Willy Vlautin er frontmann, gitarist, sanger og låtskriver i det kritikerroste bandet Richmond Fontaine. Willy Vlautin er fra Reno, Nevada, men bor i Portland, Oregon. Han har gitt ut tre romaner: «The Motel Life» (2007), «Northline» (2008) og «Lean on Pete» (2010). Sammen med Richmond Fontaine har han gitt ut 9 studioalbum og diverse livealbum.
Willy er i disse dager å se på Working Class Hero festivalen i Drammen (lørdag 1.juni) og på Mono i Oslo (mandag 3.juni). I den sammenheng har vi fått til et e-mail intervju med Willy. Vi snakker om bøker, skriving, hans kommende roman «The Free», filmatiseringen av hans første roman « The Motel Life», og om de tre b-ene: « Beer, bath, and books».
DOD Hi, Willy. Welcome back to Norway. You released «Lean on Pete» in 2010. I read in an interview that you’ve been working on two different stories since then. One about a nurse, and one about two gamblers. You said that you’d go with the one you liked the best. How did that turn out? I think both sounded great. Did you finish them both?
WV You’re right, I was working on two different projects. One is a connected book of short stories about two gamblers set in Reno, Nevada. I look at it as the third part to THE MOTEL LIFE and NORTHLINE. It’s an ongoing set of stories that I can’t stop writing so I’m not sure when or if it’ll come out. The second book about nursing is called THE FREE and it’ll come out next February in the US and UK. I wrote THE FREE as a distress call to the Patron Saint of Nurses, Camillus De Lellis. It’s my attempt to talk about health care in the United States.
DOD You started out writing short stories after discovering Raymond Carver through the Paul Kelly song «Everything’s Turning to White». And you’ve been writing stories for many years now. Will we ever get to see a collection of Willy Vlautin short stories?
WV I don’t see myself as a short story writer although I’ve written a pretty big stack of them. I’m not sure I have the talent for it and they just don’t interest me the way novels do. That being said, for years I’ve been writing the collection of connected stories I told you about earlier. But in general as a fan and a writer my heart is with the novel.
DOD I know that Carver comes up a lot, when people are interviewing you, but when we spoke in Oslo we talked about Larry Brown, and you said that you loved his first novel, «Dirty Work», and I think you mentioned «Big Bad Love» and «Facing The Music» too. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about Larry Brown. If Larry was still alive I’m pretty sure he’d be a big fan of both your music and your novels.
WV I am a big fan of Larry Brown. I remember when I first found Facing the Music I was blown away. He wrote stories that I understood, that helped me out on a real personal level. In most ways he’s a bigger influence than say Raymond Carver. I’ve read all his books except for The Miracle of Catfish which I’m saving.
DOD I’m trying to write myself, and guys like Larry Brown, Bukowski, William Gay.. these guys, who actually worked for a living (at least in the beginning of their careers), got up in the morning and went to their day jobs and then came back, and wrote on their spare time was a huge inspiration to me. Becuase I figured you don’t need school, college and creative writing classes. It’s not the only way to become a writer. You’ve worked plenty of jobs yourself. Barry Hannah said in an interview that «jobs kill you», but I wouldn’t want it any other way. They take up a lot of your time, sure, but a lot of younger writers these days, don’t really seem connected to reality. What’s your opinion? Do you think a little touch of reality is a good thing for a writer? And now, when you can support yourself as an artist, do you look back at your working life and think that it made you a better writer in some ways? I guess I want to get your opinion on experience.
WV I think Barry Hannah’s right to a point and you’re right to a point. If you want to write working class stories you usually write them out of the pain and heartache and monotony of working a dead-end job every day. That frustration and despair makes for great stories but they can also break you. I used to get up before work and drink energy drinks to write stories. I used to quit jobs and sabotage any job just to work on stories. Those stories never went anywhere but in a box. People thought I was nuts. Years went by and I blew chances at becoming an electrician and a salesman with a free car and expense account, I blew getting an easy job as a commercial truck driver all because I didn’t want to have it take up too much time. It was a risky move for me, but I got lucky with getting THE MOTEL LIFE published. But a lot of that is luck. In general I think you can only sacrifice for so long before you quit. A full time job wears you out. I used to work all day and then I’d have a big edge on me so I’d get drunk and stay out all night and then get up and go to work. And then I’d try as hard as I could not to go out so I could write. It was a rough cycle especially when things weren’t going my way. But I think too you’re right, people that have a few bumps and bruises and a few scars write better stories, they always have, it’s probably why they write, but the dream is to escape the working life so you can write consistently and feel like you’re moving forward and not just spinning. You spin too long and you quit. You can only get up early before work for so long before you think you’re no good and finally throw in the towel.
DOD People compliment you for your writing style. It’s sparse and cuts to the point. You don’t use many metaphors or similes. There is a stark beauty to your writing, that, in my opinion, is hard to match. Can you talk a little bit about language? Likes and dislikes. What turns you off/on?
WV That’s nice of you to say. I write the way I do because I learned a long time ago my limitations with language. I was also drawn to simple stark sentences and working class stories. From an early age that way of writing made sense to me. I believed it. Larry Brown is a great example but also guys like Jim Thompson and David Goodis and Charles Willeford. Maybe I was drawn to simple urgent language because of my own limitations, I don’t know. But I do admire guys like William Kennedy and Mario Vargas Llosa, writers with great command of language. I call them sentence men, guys that just play around with words at will. Tom Waits does that with his songs. I wish more than anything I was like that.
DOD I know that you’re a huge fan of William Kennedy. What about other northern writers, such as Russell Banks, Richard Russo, Carolyn Chute – even Bill Morrissey («Edson»)? I just read «Affliction». I’ve seen the movie many times, and it’s great, but it took me a while to get around to the novel. Do you think you’ll ever write a long book like that? Something with the lenght of «Affliction» or «Russo’s «Nobody’s Fool»? Are you even concerned with length? You’re really good at getting a lot of backstory into just a few sentences, and there is something to say for getting to the point, maybe it’s the songwriter/short story writer in you? Another favorite we share is «The Death of Jim Loney» by James Welch. I think that Welch proves that you can create an entire world in just 150 pages, and the story can be just as heartbreaking and beautiful as any 700 page novel.
WV I’ve always liked short novels. I like novels that feel like they were written in blood. The Death of Jim Loney always felt like that to me. He was writing it with great passion and despair. It’s the sort of book you carry around with you in your coat pocket. Fat City and Ironweed both share that. Written with urgency. So that’s what I’ve tried to do myself. I’m not sure I could pull of a 1,000 page novel. Maybe I just don’t have the intellect for it. I do know as a fan I like the shorter ones because they usually feel more crafted and stylized. I just read, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? By Horace McCoy. It’s a very short book but so powerful, just as So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. They are books that you can get through in a few hours but you’ll carry with you forever. But if I could write The Grapes of Wrath I would. To me that’s a magnificent big novel. One of the greats.
Speaking of Affliction, years ago I was in a video store and saw this old lady pick that movie out and felt horrible for her. I wanted to grab her and say, “Are you sure you want this one? You’re an old lady, this one will wreck your head. This one will give you nightmares!” What a story.
DOD Do you plot your novels? Or do you just write and let the characters find their own way? Are you sometimes surprised by their actions? You’ve said in an interview that you make it as hard as possible for them, even if it breaks your heart. You love your characters and I think it shows.
WV Usually I have the story down as say a bar story. I could tell you the novel idea over a couple drinks. Then I usually I write out the list of characters and a few bigger moments and then I just start. Most times I know the feel. I always like novels dipped in a sorta feel and I try to do that with mine. I know the heart and the blood of the novel but not what happens on every page.
If I spend a few years with a character I have to make sure I like them more than dislike them. That being said I do put them in hard spots if they have to go there. I don’t intentionally make it hard on them, I just don’t yell “watchout!” when they are about ready to get hit. Allison Johnson was like that. I put her in some rough places but she earned the rough places, that’s where she had to go. That gal broke my heart that way.
DOD How long do you think about a novel before you start writing it? I know that «Lean on Pete» started out as a song, and there are even parts in «Laramie, Wyoming» that made it into that novel. Is that the case with a lot of what you write? Can it happen the other way around? Have you ever turned a song into a novel or a short story?
WV I usually think about them for years before I start. I usually start thinking about a new novel when I’m in the middle of working on one. It takes the pressure off and it’s a great hobby of mine to think of stories I want to live in. I wrote a short story from the collection about the two gamblers that became the Richmond Fontaine song, “Casino Lights.” I also wrote a song called “For the Patron Saint of Nurses” which got me thinking about nursing in a bigger way. My new novel THE FREE came out that song. So they go back and forth and back and forth. I always say they all live on the same block.
DOD What are you reading these days?
WV Right now I’m reading Ursula K. Le Guin and a Nevada writer Walter Van Tilburg Clark. He wrote the great Ox Bow Incident. I’m finally reading his novel, Track of the Cat. I’m also reading graphic novels. Nate Powell has a new one out that’s pretty amazing.
DOD Whats next for Richmond Fontaine? I hear talk about a Willy Vlautin/Amy Boone country album. I even think I read somewhere that it’s finished. Will you tour behind it? Please talk a little about the album, and the songs. Son Volt just released an album called «Honky Tonk», are you giving Jay and the guys a run for their money in the country department?
WV Richmond Fontaine has been on break but we’re just starting to do stuff again. The band I have with Amy is called THE DELINES, and we’ll be putting out the record next year. It’s more of a late night country/soul record. Not sure about RF doing a country record but I’m glad Son Volt’s new one is. He’s a great country singer/songwriter. I haven’t heard it but excited to.
DOD You appeared with Rick Bass at the Secret Society in Portland, Oregon a while back. That sounds like something I’d pay to see. How did it go? I love Rick. His book «Winter» is so beautiful. It made me want to move to Yaak myself. A thing that you and Rick have in common is the sense of place. You both seem really connected to the places where you live and where you’re from. I can’t really speak for Rick, but through reading his fiction and nonfiction I think it’s pretty clear that he feels a strong connection with his home in the Yaak valley. Can you talk about that? Why do you think writers tend to write about their own backyard, so to speak? Didn’t a lot of «The High Country» come to you just by listening to logging trucks go by, right outside your door?
WV Ha! When I was writing THE HIGH COUNTRY there were logging trucks shaking my house day and night! I think Rick Bass is one of the greats. A really good guy, very humble and tough and smart. I can’t say enough good things. As far as a sense of place, I love more than anything to drop into another world. When I was a kid I used to listen to Bruce Springsteen records and all of the sudden I’m in New Jersey in a muscle car with a cool girl and we’re surrounded by oil refineries. When I listened to the Pogues I was in Ireland, I was in a pub, I was on the high sea. So a sense of place is a great gift to the listener or reader, it sends the reader to a place they most likely have never been or will ever be. It’s one of the great powers of the novel.
DOD You’ve been kinda hiding out lately. Writing. You love that, don’t you? I know you love hanging out with the guys in Richmond Fontaine, but if I remember correctly you’ve said that your favorite thing in the world is just being off by yourself, writing. I read somehwere, and I hope you don’t mind me asking, that your remedy for anxiety is «baths and Budweisers». Do you still feel that way? The norwegian writer Per Petterson doesn’t like to go on book tours, or do press, because it keeps him from writing. Can you identify with that?
WV I call it the 3 B’s. Beer, bath, and books. That’s how I’ve gotten through most of my life. It works for me when I have shot nerves. It always has. I don’t mind book tours and touring and press ‘cause being in a band all you do is play gigs and those are the same really. Book things are good ‘cause you meet people that like novels, you get to talk about books. When you’re just out there on your own and none of your friends read, meeting people that love novels is tremendous. There’s not a lot of us out there. Plus I always like meeting writers. I’ve always been a fan so to get to meet novelists you like is most times great.
DOD I discovered Richmond Fontaine right after you guys released «Winnemucca». You’ve tried out different things with the band. You’ve done country, rock, cowpunk, more stripped down acoustic stuff, like «The Fitzgerald». You did «Thirteen Cities» that had horns on it.. that whole desert sound. And after «The High Country» you’ve proven that it’s hard to know what to expect from a new Richmond Fontaine record. You’ll know the lyrics will be great, but the sounds vary. I for one love that. But do some guys still scream for «Winners Casino»? And miss the old country-rock days? A lot of people who where really into Son Volt and the early Wilco and Jayhawks stuff latched onto you guys, do you ever feel like people want you to be something that you’re not? Do you feel any kind of pressure, or do you feel that people are open to new things? And how do the band feel about all your new ideas?
WV I don’t really worry about what people want. In my experience if you give them a second version of an album they like then usually they say stuff like, “why did you guys make a record that sounds like that one record?” You can’t win. So we usually just make music that we want to. We’re not a big time band so we can do what we want and usually always make the kind of music that feels right for us. The only heat I’ve ever gotten from the guys was minor, at first they thought I was going insane with The High Country. They warmed up to it and it turned out to be the most fun any of us had ever had on a record. But in hindsight they were right, it was a record of madness. It still shocks me that we did it.
DOD «The Motel Life» was translated to Swedish a few years ago. How many languages have you been translated to by now ? And are there any Norwegian translations in the works?
WV I’ve been lucky and had my novels translated into quite a few languages. Unfortunately not in Norwegian. Maybe someday!
DOD I’ve always wanted to ask you about movies. Because I get the feeling you’re kind of a movie buff. I’ve heard you talk about «Repo Man» and «Nobody’s Fool» – Allison Johnson in «Northline» is a really big Paul Newman fan, and there are mentions of movies like «Hombre», «Hud» and «Nobody’s Fool». On «Winnemucca» there are some sound clips from Allison Anders’ «Gas Food Lodging». So would you like to talk a little about movies? Were they important to you while growing up? Do you have any favorite actors and directors?
WV Movies and books and music saved my life. As a kid I used to see as many movies as I could. I dreamed about them. When they came out with videos I was happier than hell. If a movie moved me I would try and remember it and live inside it for as long as I could. So yeah, I’ve always been a big fan. It’s a great easy way to see into another world. Plus you have music and stories and good looking people. If you’re lonely and lost as a kid the movies are a great escape. As far as actors, I do like the classic actors, and right now I’m in love with Myrna Loy. My girlfriend gives me nothing but a hard time because I just bought a Myrna Loy press photo to hang next to my side of the bed.
DOD Can you say anything about the Polsky brother’s adaptation of «The Motel Life»? The cast is great.
WV The Polsky brothers have been great to me so I wish them luck with the movie. They picked a great cast and shot the movie in Reno at most of my old places. They even invited me down so I could meet Kris Kristofferson. It’s a beautiful looking movie.
DOD Do you have an dream projects? Stuff you’re just dying to do, or something you want to try? Drama? Nonfiction? Graphic novels?
WV I’ve always wanted to write a graphic novel. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t try learn to draw, and now I just don’t think I have it in me to be decent at it. But to write one, that would be a dream.
DOD Is there a chance that you’ll ever do audiobook versions of your novels? I can’t believe that it hasn’t happend yet. You’ve got a great voice, and RF could back you up. I loved «A Jockey’s Christmas» and «A motorcycle for a horse». That first one really saved me when it came out by the way. I was having the shittiest Christmas ever, and it cheered me right up. Your music and your novels means a lot to me. So thank you for all that you do, and thank you for your time.
WV I’m sorry you had a bad Christmas, but I guess if you live long enough you’ll have a few. Sadly I’ve done a lot of the things in Jockey’s Christmas. The only difference was I eat like a horse and I don’t have fawning sisters! Thanks for listening to both those, I appreciate it. Not sure when or if I’ll have an audio book. Jan, thanks for the great questions. You’re very nice to go to the trouble.