[Editor's Note: We're thrilled to share this conversation between Kate Bernheimer, author of The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, and Willy Vlautin, author of The Motel Life and Northline. As the following discussion makes clear, Kate and Willy are longtime friends.
Willy Vlautin likes racetracks, motels, and diners. He's had a song written about him by stealth performer Herman Jolly, "Woodshack Willy," in which he's referred to as "the countriest western singer I ever saw." Vlautin's novels have the uncanny feel of old-time country AM radio, as unmistakably contemporary as they may be. His writing exudes humble despair tinged with nostalgic, broken-down hope.
Northline, Vlautin's second novel, comes with a soundtrack Vlautin recorded with his Richmond Fontaine bandmate Paul Brainard. Published this winter in the UK to rave reviews, it appears in the US from HarperCollins this month.
Northline follows The Motel Life, Vlautin's critically acclaimed first novel, about which Academy Award-nominated Guillermo Ariaga (who has optioned the book for film adaptation) has said, "I haven't read a novel this good in a long, long time." Readers will be astonished by Northline, a book about as quiet and violent and tender as any reader could bear. An unusally gifted stylist who writes his first drafts at an old racetrack, Vlautin's sentences are simple, gentle, and new.
Allison Johnson, a young woman of impoverished spirit, is the heroine of Northline's raw look at the 21st-century American West, specifically Reno, city of Vlautin's heart. Vlautin brings an amazing sensitivity to Allison, an insecure, literally beaten-down woman with a Swastika tattooed on her back. She leaves Reno to make a new start and gets a job in a tired casino, all the while fearing her ex-boyfriend will find her. Vlautin does not falsely idealize Allison as a victim; he gives her, and his readers, a much greater gift, not the clichéd "second chance" redemption of so much popular literature but something more subtle: a hobbled but honest life, with a paycheck, an apartment for rent by the week, and a friend who won't hurt her.
Vlautin the author is not unlike Vlautin the human being: the nicest person you ever have met. Don't be mistaken by the seemingly transparent, simple construction of his prose. He's the voice of America's most broken spirits, and people are going to listen to him.
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Kate Bernheimer: First, I have to say I'm sorry about the accident ? you just fell off a horse and broke your wrist. Your girlfriend's horse also got hurt. Thankfully, your girlfriend was all right. The timing is unfortunate, because you're about to go on a grueling tour. It's also a little uncanny because your novel-in-progress is about an old horse and a boy. Let's start with a few words about Willy Vlautin and horses.
Willy Vlautin: I've always liked horses. I wasn't around them much as a kid, but I liked any movie with horses in it, and I used to go to rodeos a lot. When I got older, I starting betting on them. I spent a lot of time at the track or at OTB, but half of the fun was just looking at the horses. Then I had to get one.
I got a failed ex-race horse that used to run at Portland Meadows. He was a pretty old guy by the time I got him so I figured I'd be all right. But he's a little moody, and he bucked me off pretty bad and I broke my wrist. Not the smartest move for a guitar player.
My horse is named Dash, and is a great-grandson to the famous quarter horse Dash for Cash. But now he and I are sort of on the outs. My girlfriend's the horse genius, and she's trying to figure him out. In the meantime, I'll stick to betting on them and trying to learn how to play guitar with a busted arm.
Kate Bernheimer: Your upcoming tour includes a reading in Mallorca, Spain, with Barry Gifford, whose writing, like yours, is not afraid of the sad and dark side of human experience.
Vlautin: I'm a huge fan of Barry Gifford. I lived a large amount of my 20s with Sailor and Lulu [in Wild at Heart]. I used to daydream about Lula all the time. I think Barry's a great writer and so I'm pretty excited but nervous to meet him. It's hard to meet people you admire.
Kate Bernheimer: When you and I first met 10 years ago and neither of us had published a novel yet, we'd go sit at Tom's Restaurant in Portland and talk for hours about writing.
Vlautin: Sitting there with you were some of the best times I've had. You were the first real aspiring writer I'd met. It was great to get to talk about writing and books. If I ever hit it big, I'd hire a jet to get you so we could just sit at Tom's and talk about books. Back then, I didn't know anyone that wrote. I hardly knew anyone that read.
Kate Bernheimer: When you heard our favorite waitress was in the hospital, you brought her flowers, didn't you? That's something one of your characters might do.
Vlautin: I just ate there a couple days ago. She's still there. I've always really liked her. When I heard she was sick I felt horrible, so I visited her at the hospital.
When I've gone through rough patches in my life, that waitress has always made me feel all right. When I'm feeling rough, I always go to Tom's Restaurant. There's nothing like a nice old-school waitress to ease your mind.
Kate Bernheimer: How did you get the idea for Northline?
Vlautin: The first ideas were insecurity and anxiety. Those are two things that I've struggled with my entire life. My mother and grandmother both had real hard times with them, too.
Allison Johnson, the protagonist, is nearly paralyzed by anxiety, and because of it she makes some serious mistakes. She becomes an alcoholic, she goes out with a man who controls her, and she can't ever seem to find her footing at all. But the thing about Allison Johnson is she doesn't give up. That's all you can do to fight anxiety and insecurity.