Guest Author Interview: Mort Castle

Mort Castle is a veteran of American genre-fiction. Mr Castle is a respected horror author, editor and writing teacher, a prolific short fiction author and a novelist. Among other awards that he has won he is a three-time winner of (and nominated eleven times for) the Bram Stoker Award. Today I present to you a great interview with Mr Castle and it is truly an honour as a fan – my favorite works of his are the collection ‘Moon on the Water’ and his novel ‘The Strangers.’ As his bibliography testifies I have a lot of reading of Mr Castle’s work still in front of me (rubs hands with glee). Please make sure to check out his books and grab some copies off Amazon - you won't be disappointed if you are new to Mr Castle's work (just click on the book cover images below). Here is he, the horror maestro himself, Mr Mort Castle:

Q: How have you managed to maintain your literary career for as long as you have? Do you have any tips for other writers starting off on their careers in terms of long-term strategies to maintain a career as an author?

A: Oh, man, it's perseverance. You don't give up, period. There were some very bleak times, times of serious "career reversals," when I wished I could just pack it in. Was supposed to be editor of Horror, The Illustrated Book of Fears, which would be the country's largest circulation B&W comics horror magazine; that fell through at the last minute when the distributor reneged, saying he had had a moral revelation and was convinced the magazine would encourage mental illness and criminal behavior. Had movies come close and never happen. Book contracts blow up at last minute. Markets disappearing (go take a look at today's convenience stores for the behind the counter men's magazines that used to pay my mortgage!)

But let me rephrase that: I didn't give up. I don't say that's a game plan for everyone. There are people who have given up after little or no success at publication who were probably right to do so. Certainly they are better off than the self-deludeds who slap their borderline literate twaddle onto an epub platform and call themselves "independent author."

Hell, I gave up on my violin playing when I realized that with intense effort, I could someday be mediocre. (Stuck with guitar and I'm not bad!)

Q: After nearly fifty years as a professional writer do you still have ‘eureka moments’ when you think of something fresh and new to write about?

A: If you make that "something that grabs me," then yes, indeed. I don't know that I'd be writing at all if I didn't find / create those concepts that make me say, "I ought to write this." If I weren't doing that, if I were just grinding it out and saw it as "more of the same of the same of the same," I'd have no business writing, using up my remaining hours doing assembly line work and trying to inflict the result on readers who, I hope, have come to expect more of me.

Q: Your writing usually deals with dark themes – is there anything that really scares you and are there things you won’t write about?

A: Yes, and I'll leave it go at that. But I will add ... There are scares and horrors and worse that I had as a younger person that I came to write about—later. Later being when I had acquired the technique to tackle the concepts and had enough distance from them so that going deep inside the bad places didn't leave me a weeping, quivering puddle of nerve endings on the floor in ye olde foetal position.

Q: You also script stories for comic book adaptation – how different is it writing comic books stories as opposed to straight fiction and do you have any tips for aspiring authors who want to break into this market?

A: Comics, man, I love comics. Leaned to read because of Batman and Little Lulu. Comics scripting calls for writing that is totally visual. Without word one on the comics page, someone looking at a good comics story will get a sense of what happens ... what happens next ... what happens now ...

Comics scripting forces me to be a visual writer and that has made me a better writer. Indeed, if I get hung up in a story or a scene from a longer work, I can usually get un-hung by scripting it.

To break into the comics "market," such as it is ... There is no stigma attached to self-publishing in comics. That's because self-publishing has a solid history launching major critical and / or / both commercial successes. So ... do a good "self-" publication and then become part of the comics community. Yes, you really do need to go to conventions.

Q: ‘Writing Horror’ has proved to be invaluable resource for my own work, is there a book or resource that you’d recommend that has helped make you a better writer?

A: The book, and we all know it: Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. A wonderful old and out of print book that took published works and showed the writers' drafts to get it right: On Writing by Writers, edited by William West, with fine models provided by Ray Bradbury, Phyllis McGinley, John Updike, John Ciardi, Paul Gallico, Kay Boyle, Robert Penn Warren, Lucien Stryk, Hayden Carruth, Stuart Chase, W. Earl Britton, and Paddy Chayefsky. Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Finally, I re-read Hemingway's complete short stories every so often and still learn economy and precision from the Master.

Q: As a teacher, what is the most important piece of advice you could give to the new generation of horror/fantasy authors trying to get a foot on the rung of a career as a writer?

A: I’m going to repeat myself here; I’ve said this a lot in the past few years. (Hey, I don’t know all that much so I get maximum usage out of whatever knowledge I do have!)

So, the advice that has earned me the title of curmudgeon … This is simple: Learn to write. The so-called indie movement, the “free rein” authors (most of them call themselves “free reign” or even “free range”) are boasting of their self-publications. Never has it been so easy for so many to be so self-deluded—and to aid others in becoming no less deluded.

Worry less about “platforms” and “social media” and “emerging technology”. You’ve got to have a product before you can sell it. I cannot believe there’s so much bad stuff out there, but that’s because now we get to see the bad, proudly displayed on websites, in bad electronic magazines edited by editors who can’t edit, featuring stories by people who can’t write, aimed at aspiring bad writers who want to write for bad electronic magazines, and get self-published on Kindle, Swindle, Shnook, Hobo, Yoyo, and Hoohah …

Writing is a craft and a craft can be learned and a craft can be taught. There are good schools with good writers as teachers. There are great workshops like Clarion and Borderlands. There are good editors. There are good publishers. And when you find someone who says, “Yeah, you’ve got the possibility,” then you can learn from that individual or institution.

Of course, you could learn on your own, with extensive reading, plenty of writing, etc. But a mentoring program of some sort makes it easier and quicker. You bet such mentors as the poet Lucien Stryk and that lovely gentleman J. N. Williamson knocked years off this guy’s learning curve.

Q: Alongside your work as a novelist, you are also a prolific exponent of the short story form, can you recommend any specific markets that are essential publishers of this type?

A: I strongly recommend anthologies edited by someone about whom you can say, "Yeah, he knows what he's doing." That cuts down on your marketing decisions right there.

The well known so-called "little magazines" (not an oxymoron) are also a good bet. If you can score with Tin House or Bombay Gin you are in the best TOC company there is.

And you are better off with one story appearing in Ploughshares than three dozen stories in North Jerkly Journal or Beautiful Buds and Bad Begonias, the readership of either not being the length of the table of contents.

And contests. Beginning writers, there are many worthwhile contests. The Writer's Digest annual contests are the real thing—and can lead to all sorts of notice and publication.

Q: Do you have a favorite author or authors of short fiction and if so, why do you consider their work noteworthy?

A: Hemingway remains the master, for reasons noted above. There are so many fine short fiction writers that I could name dozens who are on my must read list. Dan Chaon, because he has Bradbury's sensitivity to life without being at all imitative. Bonnie Jo Campbell, who richly understands the suchness of things. Alice Hoffman, who is a magician with words. John McNally—and I'm waiting for the moment when he becomes the "Everybody look!" writer he is meant to be. Lee Martin, for his Midwestern heart and common sense. Ron Hansen ... for proving that you don't have to preach to write moral fiction and that "thoughtful Christian" does not mean secular humanism disguised with a cross (and please, Ron, you have to write more short stories). Julia Keller—maybe this era's Shirley Jackson, if she weren't so busy writing great mystery novels and winning Pulitzers for non-fiction.

And I'm just getting started.

Q: As a horror author how do you view the state of contemporary horror fiction and do you think that the genre still has room for new writers and original ideas/stories?

A: The good is great: Newer writers like Sarah Langan and Livia LLewellyn, the old(er) masters like Dan Simmons, Straub, and of course, King. Not a one of 'em content to turn out potboilers. More than a few others.

The middle—pretty bad, most of them not able to meet even the minimum competency tests for midlist paperback originals of the 70s and 80s. A few notable exceptions who will rise.

The bad—too bad to be true. Swamping Kindle, Shnook, Createacrap, etc. Possibly reading each other, but that's about it.

Q: Many of the your stories place characters in deep existential crises, does any one philosophy inform your work and do you think that horror offers a cathartic experience to the reader?

A: My philosophy? Expressed by the poet William Wantling in the one novel he wrote, a book called Young and Tender: "Let them know we were here and here hard, without believing in the Lie or adding to it."

Cathartic? Nah. Illuminating, maybe. Reassuring, maybe, in that it reminds you we're all gonna have to do some hard time. But cathartic? If that were so, I'd have been thoroughly cathed and never would have kept on writing horror. I could have written about lemonade and happy bunnies.

Q: As a writer how important is physical fitness to you and do you have a regime that keeps you fit? I.e. Do you write standing up or sitting down and do you do exercise before/after writing to prevent health issues common to a lot of writers (e.g. weight issues, heart problems, stress etc)?

A: Ah, quit smoking years ago. Hardest "health achievement" ever. Physical fitness? Just getting back to it after months of severe tendonitis made walking dreadful. Way overweight, but I like my stuffed pizza and pasta and ice cream.

Q: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, it is truly an honor. Do you have any parting words you’d like to share about upcoming projects or events?

A: Yeah, I was just recently a winner in the annual Leapfrog Press fiction contest with my story collection Knowing When to Die. This makes me literary as hell and I'm sure I will now be awarded countless zillions in government grants like so many others who have done most of the creative work in writing grant proposals.

Projects? Working on a long comics script for "The Golem," based on the 1920s film, for Graphic Classics, one of the absolute best lines of comics today, published and edited by Tom Pomplun. Lots of most enjoyable research.

Just licensed Argosy magazine for development with my sometimes literary tag team partner Sam Weller. Got big plans, but veddy, veddy hush and hush for now.

And then, with my partners in 4 Maples Productions, working on an anthology television series. We've got an Emmy winner attached and we've partnered with a well known production firm ... More news as I (hope to) have it.

Parting words? From the best rock n roll band ever: Creedence Clearwater Revival: Keep on Chooglin'!

Mort Castle's Links 

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*Author photo credit: Michelle Pretorious.

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