Willy Vlautin is an author and songwriter from Scappoose, Oregon, just up Hwy 30 from the St. John’s Bridge. He’s revered enough to have been recruited to read the works of William Stafford and Ken Kesey in documentaries of their lives and work recently aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Still, there are a lot of readers out there, Northwest included, who have yet to read any his big-hearted, blue collar tales. His fourth novel, The Free, could be the book to change that. And chances are, once you’ve read one Willy Vlautin, you’re going to want to make some room toward the tail end of your alphabetized bookshelf.
Vlautin was gracious enough to come home at the end of a couple of long days in the music studio and answer some questions waiting in his inbox, when he probably needed to be doing some laundry in preparation for a European kickoff to his book tour.
Hard working, diligent, courteous—from the writer to the page.
BJ: You are on a pretty good creative roll upon the release of The Free. In 2011 you won an Oregon Book Award for your novel Lean on Pete. This past October, your band, Richmond Fontaine, was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. In November, the film based on your first novel, The Motel Life, was released. I know I’m setting you up here, but how do your rank these experiences?
WV: Any time I get recognized or acknowledged or helped out it means that maybe I can keep going with what I’m doing. That’s the way I’ve always felt. It takes a bit of heat off, a bit of the worry, and gives me confidence and energy to keep working on the books and the band. As far as ranking… Well anytime the band gets recognized it is the best as there’s four of us working at it and they’re my pals. But for Lean on Pete to be recognized both with the Oregon Book Award and then short listed for the IMPAC was pretty great. Charley Thompson, the narrator of L on P, has always meant a lot to me. I like that kid quite a bit. The movie, hell that was just fun and weird with no pressure or worry.
BJ: You mention the IMPAC, the Dublin Literary Award, which is where you are headed first on The Free tour. You’ll be interviewed by Roddy Doyle, who has to be a music lover as writer of The Commitments and the brand new follow-up, The Guts. Have you met him on previous book or band tours? Have you been brushing up on some Irish English slang to fire back at him?
WV: My grandmother gave me Roddy Doyle’s first book, The Commitments when I was twenty or so and I loved it and have bought his books ever since. He’s one of the best working class writers we have. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and the sequel, Paula Spencer, have been huge inspirations to me. So getting to do events with him is amazing ‘cause I am such a fan and also because he’s a great guy. Humble and funny and down to earth. I met him first in Galway. I did an event with him at a fancy hotel in a ballroom with crystal chandeliers and I was nervous as hell but it turned out great because he was so damn nice. But hell he’s worlds more witty than me so I just try to keep my mouth shut and listen hoping I might learn something.
BJ: You are currently in the studio to knock out some new material before turning your focus on to promoting The Free over the next couple to many months. How do you compare the creative processes, making a book and making music?
WV: Making records is a collective effort so you get to sit back and listen to other people and trust other people’s instincts and ideas. I like that aspect quite a bit. But making a record usually has a limited window due to time and money constraints, while editing a novel is all about perseverance and hard work. It’s cheap and the only one you have to hire is yourself, and I work for less than nothing! You can edit for years if you want to and for me that’s the best part and the part I enjoy the most. I could tinker on a story for years, and I did do that on The Free. I wrote the first draft in six months and spent three years editing it pretty much non-stop.
BJ: And the touring? By the time this interview posts you’ll have already done a European lead jaunt and begun an extremely ambitious U.S. book tour. What’s it like touring as an author, solo every night, in comparison to traveling and performing with the band?
WV: Touring with the band wins that one. I don’t have to drive so I just sit in the back and read novels. I start each tour with a stack of books and just plow through them. I dig it. I don’t worry about anything except for trying not to be the weak link in the band and then the payoff is getting to play gigs. Book touring’s harder as I’m usually just reading from a book under fluorescent lights. There’s not a bar or dim lights and I’m all by myself. I drive by myself and hell, I get tired of my company. But I do get to listen to audiobooks all day while driving. I’m addicted to audiobooks and that and being in bookstores make up for the downside of book touring.
BJ: Can you give us a favorite recent or all-time audio book? How about favorite reader—there are some sought after voices that do a lot of work in that venue, aren’t there?
WV: I love anything read by Will Patton. He reads a lot of Denis Johnson’s stuff, Train Dreams, Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke. Those are amazing. Also his reading of James Lee Burke’s novel are unreal. The guy is just flat out the best. I also just listened to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The story of Louis Zamperini. Just amazing. I listen to Ironweed by William Kennedy (read by Jason Robards) at least once a year. I read and then listened to The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Both were amazing and the book changed a bit when I heard it. That guy can really write. Oh and don’t forget anything read by George Guidall. A great reader can elevate the book, put a twist into it, a heart that you might not find on your own. Plus you can hear rhythms in the writing that you might not pick up just reading it. I learned a lot about the way William Kennedy writes from listening to the rhythm Jason Robards took from the prose.
BJ: Just about the time I started reading The Free, I was sent a link to the essay “Tale of the Seed and the Song” from the New York Times Opinionator blog. It’s from Eric Earley, of the Portland-via-Salem band Blitzen Trapper (eventually destined for their own enshrinement in the OMHOF). He says, “Ever since I was old enough to pick up a banjo I’ve been searching out these seeds, where every song starts. Something small and out of the way. These seeds can be tragic or crazy or terribly mundane but they are necessary to find your way in a world full of nonsense…. Any writer sees these seeds for what they are, holds them in and houses them indefinitely.”
It felt very apropos to get this while reading a Willy Vlautin novel, and I want to ask you about your “seeds.” Obviously every writer has to come up with ideas that strike a chord, but your details always seem unquestionably sincere. Snapshots of the real. Maybe you tell us about one or two from The Free? Freddie’s ’65 Mercury Comet, Pat’s daily frozen dinner and a liter of soda, Amalia Rodrigues—these things are revisited, touchstones to seeing and understanding your characters, never insignificant.
WV: The Comet came from the idea that Freddie’s the sort of guy who hangs on to the things he knows. He keeps the car as it was his first car. He’s sentimental. When it breaks, and it’s old and does break, he just thinks about fixing it, not getting a new car. He tends to think within the framework of his situation. He doesn’t look outside of it, and that as well as fear leaves him with the job he has at the failing paint store with a boss who’s greed and lack of ambition are running the place into the ground. Sadly Freddie tries to save the place instead of looking for a different job so he’s being run into the ground and mistreated as well.
His boss, Pat, is based on a boss I had. The man ate frozen dinners every day for lunch and he would make you leave the building from noon to one so he could listen to “Focus on the Family,” a religious program hosted by Dr. James Dobson. He’d eat while on speaker phone with his wife. No business calls were answered and no one was allowed into the building during this time. The thing that stuck with me about him was that he was the most un-empathetic yet the most religious man I’d ever met. He wore his religion with boxing gloves wanting to pound anyone that wasn’t a believer. Yet for all the scripture he read and programs he listened to he forgot the basic ideas: to be kind and humble and decent and put others before yourself.
And Amalia Rodrigues, she’s the tremendous Fado singer. I’ve always admired her greatly, hell she’s Amalia Rodrigues! More than anything I brought her into the book because I wanted her to look after Leroy, the injured soldier, and his girlfriend, Jeanette. I wanted Amalia Rodrigues to be their good luck charm, to be their beauty and safety while they made their way inside Leroy’s troubled and scarred up mind.
BJ: One sentiment that is regularly broadcast by readers and reviewers of your work is your ability to convey hope and the best of humanity even in very difficult and often tragic circumstances. But that glimmer has to be set against some pretty serious darkness to shine so brightly. In The Free, you give readers a dose of the pitch black stuff that’s generated from the worst of our weaknesses and fears. Where would you say your spirit generally lives on the spectrum? Is it easy for you to be hopeful or kind of a regular tribulation, as we experience in your stories?
WV: I do write a lot about people in the middle of their life’s struggle, their Achilles heel, because often I’m feeling that way myself. I like to be around people and characters that don’t give up, who fight. Honestly this is probably just because I’m scared of giving up myself. They give me courage. A guy like Charley Thompson, from Lean on Pete, saved my life for a couple years. He got me out of bed each day ‘cause the kid was tough and even though he’d get beat up and dragged down, he’d still get to his feet and keep going. At the time I needed to be around that. I needed to remember that side of myself. So in the end Charley Thompson was a great pal to me. Pauline and Darla and Freddie, from The Free, are the same. Yet in The Free it’s the strong people like Pauline, Darla, and Freddie, who try to save the people that aren’t quite strong enough to make it on their own. I wrote them to remind myself to be good to the people close to me, and to remember that even when you’re down and out you have to be kind, you have to remember to try and be decent and keep your humanity.
BJ: Okay, after laying it to your pretty heavy, we’ll wrap things up with a couple of easy ones: Did you participate in or at least visit any of the production of “The Motel Life” film—and, what I’m really getting at here is, did you get to meet Kris Kristofferson?
WV: I didn’t have much to do with “The Motel Life.” I took the directors around Reno and showed them the places in the book but I didn’t write the screenplay or have any real involvement. They were pretty damn nice to me though. They even brought me down to meet Kris Kristofferson. I lasted a couple minutes before I was too nervous and had to leave. Sometimes it’s too much to meet your heroes. The best of it was that he shot a scene in a restaurant I’ve been going to since I was a kid. It’s a great place called the Halfway Club and he even sat in the same booth I always sit in. It was very surreal and amazing. I think the movie came out good, especially the animation which was done by a brilliant guy named Mike Smith.
BJ: And the soundtrack isn’t bad either, with a Richmond Fontaine track folded in there with the likes of Townes van Zandt, Marty Stuart and Bob Dylan! Did you work that into the fine print or did the filmmakers ask you for a song?
WV: Ha I wish I was that savvy. No the directors put the RF song “Boyfriends” in there on their own. We were honored and super surprised they did, and they did it at the end credits and played the whole song, hell we were even next to Bob Dylan. And you’re right it is a good soundtrack. At one time it was even a better soundtrack as they had tons of Willie Nelson songs in the movie but I think his songs are too expensive and they couldn’t swing it. Willie Nelson is the patron saint of The Flannigan Brothers (from The Motel Life) so it would have been great. But at least they talked about him in the movie!
BJ: Rainier Artesians or Hamms Beer Bear?
WV: Ha, I’m a Rainer man all the way. That’s why I gave Leroy and his girl, Jeanette (from The Free) Rainier beer whenever they needed it.
BJ: When’s the last time you caved in for Bing’s takeout?
WV: Man, I haven’t been in Bing’s for anything but a gin and tonic in a few years. It’s the hard thing about living in a small town. You have to drive 50 miles to get good Chinese food.
The Free is available in paperback and in an audio version narrated by none other than, Willy Vlautin. Vlautin begins a seven-week U.S. tour in support of The Free starting tonight at Powell’s. Catch him in your neck of the woods.