May 20, 1923
Article discovered and generously provided by Lisa
JOHNSTON MCCULLEY, ALIAS
“Noted Author Tells Story of How He Became Writer and What Led to His Success --- Writes Under Many Names”
By Seth Bailey
If you have ever read stories written by Harrington Strong, John Mack Stone, Walter Pierson or Camden Stewart, you have read works by the author about whom this article is written – Johnston McCulley.
But few authors boast as many as four nom de plumes, and few with as many as McCulley. Some of his best known stories and books are “Broadway Bab,” “The Mark of Zorro,” “The Masked Woman,” and “The Black Star.” His most interesting character creations were “Thubway Tham” and “Zorro,” who have left more laughs and tears in their wake than any other creation by this star of fiction.
“Thubway Tham” was created quite by accident. McCulley was in New York and was not getting on any too well when he received a hurry-up call from one of the magazine editors he knew, asking for a story to fill a certain portion of a magazine that was due to hit the streets in a few days. McCulley sat down at his typewriter and whistled. He had everything with which to produce what the magazine editor wanted except the story itself. He had imagination, courage and the willingness to work. So at random he banged away at the typewriter keys, grinding out something that had come into his mind only that morning. It was but an incident that occurred on the subway – a mere nothing at all to anyone else. But it had left a suggestion in McCulley’s mind, and his imagination had pounced upon it and seized at it by the throat. It had been so recent that his mind had not ample time to treat it justly. The seed had been sown but the proper time had not elapsed to allow it to spring to life.
As the typewriter keys recorded the train of thoughts, pinning them together in a romping story, there came into the scene from out of nowhere particular Thubway Tham. He walked in and took hold of things like a real character, and immediately things began to move (illegible – swiftly?).
The magazine editor received the story and accepted it. Then the magazine got to the readers the editor received a flood of letters about Thubway Tham. There was a strong appeal for more of him, and the next week saw Johnston McCulley wrestling with his latest character. He has since written more than one hundred tales, using the same character, all of which have appeared in magazines.
McCulley created the character of Zorro in “The Curse of Capistrano.” He studied the old California mission empire for years, and has written several stories dealing with mission times. Zorro was intended to express the spirit of the caballero of the times, and to everyone’s satisfaction he did. Douglas Fairbanks made his greatest screen success with Zorro.
One of the interesting things about Johnston McCulley is his source for plots. Most writers have a particular source for their plots, usually from association with the things about which they like best to write. But not so with McCulley. Everything and everywhere is his source. He looks for plots while fishing or motoring, or while digging in the garden. There is nothing prosaic or commonplace in all (illegible line). There’s a plot in the peculiar facial expression of the man he meets on the street, or (illegible line) song. Love, hate, greed, revenge, self-sacrifice have a million angles each. “Combine two or three, mix with a few characters and you have a plot,” he says.
McCulley is very successfully married – so successfully married that he calls himself the one-half-of-one-percenter. His other ninety-nine and one-half per cent is also constantly on the alert for suggestions (illegible line) that will help the one-half-of-one-percenter in his daily task of writing successfully. His only children are brain children, but they cause him as much combined worry and joy as real ones, he asserts.
Calling at his home, 1939 ½ Argyle Avenue, Los Angeles, one might find McCulley pounding away at the typewriter, or on the same day a week later he might be working in his garden back of the house, out fishing or motoring. He has no set schedule for work. In writing long stories he usually begins work soon after breakfast and works until late at night, with time off for meals. He will often, after finishing one story, putter around in the garden, or do some repair work on his car until 10 o’clock in the morning, or three or four in the afternoon, then sit down and start a new tale, writing until he is tired. Some days he works all day, other days but half a day, and some days not at all. He is subject to loafing spells of several days at a stretch, and sometimes weeks. He dignifies these spells with the title of “slump.” Whenever he gets into a “slump” he usually goes fishing until he feels the “slump” wearing off.
Most of his plots are thought out at bedtime, generally just after retiring. He mulls the plots over until morning and if it then appears to be as good as he believed it to be the night before, he gets up and (illegible line – begins typing away?).
“What kind of a story is easiest for you to write?” I ask him.
“That which I am interested myself,” he replied, “rather than the one written to fill some editorial request. Swift-moving romance is the easiest, particularly of olden times. Detective and mystery tales are the hardest, although I have written hundreds of them. They are more like work than anything else.”
(Line illegible – McCulley prefers to spend as much?) time as possible, when he is not subject to a “slump,” at work in his studio, but he does not forget that he owes some of his time to his wife and home. He aims to spend as much time with the other half of the family as he does in his studio.
Fishing is his middle name, be it trout or sea fishing. He has plotted many a tale whipping a stream. Of this recreation he says:
“If mentally tired I can get more rest and real pleasure out of fishing than anything else I might do. I don’t care much for hunting. I don’t get half the kick from firing a gun at a running deer as I get when a trout strikes my fly. Man! That’s sport. It takes greater skill to fish than to hunt. Here is a statement that I suppose would cause an argument most anywhere, but that’s my way of looking at it.”
He is what you might call an auto fiend. Nothing suits him better, and nothing will lure him away from work quicker, than a long auto trip across the country. He likes the long auto trips and he likes them fast. When he breaks camp in the morning he looks at his speedometer, and when he reaches camp at night his first act is to record the day’s mileage. He prides himself in covering a great distance quicker than someone else can cover it.
If you were to ask him why he doesn’t play golf he would give you several legitimate reasons.
“I’m not old enough for golf yet,” he told me. “When I’m eighty perhaps I’ll fall for it.”
McCulley spent much of his early life in newspaper work – Chicago, Peoria, Columbus, Kansas City, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Denver. He traveled the road that many others have traveled, restless, looking for some new environment; then he began to write successfully.
“Do you attribute your success to newspaper training?” I ask him.
“Absolutely,” he replied promptly, as though he had reached that conclusion some time ago. “The newspaper man, if he be a live one, meets all sorts and conditions of persons and learns to analyze men and motives. Thus he learns to create characters and situations. He meets with the saintly and sinful, priests and prothgates (?), sees virtue and vice in equal portions. In after years if he writes fiction, he is pretty liable to know what he is writing about. He will make a cop talk in police jargon and he won’t have a society leader drinking tea out of a saucer. If more motion picture people had been newspaper men we wouldn’t see so many laughable breaks in the films.”
McCulley was born at Ottawa, Illinois, February 2, 1883, according to his pedigree in “Who’s Who?” He sold his first story while a cub reporter. It was a Goldfield yarn, written during the rush there. He sent it to Karl Edwin Harriman of the Red Book, who immediately bought it. It was not the first one he had written. The first one eventually went into a sewer after it had been returned four times. The Goldfield story was his second. Possessed with new vigor he wrote six more, and fizzled on all of them. Then he settled down to business. He watched carefully and learned his own faults. He never met an editor personally until after he had sold over two million words of fiction. That should (illegible – parch?) the popular idea that a new writer must have a pull to get into print.
He reads about a dozen books a month by other authors and glances through all the magazines to watch the work of others and to keep on the ever changing market, noting changes in (illegible – policy?) as (illegible – mandated?) to him, changes in the style of stories that are popular, changes regarding length, and so on.
McCulley’s advice to inspiring authors is (illegible – bluntly?), as follows:
“Have a story to write, and be sure you have a story before you start to write one. That is where the average beginner falls down. Start it with a (illegible – bang?) celebrate the (illegible – moment?) until you come to the big finish, and then stop. Don’t over write it. Don’t write more than necessary and spoil what you have written. The beginner often is inclined to start too slow and never wants to quit when the story is done. You can have a snappy ending and be true to life at the same time.
“Why seek to depress folks who have enough depression in the ordinary routine of their lives? Express contentment and happiness and the might of right without going to extremes and writing stuff of the silly happy type.
“Give the public action. That’s what it wants – lots of it. Give them romance, the downfall of ulterior motives and the triumph of right. This can just as easily be done in a murder mystery tale the same as in a story of Biblical times and in an entertaining manner instead of like a sermon.
“The novice can gain much by reading much. He must get some idea of how others do it – don’t copy them, but get into the swing of telling a story the way the public likes to be told. This swing can be understood by reading popular stories or books that have met with instant favor by the public. The (illegible line) is the big feature, but the way it is told is ninety per cent the success of the writer.
“The beginner is going to have many of his manuscripts returned, but that is no reason why he should quit. When a manuscript comes back it is sure a shot that something is wrong with it. There is some fault in it that caused it to be rejected. He may have written the story properly, or told it properly (illegible line – but submitted it to?), the wrong magazine. But a story properly written and told properly usually draws more consideration than a printed rejection slip. So it pays to dig into it and discover for one’s self wherein the trouble lies. After this discovery is made, it is quite an easy matter to correct one’s faults.”
McCulley was asked who, in his opinion, were the three leading authors of America, to which he replied:
“Booth Tarkington, who mingles realism and romance as none other; Joseph Hergesheimer, the best living imitator of dead and gone Europeans; Joseph C. Lincoln, who digs down to the bedrock and comes up with the genuine roots of humor.”
Every author whom I have asked that question, to date, has added just one more to that list, and McCulley did not fail in keeping up to the standard.
“Those, of course, in addition to myself,” he ended.