JOHN VORHAUS has combined effective character development, hilarious shenanigans, and an inventive vocabulary composed of “fabricat” words in this third installment of Radar Hoverlander novels, The Texas Twist. Vorhaus’ followers may know Radar’s charming con man character from his previous novels The California Roll and Albuquerque Turkey, in which the protagonist successfully pulls off world-class cons in the books’ title locations. The third novel, released by Prospect Park Books on June 1st, follows the same character, this time examining not only his elaborate swindling schemes, but also the potential development of every con man’s worst nightmare—a conscience. Here we chat with Vorhaus about how he puts it all together to create a “sunshine noir” novel that is sure to leave his readers hooked, and get some advice on our own likelihood of falling victim to some sort of con, hoodwink, or bamboozle.
PPB: The characters of The Texas Twist are easy to get to know, even for readers who haven’t read earlier installments. When writing, do you put any consideration towards making each installment of your series accessible to new readers?
JV: Yes, lots. I want everyone who reads my book – old friends and new eyes alike – to have a terrific, enjoyable ride. So I deliver necessary character and backstory information in the context of some current con or conflict. It’s a writing trick they taught me back in school: Couch exposition in conflict. If you do that, even people who already know the exposition will usually stay tuned.
PPB: It seems that there aren’t that many places in the country where you – or Radar for that matter – could make Cal Jessup into a character believable enough to hang the success of a con on him. Did that factor into your consideration when placing the setting for The Texas Twist? How do you go about developing the setting for your novels?
JV: Cal Jessup is a con man of a certain type – a glad-handing Texan – but con men are adept at adapting. In New Jersey he’d be a wise guy. In Great Britain he’d be a baron manqué. Con artists thrive in any hospitable environment and, chameleon-like, make themselves at home. As for how I develop settings for my novels, that’s pretty much by whimsy. I come up with a title I like, and the title suggests the place. After that it’s just research.
PPB: You note in the “Off the Snuke” afterword that Radar is perhaps not all that different from you after all. Where did the character Radar come from?
JV: Radar Hoverlander was originally intended to be a top poker player with an unusually colorful name. However…I decided to move him into the different – but not entirely unrelated – world of con artistry. When it comes to inventing characters, I use another old writing-school technique: I just create characters who will give my hero the worst possible time. I’m attentive to names, though. I always want to make sure that the name fits the character.
PPB: Vic Mirplo, Radar’s sidekick, has a prodigious talent for seemingly effortless word invention…such that readers may sometimes have a hard time telling the real words from the fake. How do you go about inventing your words?
JV: I could write a book on how to invent new words. A simple way is to merge existing words into new compounds. Add “sad” to “hilarious,” and you get “sadlarious,” which describes all too many situations we face in this world. Inventing new words is a hobby/obsession of mine, so much so that I have a file of fabricat words (words such as “fabricat”). When it comes time to find the right wrong word for Mirplo, I have abundant resources to draw upon. Every new word is fake – until it catches on. One of my favorite words is “bafflegab,” but I didn’t invent it. It was invented exactly and precisely by one Milton A. Smith on January 19, 1952 (Google it!)…Perhaps now it will catch on, but if it does, I predict that people will mistakenly attribute it to me.
PPB: There is a lot of language involved in the con world that would not be immediately familiar to a general audience. How do you go about introducing the language to your readers without breaking their immersion?
JV: …Around here we call it “taking the reader off the page,” and you’re right, that’s something you generally don’t want to do. If a word will be new to the reader, like “snuke” (which I invented as a synonym for “con,”) I try to define it in context. The savvy reader (and all of mine are – yay, you!) will glean the definition and move on. In other instances, if I think the reader won’t understand my word or phrase, I’ll have a character also not understand it, and make a fuss about it, so that I can, once again, couch exposition (or in this case definition) in conflict.
PPB: Grifting, the practice of obtaining money dishonestly through various swindles and frauds, is so often an exquisitely visual practice: manipulating sightlines and overloading the mark’s senses, manipulating their expectations and trusting their blindness to detail. In print you will often lack the luxury of going back over a scene for the reader. How do you deal with making a con interesting and believable in print?
JV: The description of a con has to work on three different levels. It has to fool the character being conned, it has to fool the reader in the moment, and it has to be completely logical and sensible when the reader goes back to consider the mechanics of it later. I’m not sure that this is so much a visual business as it is conceptual… I control their expectation by controlling their information. They know what I want them to know, and draw conclusions accordingly. If I’m doing my job right, the reader is both in the know and not in the know at the same time. The ideal response is, “A-ha!” and then “Wait, what?”
PPB: Discovering subtle foreshadowing upon re-reading a book is a delightful experience for any reader. How important do you find foreshadowing when writing your novels?
JV: I don’t set out to do a lot of foreshadowing in my novels, but once I’ve completed a draft, I’ll go back and add information that gives hints about what lies ahead. One might call that “backforeshadowing,” I suppose…It contributes to the “exquisite state of confusion” I try to create with my word choices, my selective reveals, and my wheels-within-wheels story construction.
PPB: You have so much experience in writing non-fiction and writing for other media, how has that affected the way you write your fiction? Do you draw on that experience deeply or do you generally keep them separate in your mind?
JV: My long journey through non-fiction was indispensible to my growth as a writer. It was a bridge, in a sense. It taught me how to tackle book-length projects where story wasn’t an issue, and prepared me for the much dauntier task of book-length projects where story is an issue. From writing for television and film, I learned a valuable “show, don’t tell” style that, I think, helps my prose stay healthy and keeps my yarns moving along at a fairly good clip. People say that my novels read like screenplays, and I happily accept that judgment.
PPB: The Texas Twist is a lesson in how vulnerable we are to the con artists of the world. Do you have any advice; how can one avoid getting conned? What sort of things should people look out for?
JV: Wow, that’s another whole book I could write. Here’s the short version. Any time the phone rings and it’s not your mother, watch out! Same with the front door. Same with the Internet. The easiest way to avoid getting conned is to initiate all transactions. Any offer that comes to you unsolicited should be regarded with utmost suspicion. Basically it boils down to two simple rules. 1) If it seems too good to be true, it is. 2) The only free cheese is in the trap.
Find out more about John by visiting his website at www.johnvorhaus.com.