Friday, April 1, 2011

John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus is the author of The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even if You’re Not. An avid poker player, he has 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 twenty-four countries on four continents, most recently running the writing staff of the Russian version of Married ... with Children.

His new novel is The Albuquerque Turkey.

Last month I asked Vorhaus what he was reading. His reply:
Since my next novel is set in 1969, I was excited to see how a master like Thomas Pynchon handled the task, and so picked up his noirish new novel, Inherent Vice, which follows the stoned adventures of detective Larry “Doc” Sportello through the drugs-and-corruption underworld of a semi-fictitious, late ‘60s Los Angeles. Having grown up in LA in the late ‘60s, I was interested to see where Pynchon’s research had yielded verisimilitude, and where he cut a corner or two in the name of good storytelling.

This is a challenge I’m facing every day in my current work, a coming-of-age tale set in Milwaukee in 1969. Of course I wasn’t there then, and Internet resources on the subject are scarcer than you might expect. Nor is it entirely necessary that I adhere strictly to ‘60s reality, since my protagonist is only fifteen years old, and his first-person narrative yields only the evidence available to a fifteen-year-old’s eyes. In this sense, I made a conscious decision to “cheat the research.” Had I selected a third person narrator, I would have been much more responsible for a full and accurate portrayal of the era – and the fact is, I hate research like a cat hates baths, for the simple reason that when I’m researching I’m not writing, and I’d rather be writing, full stop.

Interestingly, I detect a similar cheat in Inherent Vice. By assigning the storytelling to the limited, subjective (stoned) perspective of Doc Sportello, Pynchon deals himself the liberty of capturing such details as he sees fit, and ignoring or eliding the ones he doesn’t need or doesn’t choose to pursue. In that sense, I found Inherent Vice to be a totally uplifting read. If my approach mimics a master’s, it can’t be too off base.

On an emotional level, I thought I also detected something of Pynchon’s yearning, and in it a yearning common to all authors. Having succeeded in writing eyeball-bleed fiction (fiction that’s a challenge – albeit a worthy one – for the reader) he clearly decided to go for something less stressful here. I can almost hear his inner monologue: Sure, I can write riveting and authentic historical fiction (Mason/Dixon) and I can write game-changing science fiction (V, Gravity’s Rainbow) but can I write a pot-boiler? Dunno. Only one way to find out

“Only one way to find out.” These are the words, I think, that drive every writer to ever higher levels of challenge and achievement. No sooner have we conquered one writing task than we set ourselves new and more difficult ones. My own career is a picture-book history of this, as I progressed from advertising copywriter to songwriter to sitcom writer to hour-drama writer to screenplay writer to comic novelist to serious novelist. I have now arrived at a genre I define as “voice fiction,” fiction with something to say. I expect to be here for quite some time, but I don’t expect to stay here, because writing is a “have more/need more” condition. Once I’ve conquered voice fiction, I know I’ll be motivated to do something I haven’t done. That’s how a real writer rolls.

Just ask Thomas Pynchon.
Visit John Vorhaus's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: The Albuquerque Turkey.

--Marshal Zeringue