Interview with Johnston McCulley (creator of Zorro)

Johnston McCulley, Alias
Seth Bailey
[Originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune, May 20, 1923]
If you have ever read stories written by Harrington Strong, John Mack Stone, Walter Pierson or Camden Stuart, 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 Johnston McCulley. Some of his best known stories and books are “Broadway Babs”, “The Mark of Zorro”, “The Masked Woman” and “The Black Star”. His most interesting 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 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 (few words illegible here) 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 at the typewriter keys, grinding out something that had come into his mind only that morning. It was but an incident that had 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 on it and seized 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 into life.
As the typewriter keys recorded the grain of thoughts, pinning them together in a ripping story, there came into the scene from out of nowhere the character of 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 Californian mission empire for years, and has written several stories dealing with mission times. Zorro was intended to reflect 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 of 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 the world (few words illegible here). There’s a plot in the peculiar facial expression of the man he meets on the street, or (few words illegible here) 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 (one-half-of-one-percenter 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, 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 not set a 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 write 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 till he finds the “slump” wearing off.
Most of his plots are thought out at bedtime, generally just after retiring. He carries the plot over until morning and if it then appears to be as good as he believed it to be the night before, he gets up (few words illegible here).
“What kind of a story is easiest for you to write?” I asked him.
“That in 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, though I have written hundreds of them. They are more like work than anything else.”
(few words illegible here) 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 his work quicker, than a long auto trip across the country. 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 greater 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. When I’m eighty perhaps I’ll fall for it.”
McCulley spent much of his early life in newspaper work – fourteen years, to be exact, in Chicago, Peoria, Columbus, Kansas City, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, Los Angeles and Denver. He travelled the road that many others have travelled, restless, looking for some new environment; then he began to write successfully.
“Do you attribute your success to newspaper training?” I asked him.
“Absolutely,” he replied promptly, as though he had reached the 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 (one word illegible here). He mixes with the saintly and sinful, priest and (one word illegible here), sees virtue and vice in equal portion. In after years as he writes fiction, he is pretty liable to know what he’s talking about. He will make a cop talk a police argot 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 in 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 Edward 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 he had sold two million words of fiction. This should smash 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 tab on the ever changing market, noting changes in policy as indicated to him, changes in the style of stories that are popular, changes regarding length, and so on.
McCulley’s advice to aspiring authors is briefly as follows:
“Have a story to write, and be sure you have a story before you commence to write one. That is where the average beginner falls down. (Couple of sentences illegible here). 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 life.”
“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 stories the way the public. This swing can best be understood from reading popular stories or books, that have met with instant favor by the public. The (few words illegible here) is the big feature, but the way it is told is ninety percent of 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 a sure shot that something is wrong with it. There is some fault in it that caused it to be rejected. He may have written his story properly, or told it properly (few words illegible here) 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 bedrock and comes up with the genuine roots of humor.”
Every author whom I’ve asked that question, to date, has added just one other to the list, and McCulley did not fail in keeping up to standard.
“Those, of course, in addition to myself,” he ended.


  1. Thubway Tham evidently is still very popular; there are a couple recent collections on reprinting some of his adventures. However, I've always had a serious problem with his lisp and it has defeated my attempts to read the series.

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