What: A pulp novelist, freelance writer, B movie impresario, and lounge lizard at large. One of his novels, LOVE STORIES ARE TOO VIOLENT FOR ME, has been optioned for a film by Christian Slater since 2001. For many years in the San Francisco Bay Area he programmed and produced a roving “cult movie cabaret” called “Thrillville,” hosting hundreds of live B movie/burlesque shows as “Will the Thrill” along with his wife, Monica Cortes Viharo, AKA “The Tiki Goddess.”
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just finished A MERMAID DROWNS IN THE MIDNIGHT LOUNGE and my head is still swimming. Great stuff. How did this story begin for you? What are some of the most unexpected ways in which it evolved?
I actually first began writing this novel—which turned out to be my personal favorite of all my books—back in 1997. I’d just split from my first wife of like three months, so I was emotionally devastated, and I was working my ass off 12 hours a day as an Aero delivery driver in San Francisco while living in a cheap little hovel over in Oakland, near Lake Merritt, walking distance from the Parkway Theater, which had just been reopened and renovated as a combo movie house/restaurant by some friends of mine, who asked me to host and program a weekly midnight movie show, which I initially called “The Midnight Lounge.” These same friends had founded Wild Card Press and published my novel LOVE STORIES ARE TOO VIOLENT FOR ME back in 1995, but frankly they were professional dilettantes and quickly dropped the press in favor of the much more lucrative film exhibition/food racket, which proved very successful, until the entire business collapsed due primarily to internal turmoil in 2009. By that time I had pretty much given up on ever achieving my dream career as a novelist, though I still wrote and published a lot of freelance articles on pop culture and such. Plus my live show, now locally famous as “Thrillville,” garnered a ton of local publicity, establishing my “brand name,” though not in my field of choice. I was also happily married to my “lovely assistant” from my cult movie show, Monica “the Tiki Goddess” Cortes. We were wed at the Cal-Neva in North Lake Tahoe with a Rat Pack/mariachi ceremony/reception on May 31, 2001, exactly four years after I first met her at my screening of Jailhouse Rock on May 31, 1997. So I was no longer lonely, the main source of much of my literary therapy. Anyway, I’d put down MERMAID once the theater took off and I was hired as a full time publicist/programmer. But when the company abruptly folded, my backup career went with it. Now, suddenly without a steady income again, facing a return to the series of crappy odd jobs I’d been sustaining myself with since age 16, I was back in familiar, full-on panic mode.
So I decided to return to my first and only true love, writing. I’d only completed about 25 pages of MERMAID at that point before completely abandoning it in favor of stable employment. You probably noticed it starts out as a fairly routine crime novel, but then suddenly starts taking a relentless series of hard left turns into completely bizarre, horrific, pornographic territory, filled to the brim with nightmarish imagery, monsters, XXX hardcore sex, zombies, Elvis, gangsters, etc. Basically my brain had been completely warped and twisted after 12 years of hosting grindhouse/drive-in movies with live bands and burlesque acts, not to mention coping with all the angst associated with my position in the company, most of it personal. So what started out as a nebulous noir quickly morphed into a sort a surrealistic summation of all my pent-up passions and pain during that dozen year hiatus from fiction. The result, I believe, is my single most “definitive” work. It’s all there, me in a nutshell. Speaking of which, if you read my very first novel, CHUMPY WALNUT, a sentimental favorite and my most commercially accessible piece, featured in Volume Three of this series, you’d never think it was written by the same author. That’s just how deep into dementia my imagination had descended over three decades of weirdness, on and off the silver screen.
A book within a book is a device that has been used before in fiction, but a book within a book within a B-movie was something I hadn’t experienced before. Was this story hard for you to manage in your head as it developed?
Frankly, I just made this shit up as I went. I didn’t have an overarching game plan or even an outline. Just a wellspring of repressed turmoil and useless B movie trivia, which I tapped into as I manically typed, almost as if I were in a self-hypnotic trance, and it just gushed out extemporaneously in a creative geyser. I listened to very specifically chosen music while writing it in order to put me in the exact mood I was conveying, and in fact many of the songs are actually mentioned in the book, effectively designating its soundtrack, because to me, this book, like most of my books, works primarily as a cinematic mood piece. I envisioned the whole thing like a movie, but then I see my own life that way, too. The many interlocking, overlapping, parallel storylines are indeed intricately woven and carefully constructed, but once I was mentally locked into that zone, my own obsessive imagination was transcribed directly to the page, like a rawly recorded fever dream. I kept writing my characters into corners, and they had to write themselves out. It was that simple. Or complex, depending on how you look at it.
Other than the superficial similarities, especially involving his dying cat and his love for movies, not much, really. For one thing, he’s a lot bolder than I am, so in a way, he’s what I’d like to be, if I had the guts. My own cat Bubba had just been diagnosed with cancer and given only a couple of months to live, so on top of my financial struggles and existential anxiety, I was consumed by profound sadness, which imbues much of the book, as wild as it may be. That melancholic sense of futility and loss permeates ever scene, whether it’s a contemplative conversation or a blazing shootout or that infamous biker zombie gang-bang. I really thought of Nick as a soul brother, but not a doppelganger per se. I feel that way with all my male protagonists—including my public persona, “Will the Thrill.” Each of them—whether Chumpy Walnut or Vic Valentine or whoever—shares certain characteristics, philosophical beliefs, and personality traits with their creator, but ultimately, they’re their own unique entities, with their own disparate distinctions, and their existential exploits are hopefully universally relatable.
One of my favorite lines in the book is this: “I thought: We are all just globs of flesh and fluids wandering lost, lonely and afraid on a ball of dirt floating in a big, empty void.” What are some of your favorite lines from MERMAID?
Yes, the very first line: “A man without a future met a woman with a past.” It’s a recurring theme throughout the book, and in fact, other than the title, that’s all I started with, and ended with. In fact, all my novels start with a title and an opening line and an urgent need to express something churning around inside of me, as opposed to a fleshed out premise or a burning desire to tell a particular story or even a practical goal to actually make money. I write to keep myself relatively sane. I write to give my existence on Earth a purpose. I write because it’s emotionally, intellectually and spiritually stimulating and compulsive. I write because I never knew my schizophrenic mother and I was raised within a right-wing guru cult in New Jersey and then thrust out into the big, scary world (Los Angeles) alone at age 16 and I kept writing to survive my own intense loneliness, isolation, confusion and fears. When I’m actually immersed in the process, though, I don’t always like to know what’s happening next, since it’s all a crap shoot just like real life, and ideally that sense of suspense rubs off on the readers, too.
How representative of your writing is MERMAID when compared to the other books in THE THRILLVILLE PULP COLLECTION recently released by Double Life Press?
As I said above, I consider MERMAID my most representative work of me as an author and as a human being, since it condenses all of my experiences and obsessions into a single, strange, portable journey. But it’s also very different from all my other books. I always try to avoid repeating myself. The work most similar in style and content to MERMAID is its companion piece in Volume One, FREAKS THAT CARRY YOUR LUGGAGE UP TO THE ROOM, which is shorter, and so even more intense. It’s also more cynical and less romantic, but equally outrageous, if not more so. The novels in Volume Two, LAVENDER BLONDE and DOWN A DARK ALLEY, are radically different from each other, as well as all my other books, the first being an experimental character study conveyed entirely in stylized dialogue; the second being probably my most straightforward piece, a crime novel in the vein of Carl Hiaasen and Charles Willeford, but with my own unique spin.
The one aspect all four of these books have in common is extremely graphic sex. I get very horny when I write. You’d think I was a total pervert, but truthfully, I’m not nearly this sexually obsessed when I’m not writing. It just spontaneously seeps out of a very dark, humid, steamy place as soon as I start writing anything. I have to rein it in. In fact, I’m reining it in right now, because I don’t want to turn anyone on needlessly out of context. Volume Three features my very first novel, CHUMPY WALNUT, a Runyonesque fable about a guy only a foot tall, suitable for all or at least most ages, and it’s by far the most distinguished of all my books in terms of its charming innocence. It’s also possibly my most entertaining book, but then that depends on what you’re into. For me, MERMAID and FREAKS are the most compelling, but also the most challenging. Several friends of mine think CHUMPY is my best, possibly because it’s the most accessible, outside of the Vic Valentine series, but others firmly believe LAVENDER BLONDE is my most accomplished piece, because there’s simply nothing else like it, even by me. But you could say that about most of my books. That’s why I’m so proud of them. Whatever you think of them, they’re definitely not derivative.
How did you get connected with Double Life Press?
When Craig T. McNeely contacted me out of the blue in the fall of 2014, I was newly relocated to my dream city of Seattle, but I was miserable, mired in a deep depression ever since I suddenly lost my full-time blog-writing gig—which took me five years to build up after losing my 12-year film programmer career—and then my movie deal suddenly got shelved after coming so close I could almost literally touch it. In 2012, after sending me annual option checks since 2001, Christian Slater contacted me directly about finally bringing our mutual dream project, his adaptation of LOVE STORIES ARE TOO VIOLENT FOR ME, which would be his directorial debut along with his starring performance, to fruition. But after he flew me out to his home of Miami to scout new locations for the screenplay (initially set in San Francisco like the book), and I flew back and began a series of rewrites in collaboration with Christian, he got sidetracked by various other commitments, and we hit a wall. Hopefully our window of opportunity will open again someday.
Meantime, Joe Clifford, rising author of JUNKIE LOVE and more recently LAMENTATION, and also an acquisitions editor for Gutter Books, contacted me about reissuing LOVE STORIES, which had been out of print for many years. The storyboard artist for the movie, Matt Brown, depicted Christian as Vic Valentine on the cover, per his permission, since at that point, we were simply idling at the intersection of Success and Failure, waiting for that agonizingly elusive green light, which is now perpetually blinking red. To my mind, one of the best possible outcomes of the movie actually getting made, other than pole-vaulting my long-simmering literary career from dire obscurity to limitless opportunity, was that my backlog of work could get officially reissued by a real press, as opposed to the self-published, technically flawed versions I’d been busy putting on the market, starting with MERMAID in 2010. But even if a movie gave my body of work badly needed notoriety and professional credibility, my stuff was simply just so outré I figured even then it would prove a tough sell to most mainstream or even underground publishers. Enter Craig T. McNeely, who at first simply solicited a short story from me for his new pulp anthology magazine, Dark Corners. He told me he admired the traditional, hard-boiled “short and choppy” style of All Due Respect editor and noted crime author Mike Monson (TUSSINLAND, THE SCENT OF NEW DEATH). So I submitted a story about a homicidal dwarf called “Short and Choppy.” As requested, I didn’t hold back. He loved it immediately, so I wrote a story for the second issue, “The Lost Sock,” that was equally psychotic. He loved that too. In fact, he reviewed PDFs of all my novels and wrote an extremely flattering appreciation piece called “Will Viharo: Unsung Hero of the Pulps” published in Dark Corners #1.
Why is Double Life the right publisher to release this collection right now?
Basically, Craig—a complete stranger, who lives in a fabled land called “Arkansas”—completely gets me. That fact that despite our geographical gulf and age gap (the dude is a 29-year-old genius), we are cut from the same aesthetic cloth. It’s amazing. So when he decided to start his own small press, he asked if I was interested in having all my other novels reprinted in definitive editions, as Gutter did with LOVE STORIES. At first I balked, since I didn’t want to relinquish control of my own work, but when Craig told me his mission statement—basically to boldly go where no publisher had gone before, offering a home to literary outcasts, a la John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press and Charles Bukowski – I realized this was a golden opportunity to revive my “selfies,” already dead on the vine, by plugging into his comprehensive network, gaining fresh exposure and street cred, since Craig is well connected and respected in the indie lit community. It’s one of those things where you marry the one person that actually understands and accepts you for who you are. Joe and Craig are my saviors. I don’t know where I’d be right now without them. Double Life Press is a match made in Heaven or Hell, depending on your perspective. I can’t imagine who else would be willing to put my crazy shit out there like this. I’m very lucky he found me.
Do you feel like you have a distinct style at this point in your career? Is style or genre something that you are concerned about when you write?
Not any particular style, though I think my voice is distinct and instantly recognizable. When I was young I was heavily influenced by J.D. Salinger and Damon Runyon, then later by Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and John Fante, but ultimately I found my own voice pretty early on,since, like a young Elvis, while acknowledging my inspirations, “I don’t sound like nobody.” But also like Elvis, mine is a very versatile voice, and I’m a man of many moods. Ironically, as a reader, I find it very hard to follow the plots of any stories I read, because I’m much more interested in the voice, in how a story is being told, as opposed to the story itself. Same with movies I watch too, actually. I’m very much a style over substance guy, and I realize how superficial that sounds, but it’s just how I naturally roll. I know most if not all of my fellow authors strongly emphasize the art of storytelling, but for me it’s never been a big deal.
I’ve yet to come across a plot that was wholly original. Every story has been told in some form or another thousands of times, going back to Shakespeare and The Bible. To me, the only thing that makes any story unique is the narrator, because even if common experiences are being conveyed, or even uncommon ones, they’re being told through the eyes of someone who is completely unique among his or her fellow human beings. That’s why I love characters like Holden Caulfield and Philip Marlowe (something I have in common with Joe Clifford; we also both love Batman), because they’re like living, breathing, flesh-and-blood people created out of ink and paper. I can pick up those books any time and start reading anywhere, and even though I know what’s happening, or even if I forgot or never absorbed it in the first place, I’m still captivated and enthralled by the voice, and the mood. That’s what I try to accomplish with my own writing, and with all due humility, I think I succeed in that goal, if nothing else. My books are like portable people and places you can visit at random, conveniently accessible alternate universes preserved for posterity.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming writers?
Well, honestly, my first piece of advice to any aspiring writer is simple: quit now. If they ignore that advice and decide to pursue a path of heartbreak, dejection, poverty and failure anyway, with the only probable reward being creative fulfillment, then they share my curse and there’s nothing anyone could say to set ‘em straight and save ‘em all that grief, anyway. It’s like being a werewolf. There’s only one cure. Swallowing a silver bullet is not an option for me, or most, so we just to learn to live with this sickness somehow. Beyond that, all I can offer is this: no matter what anyone else says, or what obstacles you are forced to navigate in the course of your impossible quest for fulfillment and success, stay true to yourself.
Artistic compromise is for suckers and hacks. That’s what I’d tell anyone doing anything. Always be open to productive criticism, as well as receptive to positive feedback, but in the end, you need to be content within your own skin, and satisfied with your own work. Basically: ignore the naysayers and heed your own creative voice. No one else in the world is just like you, so if your voice is individually authentic, it will stand out in the crowd and stand the test of time, the mark of any true art. Of course, I could be completely wrong about this. I can only speak from my own experience, and everyone’s path is unique. Mine has been insanely circuitous and frustrating. Ultimately, you just need to find your own way, and some roads are tougher or easier than others, for no particular reason that makes any sense. It’s all a matter of sincere dedication combined with totally random luck.
What other publishing plans do you have for 2015?
Despite (or maybe as a proactive reaction to) my ongoing battle with depression, this has been my most productive year ever, including our epic relocation to Seattle from the Bay Area last June. I have six books being published in 2015 – along with all three volumes of THE THRILLVILLE PULP COLLECTION which have just been released, later this summer Double Life is also putting out a definitive omnibus collecting all four “lost” Vic Valentine sequels from the 1990s, which I finally published myself in 2011: FATE IS MY PIMP, ROMANCE TAKES A RAIN CHECK, I LOST MY HEART IN HOLLYWOOD, and DIARY OF DICK. Also included in this anthology is a recent short story called “Brain Mistrust,” originally published in THE SHAMUS SAMPLER 2. It’s set in 2005 and serves as a bridge to the brand new Vic Valentine novel, my first in twenty years, HARD-BOILED HEART, being published this fall by Gutter Books, which reissued the first Vic novel, LOVE STORIES ARE TOO VIOLENT FOR ME, in 2013.
Additionally, I just completed my second sci-fi collaboration with Scott Fulks (following 2012’s IT CAME FROM HANGAR 18), called THE SPACE NEEDLER’S INTERGALACTIC BAR GUIDE, formally launching at Tiki Oasis in San Diego this August. (That’s an extremely popular annual, international convention for tiki culture and retro-pop culture enthusiasts). In addition to Scott’s real scientific theories and my typically sleazy, satirical pulp, this book will feature original cocktail recipes currently being concocted by bartenders from Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda, CA (the home of my “liquid legacy,” a bourbon-based cocktail called the “Vic Valentine”), as well as Tacoma Cabana, in Tacoma, WA, natch. And that’s about it.
What book is on your nightstand right now?
HOLLYWOOD, by Charles Bukowski.
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Akashic Books, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published in 2016.