still has a day job, she keeps up with her non-magical friends, and tries very hard to keep pursuing her dreams of becoming a working screen writer. That home life, her screenwriting ambitions, and her sense of duty as a Geekomancer all come to a head in CELEBROMANCY. 

Braine: Everybody wants to be a character they've seen or read and Ree Reyes is any fanboy/girl's ultimate fantasy. How did this world come up? How? When? Where? I guess the usual enchilada. 

Michael R. Underwood: The weekend of Thanksgiving in 2010, I was writing another novel (one I hope to get back to and someday publish), and when I got stuck, I decided to indulge an idea I’d had about writing an Urban Fantasy with geek magic. I didn’t know what I wanted to have that magic be, but when I set down to start, I found a voice in my head, which became the voice of Ree Reyes. Ree’s POV on the world of geekdom and weird magic was so much fun to write that I had to put aside the other project and go full-steam-ahead with GEEKOMANCY. 

I tried to make Ree a cool, relatable character, but not one without flaws. I know well the dangers of the Mary Sue and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, so I intentionally set out to make Ree avoid those pitfalls – which mostly involved making sure that she was realistically flawed as a character, but was the master of her own destiny. There’s definitely some wish fulfillment in writing a character whose power draws from being a geek, but I like to think she’s also a compelling character because she’s loyal to her friends, because she steps up to do what’s right even when she isn’t the Divinely-Appointed Chosen one. She’s the kind of person that grew up with hero stories and as a result has developed a strong sense of compassion and feels an obligation to help out where and when she can. 

Braine: Speculative fiction. I've seen this around and I'm sure I'm not the only one who'd like to know what this branch of fiction exactly is. Like talking to a ten year old, what IS speculative fiction? 

Michael R. Underwood: If science fiction is a roller coaster, fantasy a coin-op arcade, and horror a haunted house, speculative fiction is the theme park that includes all those rides, plus the space in between. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for fiction that imagines worlds that are different from our own, even if that world is ‘our world plus something amazing or terrible.’ I like the term because it’s inclusive instead of exclusive, and specifically makes room for stories that would otherwise slip through the cracks. 

Braine: Including GEEKOMANCY and CELEBROMANCY, what other speculative fiction books, series or authors would you recommend readers to try out? 

Michael R. Underwood: How long do you have? I work in speculative fiction publishing, you know. 

Embracing the inclusiveness of speculative fiction, here are three quick suggestions: 

Bloodchild and Other Stories – This short story collection by Octavia Butler includes one of my favorite short stories “Speech Sounds,” as well as some excellent essays on writing. 

The Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council) – these three novels by China Mieville are all set in his Bas-Lag world are true speculative fiction, incorporating science fiction, fantasy, and horror all together in each book. They’re thick, sophisticated, gut-wrenching books that will blow your mind if you let them. 

Zoo City - If you want another different Urban Fantasy, this Arthur C. Clarke-winning novel is intense, savvy, and magnificently written. It was one of Angry Robot’s first big books. Zoo City stars Zinzi December, a South African woman saddled with a magical sloth companion and a mean 419 online scandal problem, who is hired to find a missing star – but the case is even more complicated than the rest of Zinzi’s life. 

Braine: Interesting recommendations. I would imaging writing fantasy to be much more tricky because not only do you have to layer up the emotions of the characters to flesh them out but you also have to sell a believable world to your readers. What kinds or types of scenes do you find the most challenging to write and how to you deal with it? 

Michael R. Underwood: I think world-building is actually necessary in every kind of fiction – it may be harder in far-future SF or non-earth Fantasy, but even in contemporary ‘mimetic’ fiction, you have to set the stage, show the social world of the main characters, and so on. 

The hardest scenes for me are the ones where the story is driven by emotion and character interaction rather than action and combat. Action and combat come fairly easily to me. I love writing emotional conflict and dialogue, but when writing those scenes, I need to be very mindful of the emotional and mental landscape of every character in the scene, and figure out how each character reacts, beat by beat. People seldom actually say exactly what they mean – it’s easy for verbal conflict to get really on the nose as they say – it’s too overt, too direct. 

The challenge I set for myself is to try to have the characters’ responses to one another always be in that character’s voice – I ask “how would Ree respond to this threat?” or “What’s the Drake Winters way of responding here?” I want my characters to be instantly identifiable, so that if I wanted to drop all the dialogue tags, readers would still be able to follow along, knowing who is saying what. That’s harder to do to my satisfaction than I’d like, but without genuine dialogue and emotional conflict, the books would just be a collection of jokes without any emotional context – which is unacceptable. 

Braine: I'm pretty sure you've received very favorable reviews on your books and some not so good ones. How did you deal with the first bad review you got for GEEKOMANCY? I ask because there are a lot of authors out there, especially newbies, who can't help but get personal when they get unfavorable feedback. Understandable and very entertaining to follow. 

Michael R. Underwood: For the first few weeks, I read every review backwards and forwards, and had a visceral emotional reaction to every bit of praise or critique. Since it was my first novel, I had a lot of learning to do in distancing myself from the work. GEEKOMANCY was the first bit of my writing that most of the reviewers had read, so in a way, I was that work, and only that work. 

As time went on, I learned to have a thicker skin, and to look for whether a reader appeared to be the right audience for the novel. I know there are people who wouldn’t have liked the novel no matter if I’d been a 10x better novelist, because they just weren’t the right audience for the novel. Every novel has its prime audience, and for GEEKOMANCY, that audience is the kind of person who sees a stat block like -- 

Strength 8, Dexterity 13, Stamina 12, Will 15, IQ 16, Charisma 17
Performer 5 / Child Star 3 / Producer 2 / Philanthropist 2 / Party Girl 1 / Geek 1 

And chuckles – they get what I’m doing and see it as a useful characterization shorthand. For people who think the above is shallow and childish – there’s no way the book is going to please them. 

I’m learning to accept that I can’t please everyone, and instead focus on telling the best stories I can, hoping that the right readers will find the works and connect with them. Fortunately, I have an agent and a publisher to help do match-making. 

Braine: Ehem... I think my stats meets those requirements as I obviously  love the series. Ha!  Aside from Ree Reyes and the rest of your -mancers, do you have other projects lined up? 

Michael R. Underwood: Hoo boy, do I. 

Pocket Books (the publisher of the Ree Reyes series) have acquired the first two books in another Urban Fantasy series called YOUNGER GODS. Those books star a young man named Jacob Greene, who is the only non-sociopath in a family of demon worshippers who want to wake the unborn gods that gestate at the center of the earth so that those gods can usher in the last age of the world. Jake breaks faith with his family and escapes, and the series opens when Jake’s older sister (the most powerful sorcerer of their generation) finds him in New York and says that the time has come for the gods to be born. Eeep. 

I’ve also got another project that will be announced soon – it’s very different from either the Ree Reyes series or YOUNGER GODS, and stems from a story I first wrote back in 2007. 

Braine: I am loving YOUNGER GODS already! Authors are rockstars in their own right, what is the weirdest fan request you've ever got? Has anybody asked you to sign a body part? 

Michael R. Underwood: No body part requests yet. At my launch party last summer, a friend of mine wrote his own GEEKOMANCY-style stat block on a T-shirt, which I then signed. 

Since the Ree Reyes series is only in ebook and audio, I haven’t yet had any weird requests of things to do with/to physical editions of the series so far. 

The best ‘author rockstar’ moment was when I was at ALA a couple weeks ago, getting a copy of The Rithmatist signed by Major Fantasy Rockstar Brandon Sanderson. I mentioned that I was a fan of the podcast he co-hosts (Writing Excuses), at which point he said “So you’re a writer.” And when I mentioned my series, he said “Oh yeah, we just did a book of the week on it (CELEBROMANCY)”. This is due to the fact that Mary Robinette Kowal was the narrator on CELEBROMANCY, and she’s also a co-host on Writing Excuses. But the fact that a Super-Famous author had heard of my novels and was positively inclined towards them was an amazing and totally unexpected bit of ‘Now you are in the world of rockstars.’ 

Braine: Cool experience. I have to thank BSanderson and blast him at the same time for how he ended Robert Jordan's Wheel Of Time series. Where and when is your next gig, signing, appearance? 

Michael R. Underwood: I just got off a three week stint at conventions, so I’m glad to be at home for now. 

My next con is WorldCon San Antonio, at the end of August into September. With luck, I’ll be on panels and have a slot for a reading or signing (I sign ebooks using a stylus and an image-tweaking app). 

Thanks for having me on, and I invite all of your readers to check out the adventures of Ree Reyes and her wacky geeky world.

Purchase the Ree Reyes series

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.

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 revising Celebromancy, the sequel to Geekomancy, which is coming 7/15/2013.

I currently live in NYC with my girlfriend, an ever-growing army of books, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines and stuffed animals.

Stalk Michael!


  1. Thanks for the interesting interview! The series is always really interesting and diffrent, that's so much fun.

    1. Yes it is. I love is when us fans are the heroes

  2. I have the first book, now I just need to read it! Great interview, even if it is a repeat. ;)

  3. Loved this interview. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Honestly, I haven't heard of this series or author until today! I loved the interview and love the geeky girls on the covers! Thanks for sharing girl!

    Naomi @ Naomi’s Reading Palace

    1. No problem. Ree is US, every person who loves fantasy will be able to relate to Ree

  5. That was very informative, Braine! :) I hadn't heard of this series (I don't think anyway) but I like the sound of it. Geeks unite! LOL I'd love to be able to watch Buffy and absorb her kickass skills and wit!

  6. I hadn't heard of this series until now but I think the interview was definitely worth a repost! I loved reading it and I loved that the author chose to make his MC a queer female who is also a POC. Diversity is awesome! :D Also loved what the author said about speculative fiction! :D

    Thanks for sharing, Braine! :)

    Rashika @ The Social Potato

  7. This reminds me that I never bought Geekomancy. I hope I get some book vouchers for my birthday haha

  8. Wonderful review and it is hard to resist anything with "geek" in it. ;)

    1. I love geeks, nerds, people like us basically :)


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