Novelist Willy Vlautin is the next guest in our Autumn Readings & Lectures series hosted by the University of Portland’s English Department. He has published four novels: The Motel Life (2007), Northline (2008), Lean on Pete (2010), and The Free (2014).
For all the violence and tragedy that fuels the characters and storylines of his works, Willy Vlautin is one hell of a friendly guy. His band, alt-country quartet Richmond Fontaine, just recently back from their final European tour, have been playing the Portland scene for over twenty years. His novels—The Free being the most recently published—recall John Steinbeck and John Updike in their intimate portrait of day-to-day survival and mundane tragedy in the lives of ordinary people.
It’s easy to assume the people who rarely have their stories told don’t have a story to tell. The people who inhabit Vlautin’s stories are burdened by their choices. They’re burdened by their need and, often, their inability to escape. These are people who want to change, who believe change may be the only thing that can save their lives, and yet they do not. This is the magic of Willy Vlautin’s writing. It’s a sleight of hand, to show us we don’t know the people we think we know.
Between your records and novels, you’ve created enough fascinating (and tragic) characters to populate an entire seen-better-times logging town. How do you build these characters, and would you say it’s the characters that inform the stories and songs?
I think of things in stories first. A broad idea of story from start to finish. Inside that initial idea are the themes I’m interested in. From there I’ll get the characters. I’ll run into the first few and then they meet people after that and so on. Usually I write the first draft and then develop the characters more after each edit. Like getting to know someone, it takes a while. It takes time and interest and desire.
Living in the wake of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize, it seems a lot of people are trying to to redraw the lines between literature and music as distinct modes of storytelling. As an artist working in both mediums, sometimes at the same time, as with Northline, do you see any real divisions? How has being a novelist informed your songwriting and how has songwriting informed you as a novelist?
They are much different crafts that’s for sure. Writing takes much more time in the nuts and bolts sorta way. You have to put down the pages. You have to get a character from Mexico City to Toronto and he’s driving. A lot of days pass, a lot of things happen along the way. Songs are like dreams, they have more mystery. Where the hell did that melody come from? How come when you add harmonies the song suddenly makes you want to cry? Music has magic, I really think it does. They are different mediums but they are both crafts and they both can transport you into a different world.
Earlier this year you just put out your last record with Richmond Fontaine (for the foreseeable future?), what do you see yourself working on in the near future? Will music take a backseat to writing, or do you have other projects in mind?
You’re right, RF just finished its last big tour. Next year I’ll start work on my new band The Delines. I’ll probably do that band and stay at home more and try and work on my novels.
Willy Vlautin will be reading at the UP Bookstore on Monday, November 28th at 7:30 pm.
*Photo by Dan Eccles, from the New York Times Sunday Book Review.