It is an honor and a thrill to welcome sci-fi author Michael R. Underwood to the blog. His new supernatural thriller novel, The Younger Gods, has just released. Michael gave me the opportunity to read the book early and I found it to be a high-energy blast—both a magical battleground and an often humorous thrill ride through the streets and boroughs of New York City. Also find an EXCERPT from The Younger Gods attached after the interview. Let’s get started!
Q) Hello, Mike and welcome to the Bag of Good Writing Blog. Thanks so much for dropping in. I provided a brief intro to The Younger Gods above, but perhaps you’d like to introduce the reader to your novel with a somewhat wider brush.
A) Thanks for having me! The Younger Gods is several things at once – it’s the story of Jacob Greene, a small-town boy in the biggest city in the USA, New York; it’s the tale of an awkward sorcerer trying to gather allies to avert the apocalypse; it’s a story about how to find your own way when your upbringing and your family has left an indelible effect on you; and it’s a love letter to New York City, a place I’ve lived twice and remain enchanted by.
Q) It is amazing what a hold a city can have upon us, and New York seems to be one, like London and Rome, that ends up owning a piece of our soul. The Younger Gods is, of course, populated with a pantheon of supernatural beings such as the Gardeners, the Nephilim, Exxeven, the Gatekeepers and the Bold, Did you draw all of them from established mythologies or are some constructions/concoctions of your own?
A) Most of them are inspired by existing folklore – Manananggal are actual folkloric creatures in the Philippines, the Gardeners are informed by the idea of the Garden of Eden, the Bold are inspired by the Titans, the Vanir, and the Fallen from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Gatekeepers are something of a gesture toward the creatures that warlocks in Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds bargain with for power, though worked into a new format. Nephilim have an Abrahamic textual source, and the Xoggox are directly inspired by Shoggoths from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The phrase ‘The Younger Gods’ was a play on ‘The Elder Gods,’ so I wanted to put one notable Lovecraft shout-out in the book, which came in the form of the gargantuan Xoggox, the nastiest of the Deep creatures invented for the book.
Q) As the story unfolds, circumstances see to it that Jacob forms a company of supernatural allies around him, some more willingly included than others. Did you start writing with a set of archetypes in mind or did you allow the characters to rise organically as the story required? Or, more likely, was the membership of Jacob’s company a result of both processes at play?
A) It was definitely a mix of both. I had roles that I needed to cast for Jacob’s band – I needed someone with social skills, and at least one heavy/tank, who could be a front-line fighter – ideally, those would be different characters, so there would be some variety in the conversation and in the social relationships. Those characters would then compliment Jacob’s back-ranks sorcerer skills and lack of social graces.
But much like a casting call, I wasn’t married to any one incarnation or version of those roles, and was pleased to let the characters emerge in process. I got about 50% through the novel before I realized that the character of Dorothea would be more interesting to me as a woman – she was originally a male character, but I found her far more compelling as a woman and re-wrote her scenes to fit. From there, I let the characters develop relationships– both relationships with Jacob as the awkward but steadfast core of the group, but also among themselves.
Q) Why did you choose to base The Younger Gods in New York City? It is certainly an important and vibrantly written backdrop to the novel.
A) I first moved to NYC as a child, just before starting second grade. It was the first city I have any memory of, and I imprinted on it, hard. I had the chance to visit the city frequently from 2009-2012, and lived there from the fall of 2012 to the spring of 2013. During those times, I fell totally in love with the city’s energy, its diversity, its triumphs and its weaknesses. It is my archetypal city, even though I’ve spent time in Chicago, LA, Seattle, Baltimore, and others. I started writing The Younger Gods when I lived in NYC, and I decided to use New York as a setting because I had things to say about the city, both little observations about the quirks of NYC life as well as larger statements as a city that represented the whole of the USA in terms of diversity and integrated and un-integrated communities.
Q) New York City has multiple ‘hearts,’ in the book, and Dorothea states that it tells her when its “hurting.” Why did you want to present the city as a living entity?
A) I think every place has a certain character to it, created collaboratively by the people that inhabit it and who inhabited it in the past. A city’s character is written in its architecture, in its infrastructure, in its customs, its culture, its traditions. New York is a different place than LA, San Francisco, or Chicago, and in more ways than just the state is it based in. I wanted to feature that living, breathing quality of the city. Dorothea’s connection to the city was inspired in part by the character of Jack Hawksmoor, God of Cities, from Wildstorm comics, specifically as he appears in The Authority, his power flowing directly from whatever city is around him. I adapted that sort of connection (on a much smaller scale) to create the power system and guiding principles of the Broadway Knights as seen in Dorothea.
Q) I actually did grow quite fond of Dorothea. In your biased authorial opinion, what story elements make The Younger Gods unique in the heavily populated world of supernatural novels?
A) I think a lot of the book’s distinctiveness comes from voice. I wrote Jacob to be a very particular character, challenging but sympathetic in his awkwardness. The other big feather in the book’s cap, in my opinion, is the cosmology. I applied a lifetime of love of folklore and several college degrees in synthesizing a variety of cultural, religious, and textual sources to create the cosmology of the world, with the intent of creating a distinct, but recognizable magical world. The final thing I think the book does best is action scenes – I’ve featured action in all of my series so far, and The Younger Gods shows me pushing my action and pacing skills to their limits, as represented by pushing the characters to their limits in a race against the clock to stop Esther and her mission to raise the titular Younger Gods.
Q) Who are your favorite authors? Which authors influence your writing the most? Are the two lists the same?
A) The lists aren’t totally the same, actually. I have my own particular style, and there are writers I love who write entirely differently than I do, and aren’t direct influences. My favorite authors as a writer and fan, putting aside personal affection (I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend several of my idols), are not always the writers who I draw the most influence from
Craft-wise, I love Lauren Beukes, Kameron Hurley, Scott Lynch, Chuck Wendig, China Mieville, Saladin Ahmed, Catherynne M. Valente, William Gibson, and others.
But the writers who have influenced me most directly would include: China Mieville, Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Chris Claremont, Kameron Hurley, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Warren Ellis, and Ursula K. LeGuin, among others. I draw my influences widely, across a variety of media, and even this list is just a small sample. I try to be voracious as a reader/viewer, and to be inspired constantly, from many sources, and to find originality and freshness in how I integrate, interpret, and combine the variety of influences that I carry with me.
Q) As a follower of yours on Facebook and Twitter, I know you are plugged into the rapidly-changing book business and its market. I’m interested in what you think of the impact of so many independent novels (most of them in digital format), many of them unedited and perhaps ill-prepared, flooding the available space? Author James Patterson (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/author-james-patterson-american-literature-risk/) thinks this rapid, land rush-type expansion is an awful thing, a threat to American literature, and author Chuck Wendig also identifies a number of big-picture problems (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/02/03/slushy-glut-slog-why-the-self-publishing-shit-volcano-is-a-problem/). Wendig offers constructive solutions but his main point is that the sheer and often low-quality weight of the undisciplined indie book tide hurts everyone in the business. James Patterson seems to think that the digital/indie age must slow down or it will destroy itself and the rest of the book world in the process. Your thoughts?
A) I’m of several minds in this. I definitely see and acknowledge Chuck’s arguments about the ‘shit volcano’ – when barriers to entry drop, entrants increase, across the spectrum of excellence. In a reading landscape where a lot of book purchases are made through Amazon’s ecosystem, a proliferation of self-published work of uncertain quality can create increased competition for other works. Readers have fairly voracious appetites, but I think the danger is more in terms of signal : noise ratio, where more books being published make it harder for any one creator to make enough noise to gain attention and create a community around their works that will become sufficient to sustain that creator, even in a self-publishing model where the creator-publisher gets a larger slice of the sales pie by occupying multiple roles at once.
For me, there are several challenges looming for writers.
1) If the Content Wars continue, with ebook sales moving toward a subscription model (ala Oyster, Kindle Unlimited, Scribd) and other digital media moving toward those models as well (Spotify, Pandora, Hulu, Netflix), I think we will face a sea change in how digital creative content is considered. It may become regarded as being a utility – something where consumers pay one or more all-access fees that give unlimited access to a certain ecosystem of content, rather than involving specific payments for specific content as we have right now with ebook sales/licensing.
2) If publishers find themselves unable to offer sufficient services and added value when compared to self-publishing, and a majority of the publishing mid-list turns to self-publishing, claiming a larger slice of the pie but leaving behind the infrastructural support of traditional publishing.
3) Then I think that creatives, authors in specific, will be faced with a massive discoverability and platform challenge. With an incredible diversity of competitive offerings, a lack of institutional support, and a distribution system that benefits from having the largest slice of the pie and the most exclusive content, creators will have to scramble to build platforms through social media, patronage systems, and beyond.
This is not doom-saying – it’s a business projection that indicates possible challenges to be faced and overcome. Every challenge brings with it opportunity, and right now, authors have far more choices and possibilities for getting their work out into the world, which is very exciting.
Q) I appreciate your thoughts on that subject. What is your advice to a new (or old) indie author looking to somehow get noticed over the tumult of product? Or is there no magic trick to be had, beyond what Wendig might suggest, which is to write and write and write really good s””t.
A) In addition to making the best books you can, I think that a lot can be said for making friends and getting out into the social landscape of your genres/fields. The institutional and social resistance to self-publishing, especially the higher-quality self-publishing works and creators, have been dropping, especially over the last couple of years, and most of the time, the people at SF/F conventions are more interested in the story you have to share than which publishing house put it out.
In addition, making friends from across the country (or world), and in adjacent portions of the genre community can be of incredible utility. Friends and colleagues can introduce you to their colleagues/editors/freelancers, can cross-promote one another, and so on. If you befriend other authors who are close to your level of success/experience, and stay in touch, you may find that in five years, you’ve all risen and are in strong position to help one another out. And as I’ve heard said, you never know who might end up as an editor in ten years, so it doesn’t hurt to be nice to everyone as a default (also, it’s just polite. Void where prohibited by people being jerks).
Q) In closing, let’s take a little peek inside the life of Michael R. Underwood. What is your favorite food? What is your favorite drink? What is your favorite restaurant in your town?
A) My favorite food, my comfort food, and the food I know how to make best are all the same thing: pizza. I’ve had a deep (dish) love for all types of pizza since my youth, and now make my own pizzas from (mostly) scratch, often as a way of putting the world aside for a time and focusing on the micro-level, the tangible, and the things that I can directly control. My favorite non-alcoholic drink is a good craft-brewed root beer, and my favorite liquor is rum, specifically spiced rum, though scotch whiskey is a close second.
My favorite restaurant in Baltimore is Barcocina, a newish Mexican-style bistro with incredible fresh-made guacamole, good tapas, cool taco selections, excellent dessert, and a selection of mezcal, which I have discovered is basically agave scotch – smokey wintasticness.
Richard: Thanks for taking the time to visit the blog, Mike, and best of luck with your new book!
Michael: Thanks so much for having me! And all the best to you in your writing as well!
Thanks to Michael R. Underwood for taking so much time and energy to answer my questions, but he’s brought us even more goodies. Below is an EXCERPT from his latest novel, The Younger Gods:
(The Younger Gods Novel Excerpt): CHAPTER THIRTEEN
I’d never met lycanthropes before. There were no packs in the Dakotas. My father and grandmother had seen to that years ago.
I was starting to understand why. Our family’s sorcerous might was unmatched, but a wolf moving through thick brush, especially with a pack at her back, could make quick work of an unprepared sorcerer, unless the sorcerer was willing to bring down an entire forest to protect themselves.
It’s what Grandmother had done.
One of the many races made by the gods in the first days, lycanthropes could move among humans without notice, only revealing their power when they wished. When their creator, the moon, was strongest, so were they.
Antoinette cleared her throat. “I am Antoinette Laroux. And a friend told me to show you this.” She produced the Nataraja statue, holding it out in the scant inches between herself and the looming wolf-woman.
The woman chuffed once, very canine in that moment, all pretense of humanity cast aside. She looked Antoinette dead in the eyes, then sized her up, gaze going to her feet and then back up to her eyes.
She took a single step back.
“So you know the Nephilim. Fine. Why are you here?”
“Someone’s after the Hearts. She’s trying to awaken the Younger Gods.”
The wolves snarled as one. All of them, the woman included. “And you’re here, what, to warn us? As if we aren’t always on guard? There’s precious little of the earth left in this place. You think we aren’t always vigilant?”
“We want to help,” I said, breaking with Antoinette’s request.
The woman snapped at me, baring her teeth. “You smell of the Deeps, boy.”
Again, judged before I was known. Even thousands of miles away from my family’s center of power, I was just a Greene to them. Even if I bested Esther, would I ever be rid of that stain, or would I carry it with me my whole life, my family’s sins painted clearly across my face with the distinctively bland look of our family?
“We’ve had a long day already,” Antoinette said, by way of explanation. “But he’s right. We’re trying to get the whole city to join up so we can stop this woman. She’s ridiculously powerful.”
“Her power means little here,” the woman said. “Her power comes from the Deeps, but this is the horizon, the union of earth and sky, and we are protected.”
“Tell that to the Hidatsa and Arikara packs,” I said. They’d been the last two to give up the fight. The Hidatsa had fled west. The Arikara had been eradicated.
“We are not them. But we take your offer as it is intended, in recognition of the Nephilim’s friendship to our pack. Go. This island is sacrosanct. Help the others, and when the time comes, call for us and we will be there. Our fangs will tear her throat and spill her lifeblood. It will be washed away by the Hudson and her stain sent out to sea.”
A cheery sort, this one. I could just imagine what she’s like at parties.
“Care for some juice?”
“I will rip this cup to broken shreds and see its ruin smote upon the mountain.”
“No, thank you.”
“Thank you for your time,” Antoinette said. “How will we call you?”
The woman reached into her sweatshirt, and produced a spent exoskeleton. Cicada, possibly a grasshopper. I’d always been an indoor child. “Crush this beneath your boot and we will know.”
“Will you know where as well?”
The woman snarled at me. “We will know.”
I elected not to probe further, trusting the wolf-woman’s confidence.
Antoinette accepted the exoskeleton, handling it with care and sliding it into the pocket with the Shiva Nataraja statue. “Thank you for your time. We will go now.”
The woman nodded, and another wave of shadows passed over her, leaving behind the wolf she had been before.
In an unexpected act of kindness, the wolves led us to another way down the hill, such that we were able to leave the park with no more bruises and scrapes.
When we were out of earshot of the pack (or, when I assumed we were, the exact details of supernal wolf hearing being an area outside my expertise), I released the hold on my tongue.
“Why did she speak that way?” I asked.
Antoinette raised an eyebrow. “You’re one to ask.”
“I am asking. That speech pattern is not familiar to me. I had been informed that the filmic depictions of Native American speech were inaccurate, but her speech was neither that stereotype nor anything with which I am familiar.”
“She’s a wolf, Jake.”
“A lycanthrope, yes. I assume they all are. Is that typical of the local group? A tribal cant, then?”
“Everybody’s got a dialect. They don’t talk to people much, from what I can tell.”
“But how will we know if we don’t ask?” I prodded, struck by Antoinette’s lack of curiosity. Some would call it prudence. But I’d never been the one to stop until I’d gotten to the bottom of something. Be that turning the basement until I found the frequently-cited text that was somehow not on the bookshelves, or waiting and listening at the door until Mother and Father thought we’d all gone to bed so they could resume their fights.
“I don’t really care. I’m not the needs-to-know everything type. That was more my mom’s bag.”
We arrived at the bus stop. A woman joined us, old before her time, with a multicolored heap of plastic bags in a laundry cart. We suspended our conversation, dwelling in silence as my mind continued to race. I checked my watch several times over the course of the same minute, then turned to Antoinette.
“Have you heard anything from Carter?”
She shook her head. “Don’t worry, Jake. We have time.” I was not so optimistic.
After seven minutes of fidgeting and feeling helpless, the bus appeared, which led directly into another fifty-two minutes of powerlessness. But with the space in the bus, I felt comfortable drawing out one of the texts I’d borrowed from Antoinette’s store and refreshing my familiarity with agate/ruby sympathetic connections and their applications in combat.
The peridot would be my greatest asset in any combat against creatures of the Deeps, but I would be well advised to take a versatile approach, perhaps happen upon a configuration unexpected to Esther and catch her unawares. She was a natural, and had never needed to study as I had. Her power was unquestioned, but she was sometimes shortsighted.
On the ferry trip back, we found a corner of the deck sufficiently remote to speak freely, working through various scenarios—if Esther had already claimed this Heart and that one, this is what she could do, and so on. She had perhaps three of the Hearts at most, one at the least. Antoinette’s connections in the Bronx were not extensive. If she had three, the second circle would be opened soon, and the city would take notice.
My seasickness was not as pronounced as on the trip over, but I still found prudence in fixing my gaze on the horizon, the vision locked into my mind to help convince my inner ear that we were not about to be hurtled into the sea or whatever it was about the rolling motion of the water that unsettled my equilibrium.
“That place is a battlefield,” she’d said by way of explanation. “We go there next, then. She may hope to use our reticence against us. But what about Queens?”
“The Raksha in Queens are very capable, and even more secretive. Queens is a big place, and the Raksha have full cooperation of the entire community. People live in Queens to be safe, not for ambition.”
“That seems somewhat reductive,” I said.
Antoinette shrugged. “Not everything I say has to be the gospel truth, you know. This isn’t a trial.”
I blanched at the comment. “But why dissemble?”
“It was a turn of phrase, for emphasis. I think you’re right about the Bronx. It’ll take Esther longer to pin down the Bearer in Queens, so it seems only smart that she’d head north first.”
“Excellent. I would be amenable to stopping for lunch somewhere on the way. Preferably after my stomach has settled again from the ferry ride.”
Antoinette nodded, her gaze turning out to the water.
I wished that my stomach or the water would be calm enough to resume my reading. It was nervous distraction, but still far better than queasiness for my nerves. Instead, my mind drifted to Esther, spinning out scenarios of the people she could be hurting this very moment, the carnage she could be tearing through this city while eight million people moved around her, ignorant of the coming storm.
(End Novel Excerpt)
BIOGRAPHY and CONTACT INFO for MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD
Michael R. Underwood is the author of Geekomancy, Celebromancy, Attack the Geek, 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. He has a BA in Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies, and an MA in Folklore Studies.
Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiancée, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines and stuffed animals. He is also a co-host on the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show. In his rapidly vanishing free time, Mike studies historical martial arts and makes homemade pizza. He blogs at MichaelRUnderwood.com (Geek Theory) and Tweets @MikeRUnderwood.