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 has been a bookseller, a barista, a game store cashwrap monkey, and an independent publishers’ representative. He 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/blog and tweets @MikeRUnderwood.
Looking back on my childhood, I can trace the thread of my life and education in narrative that led to writing Genrenauts all the way back to my childhood, with stories about genres and storytelling.
This list has to start here, as I think it was the first film I saw that explicitly invoked genre conventions and expectations, bringing a boy into an Action Movie world, where his knowledge of the genre and the franchise lets him assist Schwarzenegger’s character, then juxtaposes the reality of the action genre with the mundane world. Looking back on media that I’ve loved, it’s very easy for me to draw a direct line between The Last Action Hero and the initial seed for Genrenauts.
As the grandfather says, this story has everything – swordfights, monster, betrayal, romance, destiny, and more. The frame structure serves to foreground the fairy story feel of The Princess Bride, and to serve as meta-commentary about this kind of tale – with the grandfather’s assurances regarding the eels, the boy’s expectations about what has to happen to the villain, and so on. It’s a story that teaches you how to be an audience for stories.
The third film in my youth that really stuck with me as a story about stories was The NeverEnding Story – another frame narrative with a young boy, a special book, and a heroic fantasy story unfolding with a child as the audience, but in this one, the audience becomes part of the story, and his relationship to the story serves as the power necessary to save the day. Also staying with me forever is that theme song, which is one of the catchiest tunes ever created.
In this comic series, the main character Tom Taylor was fictionalized into boy wizard Tommy Taylor, the hero of a Harry Potter-esque mega-blockbuster book series written by his father. At the start of the series, Tom makes a living on the convention circuit, but he quickly discovers that there’s much more going on with his father’s writing and the Tommy Taylor books. The series is deeply metafictional, with a map of literary landmarks, stories within stories, and tons of play with narrative expectations, audiences and storytellers, and more.
An Urban Fantasy serial mystery driven by the Aarne-Thompson is basically my genre kryptonite. The ATI (Aarne-Thompson Index) Bureau monitors for and stops incursions of fairy tale magic into the real world, tracking down evolving stories and classifying them by their Tale Type (510A for Cinderalla, 328 for Jack and the Beanstalk, etc.). I read Indexing in the year before writing Genrenauts, and I have a ton of respect for the book and McGuire’s writing. So when I was designing Genrenauts, I worked to take inspiration from Indexing while also making sure that Genrenauts would be solidly distinct from what McGuire is doing with the Indexing series, which I did by focusing on narrative more broadly rather than folklore in specific, and by having the Genrenaut go to other story worlds instead of having the stories coming to our world.
This episode is another fairy-tales-come-to-life story, this time centered around one rural Oregon town, where inhabitants of the town come to embody fairytale archetypes from the Woodsman to Prince Charming. The episode gets bonus points by having some characters cast against type while others find their characteristics exaggerated, where the heroes have to work with the roles they’ve been forced into and still save the day.
The last spot on this list goes to the hip-hop historical biographical musical sensation. The entire show is framed by the line “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” As Lin-Manuel Miranda himself said, introducing a version of the first song in a White House Performance, the titular Hamilton’s rise to power happens all on the strength of his writing, a fact that the show elaborates upon, with competing narratives of self, of governance, and of relationships.
So there are seven of my favorite stories about stories, influences new and old on how I approach my own series of stories about storytelling and genres. What are your favorites?