“See, the thing is, and people don’t understand this, if it’s gonna scare the reader, first it’s gotta scare you.”
Mort Castle has been writing for nearly fifty years and is one of the most recognized and respected gentlemen in the literary field. Mr. Castle has penned over 500 short stories and seventeen books, while also conducting over 1,000 presentations at multiple writing conventions and events.
The winner of multiple Bram Stoker Awards, having been nominated eleven times, Castle is a leading voice in the horror literature world. He is a noted editor, a selfless professional who is always willing to discuss the craft of writing with fellow authors and a proud representative of the legacy of Ray Bradbury. Along with fellow Bradbury enthusiast Sam Weller, Mr. Castle edited a fantastic illustrated anthology called ‘Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury’.
I don’t throw around the term loosely, but Mort Castle is definitely a creative hero of mine.
Recently, Mr. Castle took some time out of his day to chat with me about his career, his inspirations and what he’s working on next. You didn’t think a fifty-year career was enough, did you? Oh, Mr. Castle still has stories to tell..
MANGLED MATTERS: Who were your literary heroes growing up?
MORT CASTLE: Great question. This is really getting those dusty memory cells to work. There’s a book by Margaret Wise Brown, a Little Golden Book, called The Color Kittens that really did it for me; she’s much better known for Goodnight Moon. This was one of the first books I heard that made me want to read on my own. Once I was reading, oh, man, these have stuck with me. The Howard Pyle Robin Hood. The Adventures of a Bad Boy, by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. (I’m friends with one of his great-great grandchildren.) One that I have mentioned before: I was, I think, eight years old when I read a paperback entitled I’ll Cry Tomorrow, an autobiography of Lillian Roth. What a revelation when I came across the word(s) son-of-a-bitch. I was sure it was illegal to actually print words like that in a real book that real people could really read.
The big ones, though, the one that gave me two heroes who remain heroes to this day – I was in seventh grade, eleven years old. I was a year ahead in elementary school. See, I was really smart. I mean, smarter than Donald Trump smart, believe me. No kidding. I mean, smart!
The first was Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Knocked me out. I knew that I wanted to read more Hemingway. Funny thing, when I got to high school, tried to get through a collection of Hemingway’s early short stories and couldn’t. I didn’t have the sophistication yet to understand that stories don’t have to end with exploding volcanoes or escapes from beneath a razor-sharp swinging pendulum. See, I was dumb then, really dumb. I mean dumber than Donald Trump dumb, believe me. No kidding. I mean, dumb! The other book was The Grapes of Wrath, which turned me into an avowed seventh grade socialist.
Hemingway and Steinbeck. I discovered them before I discovered Tarzan or Ted Scott the Flying Ace, and I’m still discovering them and learning from them.
MM: What sparked your creativity most as a child?
MC: Thank you to the early 1950s brooding Batman, not yet caught up in cheese ball outer space adventures but still leaping about on giant typewriters and slugging the hell out of Killer Moth and the Joker. To balance it out, the wittiest and most charming comic ever, Marge’s Little Lulu, mostly drawn and written by the genius John Stanley. Between Color Kittens, Batman, and Lulu, man, I had all the motivation I need to learn to read, so before I got to kindergarten, I was reading.
We got our first TV in 1949. It was an Emerson with a 12-inch screen and 15-inch speaker, a console model. There were three channels in the Chicago area. One station, I think it was WMAQ, which became NBC (memory is really fuzzing here) didn’t begin broadcasting until 4 PM.
I was the constant viewer of …. anything on television, including that test pattern that aired until a station came on. Howdy Doody, Hopalong Cassidy, Sid Stone, the Curbstone Cutup. Your Show of Shows, Uncle Johnny Coons, The Jolly Pirates, Bob Atcher, the Meadowgold Singing Cowboy. Lunchtime Little Theater. Milton Berle … And you know, I think I subconsciously learned story structure from sucking up and in and holding onto all those TV shows.
MM: You’ve gone on record as stating that your fifth grade teacher really encouraged you to write. I’ve had a similar experience with a former teacher and I can vouch for any writer that it means the world to have a teacher support you in such formative years. Did you find that you had a lot of support growing up in your quest to become a writer?
MC: Elementary school, all the way. Mrs. Nanberg. Mrs. Curlin. Mr. Kluk. You bet. I had some encouragement in high school, but have to say, it came mostly from well-meaning teachers who didn’t know all that much—at least about writing, though they were just fine at giving quizzes based on the glossary for Romeo and Juliet.
College—aren’t you still growing up in college?—there was lots and lots of support from students, other writers, and established artists, like the poet William Wantling, professors Don Davis and Ira Cohen.
I’ve also always had support throughout my career from family and friends, and more than one funny story is related to my mother going into the 7-11 convenience store and asking the clerk to get her one of those “behind the counter” magazines—you know, like Cute Tushy Monthly or Gigantic Garbanzos (Well, really they were called Cavalier, Nuggest, Dude, etc.)—and saying, “My son has a story in that one. It’s sort of science-fiction …”
MM: Your 50-year anniversary is coming up and that deserves a heck of a congratulations. Does one or a few specific moments in your career strike you as defining moments for yourself, personally?
MC: Yeah, plenty, actually, and perhaps – surprise! – it wasn’t selling the first few books when I was 19 and 20. I mean, I did that sort of as “Yeah, I’ll bet I can do this,” and I did, and I didn’t regard it as any big deal. Those books never took me more than six weeks, they brought me low-ball advances, and they were published by paperback houses known for their authors who’d knocked down Nobel prizes. But when I got serious about word-crafting, selling the first short story and actually seeing it in a magazine, right there at a book kiosk on Michigan Ave. (Mr. Magazine, cover price: 75 cents! The year: 1972!) that was a big deal. My wife and I were just walking around downtown that evening, and there it was. We bought five copies.
Similar event but different – once upon a time there were many bookstores at the airport, not just Hudson News with the same 25 titles and nothing else. So we were getting ready to go to Holland and there’s this guy looking over the paperback books, obviously trying to find something to read, and Jane spots my The Deadly Election (Major Books, 1976). She grabs it up, hands it to the guy and says, “Terrific book! You’ll love it. Buy it! The author will sign it for you!”
He said, “Huh?”
I said, “I sure will.”
He bought it, and with its price of $1.50, that sale put six cents in my pocket!
Finally, there was winning the Bram Stoker Award® in 2013 for publications in 2012. After all, I held the record: the most nominations—eleven!–without ever winning. That year, along with my co-editor Sam Weller, I scored with Shadow Show: All New Stories In Celebration Of Ray Bradbury, and scored another with my short story collection, New Moon on the Water.
MM: You’ve seen the evolution of the publishing game first hand. What is your opinion on ebooks and the technological reading craze?
MC: For me, and maybe this is just my age, but an ebook’s big plus is that it doesn’t take up room on my already way too crowded shelf. But there’s a curious problem – I cannot read anything serious and meaningful in e-form if I want to retain it or to feel it in a deep and meaningful way. I read Arnie Bernstein’s Swastika Nation first as an e-book and thought it was okay, though I had difficulty remembering “Have I already read this chapter, or …”, but then when I had the trade paperback, had a thing with weight in hands and turned pages and adjusted the reading lamp over my shoulder, it was probably the best nonfiction I’d read since Larson’s Devil in the White City. I do, however, love my 11-inch tablet for reading classic Golden Age comic books—that I could never afford to buy as yellowing paper issues!
MM: Have you ever scared yourself writing?
MC: Sure as hell have. Even more often, writing has brought on a weighty dread, one that is as hard to shake off as the after-effects of the big time nightmare! See, the thing is, and people don’t understand this, if it’s gonna scare the reader, first it’s gotta scare you. You’ve got to go there. One of my mentors, the late Jerry Williamson, pointed out the link between actors and writers. If you want to convince your audience, first, you’ve got to feel it.
The stories I’ve felt, felt deeply, those are the ones I think have a shot at being around for the centuries.
MM: What is a typical day of writing for you? Do you have a set schedule? Perhaps a word count limit?
MC: A day of writing? Ah, make it a half day if I’m in the mood. As a young writer, oh, man, I had a goal of getting “one thing” submitted somewhere every week. That doesn’t mean a story, though often it was. Could have been a poem, could have been a review, or whatever.
But now, I do virtually nothing on spec. If I’m invited to send something for a magazine or book, I will produce it, that is, assuming I’ve accepted the invitation. Unless it’s something I can get excited about, hell, I’d rather watch Netflix or play guitar or go travelling with Jane or what have you.
I’m not that young writer anymore. I do, however, think I’m a helluva lot better writer than that young dude was!
MM: What is the best piece of fan mail or praise you’ve ever received?
MC: I have a story, about 2,000 words or so, called “Altenmoor, Where the Dogs Dance.” It’s been pretty successful. It’s won some awards, been translated into many languages, filmed twice (once in Serbia!), adapted as a reader’s theater piece, appeared in audio and as a comic … It’s a story about faith and our needs for myth. I received a note from a woman who told me, “My son had an auto wreck and was in a coma.” She read the story to him from my collection Moon on the Water. She read it many times, she said, because it seemed to help her own ability to have faith. And then, after three weeks or so, her son opened his eyes and said, “Hello, Mom. What the hell is Altenmoor?.”
That is not the sort of fan mail you get everyday.
MM: What are you currently working on?
MC: Comic book script adapting the 1920 film The Golem. Also, what will be the final story in my Marilyn Monroe story trilogy. With Tracy Knight, I’m editing the revival volume of Masques, now called J.N. Williamson’s Masques. With Dennis O’Connor, Dave Moll, and Mark Valadez, my compadres in 4 Maple Productions, a television series about which I am more than a little hopeful. Dennis is a long time film editor, Dave worked for a few years on Hill Street Blues, and Mark was a writer on Scrubs and Gang-Related and is currently writing Ice for a new streaming network.
Geez, a few minutes I said I wasn’t doing all that much. Guess I just contradicted myself. It happens when you’re old. Or Donald Trump.
MM: What advice would you offer an aspiring author?
MC: 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.
Do yourself a favor and spend a few hard-earned bucks on some of Mr. Castle’s fantastic catalog!