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Hard-Time Tales of Willy Vlautin

[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. Willy Vlautin

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. Kate BernheimerShe 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.

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. You just have to get up every day and try.

Kate Bernheimer: I could imagine Northline described as an uplifting story about a young woman who once lost her way, but at times you've been anxious about its political reception. It's pretty unflinching on the subject of racism. I think when you first gave me a draft of the manuscript to read you might have been a little nervous that Allison has a tattoo of a swastika, because I am Jewish. (My sympathy has never strayed from her.)

Has there been any controversy about the skinhead culture in the book, and your main character's involvement in it?

Vlautin: There hasn't been much talk of that in the UK and Ireland. The book hasn't been published here yet, so I'm not sure if there will be. And you're right: The last thing in the world I'd want to do is offend you or anyone else.

I think what I was trying to talk about in the book was Mexican immigration and its effects on the lower-class US citizens already here. When a big influx of people comes into a neighborhood and changes it, complicated issues arise.

Allison finds herself in way over her head in that world. She is weak and she is frightened and she pays the price for that; you pay a price for being weak, and she pays that price. I guess I've always been insecure about her. In my heart I truly like her and want her to make it out okay, because as weak as she is, she's resilient, too, and I admire that.

As far as the skinhead aspect, that came from living in Reno. It's a pretty conservative town. I worked with a few half-ass skinheads, but I knew even more racist rockabilly guys who were much scarier and much smarter than the skinheads. Jimmy Bodie is an amalgamation of those guys. I worked with a lot of construction workers who were losing bids to contractors who hired illegals and so they could undercut bids. It made everyone mad, but it made the weaker fringe workers more than mad. Racism has always had deep roots in weakness and fear.

Kate Bernheimer: Allison is so humble in her weakness, and the narrative is truly tender toward her, but the endings aren't cookie-cutter happy endings at all. With both The Motel Life and Northline, readers could finish the books thinking, Well, things might in the end be sort of okay, but never resplendent.

Vlautin: I'm a firm believer in hope and hard work. Just the idea that things could get better has gotten me out of bed time and time again.

Allison Johnson is young, and the novel takes place at the roughest time in her life. But I know she'll be all right because she doesn't quit. She fucks up, but she still gets up and tries to make better decisions than she did the time before. Those decisions lead her to real friends in Penny Pearson and Dan Mahony. She's smart enough not to keep making the same bad decisions.

I think things will be a bit rougher for Frank Flannigan and Annie James from The Motel Life, but in the end I still think they will be together and will be all right. As messed up as I am, I'm a romantic, and strangely, an optimist.

Kate Bernheimer: The book begins with a lot of violence in Alison's life. Given how much you like your characters, it must really hurt to write scenes like the one where she passes out having sex with her boyfriend in a bathroom stall in a casino. He gets so pissed at her he kicks her in the leg.

Vlautin: Writing stories has always saved my life. I've always written so I wouldn't go crazy.

I've never had my act together enough to write about something outside my heart and fears and problems. I live pretty close to my characters, so when I put Allison Johnson in those bad situations it took a lot out of me. It about did me in, really. But then that's the way it has to be. I might like her, but she still has to pay the price for the way she lives.

I'm hard on my characters because I'm hard on myself. When I'm weak, I make bad decisions. The worst decisions I've made have been when I hated myself, so it makes sense to me that she would, too.

Kate Bernheimer: The book comes with an instrumental soundtrack you recorded with the musician Paul Brainard. It really matches the mood of the novel, and Brainard plays very movingly on it. Had he read the novel before making the record with you? What does he say about the books you write? He's a man of few words but he is very smart.

Vlautin: Paul has always been great about my novels. I wrote one years ago about a used car salesman named Earl Hurley, and Paul helped edit it. He really is one of the smartest people I've met, and also one of the best musicians I've met. The thing about Paul is he's up for anything. When I told him I wanted to make a soundtrack to the novel, he didn't ask why I'd want to do something like that. He just wanted to hear the songs. There aren't many guys cooler than that.

Kate Bernheimer: I know that your bandmates sometimes (tenderly) gripe to you when you present them with some new songs to work on — "Oh no, not another depressing song!" — and then of course they play their hearts out and add their amazing talent to the songs, shaping them into their final form.

I've always wanted to be in a band, and everyone we knew in Portland was in a band except me, but I'm not cut out for it. I'd always be afraid of disappointing my bandmates. (Plus, I'm tone-deaf.) Can you compare the solitude of writing novels to the collaborative process of making a record?

Vlautin: With a band, you just don't want to let them down. It's easy to let yourself down but harder when it's a bunch of great musicians who are nice enough to play your messed up story-songs. There's always pressure when other people are counting on you, and it makes you insecure as hell when you first bring in a song about a kid from the army cutting into his palms 'cause his nerves are so bad, or a song about a guy who gets thrown in the trunk of a car. Everyone knows you're not gonna make a ton of dough on a song like that. But all in all, the guys have been great. Richmond Fontaine and getting The Motel Life published are the two greatest things that have happened to me.

Kate Bernheimer: You go on a lot of tours with your band, and it's almost impossible for you to write on tour, you say. Some writers talk about writing like it's torture, but for you it seems more like it tortures you when you can't do it. You're only happy when you write: Is that an accurate statement?

Vlautin: That's true. I'm a wreck when I don't write. I've always been like that.

I began writing songs at 14 and I've never really stopped. Writing songs and stories has always eased my mind. It's a crutch I've used forever as a way to get the dark side out. When I find myself having a hard time with life, it's usually when I'm on the road and not able to write a story.

Kate Bernheimer: You sometimes write at Portland Meadows, a pretty down-and-out racetrack. Can you talk a little bit about why you go write at a racetrack?

Vlautin: Writing at the track is the best. You're surrounded by horses and weirdos and gamblers and drinkers. All of those things relax me to no end. Plus, whenever you get tired or burned out, you can always bet a race.

Kate Bernheimer: I know that you also occasionally write in Reno, staying for a couple of weeks at a time when you can in an old motel you like down by the river. Reno becomes a whole character in your books — just like the people, Reno is down-and-out but beloved. Your books are beautifully elegiac that way about Reno.

Vlautin: I've always liked Reno, where I grew up, but I really fell in love with it in my early 20s. There's a side of it, the seedier side, that just makes sense to me. I started meeting people who were slowly being trapped by gambling and drinking. I like both of those things, but you can really get yourself into trouble in a town like that.

I've always felt more comfortable around people who were having a hard time. So Reno eases my mind. One of the lucky breaks I've been given was being born in the town I was supposed to be born in.

But now I don't live there, so it's different. Maybe I think about it more because I don't live there. It's a place I daydream about a lot, a place I think about a lot, even though my newer stories are all set in the Northwest. But I'm hoping some day to live back there and write another novel set there. I want to be an old man there.

Kate Bernheimer: You also have some wonderful unpublished books — which you have not sent out, I should be sure to point out to readers.

Vlautin: The one I like the most is about a used car lot run by a grandfather and grandson. It's called The Hurleys. I hope it sees the light of day sometime. It was so fun to write that I started dressing like the characters, and for a while I really thought I was this ace used car salesman named Barry Hurley. I really lost my mind on that one.

Kate Bernheimer: When we talk on the phone now, we sometimes talk nostalgically about how great it was to be unpublished and living secret lives as novelists (you were a house painter, and I was a night typist). Maybe this is just nostalgia for youth, but we never really worried then about people not liking our books. I was just excited that you liked mine, and I loved reading yours.

Vlautin: One of the things that kept me from sending my stuff out was that I didn't want to lose the love for it by knowing I was no good. But all that said, just disappearing into a story is still my favorite thing, and I can still get there most of the time. Also, when you get published, people stop thinking of you as a complete loser; they think of you as a troubled weirdo who got published. It isn't much, but it helps.

I think the great thing about us meeting was that we're friends. We'd be friends if we were house painters or worked in an office, but we both like novels and that's a hell of a lot more fun than talking about paint and sprayers and brushes.

Kate Bernheimer: That makes me think about how in Northline, when Alison moves into her own place in Reno and gets all those cleaning supplies, the book takes an uplifting turn. I may be inventing this, but it seems like whenever a character in one of your books buys a mop, some Windex, and a six-pack, things are, at least temporarily, on the upturn for them.

Vlautin: I've always thought that when you take care of your place or your things it's the start of taking care of yourself. I think Allison has it in her to want to be a respectable person. She wants to be proud of her place. She just wants to live like everyone else.

Kate Bernheimer: It does seem like what happens in the novel can be taken at face value in a rare and beautiful way.

Vlautin: I like simple stories. I like straight stories where the merit is based on what you say, not how you say it. I want to write a story that a guy could read after getting off of work. I've always wanted to write working class stories for working class people — stories that fall into you, into your heart. I don't have interest in being clever or witty, probably because I'm neither.

Kate Bernheimer: Well, I think you're clever and witty, and that the lucidity in your prose is very artful, but from one neurotic to another, I understand why you might feel otherwise about it.

A lot of reviewers compare your writing to Raymond Carver and your music to Tom Waits. I can see those comparisons, but I know you read widely and listen to a lot of different kinds of music. Is there a recent book you've read or record you've heard that no one might connect to your work but which you love?

Vlautin: I like all sorts of music. Right now I'm really into the Temptations. They put out a lot of really interesting records. I'm learning more and more about soul music, but sadly my songs don't have much funk. I'm pretty damn dark. Novels are harder for me to explore. I always read novels that are in a world I know about or understand. I always read working-class writers and Western writers.

Kate Bernheimer: What is the symbolism of your falling off a horse at the precise moment that your second novel comes out and you're about to embark in a music and reading tour?

Vlautin: All I've learned so far is that it's hard to read on painkillers! Also, you can't remember anything when you're drugged out of your mind. But the worst thing about getting hurt is not playing guitar. This is the longest I've gone without playing guitar in 26 years.

The good news is, my horse is all right and I'm all right. My girlfriend's all right and her horse who got beat up in the incident is healing up okay.

Kate Bernheimer: She is great with horses. She really understands them. But will Willy Vlautin ride again? What can we look forward to next?

Vlautin: Yeah, I'll ride again. But it'll be a donkey or a horse that you'd have to put a mountain lion on to get him to run. Maybe a beat-up race horse isn't the best idea for a guitar player.

My new novel is called Lean on Pete. It's set in Portland, at Portland Meadows. It semi-revolves around a race horse named Lean on Pete and a kid who lives down the street from the track and ends up working there.

Kate Bernheimer interviewed Willy Vlautin via email and telephone in March 2008.

÷ ÷ ÷

Kate Bernheimer has been a George Bennett Fellow in Creative Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and has taught in the Summer Writing Program at Harvard. She was editor of the book Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore their Favorite Fairy Tales. The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold was her first novel, followed by The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, along with her first children's book, The Girl In the Castle Inside the Museum. An assistant professor of creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Alabama, she lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with her husband and daughter.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women... Used Trade Paper $3.50
  2. The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold Used Trade Paper $7.95
  3. The Complete Tales of Merry Gold Used Trade Paper $8.50
  4. The Girl In the Castle Inside the Museum
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  5. The Motel Life: A Novel (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  6. Northline (Harper Perennial P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $6.95

Kate Bernheimer is the author of The Complete Tales of Merry Gold

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