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Interview: John Vorhaus on writing humour, indie publishing and nostalgic literature


Lucy in the Sky John Vorhaus1 150x150 Interview: John Vorhaus on writing humour, indie publishing and nostalgic literature

John Vorhaus is a man with an expansive CV: hes worked as a writer for film, television, and the humble print industry. Hes also a funny chap, with humour and comedy being his area of expertise.

But as anyone whos ever groaned at a dad joke or whos told joke thats resulted in nothing but blank stares knows, one persons idea of hilarity is another persons idea of sheer boredomand Vorhaus has worked hard over the years to figure out how not to strike out in the humour stakes.

How to be funny without alienating your audience

First you have to understand that not everyone will find everything funny, he says. For instance, consider this joke: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with an agnostic? Someone who rings your doorbell for no apparent reason. This joke will not be funny to A) people who don't know about Jehovah's Witnesses and their door-to-door proselytising, or B) Jehovah's Witnesses.

Vorhaus explains that authors'have to acknowledge from the start that their stuff will work for some people (a decent sum of people, we hope) but not for everyone. He also notes that its important to realise that some humour is situational and some universal.

If you're talking about funny things that happen at your exclusive country club, you're likely to lose the audience. The difference between a class clown and a class nerd is the class clown tells jokes that everyone gets, while the class nerd tells jokes only he gets. I have learned not to tell jokes that only I get. (If only I could resist an example: 'Q: How many solipsists does it take to change a light bulb?' 'A: Who wants to know?')

Comedy is cruelty, but its not always bad to be cruel

But, he says, if you're talking about fundamental things like love, marriage, sex and death, you can always get a laugh because these subjects resonate with everyone. If this is making you cringe, then youre right in doing so:'its most basic level, Vorhaus points out, comedy is cruelty.'A thing isn't funny to the person it's happening to, but it's funny to the people watching. If you create a victim who's worth laughing at, because he is flawed, damaged and vulnerable, you can always get the crowd to laugh along at him.

But just because'comedy is cruelty doesn't mean it's bad to be cruel.

From a storytelling point of view, you often have to be cruel to your characters, otherwise, they never learn and they never change. For the sake of bringing them to a higher understanding, seriously, you have to put them through hell.

The shift from traditional publishing to an indie career

Speaking of being put through hell, its interesting to note that Vorhaus has eschewed traditional publishing, where he began his career, in favour of an independent approach. As anyone whos tried the same would know, its a tough market out there, and opting for an indie approach smacks a tad of masochism.

I agonised over this decision for quite some time, he admits. It's not just about the money. There are also questions of my reputation as a writer, my legacy as an author, and that dirty little stigma of self-publishing, which still lurks in the back of many writers' minds. But I'm a forward-looking guy, and the Amazon-esque model is clearly the wave of the future.

This new direction is partly spurred by his experiences in traditional publishing, which left him feeling disenchanted.

When I released my first big novel, The California Roll, I really thought I was a made guy. I thought that, thanks to the clout of a big publishing house, the success of the title was ensured. There were three things I counted on my publisher to do: distribution, marketing, and publicity.

None of which, it turned out, his publisher did.

I can't entirely fault them for this, for that novel came to press just as the whole publisher/distributor/bookstore model was starting to break down. Still, it was a rude awakening. Writer who dont hustle on their own behalf cannot count on success. Of course even writers who do hustle are not guaranteed successyet we live in hope.

Audience perceptions of indie vs self-published

Although theres clearly a paradigm shift in the works, Vorhaus says that positioning himself as an indie writer rather than a self-published one has helped him sleep more soundly at night.

The audience understands indie. They've seen it work in music and they're prepared to have it work with books. To increase my reach, I've created versions of Lucy in the Sky in eBook, print and author-narrated audio. I was surprised and delighted to discover that I enjoyed all the stuff I'd never had to deal with before, like cover design. The finished product feels, well, much more wholly me.

He points out that with the 70% royalty rate he receives through his current channels, the return is better than that offered through a traditional publisher, where royalty rates are typically less than 10%.

Of course, its not all smooth sailing: theres a good deal of grunt work required from the typical indie author.

Balancing writing and marketing as an indie author

I've wrestled with the balance between writing and marketing extensively, he says. I hate taking away from my writing time to do promotion. However, if you think about it, almost everyone's job contains an element of something they don't like. Say you're a surgeon. All you really want to do is cut people open, but some of the time you have to do paperwork and consultations, and just check to see that the patient you operated on is still alive. Promo, then, is at least a necessary evil. I try to have fun with itas I'm having fun with this right now. The good news about the modern world is that there are more free promotional opportunities than any single writer can possibly exploit, so the cost is, or should be, primarily one of time, not money.

And Vorhaus is not exaggerating when he stresses how much time and effort is involved in getting the word out.

The fact is, there are many titles out there, worthy and unworthy, and I won't kid you, it's damn hard to cut through the clutter. But I hustleI'm hustling right now by writing these wordsand I'm working hard to grow my brand and my fan base. I don't expect to be a rock star of publishing, but I hope to be a durable folkie with a decent following. Also, I have a large and growing catalogue of titles, so if someone likes what they find in Lucy, there's plenty more work from me for them to sample and enjoy. Quantity is king in indie publishing.

Why everyone wants to read books set in the 60s

I note that'Lucy seems to be hitting a current market trend: just this month Ive read a handful of books set in the 1960s. What is it about this setting that seems to hit such a nerve?

Can it be that it's just about baby boomers having reached the age where all they want to do is sit in a quiet corner and read? Seriously, I think the '60s represent the last pure period of western history and culture. You knew who the good guys and the bad guys were, and there was no ambiguity. By the time the me generation rolled around, the very notion of a moral compass had become quaint and, as your British readers will know it, twee. So, looking back to the '60s is looking back to a time when you knew where you stood. Many people find that appealing. I know I do.

And Vorhaus suspects his readers will, as well. After all, his intended audience is people of his own generationor who share those ideals.

Young seekers and old geezers, he says. I want to speak to readers who either were hippies or wanted to be hippies, but I really want to speak to teenagers and twenty-somethings who are grappling with issues of personal freedom. I don't think there's anything more important in this life than setting yourself free, and if my work can help earnest young strivers achieve that goal, then it will all have been worthwhile.

Indeed, Vorhaus believes that todays readers are overwhelmed by information, and are searching for respite.

Are todays readers nostalgia for a time where innocence was allowed?

There is simply no innocence available to anyone, unless they wilfully and intentionally detach themselves from the information stream. The 60s, then, represent a time of innocence, when one could not be expected to know everything, and could therefore be forgiven one's ignorance. But you know what? Every generation looks back at the past through the rosy lens of nostalgia, and no one has made that point better than Woody Allen did in Midnight in Paris.

Still, despite the current changes in the publishing world, and the world more generally, Vorhaus remains optimistic.

You know, we do live in hope, he says. Writer and reader alike, we yearn for the best and if we're sensible strive for positive outcomes. Many is the time I've felt lost and alone in the wilderness of publishing, with no readers, no audience, no love. At such times I remind myself that I am my first and most important audience. If the things I write make my own life rise, I simply have to trust that everything else will take care of itself. The experience of writing Lucy in the Sky was really quite profound. I found that I had all these demons of my own past that needed slaying. Specifically, I always felt regret that I never had the 'hippie experience' I thought I should have had. Having written that experience in this novel, I find that I no longer have a yearning for the road not taken. That's not nothing; in fact, it's quite a lot.

Interview with John Vorhaus1 150x150 Interview: John Vorhaus on writing humour, indie publishing and nostalgic literatureAbout John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus is best known as the author of'The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You're Not. His latest release,'Lucy in the Sky is available in eBook, paperback and awesome author-narrated audio here. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact, and secretly controls the world from, where he always welcome your visit.


  1. I think to write on humor and comedy is very tough, So, John Vorhaus is an intelligent writer. This interview is really very inspiring to writers. Thanks for sharing this interview with us.

    • Stephanie /

      My pleasure, Bennet. Youre right that humour is definitely a tough genre to get right.