Willy Vlautin: ‘You try to make something that is a story, and is about life, but also says something that matters’

Whether in his outstanding debut, ‘The Motel Life’, or his latest novel, ‘The Free’, the American writer – and key member of Richmond Fontaine – understands the marginalised lives that his characters endure

Willy Vlautin: “I just wrote for myself, as a way of keeping my head straight.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Willy Vlautin: “I just wrote for myself, as a way of keeping my head straight.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


There is a natural goodness about the American writer Willy Vlautin. In this era of superhype, in which many authors appear wary, impatient or downright bored at the prospect of an interview, Vlautin is kindly and appreciative of the interest shown in his work. He says he is sorry when I arrive looking as if I have just swum across a lake, and explain that my car is marooned on a flooded road. “Raining that bad,” he says, shaking his head, his eyes soft with concern. Then he adds, with the same sincerity, “I’m sorry you didn’t like the book.”

“Didn’t like” is a bit strong. The problem with The Free is that it follows Lean on Pete (2010), a novel that once read resides in the heart forever. The hero of Lean on Pete , young Charley Thompson, a boy on a quest, lives off the page, whereas Leroy, the damaged Iraq War veteran, lies in a coma, following a suicide attempt, for the duration of The Free , alive only through a sequence of heightened dystopian interludes that do not convince me.

Somewhat more frustrating is that another character, the hapless Freddie, whose life falls asunder at every turn, is so interesting. The novel should have been centred on his story, which is compellingly real. By day he works in a paint store, virtually running it for an ungrateful boss; by night he is a care worker, attempting to help lost souls such as Leroy. Vlautin laughs and replies that people seem to like Freddie. “Maybe I should write a book about him. I guess I’m going to have to.”

Lean on Pete , which was Vlautin’s third novel, placed him on the international literary stage. His outstanding debut, The Motel Life (2005), and its successor, Northline (2007), have also been well received. His gentle candour infuses his writing with an urgency that suits its hand-held filmic feel, and The Free is like a Sundance contender. Vlautin understands the marginalised and random life his characters endure. They also pause and reflect. As Frank recalls in The Motel Life , “Jerry Lee, Tommy and I were at our old house, the one my mom left for us. We were drinking in the kitchen. I was 15. We decided we’d catch a freight train to San Francisco. I don’t know why exactly, just one of those things we used to sit around and think about. An adventure.”

That novel begins with Frank, still drunk and nauseous, being woken by a duck killing itself by flying through his bedroom window. Having disposed of the bird, Frank is further disturbed by the entrance of Jerry Lee, his one-legged brother, weeping, with the news that he has run over a young boy and that the body is in his car. The brothers drop the victim outside a hospital and run away.

Fiction mirrored in songs
Therein rests the truth that sustains Vlautin’s art. His fiction is mirrored in his songs. He became well known as the frontman singer-songwriter of the alternative country band Richmond Fontaine. Then a casual mention of a story he had written only for himself resulted in his first novel being published and his second career beginning.

Ironically, his songwriting grew out of his shyness. “I was always the kid who didn’t want to go to school – and, well . . .” His voice trails off, as it often does.

He is not particularly interested in speaking about himself. He grew up in Reno, Nevada, “just my brother and me. I always lived in my head and was nervous, sort of looking for something.” A bit like Charley Thompson? He agrees, saying animatedly that, like Charley, he used to hang out at the racetrack. “And, you know, we would all get so excited on the chances a horse had of winning and us making something out of it. And there was one horse – and, well, it went really badly wrong, and that’s when I began to ask myself what I was doing. There we were feeling sorry for ourselves instead of for the horse.”

He explains the ambivalence behind his passion for horse racing, how humans see salvation on the back of a horse and then the poor animal breaks down, or worse. He and his girlfriend have a quiet old thoroughbred and a “pretty speedy” Quarter horse, “and we just ride them around for fun”.

As for the world of horse racing, Vlautin admits to having discovered that there was far too much sorrow. “There’s a lot of people like Del,” he says, referring to the cruel character who scratches a mean living out of abusing tragic horses such as Lean on Pete. “That whole claiming-race thing is very harsh.”

Richmond Fontaine, who were founded in 1994 at Portland Meadows racetrack, have recorded nine albums, all firmly based on Vlautin’s narrative-driven songs, and some of whose stories have re-emerged in his fiction. Vlautin had been writing songs, and was already influenced by Tom Waits, when he discovered the stories of Raymond Carver. “I felt he was writing about people I knew and had always felt easier around people who were lost and hurting and fighting their corner.”

He was then drawn to John Steinbeck. It is as if the driving force of The Grapes of Wrath (1939) heightened Vlautin’s sense of social injustice. His books and songs have looked to society’s outcasts: the losers and victims. In Northline he told the story of an abused wife. But this time Vlautin set out to address a number of issues, and he does not disagree on hearing The Free described as a multiple polemic.

“We don’t seem to want to help our veterans. It’s okay when these guys are out there fighting in wars, representing America – you got that the title The Free is from the national anthem? But we don’t want to have to deal with them when they get back.”

Vlautin agrees that it’s not just society that turns away: the families are often unable to deal with catastrophically traumatised soldiers incapable of returning to ordinary life. “Leroy shouldn’t even have been there in the first place. He was in the National Guard.”

Vlautin speaks of Leroy as if he knows him – and perhaps he does know a Leroy. Freddie is based on a man he knew who happened to work in a paint store and had a child with medical needs. “I wanted to make a point about soldiers, and that is tied in with healthcare.”

One character, Pauline, lives alone with only a rescued pet rabbit, chocolate and television for company. “When my girlfriend tried to get health insurance – she had been working in a bakery – she couldn’t get any, because of her age: she’s 42. I learned a lot about the healthcare system, and it’s sure not there for the people who need it.”

No fairy godmother
Vlautin’s characters are burdened by debt, bad relationships and an acceptance that there is no fairy godmother. “Yet they still try to help. Freddie wants to help his friend, even though it’s a bad idea.” The bad idea is Freddie’s agreeing to store marijuana plants in his basement while their owner serves time in jail.

Pauline attempts to rescue a young girl who has fled her born-again Christian parents to live with youths who feed her drug habit in exchange for sex. Vlautin has strong views on the hypocrisy of people who shout about being believers yet have no basic Christianity.

Authentic stories of blue-collar life as lived by believable characters in the present-day US continue to have a broad appeal. But Vlautin, who used to work as a freelance house-painter, says he was aware of the risks of writing such a politically weighted polemic. “You try to make something that is a story, and is about life, but also says something that matters. You know, in the beginning I just wrote for myself, as a way of keeping my head straight. I wasn’t thinking of having the stuff published.”

Lean on Pete touched the emotions. The Free is tackling issues. Vlautin has a calm, reasoned style of argument; he makes his points without hectoring and is more subdued than righteous. It is easy to sense his disappointment with authority. In person, he conveys the same empathy that sustains his writing.

He is 46 now but seems – and certainly sounds – much younger, with his air of boyish wistfulness. He is a realist, though also a romantic, compassionate if unsentimental. Not for nothing is his favourite soundtrack Ry Cooder’s elegiac score for Wim Wenders’s film Paris, Texas .

Vlautin does seem capable of drifting across the United States, just like the Wenders character who walks out of the desert, except that he is too nice, too soft, too trusting and too deeply conscious of exactly how hard life is, particularly for the ordinary heroes who simply keep on trying to get through the day.

The Free is published by Faber & Faber

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