Laura J. Underwood was born and raised in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. From early on, her parents concluded that a) she was special, or b) she was strange. She grew up, got some college education (though she never sought a degree) and after getting her ribs cracked while working in a stables she took on part-time work and eventually worked her way into a full-time position with the Knox County Public Library System. Since she began to pen words for profit in her teens, she has produced a large number of short stories, nonfiction, book reviews, and several books. She is the author of Ard Magister (Yard Dog), The Black Hunter (Embiid), Bogie Woods and Other Tales of Conor Manahan (Yard Dog), Chronicles of the Last War (Yard Dog), Dragon's Tongue (Meisha Merlin), Keltora, Land of Myth (Embiid), Magic's Song: Tales of the Harper Mage (Wildside), Shadow Lord (Yard Dog), Tangled Webs and Other Imaginary Weaving (Dark Regions) and Wandering Lark (Meisha Merlin—forthcoming). She is an Active Member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. For more information, visit her web page.
[Editor's Note: This interview was conducted in April 2004.]
Kenneth Mark Hoover: What first influenced you to be a writer?
Laura J. Underwood: I have a tendency to blame my career on Mighty Mouse. When I was little, I used to believe that he was my best friend. I once made the bus driver open the doors again just so Mighty Mouse could get on the bus. Another time, I asked the ladies at the nursery school for extra cookies and orange juice for him. I think they thought I was possessed or something. [grins]
KMH: [laughs] I guess I can understand their concern.
LJU: At any rate, my mother thought talking to yourself was a sign of insanity and tried to discourage it. Since I like to play "let's pretend" a lot, I started writing down the stories that were running around in my head. That way I could relive them. Of course, I am sure that coming from a southern family where storytelling was part of the gathering of adults had a large influence on it as well.
KMH: Was anyone in your family instrumental in helping you along?
LJU: When I turned six, my great aunt gave me a copy of The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It was a beautifully illustrated book that introduced me to fairy tales from all over the world. Once that happened, I was hooked.
KMH: Do you find writing easy or hard at this stage of your career?
LJU: I haven't a clue. I once described myself as a writer who sneezes on the page and then cleans it up, much to the chagrin of my good friend David B. Coe—he accuses me of always saying something to gross him out. [laughs] But in reality, I just write. I seem to get into "the zone" real easy. So in effect, it's still easy for me to write.
KMH: What is your personal philosophy toward writing?
LJU: I write because I have to write. I don't really philosophize about it. It's something I have done nearly all my life. I guess if I do have a philosophy it's write what you like best. Enjoy what you write. If you stop enjoying it, you should not bother doing it. As the late Marion Zimmer Bradley always said, "Nobody told you not to be a plumber."
KMH: What is your favorite format: short stories or novels?
LJU: I like both. Novels are long walks through the woods, pointing to all the little side paths, the flora, and the fauna. You can throw in a lot of details and subplots so long as you don't lose sight of the reason for the main plot. Short stories are quick sprints where you whack the reader on the nose and dare them to follow you down the straight path. Some stories stretch themselves into novels easily. Others have to be short. The story itself will usually dictate its length. These days, I am actually writing more novelettes and novellas.
KMH: You've authored over 60 fantasy short stories. That's a very respectable body of work. What is it about fantasy that draws you to it more than other genres?
LJU: I actually wanted to start off as a mystery writer. I was doing mystery novels, one right after the other, some historical and some modern. Never sold a one. I look back on them now as an apprenticeship, helping me to learn my craft. In fact, my only mystery sale was a four-line poem to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine back in the late '70s. Along the way, I was writing ghost stories and fantasy stories without really thinking about it. Then one day, I ran across Ill Met In Lankmar while shelving books at the library and realized that I wanted to write fantasy instead. Once I switched, it was like, "Oh, yeah, this is what I do best . . . make up stories about things that might have been or never were." It took me back to the days of folk and fairy tales.
KMH: Does writing fantasy generate its own set of problems?
LJU: I won't say that it's an easy genre to write in. You can't just throw together a bunch of adventurers, toss in a couple of elves and magic swords and call it fantasy. There is a complexity to the genre that appeals to me in the same way plotting mystery novels did. I'm a natural born storyteller, and fantasy offers me a medium for stretching the muscles of my imagination as well as using the folklore I grew up savoring.
KMH: World-building is an important part of fantasy. What sources have influenced you in that regard?
LJU: Folklore, of course, is a large inspiration for me. I used to be able to recite every myth and legend from Bulfinch's by heart, and have studied a lot of Scottish and Celtic lore. In fact, as a born and raised East Tennessean descended from Scottish settlers and Native Americans, I have something of an ear for folklore.
KMH: Are there any hobbies or activities that you draw upon as source material or inspiration?
LJU: Hobbies? Who has time for hobbies? [grins] Seriously, I'm sort of a renaissance person in that I write, draw, embroider, dabble with music, read about tons of stuff and do tons of research. But of course, I am also a librarian in my other life, so that may have something to do with it. I like to hike when I can, though these days, finding the time to get away from home and into the woods is rare.
KMH: What about the swordplay/harper imagery that appears in some of your work?
LJU: I'm a fencer. I was trained by a master and earned a modest reputation as state women's champion for several years running back in the late '80s and I was a coach and rated director. I use that skill to write sword fighting scenes. These days, the fencing is limited to fun with friends and demonstrations as a member of the SFWA Musketeers. And I play harp. Though I started that after I published a number of the Harper Mage stories.
KMH: Your short work has been gathered in 3 collections that I know of: Keltora, Land of Myth from Embiid Publishing, Tangled Webs and Other Imaginary Weaving from Dark Regions Press, and Magic's Song, Tales of the Harpermage, from Wildside Press. For those readers new to your work, which collection do you view as definitive?
LJU: That depends largely on what a reader is looking for. Tangled Webs and Other Imaginary Weavings is a broader sampler of my fantasy. It includes some subtle horror, some Harper Mage stuff and some stories about Conor, Eithne and Rhoyd. Keltora, Land of Myth is a collection of stories all set in Keltora, or involving Keltorans in other lands. Magic's Song pulls together nearly all the published stories, along with several new stories, about Anwyn and Glynnanis. The first two also include original novellas, which can give the reader a sense of my longer stories. But if I had to say which one is more definitive, probably Tangled Webs since it is a varied collection.
KMH: What themes most often appear in your stories?
LJU: I'm fascinated with the hero, or heroine, who is forced to come to terms with something happening to them that they may not want to have happen. I think it's because my own life has often forced me into doing things I did not want to do. When it comes down to it, I like underdogs who manage to win against all odds. Alaric is forced to bond with a demon and learn where his true strength lies. Anwyn travels around using the Songs of Power but refuses to make the sacrifice that would make him a true mage. Rhoyd finds out he was bred to be the Ard Magister, and it becomes something he has to cope with because a whole world is going to depend on him one day.
KMH: How would you characterize your style?
LJU: I tend to write in third person but I still get inside the head of the characters as well. Once in a while, I pop off something in first person. In fact, I started doing more first person stories when I was asked to write for the second Bubbas of the Apocalypse anthology [The Four Bubbas of the Apocalypse]. The storyteller in me again, I imagine.
KMH: What genres and authors do you read?
LJU: I read a lot of stuff in and out of the genre. I'm a really big fan of Barbara Hambly and Teresa Edgerton and Katherine Kerr, but I also love mystery novels and the occasional "literary" novel. I recently finished Elizabeth Moon's Trading in Danger and the first two books of the Sun Wolf Saga by Barbara Hambly.
KMH: Are there any fantasy programs on television that in your opinion are "getting it right?"
LJU: I was a media child, but I was a reader as well. I have always separated those two mediums and treated each one as a separate entity. My television tastes actually run more to PBS than anything else. I'm not that up on what is popular culture in modern television when it comes to fantasy. I did watch a lot more when I was in my teens. I saw the original Trek. In more recent years, I got hooked on Farscape because it was so wonderfully different. I've even seen some episodes of Buffy, though I was never a hardcore fan. But with holding down a full time job and writing, there is little time for television these days.
KMH: How about comics or movies?
LJU: I did read comics when I was a kid. I still love Batman, the Animated Series because it's so much like the older Batman stuff from the '40s. I was a big Batman fan from the get go. One of the greatest pleasures I have had in recent years was in finding that my old daily papers carried the '40s Batman comics.
KMH: And movies?
LJU: Movies, oh there is where I can talk for hours. I used to watch every bad SF B-flick and every Hammer film ever made. I steeped myself in old movies, and I had a crush on Peter Cushing for ever so long. To this day, I love going to the movies when I can afford to. I just saw Hellboy and thought it was awesome fun. Lord of the Rings blew me away. Now I'm waiting for Van Helsing and The Village, both of which are the kinds of movies I like. If I had more money and a bigger room, I would have a wide screen TV and a DVD player and every DVD of my favorites movies that I could get my hands on. But then I wouldn't get much writing done. [smiles]
KMH: What do you feel are your strengths as a writer?
LJU: My strengths seem to be my ability to create realistic characters and realistic worlds. People often tell me they love my characters because they seem so real. And I have a natural ear for dialog, which may be in part because of my theatrical background. I spent a lot of my childhood on the stage, performing in plays and doing music and I listen when people talk. You can learn a lot from that. I'm also a good mimic of speech patterns, which may be the result of having a musical background.
KMH: How about weaknesses?
LJU: I can't spell worth a hoot. I have to depend on the kindness of friends and the Webster's Dictionary to get me through. [grins]
KMH: Do you have any advice for writers who are just beginning?
LJU: Learn to spell. [grins] Read. Write, rewrite, submit, resubmit. Don't think you are going to be an overnight success just because you have sold one novel or story. It takes more than that to make a career. More new authors are falling into the vanity press traps because they don't have the patience to work at their profession. It's a craft, yes, but it's also a business so think like a professional if you want to be one.
KMH: It seems to me more and more writers are turning to independent and small presses these days rather than relying on the major houses to showcase their work. Is this a general trend you also see?
LJU: It has long been speculated that small press is going to be the major avenue of publication for new writers. Small press used to mean "academic" and "regional" publishing. Now it's becoming a major force in the industry. More small press books are also winning big prizes.
KMH: What's bringing on this trend, in your opinion?
LJU: With the larger presses closing their doors to unsolicited submissions, small press is gaining a lot more attention from new writers. It used to be that small press published those who had "fallen in the cracks" and in a way it still does. That does not mean that a writer cannot get large press publication. If you mind your p's and q's and learn to toe the line, you can get through the slush, get past the gates and even get into the editor's hands. Agents are helpful there.
KMH: Any downside to this?
LJU: What worries me is that I see a lot of "vanity" presses promoting themselves as "small press" publishers, taking advantage of PoD technology, and exploiting those writers who are either too desperate or just not really paying attention. And because of these vanity and subsidy presses, a lot of the chain bookstores are closing their doors to small press in general. On the other hand, the Internet is opening up new opportunities for authors to sell through small press venues that are legitimate.
KMH: Every writer I talk to says conventions are important. Which are your favorites?
LJU: That's kind of a tricky question because I don't like to play favorites. But most any con that treats me like a queen will get my vote. [grins] I only go to about five a year. I may have a full-time job and a writing career, but I live on a tight budget. I love all the cons I go to. I love doing World Fantasy Con because it's so professional, but I enjoy the small cons as well. The "sit around and shoot the breeze cons" are where I get to meet the fans.
KMH: Is there anything you bring from these cons that helps you later as a writer?
LJU: Actually, what I tend to bring back is a sense that I am not alone in this business because it's a good chance to mix and mingle with other pros. I like knowing that there are people who really do read my stuff. When you write, you never really know unless you get to speak to the fans directly. Hearing that people are reading my stuff and liking it just pushes me to keep writing more and better stories.
KMH: Meisha Merlin bought your duology, The Demon-Bound, for publication in 2006 and 2007. What made you decide to market this as two books?
LJU: That was the "book's" decision, actually. I started writing what I thought was going to be a single novel. Boy was I in for a surprise! I even knew where it was supposed to end, or so I thought. When Stephe Pagel was asking me what projects I had available, I told him I had a fat fantasy epic in the works. He decided that was the book to start with. Of course, when I finished it, I suddenly realized there was a whole book sitting right on the tail end of Dragon's Tongue and either DT was going to be a "really-fat-fantasy" novel, or I had two books in the works. So I presented it to Stephen and he said sure. The rest is history.
KMH: What is The Demon-Bound about?
LJU: Simply put, it's the story of Alaric Braidwine, a young bard who furthers his education in magic and ends up accused of bringing a demon into the fortress of the Council of Mageborn. While trying to prove his innocence, he's kidnapped by a blood mage, Tane Doran, who is the master of the demon. The blood mage wants a certain song Alaric is supposed to know because it is the key to finding where an ancient artifact known as "The Dragon's Tongue" is buried. Once Tane has the song, he sets out to find the artifact, leaving Alaric to die. Alaric's only salvation comes from the demon that Tane had first bound as a slave. Alaric has to bond with the demon in order to get them both out of the keep's dungeons alive, but that leaves him with a new dilemma—he has become "demon-bound" and according to the law of the Council of Mageborn, that means his life is forfeit. So he has to try and stop Tane from finding and using the Dragon's Tongue to bring back the age of the Shadow Lords by awakening the Dark Mother and at the same time, he has to find a way to free himself from the demon.
KMH: What was the genesis of this story?
LJU: While Dragon's Tongue and Wandering Lark are independent stories on their own, they are also the beginning of a saga that will one day end with the books I started with Ard Magister (Yard Dog Press, 2002). The seed of the story was born out of an incident mentioned in one of the other books I wrote in that era. I have this habit of writing backwards when I am creating worlds.
KMH: Can you tell us what you're working on right now?
LJU: I'm putting the final touches on Wandering Lark before turning it in before the deadline, and editing my collaborative mystery novel Bad Lands written with Selina Rosen. Plus, I'm putting together a couple of novels that take place after Ard Magister and working on shaping up some of the books that will be between "The Demon-Bound" and Ard Magister. In the mean time, I keep getting hints that I need to finish editing my Harper Mage novels. I have a couple of those in rough, but have not had time to get them ready for any publisher to see. But several fans who have read Magic's Song are pushing me to get the Harper Mage books written and published. Of course, first, I have to find someone who wants to publish them.
KMH: Is there a story out there you haven't tackled yet but want to?
LJU: I want to write a swashbuckler. A real fantasy swashbuckler, something on the order of Pirates of the Caribbean which is currently one of my top ten favorite films. Something with alchemy and swords. And if I ever find the time, I will. I also have a couple of modern fantasy novels that I would love to see published, and a whole collection of East Tennessee folktales with fantastic elements that I am hoping to market one day.
KMH: Finally, I know a lot of writers are often asked what's the first story they ever sold. I'm guilty of it myself. But, if given the chance to decide, what's the final story Laura J. Underwood would write as a capstone to her career?
LJU: Oh, probably that fantasy swashbuckler novel that she wants to write so bad. [laughs] But in all seriousness, I would be happy to complete the Ard-Taebh Chronicles in my lifetime and get the Harper Mage novels published as well. What most people don't know is that I will be 50 this year. While I don't consider that old, and I come from a long line of long-lived women (I had great, great grandparents still alive when I was in my late teens), I do recognize that mortality is a way of life. I have the rather Celtic attitude about death: I don't fret about it. But I would like to finish a lot of the things that I have started, and see a lot of the work I have yet to get published bear fruit in some way. [grins] Because I think what it all boils down to is that you just want to know that someone remembers your name.