Michael Z. Williamson
  • Interviews for the Hell Universe

    For the Hell universe, we interviewed each other on our backgrounds. To say we're an eclectic bunch would be understatement.

    Authors: David L. Burkhead | Jason Cordova | Chris Morris


    David L. Burkhead is the author of the Lawyers in Hell story, "With Enemies Like These."

    Q: Tell us the story of your first sale.

    David: I have long been a fan of space exploration and very frustrated with NASA's approach. I had also been writing SF for some years and attempting to sell it without success. I'd gotten nice form rejections from markets like Analog but that was about it.

    I'd read some of Jerry Pournelle's essays on laser launch and things clicked. I wrote a story told in the form of letters and press releases. This let me tell a story covering a considerable span of time and a lot of events in a rather brief form without reading like just a synopsis. I sent that off to Analog and . . . got a rejection letter but this one a personal note. Stan said that the story had good "microwriting," that is writing at the sentence and paragraph level, but that the essence of story was conflict and I lacked that. And so I went back into the story and added a competing company, some investors ready to pull out and needing to be cajoled back in and so forth. Still wasn't quite there and so we went back and forth a couple more times until I got back not the story but a contract.

    The story was "The Future is Now" and appeared in the April '91 issue of Analog. My fantasy story "Jilka and the Evil Wizard" was sold a bit later but publication schedules worked out so that it appeared first. (Winter '91 issue of Marion ZimmerBradley's Fantasy magazine.)

    Q: Do any of your own stories stand out to you?

    David: Of my published stories, I think the one that stands out the most is probably "Her World Exploded." (April 2005 Analog). The story had its origin in an article about writing which said that a line like "her world exploded" would be a metaphor about receiving an emotional shock and, being an SF&F writer, my thought was "want to bet?" The opening just wrote itself: "Her world exploded. It wasn't a large world, just a rock, really, scarcely more than a large asteroid, but it was hers. And now . . . it was gone." It took me a while before I had the rest of the story to go with it. It was my first attempt at writing in a more humorous vein, well, my first attempt that sold anyway, but what really stands out for me is the character of Vicky Schneider. She has a condition similar to Dissociative Identity Disorder where she has different "personae" who are very real personalities within her. It made her a lot of fun to write and I have plans to use the character again.

    Q: Have any of your stories won awards or made particular milestones?

    David: I haven't won any awards so far. (I keep hoping.) I think the only milestone I can claim is the first fanmail I got which was for "Match Point" (February 1993 Analog). Sadly, my copy of the letter, along with the response I wrote for Analog's "Brass Tacks" (In the end they didn't print the letter, let alone my response). is long lost. As Benjamin Franklin said "three removes equals one fire."

    Q: What interests you about the Hell universe?

    David: I like the idea of putting people who never met in life together in ways that the real world just doesn't allow. There are just so many exciting character possibilities.

    Q: Which SF or fantasy authors do you like to read? Which non-SF/F authors?

    David: I think I read most of the Baen lineup but that has at least as much to do with their policies on ebooks as it does with the stories themselves. My favorites have long been Heinlein, Pournelle, and Niven in SF. In fantasy there's Tolkein, of course, but I've also liked Mercedes Lackey, Joel Rosenberg, and Terry Brooks. I also read some contemporary fantasy--More Lackey and her collaborators and Tanya Huff's "Blood" books.

    In non SF/F I read some classics. Shakespeare (The Tempest is my favorite), Dumas, a few others. For a while I was also reading mysteries--Larry Blocks and Jack M. Bickham mostly--and some Westerns mostly Louis L'Amour.

    Nowadays, though, most of my non SF/F reading is either political (Heinlein's "Take Back Your Government") or religious (The Book of Mormon, the Norse Eddas and Sagas, the Baghavad Gita, and so on).

    Q: Which authors have influenced or inspired you?

    David: Heinlein definitely, Pournelle and Niven, Tolkein, Rosenberg, Ben Bova. Those are the main ones I think.

    Q: What are your other pursuits?

    David: I have several other activities. I shoot. I hunt and fish. I have been involved with both Judo and autocross. I've done some artwork including a web comic that is, unfortunately, on indefinite hiatus. I spend a lot of time with my daughter. I'm sure that sooner than I would like she won't have time for daddy so I'm stocking up.

    And I am politically active. Interestingly the more politically active I have been the more Goth I've gone.

    Q: What's it like working as a hard scientist, but writing fantasy? Does the science influence the fantasy?

    David: I do tend to take a fairly analytical approach to fantasy. For example I think through the magic thoroughly--what are the rules to magic. What can it and can't it do. I do tend to think of the magic of a fantasy world as the "hard science" of that world with just a different set of rules from our world. The characters may not understand all the rules any more than we understand all the rules of our world, but the rules are there.

    I should probably also mention that most of my published stories to date are hard Science Fiction. Analog has been my biggest market.

    Q: Tell us about being a goth physicist for hire.

    David: Mercenary scientist. All the benefits of mad science plus a steady paycheck.

    I've been fortunate in that I work in a very small business and can play the "iconoclast tech geek" to the hilt. The goth aspect slipped in bit by pit. First I started growing my hair. Then my clothing choices became gradually darker. Finally I started dying may hair. My boss doesn't understand it. It's only been among fandom that I get folk who understand when I say that "When I dyed my hair I was taking the mask off," but he's willing to let me be myself so long as I continue to perform. And I haven't given him any reason to be unhappy with my work. My boss is a chemist. I'm a physicist. I bring a different "toolset" to the lab that complements his very nicely.

    Seriously, though I work in surface science, specifically Atomic Force Microscopy. These microscopes made their fame by being able to make pictures of atoms, well, actually atomic lattices in extremely smooth surfaces but that's not what we do. We can, mind you, but people generally don't pay for that (Mercenary Scientist, remember?). What we do a lot of is look at surface finishes and polishes, the surfaces of catalyst particles, the grooves, bumps, and pits in optical disks, the structure of polymers, all on the nanometer to micron scale.

    One thing we do a lot of is work with the optical disk industry. We developed (and by "we" I mean "mostly I") developed software for making extremely accurate and precise measurements of the features on images of optical disks. This helps disk manufacturers ensure their disks will play in any player made by any manufacturer. More than half of the DVD production worldwide is supported by our product. (For which I get paid damn little, let me tell you.)

    Q: You like some interesting genre-based music. Which bands get a lot of play and why?

    David: Recently I got introduced to Power Metal and Gothic/Symphonic metal. The introduction was through John Ringo's book "Unto the Breach." He had a playlist for a "book CD" listed in the back and I went ahead and made one using rips of the individual songs. I had already been introduced to the Cruxshadows in an earlier book but this one introduced me to two more groups: Dragonforce and Nightwish. Other books of his provided an introduction to Within Temptation and Evanescence.

    I've always had an appreciation for heroism against long odds. One of my favorite poems is Horatius by Lord Macaulay, things like that. So Dragonforce's "Through the Fire and the Flames" and "Valley of the Dammed" fell on fertile ground, as did Within Temptation's "Stand my Ground". Likewise, I knew that the Barrie's "Peter and Wendy" is a lot darker story than the Disney "Peter Pan" so Nightwish's "Dark Chest of Wonders" resonated.

    On a somewhat more complicated note, back when I was "into" anime, Japanese animation, I found an appeal in darker stories such as Takahashi's "Mermaid" stories and Takada's 3X3 Eyes that I would never have expected given my earlier tastes. That appeal to a darker side translated into music as well and so Within Temptation's "It's the Fear," and "Hand of Sorrow," and Nightwish's "Planet Hell" quickly migrated to high positions on my favorites list.

    From that starting point, I used online sources like Pandora and Wikipedia to expand outward. I found that while I like The Cruxshadows, other Goth and Dark Wave groups don't really appeal much. They're okay but don't really excite me. Gothic and Symphonic metal, on the other hand does. Other subgenres of metal are more hit or miss. I like Dragonforce and Hammerfall's early work, Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song" is great. Others it's more of a mix.

    I hope that answered the question.

    Q: If the Zombpocalypse happened tomorrow, what weapon would you reach for? What hi-tech weapon would you create?

    David: I'd reach for the AR. When it comes to Zombie hordes, rate of aimed fire is king. Large calibers (sorry .308 and .30-06 fans) don't matter so much. You need that head shot and a .223 is more than enough to do the job. Backup, OTOH, would probably be my 1911 rather than the CZ75. If I'm down to my pistol, they're close and the 1911 just fits my hand better for fast, on target, point shooting.

    When it comes to making something, to fend off the zombies, I don't know how "high tech" you'd call it but I'd probably go with fire and explosives. You do know that there are a number of explosives that can be made with chemicals one might find at your local supermarket. The great thing is there are some that can be done that aren't so generally known and so would be something the scavengers might miss. But fire? I like fire a lot. You know, if you pull the injector, fuel pump and feeds out of a car, seal off the return line to force the pressure high, and wire the injectors to a battery through a switch you can make a dandy little area effect flame thrower. Range isn't very great but that wall of fire has real authority when it comes to stopping the shambling dead.

    Q: Do you prefer sand, or lightning?

    David: Lightning. Definitely lightning.

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    Jason Cordova is the author of the Lawyers in Hell story, "And Injustice For All."

    Q: Tell us the story of your first sale.

    Jason: I was actually in the middle of reading a book when I got a phone call. The publisher wanted to know if I had received my contract for the novel I had submitted to them. Since this was the first time I had actually heard of any contract, I thought it was a friend of mine playing a practical joke (and using a very corny southern accent). Eventually it got worked out that yes, it was a real publisher and yes, they wanted my book. And people ask me why I usually prefer email...

    Q: What is the next plateau in your quest for success?

    Jason: I hope to be nominated one day soon for the John W. Campbell Award (the award for outstanding new writer). Other than that, slapping the “New York Times Bestselling author” label next to my name would be nice.

    Q: What interests you about the Hell universe?

    Jason: The fact that everyone in Hell deserves to be there. There is no innocent, presumed or otherwise, which allows for creative ways to invent new torments.

    Q: Which SF or fantasy authors do you like to read for pleasure? Which non-SF/F authors?

    Jason: Well, I’ve been digging Larry Correia and his Monster Hunter stuff lately. I’ve read Michael Z Williamson’s “Freehold” about two dozen times (a rough estimate), and it has aged well. Other than that, a little John Ringo, some John Scalzi and a lot of Jim Butcher. Non SF-F? I didn’t think that genre existed...

    Q: Which authors have influenced or inspired you?

    Jason: Not to sound like I’m sucking up, but Michael Z. Williamson created one of my earliest “I want to write that book” moments when I finished reading “Freehold”. Other authors (who shall remain nameless) influenced me by showing me just what I didn’t want to write.

    Q: What are your other pursuits?

    Jason: I play table top wargames, video games, shooting (handgun and rifle), hunting, go to baseball games and am in the process of creating the perfect coffee blend.

    Q: You served in the Navy. What from that sneaks into your writing?

    Jason: I stay away from the water. I get seasick on occasion which, in hindsight, probably explained why I hated being deployed on cruises. I also tend to structure a clear group leader when writing scenes, and have them follow his or her orders fairly well. I don’t like the rebel of the group who gets things done but risks the group, because that can lead to very bad things. I like groups that are tight-knit, know their roles and work to get the job done with minimum damage to their core.

    Q: You're schooled in history. Is there one era that captures your attention? Which one would you avoid at all costs?

    I really enjoy eastern European history during the Protestant Reformation and soon afterwards, the Thirty Years War. Especially anything concerned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth up to The Deluge (end of the Golden Age for them). I tend to stay away from anything in the 20th Century, simply because it’s been done over and over again so often that, if one didn’t know better, a person would think that the world started at World War 1.

    Q: Which person living or dead would you most like to meet?

    Jason: Hmm... if they’re dead, and I want to meet them, should I bring zombie repellent? I’d love to listen to Archimedes explain his mathematical theories (with the benefit of the poor guy having the knowledge we have today), or perhaps Memnon of Rhodes explain why Alexander was so good at ruining dynastic cultures.

    Q: Your starship is about to be destroyed. You're near a lifeboat that can keep you safe until recovered (including food and water), though it may be a year. You can take whatever fits in your pockets and one hand, and you have 60 seconds. What do you grab and why?

    Jason: If I had access to an injection-cryo sleep device, then that. Knock myself out and I’ll see ya in a year. No boredom, no wondering if I’ll ever be rescued... just taking a nap.

    Q: What animal would make an interesting pet?

    Jason: I’ve had a tarantula despite my healthy fear of spiders, but I’d love to get a dog. Lame, I know, but I’ve never had a pet who listened to you when you told it to “sit”. A dog would be a change of pace.

    Q: What is best in life?

    Jason: Family and friends over on a movie night, arguing over who gets the last piece of pizza instead of just ordering some more.

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    Interview with Chris Morris

    by Michael Armstrong

    Musician, horse breeder, editor, and writer, Christopher Crosby Morris came to writing first as his partner Janet Morris’ critical eye and ear.

    "When people ask me how I started writing, I didn’t," he said. "I started reading, then editing Janet’s stuff. Whenever she went in a direction where I lost focus, I could say ‘right here.’"

    With Janet since they met in New York City in 1965, both at age 19, their partnership in writing began when Chris started reading her work and helping her edit on projects like the anthology "Afterwar" and the Heroes in Hell series. That grew into shared authorship on novels like "The Little Helliad" and "Outpassage."

    "Little by little we began to accept each other’s input," Chris said. "The process became so collaborative, after a while she said, ‘We might as well give you credit.’ I said, ‘OK, that’s cool.’ We cowrote a long time before I actually started to write."

    Born 1946 in Manhattan, New York City, Morris is the son of photojournalist, John G. Morris, who had a distinguished career working for the Washington Post, National Geographic and the New York Times. His dad almost ruined his own career as photo editor for Time-Life during the Normandy invasion of World War II, when he left negatives too long in the developer from Robert Capa’s photographs of the invasion. Fortunately, John Morris salvaged enough to show the battle.

    Being the son of a man who dealt in images, Chris grew up reading picture books in his father’s library.

    "I was sitting in my dad’s library hauling down collections of images from Matthew Brady right through the moderns," Chris said. "It gave me a visual orientation of what history was about."

    Chris also comes from a family of publishers, including his grandfather.

    "Editing is in there way back," he said.

    At age three he moved to rural New York, growing up in the small town of Armonk in Westchester County that mushroomed when it became the headquarters of IBM. As a teen he went to Woodstock Country School in Woodstock, Vermont – "the best school I went to," he called it – a working farm where students did chores.

    His roommate was Dan Seeger, Pete Seeger’s son, and that friendship affirmed a love for music he’d developed earlier. "I knew about 5 minutes after I met Pete Seeger what I was going to do was music," Chris said.

    In the early sixties summers Chris and Dan were errand boys for the Newport Folk Festival, getting to hang out with likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Doc Watson, Bessie Jones, Jean Ritchie and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Chris realized when he met Janet that they’d both been present the night Bob Dylan made his electric debut.

    Chris met his partner at a party in New York City. Janet was attending New York University and Chris had gone back to the city to live with his father and sister.

    "I went to audition for a bluegrass group, and she was there," Chris said of meeting Janet. Three weeks later, they moved in with each other and have been partners since.

    "We’ve always worked together, lived together, right from the start," Chris said. "We’re sort of a two-headed monster, but I think Tempus would call us a fighting pair."

    While Chris and Janet have shared a literary life, they also shared a musical life. When Chris met Janet, she’d already become acquainted with the folk scene. "We were always both involved in the music and the books," Chris says. "She’s always led with the books and me with the songwriting."

    After they met, they put together several bands. As the Oz Band they cut a single, "I Am Not the Same," on Cub Records in 1967. Their next group was Living Proof. They worked as the night managers for the famous Record Plant Recording Studios on 44th Street in New York, where John Lennon made his Imagine album and Jimi Hendrix recorded Electric Ladyland.

    "We met a lot of big names, and learned they were just people too," Chris said.

    In 1973, they formed the Christopher Morris Band, with Chris playing lead and rhythm guitar and vocals, with Janet on bass. They co-wrote all the songs.

    Al Kooper heard them in 1976, and signed them to a deal with MCA Records. Before going into the studio though, Kooper had Chris put together a 13-piece band to back him on a nationwide tour to promote his new album. Their drummer, Vinny Colaiuta, and lead guitarist Leslie Kuipers filled out the rhythm section. After the cross-country bus tour, the newly discovered Christopher Morris Band closeted in Sausalito, Calif., where their debut album, named for the group, was recorded.

    "It [the album] was a critical sensation. The Rolling Stone reviewer loved it, said it was something new – fusion. We were quite stoked," Chris said.

    MCA backed the group, booking them to open for B.B. King for a week playing at Boston’s legendary showcase club, Paul’s Mall. A single was pulled for release. Then Kooper got in a fight with MCA management and MCA cut Kooper – and Chris’s band – loose.

    "That was the end of our MCA rocket ride to stardom," Chris said.

    By then, though, Janet had started her writing career. Martha Seeger, the wife of Chris’ friend from boarding school, read "High Couch of Silistra." She suggested sending it to a friend who worked for Perry Knowlton of Curtis Brown Literary Agency. Knowlton took her on as a client and her career blossomed.

    Chris said he sees a natural parallel between writing and music.

    "For me, it’s all about voice. Literary voice and musical voice are parallel. The spoken word and the written or lyrical word endlessly iterate," he says.

    "What any writer needs to do is sound like the characters, so the reader will hear them as distinct from one another," Chris said. "I love to hear what we write. We read it aloud until it both scans and is in voice."

    The first book Chris and Janet put both their names on was "The 40-Minute War," a high-tech thriller. That double byline led to more novels like "Threshold," "The Little Helliad" and most recently "The Sacred Band."

    Another collaboration has been M2 Technologies, which started with explorations of weapons of non-lethal intent and has led to bringing academics and soldiers together.

    "The essence of our defense work is playing an interpretative role between the academic and military cultures," Chris said. "The military does not understand academia and vice versa. They are really quite opposite in that academia is ‘publish or perish’ and the military is ‘keep it quiet or perish.’ There’s a big discomfort level right there, but each has things the other needs."

    And then there’s their collaboration with Paradise Morgans, their horse breeding operation in Versailles, Ky.

    "The horses and animals are family to us. We’re fascinated with combining parents with different gifts and getting superior of offspring," Chris said.

    At their farm, Chris said they seek to bring the Morgan breed forward from its roots as the U.S. cavalry horse.

    "Morgans still have significant amounts of the qualities that made them unflappable in violent situations, made them able to charge obvious danger willingly, able to bring wounded riders home over long distances without a lot of guidance," he said.

    Through music, writing, consulting, and raising horses, and now as they explore new ways of publishing, their lifelong collaboration has served Chris and Janet Morris well.

    "A male and female who can agree on something, especially if it can enhance the quality of their pair bond, have almost an order of magnitude more options to bring to bear to solve problems than either of them have separately or with another of the same sex."

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