This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy, Grimdark, and Epic/High Fantasy.
Today I have the privilege of chatting with Matthew Samuels, author of the excellent urban fantasy, Small Places.
Hi Matthew! Thank you for being willing to talk about urban fantasy!
My pleasure! Thank you for having me on your site 😊
Will you introduce yourself to the readers and talk about your writing a little?
I’m Matthew Samuels, and I write sci-fi and fantasy; I’m the author of the solarpunk / hopepunk exploration books Parasites and Dusk, and urban fantasy title Small Places, which is about a guy who meets a cranky old witch, who is investigating the source of highly irregular weather in the UK. I live in London, UK.
Small Places is interesting in that the main character, Jamie, is dealing with adversity in his “real life” which is sort of echoed in the adversity in the fantasy element. How did you go about keeping that balance between the two kinds of struggles?
Despite the challenges that writing urban fantasy presents, it does also lend you a hand, because you can reflect on how regular people would act if confronted by these things. So yes, Jamie meets some fantastical creatures and a witch, but his mum is also very sick and there’s a girl he likes in town, and these things are always going to creep into your mind, however all-consuming the other stuff is. Sometimes – like in real life – one of these things takes up more brain space than others, and other times, things get completely pushed to one side and Jamie feels guilty for forgetting about it. I’m not quite sure if there’s a trick to keeping this balance; it’s really just about trying to keep it believable, given everything that’s going on! A good editor definitely helps – my partner read Small Places quite carefully, and some parts of the book changed quite a lot afterwards.
I really loved the divided attention and subsequent feelings of guilt that Jamie experiences in Small Places. It’s such a completely human reaction. Do you feel that urban fantasy allows for a deeper exploration of the human condition?
Yes and no – I don’t think it’s unique to urban fantasy. Some of my favourite reflections on the human condition come from sci-fi books like the Rama series by Arthur C Clarke and the Galactic Mileu set by Julian May, but I also love what Charles de Lint has to say about absolution, forgiveness and dealing with difficult circumstances in life, in an urban fantasy setting. I do think that sometimes genres outside of low fantasy can get sucked into the ‘we’re in a supernatural setting, so we should focus on heroes and adventure and all this amazing stuff’ but if the Marvel Universe has shown us anything, it’s that adventures are more satisfying and believable when they’re about ‘real people dealing with issues who happen to be superheroes, rather than superheroes just being superheroes, which I think is where some of the DC films come unraveled. Urban fantasy is in a good place to start these reflections because you’re dealing with regular folk from day one, rather than people who regularly leap tall buildings and zap aliens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s exclusive!
Small Places is an urban fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?
In my mind, urban fantasy is a section of low fantasy, which takes place in ‘our’ world. Urban fantasy is distinct from the likes of Harry Potter only because it takes place in urban environments, rather than separate places like Hogwarts (or in the countryside!).
What drew you to writing urban fantasy?
One of the first fantasy novels I read growing up was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the idea that there could be something fantastical just around the corner was an absolutely magical prospect to me. After I’d read it, I spent quite a lot of time poking into old wardrobes or opening doors several times hoping that there’d be something back there! As a teenager I watched the BBC adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, absolutely rapt for much the same reason (I don’t think it’s aged well, but the book is obviously fantastic) and then discovered Clive Barker’s Weaveworld as an adult, not to mention Charles de Lint, Erin Morgenstern and Laurell K Hamilton.
Perhaps more to the point, urban fantasy stretches your mind in a way that other genres don’t, because of the possible believability (more on this later!) – after all, there are weird, wonderful and beautiful things in the regular world. I used to spend quite a lot of time in a club called Shunt, which was a performing arts club underneath London Bridge Station, with just the strangest selection of artwork and things to explore. There’s also the Vaults under Waterloo, and experiential events like Secret Cinema. I’m quite a big fan of urbex photography (in particular, RomanyWG’s work), which continues to be an inspiration for any long-forgotten places that I’m writing about.
When you put all of this together, urban fantasy has the ability to conspire in your mind and whisper ‘what if…?’ in the dark hours of the night. And I’ve always written, for as long as I can remember (I still have some of my early works which I’d describe as either ‘loving fanfic’ or ‘hideous and derivative’ depending on my mood) and with inspirations like that, how could I not want to write in the genre?
What are some obstacles to writing urban fantasy?
Believability is key. When you’re blending the real world and a fantastical world, there’s the question of ‘why haven’t they been detected’? The memory charms in Harry Potter are a bit of a quick fix around this, but in Small Places, we have very well hidden and virtually inaccessible faerie realms. The first rule of the faerie is often ‘stay out of the way, but in an urban setting that’s much, much harder. Books like the Rivers of London series bypass this by simply having the magical world ‘out’, whereas in Neverwhere it hides much more carefully, and has people fall between the cracks and vanish if they do pick up on it, which is a slightly terrifying prospect.
I agree with you on that! The idea of a person just disappearing mysteriously if they pick up on the “other” hidden in plain sight is definitely a scary one. Did it take some time to decide how your faerie realms would exist in conjunction with the real-world setting?
Yes, it was a tricky one because – especially in very urban settings like London – it’s hard to do anything completely out of sight! Neverwhere gets around this very neatly by having people just ignore the things that are uncomfortable to them (which we all do sometimes) but it was hard working up a mechanism that would be secure, unlikely to be triggered by accident, and also relatively easy to conceal. The ‘fantastical combination lock’ idea eventually appealed because it seemed to tick a number of those boxes all at once, whilst still giving some narrative flexibility.
What is the best thing about writing urban fantasy?
It’s really the same thing: believability. If you’re writing something fantastical that’s also set in the real world, there’s a small chance that a question worms into your brain – as Morpheus says in The Matrix, ‘like a splinter in your mind’. That question is ‘what if there is something else?’ and I think that’s both terrifying and wonderful to consider at the same time. The other (non-low fantasy) genres are great escapism, but urban / low fantasy can just feel a bit more real. I’ve walked past the spot in London where Richard meets the Marquis de Carabas for the first time in Neverwhere, and I love that flicker of slightly disquieting recognition that you get, that feeling of ‘well, maybe?’ that sticks around no matter how old you get.
You also write science fiction (books one and two in The Navigator series are available now). Are there similarities between how you write for those two genres? Or are they completely dissimilar?
There are definitely common elements in terms of the need for good plotting and characters, but with sci-fi, you have a lot more flexibility because you set the rules. Being able to create entire planets, space stations and alien creatures gives you a lot more wiggle room than being stuck on earth in a contemporary setting!
Who are some of your go-to authors?
Where to start? 😊 As well as the guys I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a huge fan of Iain M Banks, Jacqueline Carey, Julian May, Steph Swainston, Jay Kristoff, David Wong, Becky Chambers, Brandon Sanderson and Laini Taylor. I’ll also read outside SFF, and am a big Tana French and Stephen King fan.
Do you have anything interesting coming up that you’d like to talk about?
I’ve just published the second book in the Navigator (Sci-Fi) series, and was hoping to continue my other long-suffering urban fantasy title, Wild Court, which takes a fantastical look at the decline of empathy in society, and is two-thirds written, but my brain has refused. Instead, I’ve been spending time planning out a high fantasy title exploring the war between heaven, hell and mankind, featuring a devious demonic heroine with a disability who teams up with a captured warlock’s apprentice in an effort to escape from hell. I’d done some planning on it a while ago, but had a sudden realization about the MC, then things started to fall into place, and before I knew it, I’d written four thousand words of plan. There’s still a fair bit to do, but I scribbled down the opening line “When I was growing up, I had six brothers and sisters; by the time I was 16, I’d murdered three of them” and knew it was something I really wanted to explore more.
That’s a killer line, in multiple senses of the word. I’m excited!
Thank you 😊
To Purchase Small Places: