By Mort CastleIn deciding on both topic and approach for my inaugural STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED essay, I decided to follow “Ye Olde Conventional Wisdom” and consider my likely audience.
Some Internetters likely chance upon SU because of a mouse slip on the cyber way to “Pakistan’s Porno Playground” site. There are no doubt some fans of horror fiction who actually intend to come here, perhaps before heading over “Rodents.com” to learn gerbil repair.
But, according to verifiable WWW data gathered by the Office of Homeland Security and the entrails of a now posthumous goat named Cooper Anderson, the majority of STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED readers are internationally renowned writers who’ve won The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, The Nobel Prize (for Literature, Economics, and Weight Loss) and the Le Boom Younger Poets Of Peoria Competition. They have seen their books become motion pictures, TV specials and cable series, Nintendo, I-Box, and Parker Brothers and games and Smith Brothers Cough Drop premiums, action figures and school lunch boxes and pastel patterns for nursery bed sheets.
Why, Wikipedia, if not common sense, tells us that John Updike, John Grisham, John Irving, and Joyce Carol Oates regularly peruse STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED. They are successful authors and they want to stay successful authors, so they plug right into UNPLUGGED to pick up the incisive insights of Steve Savile, Elizabeth Massie, David Niall Wilson, Weston Ochse and (ahem) Mort Castle.
Uh, hold on… Whether they read SU or no, Johns Updike, Grisham, and Irving, and Joyce Carol Oates are indeed successful writers.
So are Steve Savile, Elizabeth Massie, David Niall Wilson, and Weston Ochse.
So am I.
A BRIEF BUT UNENGROSSING HISTORY OF ONE WRITER (MOI)
I now transition into The Confessional Mode (just like James Frey, except I’m not a goddamn liar) to reveal how I came to be (ahem, ah-hah, tad-dah and hoo-hah!) a successful writer.
History: I sold a novel when I was a junior at Illinois State University. I was 19 years old. It was my first book length publication. (The previous year, I’d published an academic work, an essay on the kenotic themes in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in a journal of undergraduate scholarship). In the next three years, I published three more novels.
Looking back at those novels, they were, at best, smack dab in the low middle of the mid-mid-mid-list books. (Refer to “The Midlist” in Journal of American Ancient History.) They were all right for what they were, “earn while you learn time” for yours truly.
Turned to short story writing. Sold to the men’s mags, Mr., Man to Man, and, just like Stephen King, Cavalier. Sold to literary magazines, Samisdat, Nitty-Gritty, Firelands Arts Review and confessions magazines, Intimate Story, True Story, True Secrets and just about anywhere I sent stories.
In 1976, I sold a novel, The Deadly Election, which merited a glowing American Library Association Booklist review and a three quarter page feature article in the “Entertainment” section of The Chicago Sun-Times. (The Chicago Sun-Times, a major daily in a major city, not The Crudcracker Chronicle of East Offal, Idaho.)
I was on the way to being… A Success.
THE SUCCESSFUL AUTHOR: A DANDY DEFINITION
The successful author has–
–at least one but more likely two bestsellers a year. With sales in the mega-millions, Looking for Miss Good Bra, Mort’s Castle’s sexy, suspenseful, science-fiction horror novel reads like poetry whispered by libidinous angels…
–money out the wazoo. … Castle was briefly hospitalized today for the removal and subsequent banking of several million dollars from his wazoo…
–fame. …Castle discusses his latest, Something Kvetchy This Way Comes, with Johnny and Ed (Publisher’s Clearing House) McMahon…
–All of It. The Big Bonanza. The Entire Enchilada. The Ganse Geschickte.
I was on my way to all that.
Who could doubt it?
I sure didn’t.
I had the goods.
I had a fine agent.
We, agent and I, knew the market(s).
And thus, it came to pass that:
I never had and still haven’t had one bestseller, not a single dollar, Euro, or zloty has ever needed extraction from my wazoo, and those alleged successors to Johnny Carson (it is to laugh) Leno, Conan, and Kimmel would not recognize me if I gave them photographs, DNA samples, and a certified birth certificate proving I was their long lost brother.
Instead of becoming A Successful Writer, I had achieved something far, far different.
That came to me at a classic mid-life crisis time: On my 35th birthday–and this is a vivid memory and I am giving it to you just as it happened–I took a look into the mirror and saw a failure looking back at me.
Hey, all you successful writers, or at least some of you, why, you’ve had your brief ventures into the Slough of Despond, nicht wahr, and you managed to come through.
Yeah! When the world hands you a lemon it’s an opportunity to make some lemonade for the soul because when the going gets tough the tough overdose on Xanax and keep a stiff upper lip and watch how many times you get kicked in the ass. Let’s dream impossible dreams and fight unfightable foops and all that bullshit.
Somehow, the time tested clichés didn’t do it for me.
NO SUCCESS LIKE FAILURE, SO GEORGE BUSH IS DOING JUST GREAT
I toughed out my failureness. Positive mental attitude. Little Engine that Could. Johnny Walker consolation. How many times did Edison screw up on the light bulb before packing it in to invent motion pictures? No problem so bad you can’t run away from it.
Had to be something lacking in what I was doing, something I could remedy.
I seek advice. My agent says, “I dunno. I thought we’d have you broken through way before now.” He suggested we part ways. We do.
I bare my heart to a writer who’s had near-bestsellers and seems destined to achieve best-best-bestsellers. “Luck,” says he. “If you have luck, you step outside and the breeze puts a winning lottery ticket in your hand. If you have bad luck, you win an all expense paid trip around the world–on the Titanic.”
“But,” says me, “I don’t have bad luck. I don’t have good luck.”
“Well,” says he, “you’ve got no luck, so you’re doing about as well as can be expected.”
Fortunately, my failure-related depression didn’t last long.
Only eight months or so.
In the period, some interesting events transpired. Selections follow:
Event A. Twilight Zone magazine accepted my story, “Altenmoor, Where the Dogs Dance.” That great editor, Ted Klein, praised it. And praised it. And published it in what was–no question on this one–the best fantasy/horror magazine in the world.
Event B. “Altenmoor” got a fan letter. A woman wrote to say her son had been in a coma for almost four weeks. Because she liked the optimism and hope of “Altenmoor” so much, she sat by his beside and read it aloud to him almost everyday. When he regained consciousness he said, “Where am I and where in the hell is Altenmoor?”
Event C and D and E and more… Well, really repetitions and variations of the same event. My wife, Jane, said, “Don’t worry about the money end of this. I’m earning a regular living. We’ll always be able to pay the mortgage and there will always be food on the table. We’re doing just fine.”
(Not so much of a digression: It was also Jane who shared her interest in Gypsy lore and custom with me. And it is from the Gypsies that I got this saying: “You can have a stable with 100 horses but you’ll still only have one ass to sit on any one of them at a time.”)
Event Whichever: I spoke before an elementary school audience, perhaps some 300 kids. I read them one of my stories. I signed 300 autographs.
At last, a Homer Simpson moment of Epiphany with a capital DOH!
To quote that cholesterolic sage Humpty Dumpty (from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or I Was Just helping Your Little Girl With Her Math) “Words mean what I want them to mean.”
Success… Do we measure it A) solely in terms of numbers; B) in knowing one’s writing is being read and read well by someone to whom it matters; C) with a hygrometer; D) leave the temple, Grasshopper, and don’t trip on the rice paper.
Success… Is it all about $$$$ and how much one can accumulate thereof? If so, the fiduciary rewards are more likely to be laden with fiduch if you write fiction for an advertising company. “Not a cough in a carload!”
Success… Ah, fame… Guess what, pal, if fame is being known, then you are already famous to everyone who knows you. Keep on meeting ten to 20 people a year–the new podiatrist, Jehovah’s Witnesses with The Watchtower, the careless pedestrian who crinkles your fender with his head–and you can even introduce some of them to your writing–and in time at all, you are famous!
Mort’s Post-Mid-Life Literary Crisis Credo (not to be confused with Speedo): The Successful Writer publishes his work, has people who read and appreciate his work, earns money for his work, and is recognized for his work.
According to that definition, John3 Updike, Grisham, and Irving, and Joyce Carol Oates are successful writers.
So are Steve Savile, Elizabeth Massie, David Niall Wilson, and Weston Ochse.
And so is
Yr mst obdt servant,