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’m excited to get to talk to Satyros Phil Brucato, author of Red Shoes.
Hi, Satyros! Welcome back to my blog and thank you for talking about urban fantasy with me!
Thanks, Jodie. I appreciate you having me back.
First, will you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
I’m a hypercreative malcontent who loves using art to inspire people to envision a better world and help to bring one into being.
Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated with stories, magic, faith, and monsters. Though the terminology didn’t exist until well into my adult life, I’m a queer neurodivergent person with significant sensory-processing conditions. I’ve put those conditions to work in various arts: drawing, writing, photography, music, dance, gaming, filmmaking, acting, modeling, and other types of performance. I’ve worked professionally in the arts since I was 15, have made a living at them for just shy of 30 years, and occasionally teach in the field as well. Polyamorous but happily married to my longtime business partner and creative collaborator Sandra Damiana Swan, I love music, hate shoes, adore cats, and rant often.
Will you talk about your writing a little?
Although I’ve always had a way with words and world-building, I found writing difficult because I’m dyslexic. Until computers allowed me to spot and correct errors on the fly before anyone else saw them, there was no way I could have written on the professional level. Performing was much easier, and a bigger ego-boost as well, so I took up acting when I was 16. I studied theatre, art, and film in Virginia Commonwealth University, I paid my way through school with modeling and photography, and I worked as a DJ at our college radio station. Although I’d been published in my elementary and high schools, writing was hard and frustrating from me. Hence, I avoided it until my friends John and Laurie taught me to use the school LAN system around 1987. I kinda fell into a movie-reviewer gig at a local newspaper in 1989. Writing, ironically, paid better than acting did, so I switched careers. I’d also begun playing bass in a few local bands that year, when my then-wife and I wound up living in a truly shitty neighborhood after college.
All that stuff winds up in my work.
Trained in the Stanislavski Method, I write like an actor. Getting inside a character’s skin and bringing emotional reality to an artificial medium is the core of my approach. My work, then, emphasizes sensory impressions and vivid emotions. I’m a character-based writer whose stories grow out of the characters, their needs, and the conflicts they have when trying to meet those needs. I’m also fascinated with history, culture, passion, and belief, so those themes show up in my work as well.
My theatre training manifests in what I call “the Four Questions Approach”: What do I Want? What stands in my way? What will I do to get what I want? What happens if I do or do not? I guide my characters by asking those questions, and I guide my writing process by asking myself, on a meta level, what I want as a writer and what I’ll do in order to fulfill that goal. I use a technique I call “green-room writing,” too: Writing scenes that won’t fit into the final story, but which help me figure out what’s going on “offstage” before the story begins.
My blog features essays about both techniques:
You’ve said in the past that you’ve written an urban fairy tale, one with is rooted in real-life experiences and your own perceptions of the world. Do you feel that urban fantasy is uniquely situated to explore experiences and viewpoints from everyday, “real” life?
Oh, yeah. Although the urban fantasy label means different things to different people, the heart of the genre involves placing magical things into “mundane” settings and then playing off the contrasts and connections they make.
There’s always an innate emotional distance to stories set in different worlds or time periods. Though certain flavors of urban fantasy stretch the “everyday” element, the more grounded types of UF and magical realism remain emotionally “close to home” because, ideally, they take place in settings and circumstances we can relate with.
How do you define urban fantasy?
It’s become a rather tricky term. Personally, I favor the original Charles De Lint /Emma Bull /Mercedes Lackey /Terri Windling style of urban fantasy, where elves and shit wander through the fringes of everyday life. Since the late 90s, that term has become shorthand for “Wolf Girl and her vampire boyfriend fight crime.” Although I enjoy a few of those authors – notably Seanan McGuire, Carrie Vaughn, and Patricia Briggs – it’s not an approach I prefer. That said, as one of the creators of White Wolf’s World of Darkness series, I guess I’m partially responsible for its popularity. Most of my work on Mage: The Ascension and Werewolf: The Apocalypse fits that later style of the genre.
What drew you to writing urban fantasy?
My life kind of is an urban fantasy saga! I’m a poly Pagan who’s spent the last few decades involved with gamer culture, queer culture, music culture, kink culture, medievalist culture, theatre culture, political activism culture, ecstatic dance culture, and the punk, metal, Celtic rock and Gothic rock subcultures. That artsy mystic fringe is where I’ve lived my entire adult life and much of my childhood, too. My friends are musicians, magicians, shamans, hikers, artists, gamers, models, dancers, sex-workers, fire-performers, and other folks who don’t fit into “normative culture” and wouldn’t ever want to. That’s my people. That’s my world. I write about it because I live it and enjoy sharing it with other folks who maybe can’t live that life but want to anyway… or with folks who do live it and enjoy seeing themselves as heroes of our strange little world.
What are some difficulties in writing in this subgenre?
Power-creep, cliches, and how Every Goddamn Thing Must Be Some Capitalized Signifier. I hate that shit. It’s gotten to the point where I will drop a book I’m reading within a chapter or two if the narrator starts infodumping about how “I could tell by my Wytch Senses that he was one of the Vampyres that my Wytch Circle had battled since The Burning Times…” Again, I realize that White Wolf is not blameless in that regard. One of the reasons I left the company in the late 1990s – and have been subverting our old tendencies since my return to the World of Darkness about a decade ago – is because I was getting sick of those three elements. They’ve only gotten worse in the genre since that time.
(Infodumping is the bane of my existence and a huge problem in genre fiction of all kinds. While that’s less of a problem in urban fantasy than it is in, say, epic fantasy or SF, it drives me up a tree. If an author opens by taking a huge infodump on my head, I’m gone.)
By “power-creep,” I mean the escalation of powers and threats. You start off with a mortal who maybe sees things a little differently than everyone around her, and then wind up with a Vamp-Elven Cyber Ninja by Book 5. Again, I hate it. While I realize the career importance of a long-running series, and I enjoy comic books to a certain degree, the genre loses its magic for me when uncanny happenings become superhero slugfests in trench coat drag.
What are some strengths in this subgenre?
Again, it’s the emotional immediacy for me. That, and the ability to tackle socio-political topics by letting an elf ram a broadsword into some asshole tycoon’s throat. I fell in love with Mercedes Lackey’s books in the late 80s because she combined my love of magic and subcultures with my punk-ass political rage.
Urban fantasy, more than most other SF/F genres, also deals intimately and sympathetically with marginalized people, cultures, and experiences. It’s queer and feminine almost by default, and although a lot of the earlier (and many later) UF books stumble into ethnic cliches and cultural appropriation, those authors and works at least try to address the fact that non-white cultures exist as something more than tombs to plunder and enemies to fight. Modern action, horror, and fantasy genres have deep roots in colonialist conqueror mentalities, with many creators and so-called “fans” refusing to move past the racist, sexist baggage of old-school pulp. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, arose from a hippie-style social conscience; yes, there’s some unfortunate Magic Negro /Indian /Asian /Queer stuff, especially in the older books (including some of our White Wolf work…), but the intentions were constructive even when the results were flawed. With more discussion and awareness in our communities, and more Creators of Color involved in the genre, those flaws are diminishing, with less resistance to “that SJW bullshit” than other genres have seen.
How do you get in the “writing zone”, so to speak?
Music. Always. My soundtracks vary, but I seldom write in silence.
In the old days, I’d stack up CDs and mix tapes by my boom box as I worked. Since the early 2000s, I’ve favored digital or streaming playlists. Depending on the project and my mood, that music ranges from Indigenous American flute-and-drums to ambient techno, Gothic rock, heavy metal, epic score, neo-medievalism, and old-school soul.
These past few years, I’ve mostly used Spotify. You can find my playlists at:
Who are some of your favorite authors?
My early inspiration came mostly from Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Mercedes Lackey, William Shakespeare, and Dr. Seuss and James Joyce, who both showed me you can get away with all kinds of shit so long as your words evoke the desired state of mind.
I’m influenced by my longtime love of Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Sherman Alexie, Angela Carter, Henry Rollins, Alice Hoffman, Alan Moore, Charles De Lint, Michael Chabon, Storm Constantine, Howard Cruise, Elizabeth Moon, Eric Jerome Dickey, and Francesca Lia Block. I was influenced by Joss Whedon too, but seriously – fuck that guy.
These days, my favorite authors also include Seanan McGuire, Helen Oyeyemi, Sarah Dessen, Gary Lachman, Angie Thomas, Maurene Goo, Erik Davis, Christopher Krovatin, Tasha Suri, Holly Black, Alexa Sommers, Kendare Blake, Catherynne Valente, Roshani Chokshi, Carrie Vaughn, Erin Morganstern, Grady Hendrix, Jennifer Shaw Wolf, Laura Anne Gilman, and Stephen Graham Jones. I’ll pick up anything with their names on the cover, and I’m rarely disappointed.
Thanks again, Jodie.
Take care, y’all, and happy writing!
About the author:
Satyros Phil Brucato is known best for his work with Mage: The Ascension, Strowlers, Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium, and various fiction and nonfiction projects spanning dozens of anthologies, magazines, games, comics, and other media. An occasional musician and outspoken political activist, Satyr lives in Seattle with his spouse Sandra Swan, two cats, and an endless supply of rage.
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