In Geekomancy, forthcoming from Pocket Books, author Michael Underwood introduces us to Rhiannon “Ree” Reyes, a barista-slash-screenwriter-slash-geek who discovers the ability to turn science fiction and fantasy props into actual power, and picks up super skills from watching TV. With barely a glance over her shoulder, Ree jumps into a world where Magic cards are actually magic, strangers from Faerie hang out in bars, and Aberrant Muses encourage suicides so the Duke of Pwn can get their souls.
If you followed all that, chances are you’ll love Geekomancy.
Underwood took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the spiritual successor to The Middleman‘s Wendy Watson, how the book was discovered, and which he’d rather have, a real lightsaber or working sonic screwdriver.
Hollywood Jane: What made you decide on a female protagonist for this story?
Michael Underwood: The very first novel I wrote was a geek-themed fantasy-romantic comedy, and for this, I wanted to write a female protagonist to give a different perspective on geek culture – not just another story about a heterosexual white male geek. As I got into the project, I was happier and happier to have a queer female geek of color as my protagonist, as it let me critique aspects of geek culture while also providing an example of a relatable female action hero in a geeky story.
How have your experiences as a geek guy affected your portrayal of a geek girl?
MU: I spent much of my teen years not having a lot of interactions with women my own age, largely my own fault but also because as a teenage geek, social norms indicated that I was persona non grata in terms of women and dating. Being a foolish teenager, I accepted this fact instead of doing something about it. As I went to college and started putting points into my social skills, I got to re-evaluate what being a geek meant. It didn’t mean being a social outcast, it didn’t mean being single. It meant being enthusiastic, and sharing that enthusiasm.
I did my best to make Ree a representation of a woman who was just as geeky as anyone else without being a “man with boobs” character, drawing on the experience and attitudes of female geek friends and figures in pop culture.
Geekomancy started as a side project when you were stuck on something else; what was the origin of the story? What was the initial prompt?
MU: In fall of 2010, I was working on a YA Epic Fantasy which I was calling “Codename: Metaphysical Fencing Academy.” I was about 30,000 words in during Thanksgiving break, when my girlfriend was studying all weekend. So I decided to indulge the idea I had kicking around in my head about nostalgia-fueled magic, magic for geeks. I did the basics of designing Ree as a character, Café Xombi [Ree’s place of employment] as a setting, and then just started writing. I spent the weekend cackling as I wrote, and by Monday, I had about 4K words and was having too much fun to stop. What started as Distraction: The Novel became known as Geekomancy, and the rest was a crazy ride.
You’ve mentioned Book Country as the starting place for Geekomancy; tell us more about the web site and how it landed you an agent.
MU: Book Country is a writing community for authors of genre fiction: science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and thriller writing. I joined Book Country in March of 2011 as a beta user, and uploaded an earlier project (my New Weird superhero novel, Shield & Crocus). I got a variety of great feedback on that project as I reviewed other works and spent a lot of time talking about query letters in the discussion forums. As I was finishing up the first draft of Geekomancy, I decided to post the novel throughout my revisions, partially for myself and partially for others to make the process public.
A few weeks after that, I got an email from a man named Adam Wilson, introducing himself and saying he’d read the excerpt on Book Country and saw from my blog that I had a completed mss. He asked if he could read the full manuscript. I sent it (of course!) with a note that it was very rough, and a bit over a week later, we talked on the phone and he made an offer. I took the offer and got an agent on the double, and was lucky enough to get an offer from Sara Megibow from the Nelson Literary Agency.
Lesson learned: Book Country is awesome.
Geekomancy fits a very niche market, and a lot of people aren’t going to be able to relate, though those that do will love it. Was the accessibility of the story a concern for you at all, or did you know from the start it would be a great tale for a small audience?
MU: Thanks! As I was writing the book, I was just focused on telling the story that I wanted to tell. As I went, I knew that it wasn’t a regular urban fantasy, and I went back and forth a little on what level of explanation to give, but decided (with the input from my editor) to leave it where it was – a geeky novel for geeky people. I’ve had non-geek readers give me the thumbs up on the book, so I think it can still be fun for readers who aren’t dyed in the wool geeks.
Luckily, with an eBook original release of a geeky novel, we’re targeting a population of early-adopter technophiles, who are, on average, much more likely to have eReaders and happily read books with a device. Plus, being somewhat harder to access means that if people discover the book and love it, they can get more cache by telling all their friends about it. We’ve also got the idea of the Long Tail now, where a product with a niche appeal can have great success even with a narrow demographic target. I hope that the gamble pays off, and that the book finds an audience that will appreciate the references and the story together.
Have you included references to areas of geek culture that you yourself aren’t necessarily into? Or are all the allusions straight from your own likes and dislikes?
MU: Most of Ree’s fandoms are also mine. There are some things she’s way more into than I am, and some things I like that she isn’t as much into. I picked a couple of areas to intentionally differ on. Ree is much more of a comics/media geek, and isn’t as much into the modern SF/F literature – which lets me avoid excessive amounts of SF/F lit community meta-ness with people who are professional peers. But generally, she is about my contemporary, and I used that parallel to shape her overall geekdom.
Obviously this book has a lot of influences – what areas of geek culture or specific stories had the biggest impact on you, both as a geek and as a writer?
MU: Star Wars is definitely a big one – I absorbed the Campbellian Monomyth [also referred to as ‘the Hero’s journey‘] growing up without knowing what it was (I learned that in college). I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, followed by Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, and Firefly, each of which have taught me about characterization, plotting, and worldbuildng.
In terms of influences as a geek, I am kind of a Jack of All Geekdoms. I spent large chunks of my teen years at my friendly local game store, playing CCGs, RPGs, Miniatures games, and more. Dungeons and dragons and robots and Cthulhu and Zombie Cowboys and dimension-hopping wizards were my bread and butter, my day-to-day existence at the store, with friends, online, and on my own. I carry them with me every day, I am proud to wear those influences on my sleeve with Geekomancy.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
MU: Don’t be afraid to fail. I spent a lot of time not writing because I was trying to write better without practicing, thinking that if I wrote slowly I could produce much better prose and then I could get published. Instead, I should have spent more time just writing and then learning how to revise. Once I learned that lesson, things started coming along much better for me – I learned how to revise, and as I went, I got better at the first-draft-level prose.
These days I try to write my first drafts without worrying about how good the prose is, instead focusing on learning about the world and the story I want to tell. Then in revision, I learn how to tell the story the best way. As much as revision can be hair-pulling, it’s much easier than producing glorious prose from nothing.
In the novel, Ree can turn replicas into the real thing, if only for a short time. If you could have one nostalgia-powered genre prop, what would it be?
MU: A sonic screwdriver would be pretty freaking awesome, and far less likely to get me arrested than a lightsaber, a phaser, or a bat’leth. Something that serves a “get out of trouble free” role would be pretty amazing. I’d be wary of picking something like a TARDIS because it would probably run out of juice on me while stuck on a rock outcropping during the middle of a Venusian volcano, but boy would that be some story fodder.
Any teases you’d care to reveal about the sequel in progress?
MU: The soundtrack to Geekomancy was largely powered by Florence + The Machine. The sequel (working title Celebromancy) is much more inspired by Lady Gaga. Songs of particular note: “Paparazzi,” “Bad Romance,” “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” and “Edge of Glory.”
According to his author’s bio: “Michael R. Underwood grew up devouring stories in all forms: movies, comics, TV, video games, and novels. He holds a B.A. in Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies from Indiana University and an M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon, which have been great preparation for writing speculative fiction. Michael went straight from his M.A. to the Clarion West Writers Workshop and then landed in Bloomington, Indiana, where he currently lives. When not writing or selling books across the Midwest as an independent book representative, he dances Argentine Tango and studies renaissance martial arts.”