Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I Have Something That I Want to Say

January 7th, 2010 Comments off

So here’s my first STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED column of the year. This is where I offer advice about / insight into / comments on “the writing life.”

For decades at the writing workshops I’ve conducted, I’ve asked the sort of rhetorical question “Why write?” to kick things off.

“Sort of” because I typically do supply an answer: “There’s only one reason to write. You write because you have something to say.”

And then I add “… and we all have something to say.”

Here’s the mantra I’ve developed. It’s uplifting. It’s empowering.

I have something that I want to say.

I have something to say that matters to me.

I have something to say that (I hope) matters to you.

And that’s the answer to “Why write?”

But for me right now, that’s the problem.

As we kick into 2010, I’m finding …

Uh, I have something that I want to say.

No, I don’t. Not that much, anyway. I used to have something, some things, lots of things, actually, but somehow, not right now.

Uh, I have something to say that matters to me.

Not so sure about that, either. Perhaps I’ve said the old stuff so often that it’s lost its meaning. Perhaps I am an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the zealous fire of some new message. I’ll check, see if I have a soul marked ‘Watch this space.’

Uh, I have something to say that (I hope) matters to you.

Nope. The preacher has left the pulpit. The gauge on the sermon tank is on ‘E.’ I don’t know what I can tell you, share with you, suggest to you, that will matter even a little.

So, that’s the way it is for this guy right now. Sure, I’m engaged in a couple of writing projects which I committed to a while back. I’m trying to work up energy to bring to ‘em. At worst, I’ll get through on automatic pilot and they’ll turn out okay because after all these years of wordsmithing, I could do okay writing if I were in a coma.

But at this time in this life, instead of focusing on the craft and sullen art, I’d rather read. Got some great books: Joyce Carol Oates Selected Stories and A. J. Liebling’s boxing essays and a terrific book on the Weimar Republic.

And I’d rather play guitar. Just put a new nine volt in my original Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedal, plugged in my Supro resoglass guitar, and it sounds good.

And I’d rather watch Laurel and Hardy movies. Or Wheeler and Woolsey movies. Maybe some Joe E. Brown.

And I’d rather listen to Bunny Berrigan and Chet Baker and Stuff Smith and Josh White.

And I’d like to be with people and instead of talking as much as I have a tendency to, I’d like to spend most of my time listening.

So, here’s my advice about / insight into / comments on “the writing life” for this month: If you feel like writing, if you want to write, if you’re convinced you have something to say that matters to you and can matter to others, go ahead and write.

As for me, not so much. Not right now.

And if the not so much persisteth, then next month around, I’ll probably write, “Fare ye well, adieu, and so long” in this slot on STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED.

Or I might get out my Epiphone El Dorado guitar (yeah, I’m bragging about my great guitars) and a flat pick and play you a verse and chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, Been Good to Know You.”

And either way, the world will keep right on spinning.

Categories: Writing Tags:


September 7th, 2008 2 comments

In her latest Storytellers Unplugged column on screenwriting, Alexandra Sokoloff wisely wrote, “And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure.”

I nodded my head. Indeed, I know an opinion is of value if I agree with it.

And I sure do agree …

But Castle, a nitpicker sayeth, you’re always blathering on and on about quality, about the need to avoid the cliche and …


And what makes you, o picker of nits, think that the formula precludes quality or that it isn’t the engine leading to the creation thereof?

Here’s what I had to say on the subject, oh, back in 1983:

A not so far-out fantasy based on all-too-true reality:

The scene: A cocktail party. Having learned that I am a writer, she approaches. She is middle-aged, pleasant, interested in literature, enrolled in a college course called, “The More
Famous Minor Works of Recently Deceased Contemporary Authors.”

She wants to know: “What do you write?”

I tell her: “Men’s mag stories …”

She frowns.

” … Horror stories. Mysteries … “

She frowns and sneers.

” … Science-fiction and fantasy … ”

She frowns and sneers and grimaces.

” … Suspense. And confessions stories, yeah, I write lots of confessions …”

And now she looks as though she realizes she has French-kissed a leper!

Zap! She lets me have it: “You write formula fiction!”
And she says it like: “You promise little children candy and comic books if they get in your car…” She says it like: “You operate a lab that does painful and needless experiments on very dogs and sweet cats. . .” She says it like—

Hey, you know how she says it.

But this time, this time, uh-uh, this time,

Bucky, enough is too much.

So I leap onto a coffeetable. And I start off with a scream and I get louder and I’ve got my arms flapping like I’m trying to fly and I’m a sure contender at Oscar time for Best Performance by an Out-of-Control Lunatic as I get rolling:

“Edgar Allan Poe wrote formula fiction. He figured out the formula! There’s this story about a nutty captain looking for an albino whale—and that’s Moby Dick and you can say that Melville wrote formula stuff because it’s an adventure story, huh? And also a how-to book, should you go whaling…”

Woo! (Borrowing from the Rick Flair formula.) Am I into it! “And Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Steve Crane! Formula,

Oh, yes, I’ve got her, Ms. Lit Crit. She is pale, near catatonic! So time for the barrage! “And Flannery O’Connor and Conrad Aiken, Charles Beaumont, Ted Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison and Paul Boles and Loren Estelman and Ray Bradbury. Fine writers. Ernest Hemingway. Blow up bridge. Bell tolls for thee. Use formula. Rest case.”

So she dared to sneer at “formula fiction,” eh? Look at her now. Right before my pleased eyes, she has turned into a pillar of salt.

A formula, you see, gets to be a formula because it works, it creates a satisfying reading experience.

A builder follows a blueprint (a formula) so he doesn’t erect a house with the basement above the kitchen. A cook follows a recipe (a formula) to create an angel food cake instead
of a molasses-guacamole-hamburger-pineapple-who-the-hell-knows. A driver follows a map (a formula) to get from here to there instead of winding up past the briar patch near where the
woodbine twineth.

And you’d better hope that your surgeon is following the “surgical formula” when he’s got you on the operating table!

And, you ask, what is that formula?

Ah, there are many variations, but these days I articulate it based on comments that fine writer and teacher Brady Udall, author of THE MIRACLE LIFE OF EDGAR MINT, made in a workshop several years back.

The fiction formula: Interesting things done to and done by interesting people.

Whether we’re talking STAR WARS or that other book of battles WAR AND PEACE, if we’re following the adventures of Starman Jones throughout the galaxy or Inman on his journey back to COLD MOUNTAIN, if we’re learning of the dreams OF MICE AND MEN or the cravings of HANNIBAL, we can see that formula at work.

And in the creation of the “interesting things” and the “interesting people,” there we can utilize our knowledge of craft, our insights of the world, our abilities as—dare I say it—Artists, as we follow the formula.

Nothing to it.

Put it in here and it comes out there.


(Some of this column originally appeared as the Introduction to J. N. Williamson’s chapbook fiction collection entitled NEVERMORE, published by Maclay and Associates in 1983. I was younger then.)


August 7th, 2008 10 comments



The title of my entry today has been shamelessly stolen from a book called (what else?) YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS. Edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, it’s published by Harper Perennial, and is subtitled CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN WRITERS INTRODUCE STORIES THAT HELD THEM IN AWE.

 You probably already have a pretty good idea of what the work offers, but Donna Seaman’s BOOKLIST review will give you the details:

 Writers are passionate readers because literature is an ongoing dialogue. And you can learn a lot about writers by knowing what they love to read. Editors Hansen and Shepard decided to ask some of their favorite American writers to identify stories that fell into their you’ve-got-to-read-this category. The end result is an anthology of terrific tales introduced by essays that open windows onto the creative process of 35 top fiction writers. Each story is introduced by the writer who was inspired, intimidated, or moved to extreme emotion on reading it. Here’s some examples: John Irving chose “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens; Mary Gordon selected “The Dead” by James Joyce; Oscar Hijuelos acknowledged his debt to Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph”; Lorrie Moore was stunned by John Updike’s “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car”; Joyce Carol Oates picked Kafka’s unforgettable “In the Penal Colony”; and Louise Erdrich couldn’t get over Robert Stone’s “Helping.” This is almost a two-for-one deal for story-lovers: a glimpse into the reading minds of one set of popular and talented authors, together with a selection of outstanding stories by their mentors and peers.

 All of us who write–and, I dare say, all of us who really read–have had that book or that story or that poem that has sent us out into the madding crowd, grabbing people by the arm, not suggesting, not urging, not recommending, but dictatorially telling ‘em, “You’ve got to read this”–and then adding the essential “because …”

 Of course, your “You’ve got to read this” guidelines can and will change as you change; that’s how it works. As somebody (Lionel Trilling? W. H. Auden? Harold Bloom? Wayne Allen Sallee?) said, “Real books read us,” and US is a dynamic and malleable beast as we live and grow and grow older and grow old. Maybe once you were that 13 kid waving CATCHER IN THE RYE and yelling, “You’ve got to read this because this Salinger guy HAD TO BE living in my house and in my head to know my real true feelings so well … ” Chances are, you’re not that same kid today and CATCHER doesn’t catch you in QUITE the same way. I’ve had two different nephews tell me that STAR WARS was the best book ever written–in fact, all the STAR WARS books were the best books ever written because all the STAR WARS movies were the best movies ever movied, but these fine lads, having aged a tad, are no longer certain that the Skywalker and Co. saga belongs on the same shelf with WAR AND PEACE.

 All the above is by way of wordier than usual prologue, so that now I can say to you: You’ve got to read this.

 My criteria: I’m doing a shout-out only about stuff I’ve recently read–say, in the past year. I’m bringing to your attention a writer whose work can be found relatively easily, and yet a writer who’s not a brand name like Grisham or Patterson or Drano or Ajax. I’m pointing out to you–no, I’m telling you–YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS.

 It’s a story called “Wickedness.”

 It breaks most of the rules of short story writing. Indeed, it might be called “experimental writing,” but unlike much of that oeuvre, this is an experiment which deserves to leave the laboratory because it succeeds. It does not have a single main character, as a proper story (ahem) ought. Instead, it gives us a series of characters and each is as main as the other.

 Nor does “Wickedness” have anything like a traditional “A leads to B, B leads to C” PLOT. Instead, we have a series of vignettes presenting the characters who are caught up in a sudden Nebraska blizzard in 1888. Some of them live, some live but are damaged, some die. (Vonnegut might add here, “And so it goes …”)

 But in its presentation of that blizzard, the story does something to me I’ve never previously experienced in a short work of fiction: It makes me feel the intensity of the cold, the dead white quiet in the center of the winds, the smallness that is our human lot when hit by–apologies for the cliché—a “Force of Nature.” (yes, I’ve had a similar feeling when reading Dan Simmons’s masterful novel THE TERROR, but a short story has intensity that a novel, a lengthy novel, cannot provide.)

 In previous UNPLUGGED columns I’ve quoted Cyril Connolly’s “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice.” I’ll be reading “Wickedness” again, more than twice, pondering the title, feeling that blizzard, and observing moments in lives rendered in words with the memorability of an Impressionist master painter giving us scenes of the ordinary–and unforgettable.

 Oh, I see I’ve forgotten to mention the author of “Wickedness”; why, it’s none other than … Ron Hansen, YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS! co-editor (with Jim Shepard, also a dynamite fictionist).

 I’ve been reading Ron Hansen’s books for years and using them in my classes at Columbia College Chicago. He’s a writer of tremendous range, giving us THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and HITLER’S NIECE — and a modern comedy of manners / errors novel called ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?: AN ENTERTAINMENT. Other books include ATTICUS and MARIETTE IN ECSTASY and the nonfiction A STAY AGAINST CONFUSION: ESSAYS ON FAITH AND FICTION, which proves that “religious writing” does not have to be on the level of “God has a Son on the Honor Roll in Heaven” / bumper sticker theology. His writing has never disappointed me …

 –But “Wickedness” astounds me.

 You can find the story in Hansen’s collection NEBRASKA from The Atlantic Monthly Press.

 It’s my “You’ve got to read this!” for this STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED.

 And to my fellow UNPLUGGED STORYTELLERS and all the readers of this blog, I’m asking:

 What’s yours?


PS. Apologies for the early post, but I’m moving around and about some these days–and have to tack stuff onto the bulletin board when I can at a time “close” to when I’m supposed to …



May 7th, 2008 4 comments


There are questions that many new or would-be writers ask me, an old or has-been writer, and I thought this a good month in which to share those questions.

Also my answers.

Q: Is it true that a good title is the most important selling point for a book?

A. Yes. For that reason, you should call your novel GONE WITH THE WIND.

Unless it’s a diet book, for which you might find a more suitable title.

Unless your original diet book title was THE LOW FAT, NO CARBS, FAT ASS DIET, which is almost as good as GONE WITH THE WIND.

Q. I’ve heard that poetry is booming. Should I pursue my interest in poetry with a thought to making it my career?

A. Take a look and you will see that most major cities that still have newspapers have column after column of “Poets Wanted” in the job listings. Poets are in every bit as much demand as radio repair technicians and buggy whip socket installers.

Think … Your Future in Poetry!

Q. If Oprah chooses my book will I become an overnight sensation, wealthy beyond my wildest dreams?

A. Yes, but it won’t happen. Oprah and I spoke yesterday. She says she doesn’t like you.

Q. There are many colleges offering degrees in creative writing. Should I think about creative writing as a major as opposed to computer science?

A. Definitely. There are over 400 USA colleges in the Associated Writing Program granting degrees at Bachelor’s or Graduate levels and more than a few of them employ my friends–while Columbia College in Chicago employs me. I’d like to see that employment continue.

Q. What can a writer expect to earn a year?

A. I don’t feel like showing you my W-2s or 1099s, but you should know that I now set aside one day a week, the day the Purolator truck arrives, just to count money.

You will not earn money like, say, a podiatrist or a the Minister of Recreation and Leisure in Iraq, but you’ll do more than all right.

Q. Why do so many writers have trouble with alcohol?

A. I’ll tell you if you buy me a drink.

Q. Should writers be active politically?

A. If I didn’t think this were so, if I didn’t believe that writers must be engaged in and active citizens of their world, then I wouldn’t be supporting Norman Thomas in the race for the White House.

Q. How come so many bad books get published every year?

A. You are buying into a common misconception. Research clearly shows that no bad books get published. Only good books get published.

Okay, there was once a bad book published. It was called GONE WITH THE BREEZE.

But Oprah didn’t choose it.

So it tanked.

Q. Why do so many writers like jazz?

A. They dig jazz, they dig it. That’s because Louis Armstrong gave advice to the band and to all of us when he said, “Not too slow, not too fast. Not half slow, not half fast.”

Q. Why isn’t there more substance to your column this time around?

A. Because last night I worked late to finish up a novella you’ll be able to read in DOORWAYS magazine. It’s called THE DOCTOR, THE KIDS, AND THE GHOSTS IN THE LAKE and it’s part of my “Imagined Hemingways” fictions and I’m at least 86% pleased with it.

Because today I taught a four hour class in writing and had conferences with two students, one of which was kinda tough, because the student is working on some reality based fiction dealing with his harrowing experiences in a recent war.

Because soon SOUTH PARK will be on and my wife Jane and I like to watch SOUTH PARK, thereby proving that we are hip AARP members.

Because sometimes these STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED columns can be just a little fun fluff foo-foo to write without the world suddenly shifting off-axis and heading for a collision with the planet Mongo.

Because I need a wee break before—tomorrow–I undertake writing my big new novel: GONE WITH THE MONSOON.

(Which Oprah’s already said she likes.)

Categories: Writers, Writing Tags:


November 7th, 2007 3 comments

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.
–T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

Ah, sometimes the burning bush talks, and instead of an offer for male enhancement drugs by email, you are given the chance to, once again, don the editorial chapeau and…

Tally ho! I am now the editor of DOORWAYS, and though publisher Brian Yount has dubbed me Chief Editor or Editor-in-Chief, I do not have or want control of artistic design, in that I can barely perceive parallel lines let alone draw them, nor, for that matter, all the magazine’s editorial content: a number of the magazine’s articles deal with paranormal, supernatural, metaphysical True Facts such as former President Jimmy Carter’s fishing trip on which he was attacked by a somewhat demonic rabbit and the latest attempt by the government backed AMA to suppress chicken soup cures for the common cold. The far outré is simply not my bailiwick: I was abducted by Grays in my eighth year and conveyed to their native planet (called Indiana) where I was given all the wax lips, Silly Putty, and Playboys I desired, but I had to promise my otherworldly benefactors I would never explore or exploit “Such things as Humanity was not meant to know” unless we watched A&E in the afternoon.

So, for DOORWAYS, I am handling much of the non-paranormal themed non-fiction, like arranging and editing the interviews with authors who actually abide in this dimension (you’ll soon get to meet novelist-publisher-educator-Italian Tom Monteleone, Ray Bradbury biographer Snappy Sam Weller, and fictionist-philosopher-Elvis impersonator Wayne Allen Sallee). But mostly, I’m editing the fiction that appears in DOORWAYS. Horror fiction, fantasy fiction, avant-garde, post-modern retro-fitted neo-noir, para-ultra-ab-normal fiction.

Good fiction. That is what I seek.

(Good fiction: to paraphrase Nixon’s Strokin’ Supreme Court attempting to define pornography—“I know it when I see it… Yeah!”)

Good fiction. That is what a number of people have sent me.

What I say to such people is, “Hey, that’s good. I’m going to use that.”

Fiction that could be good. That is what a number of people have sent me. If you send me something that wants to be good, that strives to effectively present your fictive vision, I will do what I can to help you achieve your goal.

And so I say things to such authors like…

A short story must be credible, a lie that can be believed. 
That’s because no one wants to be lied to. When reading a story a reader must be able to say, “Yes, given these circumstances, this could really happen.”

And credibility results when story people act like real people–or real people who have sense and act upon it.

Now, when do your story people stop acting like real people who have sense…

Or I say things like …

Remember, good dialogue sounds as real as real life conversations — without being as boring or meandering as 
most real life conversations.

Or I say things like …

A well developed protagonist is a fictional someone who is every bit as alive and just as much a unique individual as anyone we really know–really well–out here in RealityLand. That way we get to know the character so well that we like or dislike, or hate him. You never want a reader to feel only indifference toward a character–which is what we do feel toward people (fictional or real!) that we don’t know well.

And that means you must know your characters just about as well as you know yourself.

That’s why, when I undertake a novel, I put together a 10 to 15 page single spaced character sketch for each of my principals. My reader might never need to know if my protagonist prefer s real mayo to Miracle Whip, if his first car was a cherry red ‘67 Ford Mustang, if he likes Willie Nelson’s songs but can’t stand looking at the singer, if he had a pet collie named Lizzie when he was five, etc.–but I have to know if I am to present this character as a three-dimensional, well rounded human being–as I must.

And often, when seeing “could be good” fiction, I ask the submission’s submitter to submit a revision after thinking about my comments.

Then there’s, ah, other stuff I see.

For instance, little notes which serve as introductions for stories:

I know your guidelines say you want stories of no more than 3,500 words. This runs slightly over that: 8,500. I hope, though, you’ll make an exception in your word count requirements because…

At 8,500 words, my friend, your story had better be Moby Dick—with all sorts of new stuff about improving harpoon accuracy—and if you have that info in your story, you had better be Herman Melville.

But you wouldn’t tell Stephen King to limit his creative wonderfulness to 3,500 words. You wouldn’t tell Peter Straub to limit his creative wonderfulness to 3,500 words. You wouldn’t tell Herman Melville to limit his creative wonderfulness to 3,500 words.

No, but I will tell you to limit yourself to 3,500 words—the way our guidelines tell you to limit yourself to 3,500 words.

Or the cover letter that reads:

Hey, Mort, and how’s it goin’, man? Hope all is well with you.

Mind you, this comes from someone I’ve never met when I was in a conscious state, but hey, we have English in common, and we both can afford Internet service, so the tone is supposed to be chummy myfacey, right?

So … Well, thanks for you concern, but to tell the truth, even though my blood pressure is pretty all right and the cholesterol what it should be, I’m having a lot of pain in my left foot. I’m afraid I might have a spur on the heel. And, when the weather changes suddenly, my knees make it pretty rough to get up and down the stairs with the grace and speed for which I was once known.

Anyway, dude, I’m sending you my story. I think it’s pretty awesome. It’s made for that magazine you edit, I forget the name, okay? So, man, as soon as you can, let know when you want to use it.

Peace, man.

Thanks, man, and you know, I forget to mention above, but I’ve been having like memory problems myself, dude. Like I can’t remember what magazine it is I’m supposed to be editing but, you know, I’m sure that it’s an awesome magazine and as soon as I remember, I’ll let you know if I remember so we can use your awesome story, if I remember.

Another submission, from someone striving to convince me of his professionalism: He has… credits!

I’m sending you my story, “Southbound on the Westbound in the Night of the Long Day.” I have previously published novels with Authorhouse, Iuniverse, and Exlibris.

Let’s hold it there. I am of course pleased to learn of a writer’s credits: It helps me know if other gatekeepers have chosen to swing wide the portal and bid you enter the Realm of the Published.

But Authorhouse, Iuniverse, Exlibris, Exuniversalauthorhouse, ColorMeWriter, BookABunch Buddies… You haven’t been published—that is what you are telling me. You are either naive about writing professionally or you are pathologically and pathetically egotistical about publishing—that is what you are telling me. You are not for real—that is what you are telling me.

That is how you have introduced your story.

Then we have the cutey-pie-see-how super-eccentric and therefore creative as SponegeBob Jesus I am…

My story came to me from the mouth of Hell. It bubbled up in my brain as I lay in the viaduct where I squat with 17 gerbils named Fred. This is lair of the Siggorth Luvkraft and the Ramalamadingdong. Outside of that, I work as an account executive for Winky’s Hockey Puck, Inc.

Ah, I get it: You’re not writing surrealism. You live it. Obviously, you’ve mistaken me for Pharmacopeias by Mail and you need to visit their website to refill your prescription.

Now, truthfully, here is a recently received cover letter:

Here is my story. Thank you for your consideration.

Here is my response.

Every word of your 750 word story is a needed word. There’s cleverness in the language. And your writing is obviously informed by the wide, wide, wide of world of thinking and reading…

I read this and I’m glad I did.

I want your story.

The story is called “The Tiniest Souls.” It’s by Brian Price. You’ll be reading it in DOORWAYS.

It’s a good story—which is what this editor wants.

Mort Castle


July 8th, 2007 6 comments

by Mort Castle

What are you working on now, Mort?



There’s a question frequently asked of a writer by editors, other writers, agents, friends, or those casual acquaintance / everyday people who figure they need to direct meaningless chatter your way instead of gassily blathering via Bluetooth to someone even less real than you.

What are you working on now?

After all, you…

1. … just finished proofing galleys on the 37th volume (11,800 pages plus!) in your Interstellar Neo-Military Alternative History Romance Series, HELL’S HOPSCOTCH: WAR CHALLENGES OF THE CROWNED PERIWINKLE AND PLUME;

2. …are done with the final draft of an 8,000 word Gothic short story, “A Gothic Rose for Emily the Goth” which will appear in Martin Greenberg’s anthology HOW DOES YOUR GOTHIC GROW? (DAW BOOKS);

3. …completed the research on buggy whip manufacture in Lutchveldt, Illinois in 1878 (not only were buggy whips produced in this quaintly useless hamlet but also the sockets wherein they were placed) and are now prepared to write the definitive article on the subject for PICAYUNE GAZETTE.


What are you working on now?

History Time: My first novel came out in 1967. My first pro level publication, academic though it was, preceded that by two years. Since then, I’ve edited four books, written 11, edited or produced or packaged a small slew of magazines, comic books, trading cards, published close to 600 “shorter things,” hither, yon, and in Poland…

The day this STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED appears, July 8, I will be 61 years old. Thank you, thank you, a donation in my name may be made to me… Cashiers checks preferred. (Still digressing: old people tend to ramble… Four days earlier, yes, Independence Day, Jane and I marked 36 years of marriage–to each other! We’ll celebrate with ten days in France in August.)

Undigressing: As you can imagine, from back when the Queen Mother was knee high to a crumpet, I’ve been hearing:

What are you working on now?

And I’ve always, always, always had an answer.

There’s the novel about gunfighters: one’s an old whiskeyhead (which was the case for many of ‘em) and the other a former prizefighter who’s missing a hand … The book was called TROUBLESEEKERS; I wrote it about 1981. It didn’t sell. It shouldn’t have.

A comic book: See, we’ll have a Hemingway “tip of the iceberg” approach instead of the over-the-top narration that’s come to be called “comic book story”: it will be subtle … That comic was NIGHT CITY; art by masters Don Kramer and Mark Nelson. Called “perfect comic book stories” by the Hartford-Courant. Nominee for “Best Illustrated Narrative,” International Horror Guild. Didn’t sell 500 copies.

I think my novel THE DEADLY ELECTION, 1976, ought to kick off a series: THE DEADLY SCHOOL BOARD MEETING, THE DEADLY DOORKNOB, THE DEADLY DOGFOOD (Hey, was that last one prophetic or was it?) Series did not happen. Probably just as well.

Jerry Williamson’s asked me for a story for MASQUES. I wrote it…

Mort, what are you working on now?

I’ve got to be working on something. Got to. This brings in the bucks. This earns the rep. I’m going for all of it: Super-quality. Super-commerciality. Super-Stardom.

I’m working on:

Hey, just got a great opportunity to do a Batman©®™ novella with The Catwoman©®™ and all kinds of other licensed©®™ characters…

Time to research Southern Illinois AKA “Little Egypt.” The last man legally hanged in the state went to the gallows in Benton, Illinois, my wife’s home town! Tell me this is material I won’t use in a story. (The story is called “Buckeye Jim in Egypt” and it’s one I’m proud of.)

An anthology of writing by school kids and senior citizens? Yeah, I’d love to make that happen!

Jerry Williamson asked me for a story for MASQUES II. I wrote it. (It’s called “If You Take My Hand, My Son.” Visitors to ELALEPH, the leading science-fiction/fantasy website in South America, voted it the Fourth Best Horror Story of All Time, Mort said, braggingly. You can find it comic bookized in J.N. WILLIAMOSN’S MASQUES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF ELEGANT EVIL; you can hear it, along with Joe Lansdale’s “God of the Razor,” in the Grist Mill’s audio production www.

What are you working on now?

Truth: Before this year, there was never a time in my writing life (and how do you separate that from you life life? You don’t!) when I haven’t had answers aplenty to that inquiry.

It’s how the mind works for a writer, isn’t it?

I’m working on a musical for claymation puppets and once I finish up the “how to” article on varnishing cicadas I want to do a series of related short stories about Tom Sawyer’s sister, Mary…

Sure, the brain is always linking this to that, making the connections, coming up with ideas—and the excitement that propels you to start hammering out the words.

A paperback series based on the concept for a videogame concept that was conceptualized by a nearly literate nephew of Colin Powell? Just titles: To Kill a TweetyBird; The Bite At The End; For Whom the Bell Gongs; The Secret of the Secret…

Jerry Williamson’s asked me for a story for Masques III. Oh, there’ll be a Masques IV. Oh, yeah, Jer, glad to. Cripes, buddy, you and me, we’ve been at this a while, haven’t we… It’s Masques V. Hey, Jer? Jerry?

And then, last February, at a department meeting of the fiction writing faculty at Columbia College (where, I am proud to say, I teach with a whole bunch of teachers—who teach!) I was asked:

Surprise, surprise…

What are you working on now, Mort?

And my answer was, “Nothing.”

And the response of some of my colleagues…

You’re what? You’ve always got something going. What are you working on? Can’t talk because of a contractual issue? Afraid you’ll jinx the project? Accurse the creating?

Come on, man. You’re prolific. “(Prolific = publishing a few things each year for a lotta years!)

Give us tuchus affen tish, the legit goods.

What kind of creative hustle you got going?

So okay, here’s what I am working on:

I’m reading many good books but trying to do it in the way of the thoughtful reader, someone who wants to experience the book as an experience—and not as the reader-writer with an unblinking editorial eye and an always muttering judgmental brain saying, “Yeah, you can use his transitional device to get into your flashback—and how about the way he picks up the pace by…”

I’m going to the Art Institute and looking at Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker without speculating about the old sot’s earlier life, which I plan to incorporate in my novella “Childhood of the Absinthe Drinker.”

I’m listening to the piano solo treatment of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition without trying to visualize the motion picture it should be a soundtrack for—the film I should be writing.

Hey, this evening I’ll go uptown with Jane to “Cruise Night” and look at these old cars and I won’t be concerned if I don’t memorize the 1949 Hudson’s grille so I can use it in the story of…

And you know what? I’m playing a lot of guitar. I’ve got some Gary Davis style stuff down, am getting comfortable with fairly complex jazz progressions, etc. My hands don’t work as nimbly as they used to (if you live in the Midwest, you will get arthritis!), so I’ve had to go for style.

So, Castle, you’re not writing?

I wouldn’t say that. Just the other day, I put together a really fine lesson plan for my “Researching and Writing Historical Fiction” class; I will definitely use it next semester.

I’ve never missed writing my STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED column; don’t plan to.

Let’s say I’m not writing much—now.

There’s a line in that wonderful movie Hard Times, in which Charles Bronson is a tough street / prize fighter. He says, “I’m just filling in the in-betweens.”

I have the not unpleasant feeling these days that I am filling in my in-between. The first 60 years are racked up—and now we’ve hit the drifting / floating spot that precedes the next 60.

Taking a bit of a breather.

Books I might want to write? Stories? Maybe a stage play or two? Comics? A lengthy narrative poem? Some thing for a medium that is only now being invented?

I think they’ll happen.

Indeed, I’m thinking about saying “yes” to a novella that Brian Yount proposed I do. Brian edits Doorways, which is on the way to becoming a really fine magazine—and I’d like to contribute and so, assuming an idea commands, demands, and politely seeks my attention…


What are you working on now, Mort?

I’ve got 903 writing related projects, mini-projects, and tedium tasks I’ve gotta get done before noon so I can take care of the monster sized slate by evening…

I think I’ve outlived those days, days laden with self-inflicted panicked compulsion. (What makes Morton run?) Perhaps in its time that creative drive produced enough work that pleased me and still pleases me, currently bringing on a sense of, if not “That’s good,” then at least “That’s good enough,” so that, when you ask…

What are you working on now?

I can say, “Nothing. Well, nothing much…

—But I’m really into it.”

Mort Castle