David Heller Dr Wacko
This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview.
Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast
Interviewer: Kevin Savetz
KS: I'm Kevin Savetz, and this is an interview epsode of Antic, the Atari 8-bit podcast. David Heller may be better known to Atari users by his pen name - Dr. C. Wacko. As Dr. Wacko, David wrote the books Dr. C. Wacko's Miracle Guide to Designing and Programing your Own Atari Computer Arcade Games and Dr. C. Wacko Presents Atari BASIC as well as similar books for other platforms. He also wrote the book Free Software For Your Atari (and similar books for other platforms) and Space Knights, a unique product that was a novella that included related Atari games on disk. He also wrote for the Atari Connection magazine.
This interview took place April 20, 2015.
DH: How did you find me?
KS: I was looking through an old Atari Connection magazine, actually several last night, just kind of paging through, looking for interview subjects, and I kept seeing your name again and again and again. You practically wrote some of these issues. Then I remembered that you were Dr. Wacko, or wrote as Dr. C. Wacko, and so a little linkedin request and here you are.
DH: Yes, Professor of Computer Wacko Science. Those were the good old days. I think it was back in the early '80s, wasn't it?
KS: Yes. So tell me how did you get started with Atari computers?
DH: I was interested in the Atari 400, but just for playing games, and then I upgraded to the 800, and during that time my wife was a co-author of a book called PET Games and Recreations, which had to do with the Commodore PET computer. And she was stuck. The PET Games and Recreations book was a compilation of very small programs to make the PET do different things that you could see graphically on the screen and make some sounds and do different things. It was a compilation of programs. She was the person who wrote the text around all of that. When she finished writing the book they had twenty pages left they had to fill with something. And I remember, I was sitting on a lounge chair in my living room and for some reason or another I was wearing this hat. It was like a baseball cap but it had golden lightning bolts coming off the side of it, and I think I was drinking a martini at the time. So Dorothy, my wife, she comes up and says "I need some help here, I need some help here" and I said "What can I do?" and that's where I came up with this Dr. Wacko thing. Because I was kind of wacked out, right? I said "I'll help you, I'll create a character called Dr. C. Wacko, and I'm going to help you finish this book." Which I did. What I did was take a lot of the programs that were just nonsense programs that showed warning signs and made stupid sounds. Kind of the useless programs that were left over and I had fun with that.
DH: And then I went to a book show, a trade show for books and she introduced me to her publisher, and they were globbing all over that, they thought the best part of the book was the Dr. C. Wacko stuff. They said, "Wow, you're great! Is there anything else you can do? Can you do another book? Do you have any ideas for a book?" So the first book I wrote was for them (it was Reston publishing, part of Prentice Hall, in Reston Virginia). The first thing I said, "I'll create a book. I've always wanted to write a short science fiction novella, and my idea is that I want to work with a programmer to include a disk. First of all I'm going to make the book ten chapters, and I'm going to write in conjunction with this young programmer some programs that allow people to experience the action of the two protagonists in this short novel. And we'll put it on a floppy disk and you guys can sell it with the disk." That was probably the first time ever that software was packaged with a book.
KS: So this was Space Knights?
DH: Space Knights, yes. The idea was to give people the full experience, so they could actually read it and relive the experience of these two characters that I created.
KS: I've never heard of this one. I see it now on Amazon. Interesting.
DH: So that's how that got started. And then somehow or other Addison-Wesley approached me, because they wanted me to write a book. So they said "Can you do another?" They thought I was going to do another Space Knights-type book. But then I thought back and I said "You know, what I'd like to do is to put on my Dr. C. Wacko hat again. I really like the Atari computer, so I'd like to create a book to teach people how to create their own Atari computer games." I worked with another programmer and then I found a really talented artist/cartoonist called John Johnson. I put this team together and the rest is history. That's how I got started with that.
KS: So your wife was working on PET, how did you get started with the Atari for that first book? Did you have an Atari machine at that point already? For Space Knights?
DH: I didn't have a PET computer, I had an Atari computer. I was really enamoured by the Atari computer.
KS: I have to find that Space Knights book.
KS: First of all, I like how it's Dr. C. Wacko, as if to differentiate from his brother, Dr. H. Wacko. So, Addison-Wesley wanted you to write these books?
DH: Oh there. You actually have a better copy than I do.
KS: Actually I have two, one was published as a book and the other had a disk and was published as software. And it was labelled "This goes with the software section," and the other was labelled "This goes in the book section." I think you're trying to double your shelf space.
DH: That's what Addison-Wesley did when they published it. They also published it in a number of languages. It was very popular in Sweden. There's a Swedish version out there somewhere. It went completely wild. I think they sold well over 100,000 copies of that book. It was a very successful book. And based on that they said "Can you write some more Dr. Wacko stuff?" So I said "I'll teach people how to do BASIC programming on the Atari. I'll do a whole series. BASIC Programming on the Atari, BASIC Programming on the Commodore, BASIC Programming on the..." All the machines that were popular at that time. So I did a whole series of books about doing BASIC programming with the same characters.
DH: When John Johnson and I got together at that first meeting it was really great. He's a very creative person as well, so we came up with all the gags and the art. The first thing we did was create that cast of characters. If you look at the very front of the book there's a section where it shows who the characters are going to be. There are all the characters we created to play the different roles in the book.
KS: There's the Slow Poke, and the Machine Language Machine, and Snidley Seersucker, who specializes in dastardly plots, like putting bugs in your program. Mrs. Petunia Wacko. These are adorable people.
DH: Yeah but the funny thing is we came up with all those and then I said to John, "John, I need an action character. I need a hero. I need some kind of a superhero." So he came up with Captain Action. And he's a hippie. He's entirely the antipathy of what an action figure should be. And I said, "That's brilliant!" In my mind I was thinking we'll have some type of a superhero character. And what his idea was to turn that upside down and turn him into a beer-drinking hippie. That's one character that I really love.
KS: That's funny because just yesterday I interviewed Ted Richards, editor of Atari Connection magazine. He had a comic called the Forty-Year-Old Hippie who went out and bought a computer in one of the cartoons. I got a lot of hippie cartoons this week.
KS: This was a royalty deal I assume?
DH: Yes it was. I did get some advances as well. I didn't turn the world upside down, but I did make some money on it. And it did lead to some other things that I did moving forward. I remember one day I walked into a supermarket, and I was checking out and paying with a check. and [the clerk] says, "Are you the David Heller that's the Dr. C. Wacko guy." What I really got out of it the most is that a lot of people told me [how it encouraged them]. One example. I went to work for a software company in the 90s and a young engineer came up to me and he asks me the same question and I say "Yes, I am", and he says, "You know, I am a professional software engineer now because I got so excited about writing software from your Dr. Wacko books." That made me feel so good. I felt that I helped some people find a path in their life. It was really very rewarding to me to get that kind of feedback. There's only a few reviews, maybe four of them on Amazon, but they're all asking "Do it again! I loved the book" That made me feel nice.
KS: You also wrote Free Software For Your Atari which is a book that you had to pay for to tell you how to get free software. That was a whole series, did you do the whole series or just the Atari one?
DH: I did the whole series of those. During that time we didn't have the internet so to speak but we could connect to each other by modem. When I was writing that book, this was before HTML was created or popularized or what have you, it wasn't out there yet. So the way we wrote that book is that I was connected with the printer and we came up with our own language, a markup language just like HTML is. So that I could put in there I want italicized here, with brackets and ITAL or whatever we used like that. So we came up with our own kind of mini-HTML to format the book. In those days before Adobe Pagemaker, he had to print out the pages and paste it up onto a pasteboard and photograph to make the book. That was quite an experience.
KS: I see Free Software For Your Commodore 64, Dr. C. Wacko presents Commodore 64 BASIC and the Whiz-Bang Miracle Machine. So yeah, Atari, Commodore 64?
DH: I did stuff for the TI computer at the time. Every computer that was available. There was an IBM computer as well that I wrote for.
KS: Did you do any other Atari work, making standalone software or writing documentation or anything like that?
DH: No. I did some writing for the Atari Connection. We started a series, but the magazine folded. The Atari Connection didn't last around too long. Dr. Schnorer the Atari Explorer I think I came up with.
KS: Is she related to Dr. Wacko?
DH: Maybe it was Professor Schnorer, I don't remember it was such a long time ago.
KS: I was paging through some Atari Connection magazines yesterday. And the issues I was looking at, it was like you wrote more than half the magazine. It was just, David Heller, David Heller, David Heller. How did you get that gig?
DH: I don't remember exactly. I just know I was there all the time, and they needed material and they liked what I was doing. It just worked out that way. I was just there.
KS: You had to go to Atari?
DH: I used to hang around at the time. I don't remember their names anymore (sorry), but I was like one of the guys there. I was very well connected with Atari, because they were local here in Sunnyvale,
KS: I've heard that from people that even if you weren't an employee you could just hang out in the offices as long as you were cool and interesting.
DH: Yeah. It was really a nice atmosphere, a very creative atmosphere and very exciting. It was like "wow!" It was the beginning of all this excitement going on in Silicon Valley for quite a while now.
KS: If you could send a message to the Atari computer users that still exist, and you can right now, what would you tell them?
DH: I would tell them that if they can find some old Atari computers it's really a lot of fun to get your hands back on one now. Which I have. I've got an 800 and a 400 and so forth. They're just fun machines to play with. They're still very good machines.
KS: Thank you David, this has been great.
DH: Thank you so much.