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Wm. Mark Simmons
conducted by Toni Weisskopf
 
October 2006

As with so many writers, Wm. Mark Simmons started off his career as a voracious young reader. "I read at the breakfast table, in the bathroom, under the covers with a flashlight after lights out. The best books whetted my appetite for good stories. But it was the less than satisfactory stories that motivated me to write. The ones where I thought 'I could come up with a better ending than that' or 'I can't believe a real person would say/do/think that…' You start taking mental off-ramps while reading, imagining how you would have written the story at this or that point. It's not long before you move on to the next stage: when you run out of the stories you want to read, you start making them up, yourself."

Simmons traces his sf influences to "The holy trinity: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. Then on to the second tier of sf's Mount Olympus…

"When the 'new wave' came along in the late '60s it was a sea change that took a little getting used to. I think it caught me at a point of burn out and at that point I discovered Tolkien. The division between science fiction and fantasy seemed much clearer back then and I crossed over and began sampling the works of Peake, Howard, Moorcock, and oh, once you start listing it become hard to stop.

"Trying to pick and choose out of the myriad of writers who stretched my imagination and inspired me to tell my own tales is a little like picking the most important ingredient out of a large bowl of soup. Bradbury (see below) is probably one of the more notable as he seemed to cross back and forth between genres and paint word pictures more vividly than most.

"Going this far back in mists of time [to recall the first sf he read] is somewhat uncertain. I remember seminal reads. There was You Will Go to the Moon, a simple, straightforward docu-narrative for children that pissed me off some thirty years later when I finally had to come to grips with the fact that, no, I wasn't going to be going to the Moon, after all.

"I dimly remember my first rebellions in the children's library leading to a special issuance of an adult library card so I could seek more challenging fare. Followed by debates with the librarian over whether I was ready for Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It seems silly now but those were different times. A couple of SF titles escape my memory now but Isaac Asimov's (who I only knew as Paul French back then) Lucky Starr books were an early staple.

"Speaking of early influences, I picked up Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine in junior high school and I've been a fan ever since. Some might not consider him to be 'non-sf,' a 'fantasist' at the very least, but I put him in a category all by himself. He struck me as a 'sensualist,' an author who brings an awareness of the full spectrum of the senses to the story, not just sights or sounds but smells, textures, tastes…the complete, immersive experience."

Simmons lists two mystery writers as favorites, too. "I enjoy Robert B. Parker for his terse, fiercely edited style. I turn to the Spenser novels when I find my own prose growing a bit purple. James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux books. No one consistently captures southern Louisiana like Burke.

"There are authors I read for their characters/series and authors I read for their writing, which is often something else, entirely. In the latter case it may more often be a single work than the writer's oeuvre that tops my shelves. Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale is a fine example."

What Mark enjoys most about being a science fiction/fantasy writer is "Fandom. Readers, for the most part, are more intelligent, passionate, friendly, and pleasantly twisted than folks in most other genres. It's a righteous challenge to try to keep surprising and entertaining people who are smarter than 90 per cent of the people you know."

Mark, when forced, can name his two favorite characters among his own works. "I have one that I can't talk about, yet, as she's still simmering on the back burner. Let's just say she embodies Walt Whitman's famous quote: 'Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)'

"As for those characters currently in print, it's always interesting to see how Chris Cséjthe is continuing to adapt to life among the monsters and his own uncertain evolution. He represents the everyman, trying to make sense of the inconceivable, navigate without a map, and do the right thing when everything around him is just so wrong."

And he can easily visualize at least one of his characters for video, since that's how the character started out in his own imagination. "When I first created the character of Robert Remington Ripley in the Dreamland Chronicles, I had a very clear idea of the actor I would pick to play the part if there ever was a movie. While I tend to visualize certain portions of my stories in cinematic terms, I don't think I've ever had a concept as to who would best embody almost-a-vampire Chris Cséjthe. I'd be curious to hear from the readers on this one. Any nominations, folks?"

The Chris Cséjthe vampire/werewolf/otherworld novels are so intricate and dense with allusions from literature and popular culture, I wondered how long it took to research and prepare the ground for them. "Pre-plot and proposal? Two to three months minimum. However, the research doesn't end at that point. I'm always researching—just as I'm always reading—which complicates the writing process. But also contributes to it. As one reviewer wrote of One Foot in the Grave: 'The plot unfolds like an origami sculpture designed by M.C. Escher…' Each book in the Half/Life series follows a loose template—a historical Big Bad, a primary, Classic Horror trope, a science fiction premise, and a juxtaposition of mismatched fantasy elements like a Rubic's Cube of the Damned. Plus the rule: 'Never, ever, do it the easy way; always attempt the unexpected, and turn every cliché on its ear.' Anyone can stake a vampire, how many can dispatch one with a tanning bed?

"Now that sounds like plotting, not research, but plotting comes out of research—cultural, technological, biological, mythical—and the more complex and juxtaposed the elements are, the more cross-referential and involved the research has to be.

"The internet has been a blessing despite the fact that a lot of 'source' material is flawed and suspect. The search process itself is often more inspirational and educational than the original information being sought. And the net makes for a savvier reader base which means you can tuck more goodies into the story.

"My home office, however, remains my Fortress of Researchitude. I have a personal library of two to three hundred reference books and seven filing cabinets of articles clipped over the years from various magazines and newspapers. I'm the Adrian Monk of obsessive clippers."

And, even more amazing, Mark manages to fit all that research in while holding down a demanding full-time job, one made even more interesting by the recent hurricanes in the Gulf. "I'm the General Manager and the Program Director of an NPR affiliated public radio station. Ten-hour days and six-day weeks weren't that unusual before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. So, catch-as-catch-can writing frequently wins out over my evening and weekend schedules. Laptop lunches are de rigueur."

Because the Half/Life series is, so far, rooted in the South, I wondered if Mark felt like a "Southern" regional author, ala Faulkner. "Being from the Midwest there is some cultural similitude (I was saying 'tumped over' and 'fixin' to go' since childhood). And writers tend to be observers and, therefore, more adaptable. But I've been down here less than a dozen years. Trying to affect the mantle of Faulkneresque, Southern writer would feel a bit like some Yankee carpetbagger trick. I'm content to be a writer who has relocated to the South and allows Southern characters and culture and issues to find their way into some of my stories. Check back in another dozen years: some things need to slow simmer longer to cook than others."

Looking ahead, the invention or scientific leap in understanding would Mark most like to see made in his lifetime is "Safe, sustainable fusion. As an energy source it could solve so many of our problems on so many levels. The longer I live, however, the more I'm persuaded of our capacity to take solutions and twist them into opportunities for misuse and divisiveness."

And looking back, Mark manages to narrow down his choices to go back in time as an observer to four: "Does The Big Bang count as history? Or is that prehistory? If we're quibbling over semantics, I'd like a seat in the theater and an early curtain before the main event. If we're talking human history, I'm torn between the mysteries of faith (the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea three days after the crucifixion of the carpenter Yeshua), science (eight kilometers above the Tunguska River Valley, Siberia, shortly after 7 a.m., June 30, 1908) or human hubris, courage, and folly (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the opening days of July 1863)."

For more information please go to: www.wmsimmons.com

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