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Genre Chick Interview: Mort Castle

Mort Castle is a writer’s writer. He has published novels (including the horror classics Strangers and Cursed Be The Child), non-fiction, poetry, comic books, and hundreds of short stories. He’s been nominated for a number of awards–the Pulitzer Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and the Bram Stoker Award–and has won more than a few–the DeMarco, the Emerson Fiction Award, and Leaders in the Arts for Chicago. He is also a teacher and mentor for aspiring writers. In 1997, he edited the Horror Writer’s Association’s book Writing Horror, which instantly became a staple of every writer’s library. Almost a decade later, Mort was asked by Writer’s Digest to update and revise the treasured reference guide. Genre Chick Alethea Kontis was honored to have the chance to pester Mort about the book’s new look as well as pick his brain for a few tidbits of writing advice.

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Alethea Kontis: Can you tell us a bit about the Horror Writers Association (HWA)?

Mort Castle: The HWA was founded in the mid 80s, mainly because of the efforts of Robert R. McCammon, his wife Sally, and Joe and Karen Lansdale. It began, I recall, with an ultra-informal letter along the lines of, “Hey, we’re all writing this stuff, so let’s get together.” I think the initial dues ran five bucks to help out with postage costs.

Today, the HWA is a worldwide organization of writers and publishing professionals dedicated to promoting dark literature and the interests of those who write it. It is–as we have it on the HWA Web site “the oldest and most respected professional organization for the much-loved writers who bring you the most enjoyable sleepless nights of your life.”

AK: How is this updated edition of On Writing Horror different from the first edition?

MC: Many ways, not the least of which is the superb job of book design–retro and edgy both. Yes, the first book was fine for its times, but the design elements now reflect today and tomorrow.

It is a much bigger book by at least 25,000 words. Some of the older chapters are gone, some have been somewhat too extensively revised, and there are many, many new chapters. As I say in the new introduction, it’s a new era for horror: the first book came out when horror was struggling for legitimacy; this new edition comes post Stephen King being a New Yorker magazine regular and the winner of the National Book Award for Contribution to American Letters.

Oh, yeah, it has a different title: Writing Horror has become On Writing Horror.

AK: How do you think the horror genre has changed since the publication of the first Writing Horror?

MC: No question that horror has become widely accepted by the mainstream, still occupying a niche genre but also garnering mainstream and “veddy, veddy lit’ry” audiences, don’t you know. The elements of what we call horror are now found in honest-to-goodness literature, with the stylistic techniques and thematic concerns of the field being employed in such diverse works as Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and even Erik Larson’s non-fiction Devil in the White City.

AK: Is this book specifically for horror writers, or would it benefit writers of any genre?

MC: A would-be writer who doesn’t read widely in all fields, including the diverse how-to/why-you-should books is likely to stay a would-be.

Indeed, this book reprints (from Writing Horror) both David Morrell’s chapter on dialogue and Tina Jens’s on characterization, chapters that I know have found a place in the curricula of many college (and high school) creative writing programs.

AK: As a writer, what are your most-used reference books?

MC: The reference book, along with a good dictionary, is always Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I frequently consult Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and that great book Writer’s Digest published, Facts in a Flash: A Research Guide for Writers, by Ellen Metter.

And I usually go through the ALA magazines, Booklist, Library Journal, etc. cover to cover, to see what is happening.

AK: What steps do you recommend for first-time writers?

MC: Here’s one so simple it’s often ignored: learn to write. And going along with that, learn the business aspects of the “writing biz.” Too many would-be authors don’t do the first, and then fall for seemingly ego-flattering enterprises that do nothing to make them, in the eyes of real readers and real writers, an author.

Writing is a craft. A craft can be learned. And for some, the craft will enable them to create (capital A) Art.

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