THRILLVILLE: Will "the Thrill" Viharo's weird, wild world of Pulp Fiction, B Movies, & the Lounge Lizard Lifestyle.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Costa Rica Pulp: The First Writer's Retreat of San Buenas

Costa Rica, tiki style (or vice versa): Villa Leanor at Ballena Beach Club
Photo by Nick Halverson
I recently returned from an amazing adventure I never anticipated. A trip to hot, humid Costa Rica was never on my bucket list. Paris, London, Boston, Graceland, even Austin - absolutely. But Latin America? Not my speed or style. Cool, cloudy Seattle is my ideal comfort zone. That's why I moved here nearly three years ago. I've never felt in such harmony with my surroundings.

However, a friend of mine I'd only actually met in person once back in the Bay Area, Ezekiel Tyrus -author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Eli, Ely, as well as the forthcoming followup My Dirty Books - invited me out of the blue to be the guest instructor at the very first Writer's Retreat of San Buenas, January 28-February 4, 2017.

Zeke and me

Zeke, among many other attributes, is a former club bouncer too, and it shows in his formidable physique and non-nonsense attitude. But this facade is transparent. He is one of the most dynamic, volatile, talented, and sweetest people I've ever met. I didn't really get to know him until our rendezvous in Costa Rica, and I am as grateful for that opportunity as I am now for the entire experience. Zeke is planning on make his personal paradise of Costa Rica his permanent residence, and he is currently working on the third novel in his Eli trilogy, Sounds Like Sunrise.

But initially, my first response to Zeke's extremely flattering offer? Hell no, I won't go! Leave my beloved Seattle in the middle of my second favorite season? No way. But thankfully, my patient and wise wife Monica talked me into it, and I changed my mind in time to accept Zeke's once-in-a-lifetime chance to broaden my horizons.

The exact location for the retreat was Las Villas de San Buenos, in a remote area outside of the relatively large town of Uvita. Most locals didn't even seem to know where it was. This only made me more nervous, even though I imagined it to be pretty "tiki"...

I recommend listening to either or both of these classic Exotica albums while perusing this post...

I felt better after I met with the owner of the property, my new pal Nick Halverson, in his hometown of Minneapolis last November. Monica was attending an academic conference there, so it was the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the man flying me thousands of miles below the border. The Washington State border, that is.

I've been to Mexico twice, but this was my first journey to Central America. I was consumed by a combination of trepidation and excitement. If nothing else, I was sure to get some fresh and unexpected material for my next book down there, especially when filtered through my pulpy prism.

That I did. And so much more.

Nick Halverson, doing his homework.

Anyway, back in Minneapolis, we hooked up with Nick - a genuinely good and generous guy- at one of the most incredible tiki lounges I've ever visited, Psycho Suzi's Motor Lodge (lots of pix in this previous blog). The faux tropical setting was actually the perfect backdrop, considering where I was heading. Even though his easy-going manner set me at ease, I still couldn't believe I was undertaking such a lengthy expedition to a region that was reputable as much for its dangers (natural and otherwise) as much as its laid back lifestyle, wonderful people, and fantastic food. Fortunately, I only encountered the positive pieces of its bountiful if daunting reputation. 

Initially, I guess I was expecting (maybe secretly hoping for) something like this...

But instead I got something much, much better (except for the gratuitous cleavage)...

The beautiful beach at Playa Ventanas, Bahia Ballena
Incomparable sunset at Playa Ballena
The serenely stunning waterfall at Cascada Pavone
A tropical "Twin Peaks" off Empalme Cerro De La Muerte, high in the mountains.

Views from our retreat location

The Motorcycle Diaries!

Pura Vida
Ginger (not Mary Ann)
Toucan in our backyard! (Photo by Nick Halverson)

Macaw in its natural habitat!
...and bats, too!
I got crabs!!

Conquering my inhibitions was the first step on a journey that will resonate in my heart and soul forever. And even though I was the honored guest "instructor," I learned much more from my "pupils" than they learned from me, with the exception of the gratuitous subject of grindhouse cinema, which is right in my wheelhouse, along with pulp fiction. I also hosted a double bill about the literary lifestyle, Charles Bukowski's Barfly (1987) starring my old pal Mickey Rourke, and Robert Towne's adaptation of John Fante's Ask the Dust (2006), starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek

Welcome to Thrillville, Latin American style. Exotic birds incessantly chirping (heckling?) outside lent it all a surrealistic aura.

 "To all my friends!": Hosting movie night ("Barfly" and "Ask the Dust"):

Grindhouse in the Jungle: hosting my father Robert Viharo's '70s cult classic "Bare Knuckles."
Everyone is still quoting it...

As a sort of informal primer, I gave each attendee a copy of my brand new novella, Things I Do When I Awake, which was largely inspired by the tragic life and recent death of my schizophrenic mother. My hope was that I could coax them to combine the ingredients of "Dreams, Memories, and Imagination" - the general theme of my workshops - into their own special stew.

It turned out they didn't need any prodding from me. They are all natural born and very gifted authors, still struggling to find their voice and follow their muse, but already equipped with the essential elements of any artist: honesty, passion, dedication, and pain.

My "workshops" were more like group therapy sessions, since for one thing I have no academic credentials. Unlike Zeke, I didn't offer any practical advice, useful techniques, or brain-flexing exercises. I merely shared my own circuitous path as an author, then asked the attendees to share their own. This proved to be a phenomenally illuminating and profoundly moving exchange, since each and every individual boasted a compelling background, a unique personality, and a singular talent for words.

Leading my first workshop (photos by Nick Halverson)

We also had a Spoken Word Night that allowed each attendee to show off what they'd written either during the retreat as part of their assignments from Zeke, or something from their past. It was probably my favorite event of the entire retreat. I chose to read from Hard-boiled Heart (Gutter Books, 2015), since I was taking mental notes for my next novel, Vic Valentine: International Man of Misery, coming later this year from Thrillville Press.

"Location scouting"...
Melrost Airport Bed and Breakfast, Alajeula, where I spent my first night after arriving in San Jose

Costa Rica Noir

Best ceviche in the world at this neighborhood street stand in Alajeula

Rio Segundo, Alajuela
One of the only gringos in Palmar Norte, Puntarenas

Luxury seaside resort El Castillo

Costa Rica Vice

I also got some serious drinking in as part of my research...

I will never forget these people. Their company alone was well worth the long trip, though the exotic scenery, wildlife, and flora and fauna provided the ideal backdrop. Each enriched my mind and spirit in ways that will reveal themselves for the rest of my life. We had extremely engaging, intelligent, thoughtful, humorous discussions about everything from our current political situation to B movies to books to sex to alcohol to just plain Life Itself.

Almost every time we engaged, one on one or as a group, it resulted in an incredibly invigorating, inspirational, and incredibly inventive conversation. We also shared a good many belly laughs. Our mutual respect and rapport was instantaneous. We were all different from one another, bonded primarily by a common love of literature, and by the time it was over, we felt like we'd known each other forever.

Meet the gang:

Dustin Thompson, Zach Roz, Nick Halverson, me, John Kapelos, Tom Shaw, Ezekial Tyrus, Ray Aguilera
Chris and Michelle

Michelle Halverson is Nick's sister-in-law, whose quiet, shy demeanor masks a deeply empathetic, intensely intuitive, and terrifically talented soul. Great art can be expected from her, I am certain, like a beautiful butterfly emerging from a cocoon, ebullient in her emancipation. She was hobbling on crutches due to a recent accident the whole time she was there, but she never lost her sense of humor or inner strength. Her husband Chris Halverson is, like his brother, one of the downright nicest dudes I've ever had the pleasure of knowing.

With Ray Aguilera
Ray Aguilera, originally from Stockton but now a San Francisco-based journalist and radio show host, has been dealing with cerebral palsy since childhood. His story about how he survived a condition that often proves fatal was probably the single most uplifting and astonishing tale of survival I've ever heard. He is quite simply an amazing dude.

Ray's partner Tom Shaw is a distinguished career pianist and one of the most gregarious and multi-gifted people I've ever met. Everything laudatory I have to say about Tom (and that's a lot) can be summed up musically in this hysterical viral clip from the 2011 indie film in which he starred, Chickens in the Shadows...


Dustin Thompson 
is a gay Southern gentleman who can turn a witty phrase with the mental agility of Noel Coward, speaking in a charming drawl that evokes every classic Dixie author from Carson McCullers to Truman Capote to Tennessee Williams. Despite his complete innocence, Dustin endured a brutal 17 month stretch in a Mississippi prison after he got busted with his drug dealing boyfriend, who only served six months. He is now happily employed at a VA hospital in Long Beach, CA, while working on a memoir about coming out as a gay man in a historically bigoted community, as well as doing time for a crime he did not commit - and surviving both with grace, dignity, and unflappable humor.

With Zach Roz

Zach Roz is a 27 year old poet from San Francisco that hosts his own popular Spoken Word Night. He is a very sensitive soul and a brilliant writer. We share some similar sources of spiritual discomfort. His performance at our own Spoken Word night, which he also hosted, was nothing short of a revelation.

And lastly...the biggest surprise guest...

Actor/musician/Second City alumnus John Kapelos is probably best known as Carl the Janitor in the cross-generational crowd pleaser The Breakfast Club (1985) and as Jerry's "sniffing accountant" on Seinfeld. At least that's how I knew him. Now I know him as a humble, organically gifted, sweet, funny, and genuine human being, someone I am very proud to count as one of my new friends.

The day John sat down and explained just how much and why he loved Things I Do When I'm Awake was possibly the highlight of the entire trip for me, as well as when he read from a chapter from it at Spoken Word Night. He also exclusively premiered for us the new video of his own jazzy cover version of "Don't You Forget About Me," which is included on his upcoming album, Too Hip for the Room. It was my honor and privilege getting to know him.

"I'm hip to the whole scene..." (Photo by Nick Halverson)

And of course we'd have never made it anywhere during our frequent field trips
without our skilled, trusty, affable driver, Jose...
Nick and Jose

Bonding as a team...

 "The Breakfast Club"

The New Algonquin Table, Costa Rica chapter
(Photos by Nick Halverson)
Beach bums

Rumble in the Jungle

"The Lad from Long Beach, The Lady from Minnesota, The Poet from North Beach, The Pugnacious Floridian, The Seattle Searcher, My New Hero from Stockton, The Gentle Giant from Bloomfield Hills all with sinewy stories and sublime spirits. Thanks so much also to Nick Halverson. It was a great week and well worth it. With Love and profound respect." (John Kapelos)

I will really miss my new friends. They taught me much, much more than I taught them. I am forever grateful for the personal stories they shared, for the warm and gracious company, and for an experience that will resonate in my heart forever. Salud.

Ironically, as I wrote this tropical travelogue, it was snowing heavily here at home in Seattle...

Valentine's dinner with Monica at Zuave then cocktails at Mioposto, cheers
Lost Lake Cafe

Northlake Tavern and Pizza House, Seattle
University of Washington Club
Kona Kitchen, Seattle
Old Fifth Avenue Tavern, Seattle

With Miss Noir City Greer Sinclair and Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, Noir City Seattle,
Egyptian Theater, 2/17/17
Noir City Seattle, 2/18/17


Some shots of me as a 17-18 year old visiting my relatives in Houston, Texas;
then more from my first trip back since 1982, this past March 16-19, 2017
I spent the first six years of my life being raised by relatives in Houston after my
mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia 

Me as Batman with my Aunt Mina and cousin Robin (!), late 1960s  

 With my Aunt Carol, her daughters Amy and Tiffany, and my grandparents,
Fred and Mamie

This is me when I wrote Chumpy Walnut in Houston, 1981-82

With my cousins THEN:

and NOW:

With my Aunts Mina and Carol at a cool Houston tiki lounge, Lei Low 

The next Noir at the Bar Seattle, April 13, Fireside Room at the Hotel Sorrento


"Thrillville," my official theme song by The Moon-Rays
"Director's cut" of Jeff M. Giordanos' documentary THE THRILL IS GONE(2014)

Original book trailer for The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection, shot and edited by Christopher Sorrenti (2011)

Book trailer for Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up to the Room,
animated by Vincent Cortez (2011)

Promoting the first edition of A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge on San Francisco's Creepy KOFY Movietime, 2010

Reading from Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me (2014)

Live reading of my short story "Escape from Thrillville" (2014, included in The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection, Volume 3)

Book trailer for It Came from Hangar 18 (2012)

Interview with Scott Fulks and me for Tiki Oasis TV, August 2015

You may also dig:


My story HOT NIGHT AT HINKY DINKS is included in this cocktail-themed flash fiction anthology, now available for pre-order:

My story MEANTIME is included in this bitchin' anthology, 
for which I also wrote the foreword:

My short story BEHIND THE BAR is included in this anthology

My erotic horror noir novella THINGS I DO WHEN I'M AWAKE 

The new Vic Valentine novel HARD-BOILED HEART now available from Gutter Books


VOLUME ONE: A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge and
Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up to the Room

VOLUME TWO: Lavender Blonde and Down a Dark Alley

VOLUME THREE: Chumpy Walnut and Other Stories

Fate Is My Pimp, Romance Takes a Rain Check, I Lost My Heart in Hollywood, Diary of a Dick


Order your official THRILLVILLE FEZ from Fez-O-Rama!