July 18, 2016

On Writing and Arousal: an interview with Will Viharo, author of "Hard-Boiled Heart"

Gef: So a year ago we chatted and Double Life Press had re-issued your pulp noir line-up of novels. This year, DLP is no more and you've struck out on your own with Thrillville Press. How bumpy was that transition for you? And how has the foray into being your own curator, so to speak, been thus far?

Will: Actually, when my career as a film programmer suddenly ended back in 2009, I returned to my first love, writing fiction, which has been my main passion and life goal since I wrote my first novel “Chumpy Walnut” as a teenager, over 35 years ago.

Back in 1998, right before The Parkway Speakeasy Theater in Oakland opened and I was asked to create my own midnight movie show, which became my locally infamous “cult movie cabaret” called became “Thrillville,” I started a novel called “A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge.” I quit after maybe 25 pages and focused on my new job, which was really the first one I ever had I actually liked, and felt qualified for, after a long series of random survivalist gigs from busboy to blood bank driver. Ironically, the owners of the Parkway had published my novel “Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me” back in 1995, via their first business, Wild Card Press, which never took off. Later, in 2001, the novel was discovered by Christian Slater in a L.A. bookstore and optioned for a film, but that’s a whole other saga.

Anyway, back to “Mermaid,” I wasn’t sure where I was going with it. The title just popped in my head and I just started typing whatever it inspired, which is my typical process. So when Speakeasy Theaters sadly folded, I had a lot of time on my hands, and I decided to pick “Mermaid” up and finish it. What began as a pretty standard crime story about lost, desperate people – inspired somewhat by my very brief, failed first marriage – rapidly morphed into an extremely bizarre, surrealistic, pornographic, horrific and multi-layered fever dream, no doubt due to the literally hundreds of B/drive-in/grindhouse flicks I had been hosting for the past dozen years.

When I finished it, I showed it to one agent who didn’t connect with it, and so I decided to self-publish it via Lulu. One reason I was so impatient was that I felt I had wasted so much time already, but also I’d played this game already. I had a New York agent for about 10 years that did nothing for me, and via my own connections celebrity editor Judith Regan contacted me out of the blue back in 1992 expressing interest in my work, but after keeping me dangling for two years, she unceremoniously dumped me. So screw “the establishment,” I thought. I’ll just do this myself, because by then, the DIY industry had taken off, and while the stigma of self-publishing remained – and still does, IMO – the creative freedom and immediacy were too rewarding to ignore.

After “Mermaid” I self-published “Chumpy Walnut,” “Down a Dark Alley,” “Lavender Blonde,” and the four sequels to “Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me” that Wild Card Press never got around to: “Fate Is My Pimp,” “Romance Takes a Rain Check,” “I Lost My Heart in Hollywood,” and “Diary of a Dick.” All of these works were completed before the Parkway even existed, but now, thanks to Thrillville, I had my own public platform from which to promote them.

When Craig McNeely contacted me in early 2015, wanting to know if he could reissue my self-published books via his new venture, I suggested doubling them up in separate volumes and issuing them under my “brand name.” Hence “The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection.”

Anyway, less than a year later, DLP abruptly went belly up, much to everyone’s surprise and chagrin, but I retained rights to all the files, included the cover art, which I had commissioned personally. The text had been already cleaned up and stripped of the typos that had plagued my Lulu editions, so now that my babies were finally in relatively pristine form, I wanted to keep them out there on the market with as brief a pause as possible.

My fellow Seattle author Michael Pool hooked me up with a professional interior formatter from Canada named Rik Hall, who made the books look even better. Dyer Wilk, who designed the original covers, created a logo for me, and voila, Thrillville Press was born, and “The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection” lives on.

Sorry for the long-winded answer, but as you can see, it was both a circuitous and circular path.

Gef: When it comes to re-releasing a book, do you find yourself tempted to tweak things here and there, given the years since completing it and growing as a writer in the ensuing years? Or are you resolute in "this is the story, this is where I was at as a writer, and where I was mentally and emotionally"?

Will: I totally tweaked them. “Chumpy Walnut” was completed when I was only 19, and “Lavender Blonde” when I was 24. Famous film noir expert and author Eddie Muller thinks those are my two best books, so maybe I peaked early. (“Mermaid” is my personal favorite, though.) But both are very unconventional, like all of my books, and proved impossible for my agent to sell back in the 80s. So when I finally published them myself via Lulu, I went back and edited out huge chunks and rewrote other portions, while adding some new material. This way the works retained their original intent and integrity, but had been refined and updated to adequately represent my current body of work and sensibilities, as opposed to just dusty pieces of my past pulled out of the drawer and dressed up for public consumption. I am very proud of them, and of all my books, at least the ones I’ve chosen to share. I have a stack of typewritten (that’s how old they are) manuscripts that will never see the light of day because they’re just not good enough, so I chalk them up to self-education, for my eyes only.

The Lulu, DLP, and now Thrillville Press editions of “Chumpy” also include my original, crudely drawn, Thurber-esque illustrations. It’s by far the most family-friendly of all my books, though the short stories it’s packed with in “The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection” Volume 3, spanning my so-called career, are much more typical of my more mature, adults-only Ĺ“uvre.

When Gutter Books reissued “Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me” in 2013, when the movie deal was very hot and looked like it was about to finally reach the screen, I re-edited parts of it that had always bugged me, and also added in some insider nods to Christian Slater, with whom I was then collaborating on the screenplay, which is now on “indefinite hiatus” again, sad to say. Anyway, storyboard artist Matt Brown depicted Christian as my protagonist Vic Valentine on the cover, and the text even includes a few bits from our script. Acquisitions editor and rightfully acclaimed author Joe Clifford (“December Boys”) gave me complete freedom. So it is now the “definitive” version.

Gef: Pulp fiction tends to drudge up some nostalgic imagery, especially for folks with only a passing familiarity with it. How would you gauge the genre's fit with contemporary settings? I mean, every genre has its evolution over the decades. How would you say pulp, particularly noir, is faring these days and moving on? 

Will: Funny, when I published “Mermaid” in 2010, I described it as “Neo-Pulp Fiction Fantasia” on the cover. I seriously had no idea that there was a whole new pulp fiction category being marketed already. I thought I was the only one! But then I was out of the loop, inside my own head. Once I started networking with other contemporary authors on Facebook and elsewhere, I discovered an entire community of like-minded people out there, though the vast majority self-designated as “crime authors,” which frankly is a much more commercially viable niche than “pulp.”

The reason I still describe myself as a “pulp author” is because I combine so many different genres. I prefer hybrids so I don’t feel the need to conform to any preconceived tropes and standards. Unfortunately, while artistically satisfying, this is precisely why it’s so tough to crack that stubborn barrier between cultish obscurity and wider popularity. I am simply not appealing directly to any particular genre fan. I make and break too many rules. But I just don’t know how else to do it. I write the types of books I enjoy reading, and I’m heavily influenced by the types of movies I enjoy watching, from vintage horror to David Lynch, and so my books are all exploitative yet esoteric nature. But they’re not “pulp fiction” in the classical tradition of Tarzan, Doc Savage and The Shadow (all of which I loved as kid). I give them that label since I really don’t know how else to categorize them, though I guess if I had to choose a predecessor in the history of pulp that mostly closely approximates what I’m doing, I guess I’d cite H.P. Lovecraft. But again – completely different styles, preoccupations, and perspective.

Gef: This year you're delving into erotic horror? How has that journey been for you and what brought about that shift?

Will: As you can discern yourself by now, it is not a shift, but a continuation of a direction I’ve always been heading. My recent books all fall under this category, even “Hard-boiled Heart” to an extent. But definitely “A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge” and “Freaks That Carry You’re your Luggage Up to the Room” (which I self-published via Lulu in 2011, now both are collected in “The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection”). And “Lavender Blonde” which as I said was first written in 1987 when I was only 24, but both the 2011 Lulu edition and the current Thrillville Press edition (and formerly the DLP incarnation) are the revised, “definitive” versions, considerably more explicit and horrific than the original draft.

Both of my retro sci-fi collaborations with Scott Fulks, “It Came from Hangar 18” (2012) and “The Space Needler’s Intergalactic Bar Guide” (2015) contain elements of erotic horror, too.

I think some people mistakenly think of primarily as a crime/noir guy because Vic Valentine is my best-known property, thanks to the well-publicized movie deal. But other than that six book series (Gutter published the latest, “Hard-boiled Heart,” directly inspired by my experiences with Christian, in December 2015), and “Down a Dark Alley,” which I first wrote in 1992, most of my work could not be defined as “crime.” As a young author I was influenced by Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson (also J.D. Salinger and Damon Runyon), and during the 90s read almost nothing but crime books by brilliant guys like James Ellroy, Walter Mosley and James Lee Burke, but I never felt like I was one of them. As I’ve said many times in public, I am much more interested in voice than plot, and crime fiction generally features desperate characters living in impoverished situations that I could personally relate to. But I don’t give a damn about “crime” per se. That to me was always incidental to the appeal. I have no subconscious desires to rob a bank or kill anyone. I think many fans of that genre, and maybe even the authors, vicariously enjoy stories about people living above or beyond the law, especially if they get away with it. Me, I just wanted to know what was going inside their heads.

Plus I’ve always been much more interested in gratuitous sex than graphic violence. Many crime books, particularly from original pulp fiction’s heyday, offered a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on one’s ideology) mixture of both, but the emphasis was always on the violence.

When I write, I get horny. I can’t help it. Even my early “literary” works contained very detailed sexual encounters and fantasies. I was a lonely guy, but very sexually obsessive from a young age. I sublimated much of my repressed lust into my work, even the Vic Valentine books.

I hardly read any straight-up horror as a young man, though I loved horror movies. But I was always much more of a “Videodrome” and “Re-Animator” guy than, say, a “Fright Night” or “Lost Boys” type, which to me were examples of mainstream movies that played it way too safe. I respected Stephen King and consider myself a fan, but despite their expertly constructed terrors his books were too prudish for me, as was most modern fiction in any genre, and pop culture generally.

For me, the issues of sex and death, especially when intertwined, distill life in this world to its essence, and that scares a lot of people that don’t want to consider these inescapable aspects of our common human dilemma. It seems so many people are both ashamed of and attached to their own fragile, mysterious, tragically ephemeral physical forms. For whatever reason, mortality and sensuality are two of the most controversial and taboo topics in our society, since both engender fear, one of finality, the other of intimacy. In works of erotic horror, whether literature or film, the artist is confronting both subjects directly. I find this corporeal combination irresistibly seductive, both as a creator and as a consumer. Most of my fiction, both short and long form, is drenched in bodily fluids, virtually speaking. Even “Lavender Blonde” can be classified as psychological erotic horror noir. It’s my natural inclination, so I’m just going with it.

I’m working on a new one right now, called “Things I Do When I’m Awake.” It’s partly inspired by 1970s giallo cinema. It’s going very well so far. I hope to issue it via Thrillville Press later this year.

Gef: Speaking of erotic horror, it's an election year in America and the GOP has doubled down on their brand of regressive social conservatism. They've even gone so far as to declare all pornography a "public health crisis." Does that feel like one of those slippery slope deals, where first they come for PornHub and then they come for erotic fiction?

Will: I love it! For one thing, stupid stuff like this only backfires in a big way. The X-rated film craze of the 1970s was a direct reaction to the moralistic oppression and censorship of the 1950s. These selfish, career-oriented politicians – who have no problems with gun-crazy bigots, and hateful shooting sprees kill way more people worldwide than masturbation, statically speaking - are pandering to a minority of the population, anyway. Studies show that countries where porn is outlawed actually suffer the most cases of rape and other sexual crimes. I also agree with Bill Maher that much of motivates modern Muslim terrorism is their culture’s own self-imposed sexual repression, which only results in uncontrolled rage at more permissive societies, like ours (at least relatively).

Nothing makes people want something more than you when you tell them they can’t have it. That’s why Internet porn is actually most popular in “red” states, where it’s at least superficially prohibited. Plus attempting to legislate this prehistoric mentality actually gives my fiction a dimension of subversive rebellion, even though I have no other agenda than to entertain, both the reader and myself.

The fact that my work would piss off these self-righteous, morally superior hypocrites only adds more fuel to my creative fire. Speaking of which, I can only hope some right-winger religious nut-job would organize a ban of my books. I can really use the publicity.

Gef: What kinds of stories resonate with you as a reader? What books are you reading this summer?

Will: As I’ve explained I’m much more inspired by cinema (and music) than literature when I write. I often cite David Lynch as an influence but I don’t consciously try to “copy” any of his work. It’s more like we just happen share similar sensibilities, so I naturally relate to his films. But my work is wholly my own, since my main source of inspiration comes from my own life. Most of my fiction is semi-autobiographical, but creatively filtered through my demented imagination to the point of unrecognizability.

As for what I’m reading, I read almost nothing but books by my fellow authors on Facebook these days, so I can post supportive reviews on Amazon. There are several authors that write books in the same general vein as mine, though again, the fact that my books are totally unlike anyone else’s is my main source of pride as an author.

Recently I’ve read, and strongly recommend: The “Selena” trilogy by Greg Barth; “The Train Derails in Boston” by Jessica McHugh; “Graveyard Love” by Scott Alderberg; and “Zero Saints” by Gabino Iglesias. There are so many talented authors in my social circles, though, that it often makes me feel insignificant by comparison. It’s truly overwhelming.

Gef: How can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Will: I’m easy to find. My website, www.thrillville.net, has been on the Web since 1998. I even have the same web guy, Michael DeWeil, that posts all my stuff for me there. But it’s evolved from my B movie impresario days into a platform to pimp my pulp fiction. It’s all there, for anyone interested, including contact info. I always answer my emails, too. Besides Facebook I’m also on Twitter, https://twitter.com/ThrillPulp. Though I don’t engage there much. As the saying goes, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”


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