July 14, 2015

A Road Map to Thrillville: an interview with Will Viharo, author of "The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection"

Will Viharo is a freelance writer and the author of several novels including "A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge," "Freaks That Carry Your Luggage up to the Room," "Chumpy Walnut," "Lavender Blonde," "Down a Dark Alley," "It Came from Hangar 18" (with Scott Fulks), and the “Vic Valentine, Private Eye” series, the first of which, "Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me," has been optioned for a film by Christian Slater, and was recently reissued by Gutter Books, which is publishing the new Vic Valentine novel "Hard-boiled Heart" in 2015.

Also in 2015, Double Life Press is publishing a three volume anthology series featuring all of Viharo's standalone novels called "The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection," along with another omnibus called "The Vic Valentine Classic Case Files," which will include four novels from the 1990s, "Fate Is My Pimp," "Romance Takes a Rain Check," "I Lost My Heart in Hollywood," and "Diary of a Dick," plus a recent short story, "Brain Mistrust."

Viharo's unique brand of "gonzo pulp fiction" combines elements of eroticism, noir, fantasy, and horror. For many years he has also been a professional film programmer/impresario and live music booker. He now lives in Seattle, WA with his wife and cats.

Gef: Some of your books have found a new home this year with Double Life Press, re-released in three volumes. How did that come about and was there much nail-biting over which stories would best complement each other?

Will: The founder of DLP, writer Craig T. McNeely, contacted me last year, asking me to contribute to his new pulp quarterly, Dark Corners. I obliged with a sick little thing called “Short and Choppy,” about a horny, homicidal dwarf. He dug it so much he asked to read all my novels for review. He wound up writing a very flattering, comprehensive piece called “Will Viharo: Unsung Hero of the Pulps” for DC. Then earlier this year, when he decided to start his own small press, he asked if I’d like to have my standalone self-published novels reprinted in definitive editions, as Gutter Books did in 2013 with my novel Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me (initially published in 1995 by Wild Card Press of San Francisco, long defunct). At first I was hesitant to relinquish creative dominion over my work, but since my “selfies” were dying on the
vine, and Craig loved my stuff exactly as it was, without censorship or editorial intrusion, I suggested compiling and repackaging them as literary “double features.” I also applied my “brand name” to the series, hence The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection. (“Thrillville” was the name of the live cult movie cabaret I hosted for many years with my wife, Monica Cortes Viharo, AKA “The Tiki Goddess” – B movies, burlesque & beer).

Next DLP is giving the four 1990s follow-ups to Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me the same treatment, in an omnibus called The Vic Valentine Classic Case Files. Basically, DLP is officially archiving my entire backlog of books, and I am eternally grateful.

Gef: The first novel you ever wrote, Chumpy Walnut, you wrote back in your teens. I imagine that was a time when you hadn't really had the law of the writing land laid down for you as far as what to write and how to write. And considering the subject matter and style of your subsequent books, the law of the land wasn't something you were too intimidated by, am I right?

Will: Chumpy Walnut was inspired by all the classic B&W movies I grew up watching in the 1970s, while being raised by a right wing guru cult in South Jersey, specifically the gangster movies of Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, The Bowery Boys, and Abbott & Costello. I first conceived of Chumpy as a talking walnut in a comic strip, but I didn’t think I was a very good artist, so I reinvented him as a foot tall human, largely due to my insecurities about my own height. Stylistically the book was influenced heavily by one of my favorite writers at the time, Damon Runyon, and the 1955 movie version of Guys and Dolls. It’s a mishmash of real life trauma and vintage cinematic/literary aesthetics. Like all my work, it’s a very personal book. I wasn’t concerned with current market trends, and I’m still not, which accounts for my persistent obscurity, despite my determination and output over three decades now. For me, writing is a therapeutic journey. Being a high school dropout supporting myself with shit jobs since age 16. I never learned how to treat it like a business, which is why I’m still struggling at age 52. I was 19 when I completed the first draft of Chumpy, and despite the fact I had a New York agent via author Paul Zindel, whom I met in the Writer’s Unit at the Actor’s Studio in L.A., I wound up self-publishing it in 2010, replete with my original illustrations, also included in its first official publication by DLP this year.

Gef: One of the cool things about the new covers is how they kind of harken back to the Gold Medal Books or other vintage paperbacks. Did you have much influence in the direction of the cover art or did you just luck out?

Will: Both, since luck is always an essential ingredient of any success in this industry, and most fields. When I self-published these novels, 2010-2011, I was able to secure the artistic services of the poster artists who had contribute to promoting many of my Thrillville shows, like Rick Black (Fate Is My Pimp/Romance Takes a Rain Check, Down a Dark Alley) and Miles Goodrich (Chumpy Walnut), as well as frequent guest, horror hosts Mr. Lobo and his wife Dixie Dellamorto (Lavender Blonde), along with artists I met via my Thrillville network (Rick Lucey, I Lost My Heart in Hollywood/Diary of a Dick) and Christopher Sorrenti (Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up to the Room). The cover image of my self-published edition of A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge was an erotically evocative piece I discovered online and purchased the rights to via the Canadian artist/photographer, Mike Fyles.

When it came time for the definitive DLP reprints, I already had a new cover image for Mermaid from British pulp/Marvel comics artist Mike Fyles, who had contacted me out of the blue with a spectacular spec piece he did reimagining Mermaid as a 1960s men’s magazine fiction piece, then again as a 1950s dime store paperback. I loved it so much I promised him if the book was ever reprinted, I would use that image, and so I did, almost exactly as he had first presented it to me, except with the one change I suggested – “zombifying” the bar patrons leering at the hula dancer. That way, the new cover adequately represented the surrealistic, dreamlike, eroticized horror of both Mermaid and its companion book in the first volume, Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up to the Room.

For the cover of Volume Two, I asked Matt Brown, who had created the Gutter Books cover for Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me, to illustrate the scenario of a sexy, naked babe holding a gun on a nervous sax player, since that image would encompass the themes of both Lavender Blonde and Down a Dark Alley. Matt was the official storyboard artist for Christian Slater’s screenplay of Love Stories, a personal passion project for the True Romance/Mr. Robot star since he first optioned it back in 2001, having miraculously discovered it in a West L.A. bookstore, and immediately connecting with the character of Vic Valentine. Despite coming as close as storyboards, with a producer and target budget attached, needless to say the project is still lingering in development hell. But the upside is I got to meet Matt, who contacted me via Facebook after completing the storyboards in late 2012. When Joe Clifford (now author of the #1 bestselling thriller Lamentation), acquisitions editor for Gutter Books, contacted me about reissuing Love Stories, since at that time the book was long out of print even as the movie adaptation was finally being fast-tracked by Christian, who planned to both star and direct, I suggested Matt for the new cover. Christian gave us permission to use Matt’s visage of him as Vic Valentine. Matt’s classic pulp style perfectly suits my sensibilities. We share a lot of tastes in retro aesthetics. In fact, his storyboards remind me of the animated TV series Archer, on which Christian now has a recurring voice role!

Anyway, Matt and I had been wanting to work together again, so I tapped him for the cover of The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection Volume Two, as well as the Vic Valentine Classic Case Files, where once again his visage of Vic evokes a young Christian Slater.

For Volume Three – Chumpy Walnut and Other Stories – fast rising, in-demand artist Dyer Wilk created this amazingly authentic used-paperback image, based on my crude sketch of a little dude poking out of some bountiful cleavage. For inspiration I sent him pieces by Dobie Gillis author Max Shulman, and Dyer picked up on it immediately. We were on the same wavelength and in fact we share the same birthday (April 2)! Dyer also “colorized” one of my own Thurber-esque illustrations for the back cover. Actually, Dyer designed all three covers for The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection, incorporating the original artwork by Mike and Matt, adding his own flair to the font and back covers, including the stylized author’s portrait of yours truly.

So the general cover concepts were mine, with Craig’s input and blessings, but I was very lucky to be in touch with such talented artists who could realize my ideal vision so perfectly.

Gef: A lot of your stories have titles as catalysts. Does much in the way of plotting come into play when writing or are you more at home with driving those dark roads without a map?

Will: I almost always start with a title, the first and last lines, and only a rough idea of what I want to say. Mostly it’s a specific mood I’m trying to recreate and preserve for posterity, directly inspired by true-life circumstances as well as external influences like movies and music. I sometimes write down a single paragraph outline but I hardly ever stick to it, preferring to improvise as I go, writing my characters into corners, and letting themselves write themselves out. That way I’m kept in as much suspense as the reader, at least ideally. For me, as both a writer and a reader, I’m much more concerned with the voice than the plot, since it’s the personalized authorial perspective that makes any work of art unique.

Gef: Among the first volume is A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge, which is one of your personal favorites and also one of the more personal stories you've written, if I'm not mistaken. Was there a catharsis with this book or is it simply a matter of pouring yourself into the work of writing and pieces of you are bound to nestle into the words?

Will: I consider Mermaid my favorite and most representative work because it encapsulates so many of obsessions. It was cathartic in the sense that it marked my return to writing fiction after a 12 year hiatus, during which I pretty much gave up my literary career (though still freelancing non-fiction pieces about pop culture) in favor of a full-time, stable career as a film programmer, and basking my local “celebrity” as lounge lizard/B movie impresario “Will the Thrill,” in truth as much a fictional creation of mine as Chumpy Walnut or Vic Valentine.

I actually began writing Mermaid right before the Parkway Theater and Thrillville (initially called The Midnight Lounge) took off in 1997, and right around the time I met Monica, who became both my wife and my “lovely assistant,” on stage and off. Then in 2001, the same year we got married at the Cal-Neva Resort in Tahoe in a Rat Pack/Elvis/mariachi themed ceremony, Christian Slater contacted me about optioning Love Stories, which had already been pretty much forgotten, even though, ironically, it was the reason the owners of the Parkway – and founders of Wild Card Press – had asked me to host my own live movie show, in order to promote the book.

When Speakeasy Theaters (the Parkway’s parent company) suddenly crashed and burned on painfully short notice in 2009 – a very high profile and controversial implosion - my backup career as a programmer/publicist went down with it, though I took Thrillville on the road, then later reinvented it as a monthly tiki bar movie night at Forbidden Island in Alameda (now home of the original cocktail, “the Vic Valentine”), and later franchised it at The New Parkway, opened in 2012 by totally different people.

But mostly, I returned to my first and true love, writing. By the time I resumed writing Mermaid – I had abandoned it after about 25 pages – my brain had been so warped by a decade of grindhouse indulgence and backstage melodrama that the result was this nightmarish, David Lynchian hodgepodge of dark, erotic, cinematic imagery and semi-autobiographical angst.

Gef: What would you say is the saving grace of pulp fiction?

Will: Raw honesty about base human desires and motives, exploiting our common primitive instincts with a purity you won’t find in mainstream fiction, which panders to a mentality of self-denial/delusion/aggrandizing and hypocritical censorship. For these same reasons I prefer “grindhouse” cinema to most popular movies. I just dig the authentic grit and grime of the human experience – however “offensive” to delicate sensibilities - over the sanitized sap that commercialized, corporate-driven popular culture spoon-feeds the public at large.

Gef: You recently moved from California to Washington, Seattle to be specific, so how has the climate for writing differed between the two regions? Is it too early yet to gauge how the region is affecting your writing?

Will: Well, ironically, I finally left the Bay Area after (mostly) happily living there for three decades because I was sick of the relentless sunshine and incessant warmth, particularly Indian Summers, which always ruined my Halloweens. I was raised in New Jersey and missed the seasons. I left L.A. for San Francisco in 1985 for the same reason – I hate the sun. S.F. and the East Bay were a lot foggier and cooler than L.A., at least until the past few years when the drought and climate change ruined it for me. Of course, the Pacific Northwest is not immune to global warming and my first two summers here have been hit with historic heat waves, and even the other seasons have been warmer than usual. Still, it’s a lot cooler and wetter in general here than in CA, just not as much as I was hoping, at least not so far. I’ve always felt creatively inspired by “gloomy” weather. Cloudy and 55 degrees is my ideal comfort zone (and Seattle’s norm, in better times). Anything over 70 degrees and I get cranky. I just hope the Emerald City (which has been turning depressingly yellow due to this unprecedented heat) starts living up to its infamously non-stop rainy rep soon, because while I love it here overall, culturally and aesthetically speaking, the current weather conditions are seriously bumming me out. In fact, I haven’t done any creative writing lately. I just mope around inside my air-conditioned apartment, impatiently awaiting autumn so I can go comfortably go outside again, like reverse hibernation. Fortunately I completed two whole novels before summer showed up and spoiled my artistic muse and ambient therapy, at least temporarily.

Gef: What's the worst bit of writing advice you ever got, or what advice do you wish would stop being circulated?

Will: That if you write what the public wants, you’ll make money at it. It’s always a dice roll. There is no surefire formula for success, however carefully calculated. Plus, unless you share your reader’s enthusiasm for the subject, your attempt at cashing in on a current craze will be quickly exposed as the interloping fraud it is. At least that’s my take on it. But I can only follow my own passions. It’s impossible for me to write with a specific audience in mind. “Write what you know” is still the best advice, I think, even if it probably won’t “pay off” in the end. It all depends on your motivation. Some write to make a living. I write to live. The advice I always give? Quit now. If they keep writing, that means they share my curse and are beyond redemption anyway.

Gef: Films and filmmaking has also been an influence on your reading and writing. Has there been anything particular from your experiences in screenwriting and even just absorbing cinema that you've carried over into novel writing?

Will: My work has always been extremely cinematic in nature, because watching movies is my favorite pastime (next to sex, which is why they’re so erotic, too), and my biggest influence, next to music (and my own life experiences), even more than other literature. That’s why they’d be so easily adaptable to film, I think, unlike a lot of similarly offbeat books. But due to their rather extreme content, most would be tough to sell to a profit-conscious producer, especially in this “play-it-safe,” creatively conservative, blockbuster-dominated era.

The only time I’ve tried adapting one of my novels into a script was when Christian asked me to collaborate on his screenplay for Love Stories, definitely one of my more accessible works. It’s not a medium I’m very comfortable with, ironically enough, because it’s basically a skeletal blueprint for someone else’s vision. When I write a novel, I’m the producer, director, editor, and soundtrack artist, plus I basically play all the parts. That creative control is addictive. However, Christian’s script basically transcribed my novel almost verbatim. He just had me rewrite the script and set the action in South Florida instead of the Bay Area, the setting of the novel, since at the time he lived in Miami, and flew me out there in June 2012 to do some location scouting. He was very gracious in bringing me aboard the project, since when most authors have their work optioned, even famous ones, it’s like, “Thanks. See you at the premiere.” But Christian wanted me directly involved. I signed a contract with his agency and everything. He’s one of my biggest fans. It’s very flattering, if puzzling, since he owes me nothing. This was all his idea.

Anyway, given my background and interests, it made sense to me that one of my books would eventually be made into a movie, and I’d become a professional screenplay writer. That seemed like the next logical step, professionally speaking. It really felt like manifest destiny when Christian contacted me directly in April 2012 for the first time since he’d optioned it in 2001. Everything was finally falling into place, when it inexplicably stalled again, and frankly broke my heart and crushed my spirit. Both the project and my career are on indefinite hiatus now, and it’s almost literally killing me. Along with this freak Seattle heat wave. I feel almost totally out of sync with the universe lately. Hopefully things will get back on track soon.

Gef: Along with the Thrillville collection, what other projects do you have cooking, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Will: Well, interestingly enough, despite my ongoing depression due to external forces beyond my control, like the fickle whims of Hollywood and cruelly deviant weather patterns, this has been perhaps my most productive year ever. Besides selling our beachside Alameda condo and relocating to an entirely different city and state, where my wife is now enjoying and excelling at her PhD program at the University of Washington School of Drama, I have The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection and the upcoming Vic Valentine Classic Case Files to proudly pimp, thanks to the totally unsolicited and extremely welcome championship of Craig T. McNeely – definitely the brightest spot in a dark era. Additionally - and I have to give myself props here, given the intense circumstantial opposition - I have also completed two brand new novels since moving to Seattle, both largely set here.

Coming up first, and fast, is The Space Needler’s Intergalactic Bar Guide, my second sci-fi collaboration with my friend and amateur scientist, Scott Fulks, who also commissioned me to write our first epic, It Came from Hangar 18 (2012). This time it’s a shorter but no less ambitious effort, since in addition to my consciously outrageous retro-pulp and Scott’s real, hardcore science, it will contain original cocktail recipes, mostly created by Becca Morris of Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge, which I mentioned earlier. It officially launches at Tiki Oasis in San Diego this August, where I am also co-presenting a panel on vintage sci-fi pulp culture with Scott and soundtrack artist Neil Norman of Crescendo Records, sponsored by Angostura Bitters.

Then either later this year or early next, Gutter Books will publish my latest Vic Valentine novel, Hard-boiled Heart, my first installment in the series in 20 years. Joe Clifford is once again my editor, so you know it will be a tight piece of pulp. I’m pretty pleased with it. I’ve been planning this book for a long time, but was unsure of the plot. Recent events finally got me off my ass, though. Writing it was my only way to survive my circumstances, as usual. I can’t wait to send it to Christian.

Everything you’d ever want to know about me and more is on my website, www.thrillville.net


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