|Tee Morris: Theatrical Vision|
You could call it a match made on the Internet. Only Tee Morris and Lisa Lee didn't get married. They wrote a book, Morevi, a rollicking, old fashioned swashbuckler that wedded the bittersweet romanticism of Chinese legends to the swagger of Tudor England.
A professional actor trained in historic combat, Morris brought a well-developed sense of theater, detailed knowledge of Renaissance English history and boundless energy to the mix. These qualities serve him well as he attacks the challenges facing all first-time novelists. Two Crescent Blues correspondents caught up with Morris at his second "Signing With Swords" at the Clarendon, Va., Barnes & Noble bookstore. They soon found themselves running to keep up with the interview.
Crescent Blues: Have you and Lisa Lee ever met in person?
Tee Morris: Lisa Lee and I have never met physically. We met at random in an Internet chat room called Nia's Tavern. It was part of the Web Chat Broadcasting System (WBS).
Nia's Tavern was a role-playing room dedicated to anybody's character anybody they wanted to bring in. There were a lot of Nicholas Knights [from Forever Knight]. There were a lot of Duncan Macleods [from Highlander]. There were a lot of Legolases [from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings]. Basically, a lot of the typical characters.
I had just finished playing Rafe Rafton at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, so I thought, let me give this a shot. So I go in as Rafe Rafton. You've got all these very noble, very -- sorry -- uppity characters, and I come in as Errol Flynn. I come in with a little bit of 'tude -- haha!
It really turned the place on its ear. I remember a couple of people said, "Who are you, and do you have a brother?"
It was really a lot of fun playing this character in Nia's. That's where Lisa and I met.
Crescent Blues: Was she playing Askana [the heroine of Morevi]?
Tee Morris: She was playing Askana Moldarin. I would describe Askana as the kind of character you would find in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She was playing this royal character but with a very, very jaded past. I found the Asian background even more appealing.
I thought, I've gotta talk to this girl. I've gotta do some kind of role play. Her character was heading out of the tavern, so I fired off this greeting: "Well met, Askana Moldarin of the Morevi" -- because that was her moniker, Askana Moldarin, the black widow of the Morevi.
Askana answered Rafe: "I do not know you."
Rafe answered: "No, but I know you."
Then I got this private message saying: "No. Who the hell are you?"
I went, "No, you don't 'know me' know me, but my character knows your character, because he's a privateer, and he's been sacking your supply ships."
And she wrote, "And you lived to tell about it?"
I replied, "I'm that good."
Lisa took the bait and fired off the first email that set up the plot line for the role play, which was a political conspiracy, and she was hiring Rafe to find out who was conspiring against her crown. We took off from there.
Crescent Blues: When you went into that chat room, did you ever intend to start writing a book?
Tee Morris: No. It was just for fun. I was temping at the time. I do graphic arts, Web design, stuff like that. This was before I was doing a lot of instruction.
When I was temping, there was a lot of lag time, because I was that efficient. They would just say: "Hurry up; now wait. Hurry up; now wait." During that waiting period I would go online. I was a frequent visitor to WBS, but when I went into Nia's, it was just a distraction, a diversion.
I never even thought about being a writer, because whenever I did write stuff, it was always casual. I was a bit of an egomaniac, because it would usually be something I was in. It would be a story about me fulfilling a fantasy, which I guess, in a sense, that's what this book was. But it was a lot less of an ego issue, because this was a character I played. I just wanted to be able to take the character to a different level.I never really intended this to happen, and neither did Lisa -- and Lisa always wanted to be a writer. So we were both very stunned that this happened, completely at random -- and that we made it this far.
Crescent Blues: When did you, electronically, say to each other: this is a book?
Tee Morris: Halfway through the process (in terms of the book around the time we were in Tudor England), I wrote to Lisa and said, "You know, I bet we could get this published. It's that good. It's different. It doesn't have a quest. It doesn't have any of your typical characters. It's very Errol Flynn. It's very martial arts. It's very Asian in its basis. It's got a lot going for it."
And Lisa said, "You're out of your mind. It's not that."
"No, I really think we've got a shot."
But I think the point where we realized that we'd written a novel was the very last page, which we wrote together on the ICQ Chat system, which was a lot of cut/paste, cut/paste.
When we wrote the last lines of the book, the screen was just blank for a while. Then Lisa wrote: "I'm shaking."
I wrote back to her, "Congratulations, Lisa, we just wrote a novel."
Lisa went off to do something that day, and she said she had this big grin on her face all day. For me it was 2 a.m., and I had to go to sleep, because I had a class to teach the next day. But all I did was stare at the ceiling. My brain was trying to compute that we wrote a novel. I think that was when it really sank in.
Then we started marketing it. That was a different obstacle to overcome.
Crescent Blues: Could you tell us something about your publisher?
Tee Morris: Dragon Moon Press is a small press based in Calgary, Alberta, in Canada. They've been in business for ten years. For a small press, that's saying something. They're very selective on what they publish. Dragon Moon Press publishes hard- and soft-bound books, but mainly soft-bound books. The way I like to describe Morevi is hard-bound quality in a soft cover.
Gwen Gades owns Dragon Moon Press. She's been a real joy to work with. She really believes in the story. With small presses, I've discovered, there's a lot of work that you take on yourself. But in a way -- I'm not saying I would never want to work with a big publisher -- but I think it would be kind of tough not to have that hands-on experience of beginning with a small press. I feel I'm learning more than some other authors have learned, because of it.
Crescent Blues: How did you connect with Dragon Moon Press?
That is a very weird story in itself. I was in a Barnes & Noble, and there was a book that wasn't even supposed to be on the shelf. It was a hard-bound, out-of-date book called The Second Source Book for Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishers. It was published by Writer's Digest. They don't print it anymore.
I looked at the book, and it said, "After this date" -- 1998 or whatever it was -- "take this book off the shelves and send it to the publishers for recycling." But it was still on the shelf, and I bought it. It's out-of-print now. Some of the stuff was out-of-date, but one in the things in there was Dragon Moon Press.
I think I knew we'd struck oil with Gwen, because Gwen and I started up a correspondence. And it was, I think, my third follow-up with her. Gwen had said, "I just came across your proposal. It's a really interesting proposal. The audio CD -- I really enjoyed it. But let me get back to you."
I said, "We've done some retooling of the first three chapters we sent you. So while you wait for me to send you the first three chapters, why don't you visit our Web site?"
Less than a day later, I got another email from Gwen. She said, "I went to your Web site. I want to see the whole manuscript now." That's when it started.
Crescent Blues: What's this about an audio CD? Did you and Lisa mail a CD back and forth from Australia?
Tee Morris: That's not how it worked. This was actually an idea my wife Natalie gave me. One Christmastime after we finished Morevi, I wanted to do something special for Lisa for the holidays. Lisa's from Malaysia. She's not a southern Christian kid like me, but it was in the spirt of the holidays. So I thought: what can I do that Lisa would really appreciate?
I'm a professional actor. At that time I was doing a show that went with another show. It was A Civil War Christmas with A Christmas Carol. So there were all these friends of mine -- all these wonderful actors -- available. I asked them, "Would you guys be interested in doing audio fights from the book as the characters?" If you go to the Morevi Web site, there's a section called Allies of Morevi. All the actors you see there portrayed characters from the book. We did scenes from the books as audio bytes.
My wife said, "Do you have any idea what kind of a marketing tool you have there? Send this with your proposal, but do earlier scenes from the book."
[The CD recorded] scenes from one point to the end of the book. So we went back and did scenes from the beginning, and I sent it with the cover letter and all that stuff to different publishers.
Lisa loved the CD. She thought it was a really cool idea. But a lot of the publishers and a lot of the agents really dug the CD. They thought it was a really cool thing, because they'd never seen anything like that before. So they got a kick out of that too. I think that's one of the reasons why we turned a lot of heads was the audio CD. As everybody knows, it's easy to go into the slush pile, and it's hard to stand out. But I felt what I brought to the table was a little different -- a bit of an audio experience, if you will. It worked for some. It didn't work for others.
Crescent Blues: You studied acting in school, so it's pretty obvious how you got into the acting business. But how did the stage combat aspect come about? Are you a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism?
Tee Morris: No, I'm not. But I was a founding member of Das TeufelsAlpdrücken Fähnlein -- the Devil's Nightmare Regiment. It's the only Landsknecht regiment in this area. It was founded by Larry and Paula Peterka. Paula was one of the people who helped me out with some of the German in the book. They were really good to me, so I decided to feature Landsknechts. Nobody knows who they were.
The Landsknecht were bodyguards. They were German mercenaries hired by Henry VIII, because they were the most lethal, the most ruthless… For lack of a better term, they were killing machines for the right price. They were really colorful characters.
Crescent Blues: Literally. Weren't they the ones who started the fashion of slashing their breeches and doublets to show the bright silk linings?
Tee Morris: Yeah, they were a nasty bunch. You wanted to be on their side. They were among the people who ended the medieval tradition of fighting on horseback, because the Landsknechts came up with this brilliant idea: take a bunch of pikes and hold them [braced by the foot at an angle]. A horse is basically smarter than its rider. A horse is going to see those pikes and go, "Stop!" The horse stops, but the rider doesn't always. Then you've got knight shish-ka-bob.
I was one of the founding members of Das TeufelsAlpdrücken Fähnlein, and I did seven seasons at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Now the Maryland Renaissance Fair has a historian on staff by the name of Marianne Jung. She has her bachelors from the University of Maryland in Tudor history. (She also helped me out with the book from the historical aspect.)
The Maryland Renaissance Festival drums Tudor history into the performers' heads, because if some patron asks us something we have to [snaps his fingers] fire off the answer. We have to know every little detail. Seven seasons of that and you get to know Tudor history really, really well.
Being an actor, though, I'm used to research. I'm used to researching characters and things like that.
Crescent Blues: How did you get into acting, and how did the acting take this historical bent?
Tee Morris: I've been an actor since high school. I did it, because I really like making people laugh. I studied at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. I got my degree in mass communication and theater. I've been very, very fortunate to appear in all different types of shows.
Ironically, if you were to ask me when did you start taking that trek, it would have to be somewhere around the time I got back from studying a semester in England. After I got back I was just hungry to do something historic. I was very, very fortunate to appear in a show called Our Country's Good written by a lady named Timberlake Wertenbaker. You want to talk about a really neat idea for a script. It was based on a book called The Playmaker, and I play Second Leftenant Ralph Clarke. This guy actually existed. In fact, everyone in the book actually existed.
Crescent Blues: Where is the book set?
Tee Morris: It is set in the penal colony of Australia. It is set right after the Revolutionary War, and the guys that lost the war were sent down to Oz to oversee these prisoners -- and the prisoners are no better than animals.
Well, Ralph Clarke says, "I've got an idea. If we're going to make this colony into a country or establish some kind of civilization here we need to do something civilized. Let's put on a play." So Ralph Clarke gets a copy of The Recruiting Officer, which is one of the Restoration plays popular at the time.
Crescent Blues: Wait -- I've done this interview before. John Rhys Davies talked about that book at DragonCon 2001.
Tee Morris: OK, I just got major goosebumps, because to have something in common with John Rhys Davies…that's a transcendental moment. If you were to ask me of all the characters I've seen on the screen, which one do I do the most impersonations of -- and I always smile when I see him -- is John Rhys Davies as Sala [from the Indiana Jones movies]. "Cairo, city of the living, a paradise on earth!"
And when he was cast as Gimli [in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy], I was like: "Get out of town. This guy's a horse!" He's about as big as Kevin Robertson of the Noble Blades. He's a big man.
Crescent Blues: Getting back to Our Country's Good…
Tee Morris: I think that was the first time I got a historical role and had to do a little research on it to find out what it was like being in the penal colony and stuff like that. It was then I noticed that I started taking a historical turn. That, along with my love of Shakespeare.
I mean, c'mon, if you don't know your history, you only get about 50 percent of the plays. You need to know your history to understand your Shakespeare. In fact, there's a lot of Shakespeare-inspired stuff in Morevi.
There's this point when Rafe says (I'm paraphrasing here): "Lads, I realize the odds are against us. But if we do pull off this one raid -- one ship against fifty -- there will be plenty of stories in the pubs. They will talk about us in England, and our names will live on forever."
While I'm writing this, I'm hearing the score that Patrick Doyle wrote for Kevin Branagh's Henry V. And I went, "My God, this is the St. Crispin's Day speech said by a pirate!"
So I think that's where it started for me as an actor. But I've always been a history buff, so I find myself drawn to it anyway.
Crescent Blues: Was that when you started getting involved with the Landsknechts and other re-enactment groups?
To be continued next issue.
In the meantime, click here to learn more about Tee Morris, Lisa Lee and Morevi.
Click here to learn more about the Noble Blades.
Click here to learn more about the Das TeufelsAlpdrücken Fähnlein.
Teri Smith and Jean Marie Ward