1. You have been a writer for five decades. What has been the biggest change you have seen in the publishing industry?
Ah, while there are more places today for a beginning or journeyman writer to publish (well, kinda publish … )than there were “back in the day,” unfortunately, few of them are “earn while you learn” commercial publications. And few of them are comparable to the quality small press publications that used to exist.
That is, there are a gazillion websites out there using fiction, poetry, non-fiction–but few of them are paying anything.
And sadly, few of them are professionally edited.
So that means, you have non-editors who are editing and are not providing help to writers–because they simply don’t know much–except, perhaps, about building a website.
And that likewise means you have would-be writers who are being deluded and deluding themselves that they are “paying their dues” and coming up the hard way, because now they have been on 14,000 websites, not a one of which is read by more than two or three people who aren’t themselves trying to be writers.
Now, sonny, looky here … In them good old days, we had the second and third tier men’s magazines, like CAVALIER, DUDE, MR. NUGGET, and many more–and they contributed to my mortgage payment. (This is the same playground where you found guys like Stephen King, Bill Relling, Jerry Williamson, etc.) And their editors taught me plenty. Ditto the so-called “confession magazines,” like TRUE ROMANCE and MODERN LOVE. They paid pro rates.
And, by and large, the small press publications, even when they couldn’t pay much or paid only in copies, were edited by people who invested not just time but serious money in making the mag happen. So they wanted it to be good. It was their bucks keeping it going.
Now, too often the inmates have taken over the asylum–and the asylum keepers are all in the happy dance circle, too, while everyone goes, “La-la-la …”
Fortunately, the real writers and real-going-to-be writers seek out quality publications—because they aim to create quality work and want it showcased in … quality! They know one sale to CEMETERY DANCE is worth far more than 100 pieces in STOOPITSTORIES.DOT.COM. They know that scoring with TIN HOUSE or ROSEBUD or GLIMMER TRAIN is an affirmation, a validation.
Plenty changes, Carl–and not all of them good for the easily and/or willfully deluded.
2. Who has been your biggest influence as a writer?
Influences, please. Impossible to name a single influence. Hemingway, of course; I reread the complete short stories annually and still learn from them. Bradbury, for yanking me into the marvelous and showing me its link to myself. The poets Lucien Stryk and Bill Wantling, who both took me seriously when I wasn’t taking myself seriously. Harlan Ellison as an example of moral and intellectual courage. The late Jerry Williamson, who showed you never had to write down to people, that you could trust real readers to get it if you gave ’em the clues to get it. The musician Josh White, who gave me a week’s worth of impromptu guitar lessons and showed me it’s about craft–craft can be taught and craft can be learned. Those editors of the old days, Maurice DeWalt at Cavalier, Everett Meyers at Sir!, who were terrific teachers.
3. What’s the greatest moment in your writing career?
Have to say, the publication this past July of SHADOW SHOW, the anthology I edited with Sam Weller. We have 26 stories written by a (ahem) “truly eclectic group” of writers: Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Joe Hill, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Audrey Niffenegger … Most important, though, this was a labor of love in the best sense. It was a big group hug for Ray Bradbury.
And he was around to feel that hug. He wrote an intro for the book and was deeply honored at the word tribute we put together for him.
4. What’s the strangest job you have ever held?
What might seem strange really wasn’t. I designed the print and radio advertising campaigns for products for the hog farming industry. Stuff like flooring systems for hog confinement sheds and animal control guidance apparatus, IE, shock sticks. Here I was, raised in a kosher household, a city dweller, out there on the old hog farm becoming wise to the ways of oinkers.
But that was just a learning experience.
The strangest job was and still is, teaching high school. Even the most mature and composed adolescent is only fully sane for 14 minutes in a row and after that, it’s off to Wahoo-Oingo-Boingo-land.
Love them yout’. Love seeing them learn. Love their humor and energy and strangeness.
5. Who is your favorite writer?
Hemingway, except when it’s James Ellroy, except when it’s James Lee Burke, except when it’s Stewart O’Nan, except when it’s James Crumley, except when it’s Stephen King, except when it’s Bonnie Jo Campbell, except when it’s John Sayles, except when it’s Ron Hansen … Truth, I don’t know any real writer who has a (singular, just the one) favorite writer.
6. You are renowned as a teacher of writing. What is more satisfying for you, writing or teaching others how to write?
They both offer satisfactions that I find the same in quality. You see, I don’t have dividing lines between Mort the Writer and Mort the Editor and Mort the Teacher or for that matter, Mort the Musician and, I hope, Mort the Man. I could not be a good editor if I were not working hard to be a good writer. I could not be a good teacher if I were not a good writer and editor.
To loosely paraphrase the late Lenny Bruce in one of his court appearances, “I’m not the social critic, or the obscene comic, or the social cause … I’m just Lenny Bruce.”
Tell you, my very Zen motto has been stolen from my hero, Popeye the Sailor Man: I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam. I’m just plain Mort Castle–and I’m defined by my actions and choices, actions and choices which bring me satisfactions.
7. What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Simple: Learn to write. Don’t worry about branding, about guerrilla marketing, about your platform, about self-publishing on the Swindle, Shnook, or Ipud.
Study writers and writing. Practice writing. Learn the craft, learn the craft, learn the craft.
8. You have also been heavily involved in comics. How did you get involved in comics and what has been your most satisfying project?
In 1988, founder and president of Northstar Comics, Dan Madsen asked me, “Can you write comics?”
I asked, “Can you pay me?”
Check in hand, I began my career in comics.
The most recent comics project was probably the most meaningful. I co-edited this with that great comics guy David Campiti. It’s J. N. WILLIAMSON’S ILLUSTRATED MASQUES, put out in hardcover by Gauntlet Press
and in trade paper by IDW
(Notice how I’ve cleverly provided links so you can BUY these books?!?)
Great comics stories adapted from the MASQUES anthologies edited by Jerry. Writers like Wayne Allen Sallee, Robert R. McCammon, Bob Weinberg, F. Paul Wilson, Paul Dale Anderson, and–dare I say it?–me!
You know, like SHADOW SHOW is a tribute to Ray, MASQUES is a tribute to Jerry. He was my dear friend and a class act and received in his life nowhere near the attention his works merited. This lovely comic album keeps his name and his efforts alive.
9. What made you start writing?
Fourth grade. High tech time—teacher brought in a phonograph with a record of a reading of Poe’s “Pit and the Pendulum.” I was hooked. (Teachers didn’t care back then if kids would all go home and wet the bed for the next two or three years.)
Wrote a story soon thereafter. Horror story about a guy who gets transformed into a spider. I wanted to do to readers what Poe had done to me.
Fooled around with writing for a long time thereafter, but had plans to wind up in show biz as a working musician or comic or both. Writing was backburnered. Front burner: Guitar and a Bob Dylan hat.
But then, in college, a friend who’d been writing novels with some success said to me, “Bet you could do this.”
I said, “Maybe.” Took three weeks and wrote and sold a novel. It was that easy. Of course, it wasn’t a very good novel, bad mystery and science-fiction and sex, but it wasn’t that good a publisher (see old Mort’s response to how publishing has changed)—except it paid me an advance of three hundred bucks.
I was hooked. Sold another three or four novels.
And then comes age 25–and I said, “Maybe I can get serious about this writing thing.”
And I did. Set out to make myself into a real writer, someone who wrote stories that could be my shot at … Tah-dah! Immortality!
Writing has, on occasion, broken my heart. And that was mostly my fault, for expecting what I had no right to expect, or for trying to do it cheap, dirty, or easy.
But all these years later, when I know someone’s picking up my story in Wroclaw, Poland, and entering my story world through a language I can’t even pronounce, let alone read, or someone writes and says, “That story got to me,” or … Any of the typical authorly triumphs, yeah, I’m not displeased that I checked the “Writer” box on the vocational inventory chart, instead of the one for Famed Matador and Tree Surgeon.
10. What do you feel will be your legacy in the horror writing genre?
I wasn’t kidding about the immortality thing. I’ve got a new collection coming out from DARK REGIONS PRESS. It’s called NEW MOON ON THE WATER and I think it my best collection to date. I hope some of these stories are around for 100 years, maybe 200, maybe … until three hours past Armageddon.
Okay, my body won’t be. But if your experiences and your feelings and your imaginings are still around … Howzabout three out of four, yeah … I’ll settle for Three Quarter Immortality!