Please welcome May's featured author John Vorhaus as he talks about writing, poker, and what can happen when you combine the two in ways that may or may not be legal!
New Mystery Reader: Thank you for taking time with us to discuss “The California Roll” or in Radar’s words, “Ping you.”
NMR: It would be great if you could begin by telling us a bit about the plot of your new novel.
John Vorhaus: Radar Hoverlander is a world-class con artist who has been “on the razzle” (as Radar would put it) for about as long as he’s been alive. Now he crosses paths with a vivacious piece of work named Allie Quinn, who wants Radar to help her straitlaced grandfather “walk on the wild side” just once before he dies. Trouble is, she’s no innocent and he’s no grandfather. They’re a con artist and FBI agent, respectively, and they want Radar’s help with a tiny little plan to rob China.
NMR: You have a very interesting background and have been described as a poker analyst, amongst other things. Just what is a poker analyst?
John Vorhaus: Just like a color commentator for any other televised sports, I watch the action and offer opinions, as, for example, “I can’t imagine what’s running through the bettor’s mind right now. I can only conclude: nothing.”
NMR: Authors frequently inject some of themselves and/or others they know in their characters. How much did your background and the characters you’ve met on the way influence your novel and your main characters of Radar and Mirplo?
JV: I think the parts of me most reflected in the work are my language choices and my philosophical point of view. I’ve given Radar my gift for making up new words, and endowed him with my own solipsistic perspective: according to me, I’m moral. Radar also represents a certain amount of wish fulfillment, because he’s as audacious and clever in the fictional world as I yearn to be in the real one. As for hapless Vic Mirplo, not a lot of wish fulfillment there, as this is a guy who’s “unlikely to get laid in any circumstance short of lying on his back when a nymphomaniac alien drops out of the sky, legs spread.”
NMR: The scams in your story seem to be well analyzed and very detailed. One would think that grifters would be secretive about their techniques; so, how did you come up with these details?
JV: Some I just made up, because my mind naturally works that way. The Doolally Shorthair Terrier scam and the Afterparty Snuke are two I know I created out of whole cloth. Others, such as the Penny Skim, are based on time honored cons, some of which go back hundreds of years. All this information is available online and elsewhere, because cons are a source of endless examination and fascination, even for honest folk like you and me, or anyway like you.
NMR: Did you ever feel somewhat like one of those guys who give up magicians’ secrets while you were putting the details down on paper?
JV: Not really. And if I did, would that be so bad? After all, if someone ends up not getting scammed as a result of having read The California Roll¸ I think that’s a good thing, don’t you? I suppose my only concern would be someone reading my book and thinking, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea!” But, you know, if you’re wired toward larceny, you don’t need my push in the right (and by right I mean wrong) direction; you’ll probably end up there anyway.
NMR: Most authors are content with letting a cop, PI, or bored professional be the protagonist of the story – what made you choose a grifter?
JV: Well, I was fascinated by the idea of a character who lied for a living. I wondered how he’d go about telling a truthful tale when, by his own admission, he can’t be trusted from word one. As readers will discover, honesty is the central issue of the novel, and the theme, “be honest,” is best explored by someone like Radar, who has such trouble in that area. Also, I had the name, Radar Hoverlander, long before I had the character. I thought it was a terrific name (it’s actually the name of the mechanism for putting probes down on other planets – radar-guided hover-landers) but knew I’d need a character who could “own” it. Cops and PIs didn’t seem sufficiently outrageous to wear a name I was committed to use.
NMR: The novel seems to have a satirical aspect. There is some hard-to-define element that is reminiscent of Elmore Leonard’s “Get Shorty”. Was there one person or organization you had in mind or was it society in general or am I reading too much into the story?
JV: Somewhere in the text I think I use the phrase, “Only victims get victimized.” I have a lot of sympathy for victims – some of these con artists are very clever – but at the same time I think each of us has a fundamental responsibility to look out for ourselves and protect our own interests. The modern world, from Enron to Madoff to Lehman Brothers, has made me cynical. On some level, I think everyone is a scam artist, and even people who promise you “fair value for money” would happily offer a little less than fair value if they thought they could get away with it. So, yeah, I guess I’ve channeled my natural skepticism into Radar, but let’s not forget that he’s entirely self-serving, so that any social commentary he offers must be taken with a boulder of salt.
NMR: Readers will no doubt have fun reading this; did you have fun writing it?
JV: You know, I had a ball. The best thing about writing is how empowering it is. There are things I can’t do in the real world that I can easily do in the world of my imagining. Firing a gun, for example. I’ve tried it, at a shooting range, and it hurts! But characters in my stories can shoot guns, run scams, be devious, compete, connive and collude in ways that I can – literally – only imagine. Most writers will tell you that the best thing about writing is that you get to play God. Or maybe that’s just me.
Also, when I embarked on The California Roll, I was determined to hew to the good advice I once received, “Keep giving them you until you is what they want.” I wanted my characters, voices, and actions to be fundamentally pleasing to me. So, you could say that during every writing day my only goal was to delight myself. So how could I not have a good time?
Further to the point (and man, I do prattle on), I consider creativity to be a human activity that’s strongly pro-survival. Were it otherwise, we’d still be living in trees wondering where our next banana was coming from. When we think about other pro-survival activities, like making love, giving love or working hard, we see that these activities are chemically rewarded by brain biology: endorphins, yeah? Every time I write, I experience a writer’s high. I’m experiencing it now.
NMR: So, when it comes to writing, do you plan your story out, or do you write more from a “stream of coconsciousness “? Do you live in their world for a time, or are they living in yours?
JV: I’m not a big fan of outlining because if I know where the story is going, it kind of spoils the ride for me. I know that other writers work differently, and in other circumstances (writing a screenplay, for example) I would never thus “work without a net.” But writing a novel is a voyage of discovery, at least for me, so it’s better not to know. That said, I’ve written myself into some pretty tight corners, and often have to go back and “retrofit” early parts of the text to harmonize with what happens in the end. As to whether I live in their world or they live in mine, the metaphor I like to use is “critical mass.” I keep feeding information into my characters until they achieve that critical mass and start to take on a life of their own. Once that happens, I no longer doubt their actions or their choices, because I know that those actions and choices make sense to the characters themselves.
NMR: Have to ask this as it seems to be a “rule”: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
JV: If you want to get better, write more. If you want to get a lot better, write a lot more. Recognize that you’re serving a certain apprenticeship, and that it might (no, will) take you years and years and years to master your craft. That’s fine. Life is long, and you have plenty of time – so long as you keep writing.
Many writers fear failure. They hold themselves up to such high expectations. I know this fear – I deal with it myself – and it grieves me. At times when I’m driving myself crazy with the fear (no, certain knowledge) that everything I write is just crap, I remember these inspiring words: “So you failed? So what? Try again. Fail better!”
NMR: And, finally, is there another title in the works that readers can look forward to?
JV: I’m in the throes of completing the sequel to The California Roll. It’s called The Albuquerque Turkey, and it introduces us to the one person who can match Radar scam for scam and move for move: his own old man.
NMR: Thanks, John, it’s been a pleasure!
JV: You’re welcome. In closing, just let me say www.johnvorhaus.com. Stop by and say hi.
BIO: In addition to The California Roll, John Vorhaus is author of the seminal comedy writing textbook, The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You're Not. An avid poker player, he has also written several books on that subject, including the bestselling Killer Poker series and the poker-world novel Under the Gun. A veteran creative consultant, he has taught writing in 24 countries on four continents, most recently running the writing staff of the Russian version of Married...with Children. When not out making the world safe for situation comedy, he lives in Southern California, where he very much appreciates the weather.