Today I am interviewing Michael R. Underwood, author of the science fiction and fantasy, including the genre-hopping novellas series, Genrenauts, which currently has a Kickstarter running for a complete season one collection.
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DJ: Hey Michael! Thanks for stopping by to do this interview! You are an extremely active member of the SF/F community. For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Michael R. Underwood: Hi! I’m Michael R. Underwood, but I go by Mike everywhere but my byline. I’ve written eight books across several series, from the Ree Reyes Geekomancy books where fandom is a magic system to Shield and Crocus, a weird fantasy supers novel and The Younger Gods, a supernatural thriller.
DJ: What is the Genrenauts series about? And what is a “genrenaut”?
MRU: Genrenauts is an adventure science fiction series told in novellas, for fans of Leverage, Quantum Leap, Redshirts, and/or the works of Jasper Fforde.
In Genrenauts, our Earth is one of many. Every other world is the home of a story genre, from Western or Fantasy to Romance, Action, Crime, etc. Stories play out in these worlds – familiar tale types, archetypal characters, and so on.
When stories on these worlds go off-track, you send in the Genrenauts. This team of narrative specialists travels across dimensions to find, analyze, and fix broken stories. If they don’t, the ripples manifest as violence and upheaval in our own world (when Science Fiction World goes off-track, scientific innovation stagnates and exploration halts; when Fantasy World goes off-track, xenophobia rises and cultural rifts widen, etc.).
Stand-up comedian Leah Tang is recruited to join the Genrenauts as stories are breaking at a record pace. Will she adapt to the bizarre and dangerous life of a Genrenaut, or will she end up as just another broken story?
DJ: Where did you get the idea?
MRU: A few years ago, I thought up the seed of a portal fantasy story, where a woman from our Earth would be transported to a Fantasy world, and when brought before the King under suspicion that she might be the shadowy traitor undermining the King, she’d just point at the Goatee-wearing Vizier and say “He’s the traitor. It’s always the vizier.”
The core of the idea was to frame genre awareness as an essential skill, and in the summer of 2014, I decided to develop a pitch for the just-announced Tor.com Publishing novella project. I took the idea of the genre-savvy woman and smashed it together with a heist-style format inspired by Leverage, one of my favorite TV shows. That gave me the idea of “story heists,” then I asked a bunch of questions about how that worked, why they were needed, and who was doing the heist-ing, until I had the first rough outline for the Genrenauts series.
DJ: What genres have you explored in the Genrenauts season one?
MRU: Episode 1 takes the team to the Western World, and in subsequent episodes, they go to Space Opera, Romantic Comedy, Buddy Police Procedural, and Traditional Fantasy. Each story world has various regions to represent the sub-genres, so I get to have some granularity to cover the full range of how genres manifest.
DJ: What is the universe of the Genrenauts series like?
MRU: The Earth Prime of Genrenauts is very much our own Earth, but each of the story worlds is informed by the narratives which make up the genre in question, and manifests as an exaggerated version of the expectations and flavors of the (sub)genre in question.
For example – Traditional Fantasy-land is largely informed by a pseudo-medieval Europe, since that’s the stereotypical and archetypal for that sub-genre – it’s comprised of feudal kingdoms, peopled by familiar fantasy races, and filled with and Vancian magic. The Rom-Com region is a Hollywood-ized version of New York, where anyone and everyone can get a cab in mere seconds, lavish Central Park-view apartments are affordable on one middle-class salary, and meet-cutes happen around every corner.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about the Genrenauts team? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
MRU: Our heroes are one of three teams of Genrenauts in one of the numerous bases around the world. The team is led by Angstrom King, a sometimes stern, sometimes playful comparative literature professor turned interdimensional adventurer. He’s equal parts professor and mastermind, recruiting and leading a team with the skills to find, analyze, and fix stories in the major commercial genres (including Romance, Crime, and Science Fiction/Fantasy). Other members of the team include Shirin Tehrani, an Iranian spy-turned-story fixer, with connections, allies, and favors stashed around a dozen story regions; Mallery York, an ex-Broadway comedienne turned grifter with a personality that could fill a stadium; Roman de Jager, a South African ex-paramilitary action specialist, confident and ever-ready in the field but fidgety and melancholic back on Earth Prime. The newest recruit to the team is Leah Tang, a struggling stand-up comic and life-long fantasy fan offered the chance to leave her stable-but-boring office job for the danger and excitement of the Genrenauts.
The team makes up a found family, much as you’d expect from a group that spends long hours working together under incredible stress. Additionally, they’re very much a Heist Crew, each with their specialties and oddities, their skills fitting together to be able to respond to any number of possible broken stories. Additionally, the various members of the team have their own secrets and particular agendas within the Genrenauts mission, which sometimes creates additional dangers on certain missions. To say more would be a spoiler, so I’ll leave it at that.
DJ: On a recent Skiffy and Fanty episode, you and a few other authors, all talked about the novella. This begs the question: why did you choose to tell Genrenauts in the novella format? Did you feel there was a particular advantage to telling your story that way over the novel?
MRU: One major factor was that the idea was designed for the Tor.com Publishing novella program. I’d also written a novella for the Ree Reyes series, and really liked the contained format of novellas. For me, novellas are long enough to tell a story meaty enough to really satisfy me as a writer, but they’re still far shorter than even an 80,000-word novel (the Ree Reyes books are 80K to 90K words).
I guessed (correctly, I think) that novellas are a great length for procedural, adventure-of-the-week kinds of stories, where a strong mission-oriented format takes the heroes to a new location every story. Each novella gets to be a part of a larger story while delivering a chunk of story about equivalent to a 44-60 minute TV episode. They can be read in a few hours (by most people – faster by some, slower by others), an afternoon or evening of fun before moving on to the next story.
DJ: The main reason I asked you on for this interview is because of the Kickstarter that you a currently running for the Genrenauts season one collection. Please, tell the readers what the Kickstarter is for and why you decided to do it.
MRU: The first two episodes were published by Tor.com, but they weren’t in a position to publish all six novellas for the season as quickly as I knew they needed to come out in order to help the series build momentum. As I said above, the series is designed for a mission-of-the-week format, and I really wanted to get all six episodes for the first season out within a year of the season’s start. Releasing 3 or so a year with Tor.com would take close to 2 years per season, which was just far too slow for what I have in mind.
Therefore, I’m taking over the job of publisher, which means assuming the costs of making the books (editing, art, design, printing, formatting). The Kickstarter lets me get those funds up-front so I can release the books on a quick turn-around (Episode 3 comes out 5/31, Episode 4 on 7/31, and the Episodes 5 & 6 will come out in Sep/Oct) Without the Kickstarter, I’d be slowed down as I saved up the $ for production costs, which would defeat the purpose of going indie with the series. As to why Kickstarter in specific, Kickstarter is the #1 individual project-oriented crowdfunding platform, and I had several friends who had run very successful Kickstarters, so I knew what it would take to make a project hit its goals.
DJ: There are some great rewards for backers! I, myself, am a fan of the $25 pledge so I will get a paperback copy 🙂 What are some of the other great rewards for reader and writers?
MRY: I’ve tried to provide something cool at most every budget level:
$10 gets the ebook omnibus, plus the stretch goal essays about how I used genre expectations and critiques in the novellas. These essays are available at every level above $10 as well.
$75 gets a limited signed & numbered hardcover (which includes the ebook as well).
$100 gets the hardcover, the ebook, eARCs of episodes 3-6 before they release, an eARC of the omnibus, and access to a backers-only Google Hangout at the end of the campaign, where I’ll talk about the series, the Kickstarter, and more, as well as giving away copies of my other books.
And for the writers out there, I have two critique levels as well. The critique levels get a hardcover, the ebook, previews of season two, PLUS:
$250 – I will use my experience as an author and publishing professional (my day job is sales & marketing at Angry Robot Books) to give feedback on the first 10,000 words of a fiction project.
$500 – I will give feedback on the first 25,000 words of a fiction project AND schedule a one-hour video conference discussion to talk about that project and/or answer any other questions about publishing.
DJ: Your Kickstarter has reached its goal (congratulations!), but you have several great stretch and whimsy goals, that I believe some readers would love. What are these goals that can be unlocked?
MRU: One stretch goal is already unlocked – the genre essays.
The other main stretch goals are for audiobook editions of Episodes 3-6. Those goals will let us bring back Mary Robinette Kowal to perform the audio edition, and pay her (as well as her audio producer) a fair rate for their work. Quality audio work is expensive, so they’re pretty big goals. We’re on track to hit at least one of those goals, and I’d love to push for more, as digital audio is a growing part of the book market, and I like being able to offer the series in as many formats as possible.
The other goals are the whimsy goals – which involve me doing a variety of ridiculous things. If we sell out one of the critique levels, I will perform and record a cover of “You’ll Be Back” from the smash hit musical Hamilton. If we sell out of both levels, I will cosplay as a Kitschy Baltimore version of King George III for the performance. And if the campaign hits 300 backers (currently at 222), I will record myself reading some of my early (aka terrible) fiction. It will be amazing. And embarrassing.
And for every audio stretch goal we hit, I will live-tweet a terrible SF/F movie, then post a Storify of the ordeal for all to see.
DJ: How many episodes/seasons do you believe the Genrenauts will be? Will we see any of season two coming out with Tor.com Publishing again?
MRU: My grand master plan is for Genrenauts to run for five seasons, each including about six episodes. I have an outline of the series arc and how it develops over the five seasons, but the individual episode plots for the middle seasons are still TBD. I’m drawing inspiration from Babylon 5’s Five year plan, but just like that show, I’m aware that sometimes you have to be flexible.
As for partnering with Tor.com Publishing again, I am definitely open to the possibility. They provided a ton of assistance in launching the series, and have been supportive as I’ve taken the driver’s seat. Their model seems to work better for a smaller number of releases, or a shorter series. But the imprint is also less than a year old, so you never know how things can change.
DJ: Once the Genrenauts Kickstarter is complete, what is next for you?
MRU: I have to finish revisions on the later episodes in the season (3-6 were all drafted before the Kickstarter launched, they just needed varying levels of revision), sort out all of the design/production to do printing and fulfillment, etc.
Project-wise, the next thing on my schedule is to finish a Space Opera that I wrote part of last year. It’s a tremendously fun story that incorporates just about everything I love in the genre, and I’m really excited to get back to it.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
MRU:Thanks so much for having me! The Kickstarter has been a wild ride so far, and the best part of it has been the social aspect – reconnecting with readers who have been with me since the start of my career as well as introducing my work to readers who have never heard of my writing.
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*** Genrenauts Season One can be backed on Kickstarter until June 8!!! ***
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Go back the Project!
Leah Tang just died on stage. Well, not literally. Not yet.
Leah’s stand-up career isn’t going well. But she understands the power of fiction, and when she’s offered employment with the mysterious Genrenauts Foundation, she soon discovers that literally dying on stage is a hazard of the job!
Her first assignment takes her to a Western world. When a cowboy tale slips off its rails, and the outlaws start to win, it’s up to Leah – and the Genrenauts team – to nudge the story back on track and prevent a catastrophe on Earth.
But the story’s hero isn’t interested in winning, and the safety of Earth hangs in the balance…
About the Book:
Fiction is more important than you think. When stories go wrong, the Genrenauts step in to prevent the consequences from rippling into our so-called real world.
When a breach is discovered in Science Fiction World, rookie genrenaut Leah Tang gets her first taste of space flight.
A peace treaty is about to be signed on space station Ahura-3, guaranteeing the end of hostilities between some of the galaxy’s most ferocious races, but when the head architect of the treaty is unexpectedly kidnapped, it’s up to Leah and her new colleagues to save the day.
At any cost.
Mike has traveled the world, knows why Tybalt cancels out Capo Ferro, and rolls a mean d20.
He is the author the several series: the comedic fantasy Ree Reyes series (GEEKOMANCY, CELEBROMANCY, ATTACK THE GEEK, HEXOMANCY), fantasy superhero novel SHIELD AND CROCUS, supernatural thriller THE YOUNGER GODS, and GENRENAUTS, a science fiction series in novellas. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books.
Mike lives in Baltimore with his wife and their ever-growing library. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he plays video games, geeks out on TV, and makes pizzas from scratch. He is a co-host on the Hugo Award-finalist The Skiffy and Fanty Show as well as Speculate! The Podcast for Readers, Writers, and Fans.