Interview: Mike Underwood for The Genrenauts

The Tor author interviews/reviews I was doing earlier in the year were great fun and I’ve been happily building up a backlog of them for a few months now. I’ll be putting them up in publication order but Mike has a very good reason to go live first. He’s actually kickstarting the entire first season of Genrenauts, his series right now and it finishes tomorrow. It’s a great series, and uses the postmodern landscape of fiction to tell stories cut from old cloth that are very new, very smart and great fun. I talked to him about writing, RPGs, fiction, narrative models and Leverage.

shootout solution

Tell us a little about your writing background, Mike.

I wrote little bits of fiction as a kid, a short horror piece for school in 5th grade, Warhammer 40K fanfic in junior high, and character background fiction for tabletop RPGs in high school.

Once I got into college, I got serious about fiction, building a Creative Mythology major, which involved courses in Classics, Folklore, Anthropology, as well as creative writing, learning how world cultures used sacred narrative and folk narrative to shape and reflect their values, as well as the origins of mythic resonance, which I then applied to my own writing as best as I could.

After undergrad, I continued writing alongside my M.A. program, including a couple of trunk novels. I attended Clarion West right after finishing my M.A., and after that, I went into overdrive, expanding a short story into the novel Shield and Crocus, then writing Geekomancy, which would be my debut.

 

What RPGs? Do you still play?

I started with D&D 2nd edition (Al-Qadim, to be precise, though I remember nothing about that campaign other than that I was a Barbarian with a dune buggy. We were 8 and 9 years old, after all). I played much more D&D, then in junior high I moved on to GURPS, Palladium, then lots of White Wolf in High School, as well as Legend of the Five Rings. I college I played some Aberrant, 7th Sea, and got into LARPing (Vampire and Changeling). I played a bunch of different indie games during my M.A. research (Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures, etc.), as well as games like Exalted.

These days I’m not playing much, since I discovered that the part of my brain that could run games was the same part that worked on writing, and that game prep took energy out of my writing. Writing had to come first, and since we moved from Indiana to NYC and then Baltimore, I haven’t been able to find a new tabletop group. I’m hoping to rectify that, or at least get to play some games via Skype/Google Hangouts/Roll20.

 

And the inevitable follow up, had you considered Genrenauts as an rpg background?

Oh, totally. I’ve even thought about a couple of different systems that might be a good starting point for it. I’d want a system that’s less crunchy and more narrative-driven, especially something with a Drama Point/Dramatic Editing aspect build into the rules and flow of play. The Margaret Weiss Cortex System Leverage RPG is an obvious starting point, due to the influence of that series on the Genrenauts setup (and the fact that it’s explicitly a game that supports/encourages ensemble play). Other possible starting points for a hack would be Monte Cook Games’ The Strange/Cypher System, John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, and the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG.

 

What inspired Genrenauts?

I’ve really always been fascinated by the way that genres serve as frameworks for narratives – creating a suite of shared tale types, tropes and archetypes. In many ways, each genre is a conversation, where new texts repeat what has been said before, elaborate on what has been said, argue against earlier statements, and so on. I love thinking about works in dialogue with one another like that, and that fascination has stuck with me as a writer – most of my works are directly in dialogue with something – Geekomancy and the Ree Reyes books are in dialogue both with Urban Fantasy as a genre as well as subcultural ideas in Geek/Nerd cultures; Shield and Crocus is my effort to put the New Weird and Superhero genres into dialogue, and now with Genrenauts, I’m directly addressing how stories are used culturally, while also getting to comment on individual genres and sub-genres – celebrate the parts that I love, critique the parts that I think could be better, and so on.

Other influences are the TV series Leverage (as an ensemble heist work), Quantum Leap (jumping into roles and finding the right ending), Sliders (Jumping between worlds), and The Librarians (episodic fun with an ensemble), among others. I’m very much a ‘make something new from a plurality of influences’ kind of storyteller.

 

I know exactly what you mean about narrative frameworks on tv in particular. The CBS ‘old crotchety brilliant white dude solves crime’ model is a good example. Are there any particular models you especially like?

The Leverage version of ‘case of the week’ is one of my favourites – because they do more than just find the criminal and bring them to justice, they go the extra step to make sure the villain gets their comeuppance – usually both getting arrested and being financially destroyed/embarrassed. It’s not just that the villains lose, the heroes make them pay. And even better, the heroes often help the victims get their lives back in addition to taking down the bad guys. It’s a social justice version of vigilantism, one which is emotionally satisfying for me as a story even if it’d be ethically questionable in real life.

One of my other favorites in recent memory is Steven Universe’s version of “young person learns a lesson” structure. Many of the episodes include a problem created by Steven’s immaturity, and then he and the Gems have to deal with the implications of his actions, and Steven learns to be just a bit more mature/responsible. The show is as great as it is because of its inventiveness, inclusivity, and indefatigable positivity, which helps a familiar story engine perform exceptionally well in execution.

absconded ambassador

With Leverage, Sliders and The Librarians you may have just hit three of the four points of my geek compass. Let’s go for the fourth, is time travel on deck at any point?

I’m very glad to hear that our televisual favorites are lining up. Reading your tweets about The Librarians has been great fun.

Time travel is a familiar-enough plot structure in Science Fiction that it’s definitely on the table, but having watched a lot of time-travel movies and stories, I have two concerns: 1) time travel stories are very hard to execute with internal consistency, due to timey-wimey-ness. 2) most time travel stories which work well for me use time-travel in the service of another story agenda – it’s time travel as a way of teaching a character to be a better person (Groundhog Day) or as a way of investigating ethical/interpersonal stakes (Primer or Looper). I’d need to figure out what aesthetic question or story structure to combine with time-travel, and even then, it’d be a hell of a challenge.

The other thing that you need to do with time travel is make sure that the story means something once you get out of the time-travel loop/framework. If everyone forgets what happened in the deprecated timeline, then it’s almost as if that story didn’t happen for the characters. Narrative without lasting stakes is usually a bad call.

 

What are the challenges in setting up a series like this, which is both self-contained and tells a larger story?

Since I’m working in the novella form, it means that basically everything has to serve two purposes. The individual episodes need to form the building blocks for the season arc, and those season arcs have to be the building blocks of the series arc. I wanted to go with an episodic structure in order for each novella to be its own story, but the episodic plots are carefully picked to also create the scenes and plot beats necessary to develop the ongoing plot.

There’s not a lot of room for sub-plots, so as close as I get is character showcase plots, where in the individual episodes, I have the chance to bring one or two of the genrenauts into the spotlight to show off who they are as people, as well as the way that they approach storytelling and the job of being a Genrenaut.

Is there an endgame in place?

When I was breaking the story for Genrenauts, I actually sketched out the entire five-season arc. Beyond season 2, the notes get more vague and brief, but I know what the series finale will look like, and everything is building toward that, while leaving room for changes depending on how things change and come alive in the writing. My poor editor got the complete series pitch, because I’d never had that complete a vision of a story before, and wanted him to see where season one was heading in the long term. Those plans will almost certainly change, but this isn’t one of those places where the writer is just meandering with no ending point in mind.

 

The way you’re planning this sounds very Babylon 55 esque. Do you have escape hatches built in on each season or are you going to go for a hard commit for all 5?

I really want to go all the way to five seasons, and I’m committed to giving the series some time to find its audience and fully come into its own. But I do have an idea of how I could close out the series at the end of Season Three if I really needed to – like if the series just wasn’t picking up steam even after I complete season two and release the second omnibus.

The great thing with Genrenauts is that the concept itself is incredibly scalable and flexible, so even if I closed off the main series with Leah, King, Shirin, Roman, and Mallery, I could focus on different teams and different genres/assignments and present another story in the setting. I already have some ideas banging together for a younger readers series with kid Genrenauts – something more educational to teach young readers about how story genres, archetypes, and tropes.

 

One of the many things I loved about it was your willingness to not only acknowledge the tropes of series fiction but play with them. Do you have a shopping list of stuff you want to fold in?

Thanks! It’s one of the most fun parts about the series – with each episode I get to look at a genre/sub-genre and say ‘what are the iconic tropes or characters or story structures here, and what can I do to twist or re-interpret them? And other times, I create an episode because I already have something I want to twist or take in a different direction.

In designing/plotting out Genrenauts, I’m very actively drawing on my time as a Media Studies scholar, from my graduate work to the few years I spent applying to PhD programs in the area and writing reviews/criticism on my blog and for sites like PopMatters. That chunk of my life made me a much smarter viewer of TV/Film, and gave me tons of material to work with across a variety of genres.

A lot of what I’ve ended up doing so far is looking for places where the formula or expectations in a genre could break down, where having a story zag instead of zig could create the opportunity to do something interesting and different. Other times, I’m taking pot shots at the stereotypes or faults that have been or remain so common in a genre that they feel like they’re baked in –racism and sexism in westerns, hetero-centrism and racism in romance, etc. I’m not the only storyteller working those angles, but they provide lenses through which I can view and talk about storytelling.

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Are we going to meet other Genrenaut teams as the series goes on?

Definitely. I’m planning to introduce other members of the organization over the course of season one, and I have some plans for episodes where the team travels to other bases for missions in genres outside the Western narrative tradition, where they’d meet Genrenauts from around the world, as well as teams with different approaches than Kings’.

 

What’s the one genre you’d really like to reach and haven’t quite?

I’ve got a fun idea for Horror I’d like to work in to Season 2 or 3, and I’m also planning to take the series into the worlds of some non-Western genres, like chanbara or wuxia, to gesture toward the wealth of narrative genres outside the globalized Western tradition. In the later seasons, I am also hoping to do some crossover stories and talk about the ways that genres combine and interact. Season one is just the beginning for the series, in so many ways.

 

I’m guessing the research for each world must be pretty epic. What was the watch/read/listen list for Shootout Solution?

Much of the research on the Western side entailed drawing on a young lifetime of westerns, including years of listening to Louis L’Amour books on tape. I’ve watched/read a lot of Westerns over the years, thanks to living in Texas as a kid and having friends who were big western fans, including hosting Whiskey and Westerns nights at their house. Leading right into the first draft of The Shootout Solution, I re-watched Blazing Saddles, which for my money is one of the finer works of cinema satire, and thought about the way that it puts racism in the cross-hairs, and used that as a jumping-off point to think about the other assumptions frequently baked into westerns.

 

How’s the kickstarter going?

It’s going really well so far! We’re over 80% of the way toward the main funding goal just 1/3 of the way through the campaign. In passing 150 backers, we’ve already unlocked a set of critical/personal essays about the genres/sub-genres used in season one – why I picked the genres and story types, how I’m playing with those genres and their history/biases in the series, and so on.

I’ve still got four critique levels available, where backers will not only get a signed & personalized paperback and an ebook, but also get a detailed critique letter and in-line notes from me on a section of a story. The NARRATIVE TRAINING level offers a critique on the first 10K words of a project for $250, and the GENRENAUTS CONSULTATION is a critique on up to the first 25K words of a project, as well as a Skype/Google call of up to an hour to talk about the project, the business of publishing, etc. I’ve offered critiques like these before, and they’re really fun for me to do, and tend to provide a big boost to the writers having their work critiqued.

Once we hit the main goal, I’m really hoping we can push on for audiobook stretch goals, where we will bring back Mary Robinette Kowal, who performed the audiobooks for Episodes One and Two. She’s a fabulous performer, and really likes working on the series.

I’ve also got some whimsy goals, where if we hit certain milestones (selling the critique levels, hitting 300 backers) I will have to do ridiculous things, like reading some of my old (terrible) fiction for all to see, or performing a cover of “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton. It’s a fun and different way of pushing for greater involvement in the campaign, and in a kind of masochistic way, I really want them to happen.

 

What’s next for you?

I’m revising the rest of Season One of Genrenauts, with the intent of getting the whole season published by the end of 2016. I’ve also got tons of other projects in the works, most in various stages of submission and should probably stay under wraps. One that I can talk about is a Space Opera I’ve been working on, partially inspired by things like Saga, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Wars, with a couple of other elements thrown in to make things fresh. It is just about the most fun thing in the universe, and I find myself cackling with joy whenever I’m working on it.

And I have also been developing some comics pitches, one an optimistic post-disaster superhero series, the other a hybrid diplomatic/police procedural in a near-future SF setting.

 

 

Sign me up. For all of it, basically. Mike’s that good. His kickstarter (He made it but pledge anyway!) is up for the next 46 hours.

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