by Blu Gilliand
Mort Castle is the prolific and influential author of more than 350 short stories and several novels, and editor of two classic genre writing guides, Writing Horror and On Writing Horror. He currently teaches a variety of writing courses at Columbia College Chicago while continuing to write and edit short stories and collections. Mr. Castle recently carved some time out of his busy schedule to discuss writing lessons, upcoming projects and the magic of words with Horror World.
HW: You've been publishing consistently since 1967. When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and how did you come to that realization?
MC: I was eight years old. In the fourth grade (how's that for nailing it?) Mrs. Nanberg, the teacher, played a record for the class (see, sonny, once upon a time, there was this here thingy called a phonograph that played ...): It was a reading of Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum."
Comes the realization for this guy that you can use words to make hearts beat faster ... Suspense! Fear! What will happen next!
There was magic there — and I began to realize that words could create that magic and that I wanted to be a magician.
And when I told Mrs. Kurtz, my teacher next year for fifth grade, she said, "Well, then, real writers write a lot, so that's your English assignment for this year. Every week, you turn in a story of four to eight pages."
In grade school I had great teachers. High school, some good ones, but not all that understanding of what it takes to help a writer—or to be one.
You've concentrated primarily on short fiction, publishing stories in a staggering 350+ publications. What draws you to the short story form?
My first love is short stories. Were this the 1930s, even the 1950s, when you were able to support yourself writing nothing but short stories, that's the way I'd go. I love the intensity of short stories. I love the idea that somebody might well remember the exact first and last line of a well crafted story.
But of course, it might not have gone that way had there been publishers crying, "We desperately need another novel from you"; could be I'd have a much longer list of novels.
But that was not the case. It didn't matter that The Strangers wound up being a cult favorite, one that eventually was optioned for films, or that Cursed Be the Child sold close to 100,000 copies.
Of course, perhaps it's just as well ... I don't think I'd have wanted or do want to be in the position of having to grind out one-man-assembly line novels. I look at some of the people who've done that ... Yeah, they can turn out a brand new mediocrity (same as the last mediocrity) every three months. And then you find on their tombstones: HE WROTE 12,564 NOVELS NO ONE COULD REMEMBER READING AFTER HE TURNED THE LAST PAGE.
But (fortunately, I think) there has always been a market, if not necessarily a demand for Mort short stories. So I have written them.
And here's a true confession: short stories give me something that novels have not provided. I have perhaps as many as 25 or 30 short stories out of all of 'em that I consider just as good as anything I've ever written – and as good as anything anyone's written, period. Sorry if that comes across as arrogant. Those stories are my shot at literary immortality.
I have published seven novels. I have never had a novel that made me say, "Yeah, this book is a total success." I've had scenes in those novels that I like, some perhaps perfect moments, but those books are a long, long way from perfect. You want perfect? Try Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, David Morrell's First Blood, King's Pet Semetary, Ted Klein's The Ceremonies ... Perfect horror novels have been written, but not by me.
What's your advice to writers looking to build a career? Are non-paying "exposure" markets worth the time? And how does digital publishing fit into the mix?
Advice to writers? Learn to write. Too many people are self-delusional, thinking they are now going to conquer the world with their stories via Kindle, Nook, Schnook, and Shtunk. Too many people calling themselves editors when they don't know the difference between a colon and a colonoscopy: that gives us the self-delusional leading the self-delusional into ever more delusions:
But this isn't just a poorly conceived, badly executed story on my cousin's website! This is a poorly conceived, badly executed story in a print-on-demand poorly conceived, badly executed book!
When you really learn to write, you also learn how to market your work. You learn where to send stories. You learn where not to send stories.
There are good websites. There are good "exposure" markets.
But this Internut thing has made it oh so easy to be oh so off in your perceptions of self as writer and of what good writing is.
Here's a rule: Write well and publish well. And if you know what I mean, then chances are you are already writing well and publishing well.
You've built a substantial career as a writing teacher. How did you get started teaching?
Easy, I went to college. Illinois State University. Good school. Got myself a degree that said I was a certified English teacher for grades six through twelve. Easiest thing in the world.
Of course, while I was in college, I also published a couple novels and an academic article or two. Also recorded a record album with The Innsiders, a folk trio, and actively pursued show biz.
Then when I did wind up in the classroom with those beautiful kids at Crete-Monee High School in somewhat glorious Crete, Illinois, I was fortunate in my timing: It was a ... dare I say it?!? - a time of liberal education. With the support of a brilliant department chairman, my lifelong friend Tommy Thompson, and an administration that cared more about students than stanines, I created a three year "writers' workshop," the goal, to create publishing writers. There were scores of high school kids that did publish before they ever were handed a diploma.
When I left Ye Olde Sinecure of fulltime high school teaching, it was natural that I offer my services as a "freelance writing teacher" in whatever venue wanted me.
Then, Bob Weinberg was leaving his adjunct teaching gig at Columbia College Chicago, where he taught "Thriller Writing," and he recommended me to the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department, Randy Albers. That was 1997. I've been there ever since, working with great students and fellow teachers; I currently teach "Researching and Writing Historical Fiction," "Story in Graphic Forms," and - how's this for a college class — “Writing Horror."
What are some of the lessons that remain unchanged over the years, no matter how publishing, audience tastes, etc., change?
There's no way around it: A writer must be a master of the basics. I don't care if you have the imagination of Bradbury and the passion of Dostoevsky: If you goof the mechanics of the language, you will not get published.
So, get the best "write it right" book there is, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.
Then, follow the rule all pro writers do: When in doubt, look it up.
Read widely—across the spectrum. Read the Russians, of course—
but not until you are ready to read them: and when you are a teen in high school with hormones singing in your loins and not much happening in your head, you are not ready. The Brothers Karamazov for sure. All of Ernest Hemingway — maybe my strongest influence — but especially the short stories. Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and the ever so nasty Mysterious Stranger. And maybe these aren't classics, but they might be someday: Tarzan and the first four Mike Hammer novels by Mickey Spillane.
Read everything. Read lots of bad books, especially the bad books in the genre that's likely to become yours. When you read the bad stuff and recognize why it's bad, you're going to be wonderfully inspired: "I can write much better than this!"
You edited the book Writing Horror, which is considered the top handbook for genre writing. How did you go about choosing the contributors and contents for the book?
I put out the call to the HWA membership. I was open to suggestions for topics and solicitations from those who wanted to contribute a chapter on a specific topic.
That said, most of the topics came from my mind and most of the contributors were chosen by me. Many of the contributors were (and are) my friends — but if they're in the book, they are also friends who had the knowledge we needed and the ability to articulate it.
Any thoughts of a revised or updated version of Writing Horror?
First one came out in 1997.
The updated and revised On Writing Horror in 2006.
But the only sure thing in publishing is that there is no sure thing in publishing. F&W Publications might ask for an all new, all digital version for 2013 to meet the demand created by the growing readership due to low cost brain implant read-o-matics (turn the page by pulling on your earlobe).
You are an influence and inspiration to countless writers. What writers or works influence you?
Hemingway, of course. Some beautiful writers of yesterday and today who, it seems to me, know that art must educate and entertain: The late Bill Wantling, a dynamic poet. Ron Hansen, Joe Meno, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Lee Martin, Dan Chaon ... I hear this "death of publishing" nonsense, and I read more and more books by people who are setting the bar ever so high and then still higher, and they are finding readers ... It does keep one going. And because of the marvelous quality of what's being written, I can't let myself be satisfied with anything other than my best.
Do you have any new projects in the works that readers should be looking out for?
Oh, yeah, I am not at all hesitant about plugging my work.
Gauntlet Press has a gorgeous edition of J. N. Williamson's Illustrated Masques. I'm co-editor, with my pal David Campiti, and there are stories of mine in there, along with works of Robert McCammon, Stephen King, Wayne Allen Sallee, and others. I'm so happy with that one, keeping the late Jerry Williamson's name and work out there. It might be the most beautiful book I've ever been part of.
Forthcoming: New Moon on the Water from Dark Regions Press. It's a collection of short stories.
Forthcoming: Writing Historical Fiction from Self-Counsel Press (guess you can guess the subject of this non-fiction book, huh?)
The big forthcoming:
From Harper Perennial in July of 2012: Edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury. We have 27 contributions from Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alice Hoffman, Kelly Link, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Robert McCammon, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Audrey Niffenegger ... Ray wrote the introduction for the book.
In the course of your 44-year career, you've weathered a lot of changes and continued to thrive. What are the challenges facing writers today, and how do you suggest they address them?
The challenge is just what it's always been: To write well. To do the work that satisfies you and enriches the lives of those very special people, your readers.
The other issues, ah, we're talking about marketing, trends, technology, and those are always changing.
Worry about the one constant: writing well.
And when you take care of that, don't be surprised if you're able to adapt to meet all the challenges of today — and tomorrow!
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