Willy Vlautin

Music | Willy Vlautin in Conversation

Over the course of the past decade Willy Vlautin, singer-songwriter with alt-country stalwarts Richmond Fontaine, has penned a quartet of celebrated novels documenting, in uncompromising detail, the downside of the American Dream, earning himself a reputation as one of blue-collar America’s most authentic authorial voices in the process. On the eve of a European tour with his current band, The Delines, Willy Vlautin talked to Kevin McGrath about Richmond Fontaine’s much anticipated comeback album You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nowhere To Go Back To and why writing his remarkable anti-war novel The Free very nearly drove him insane.

Kevin McGrath: Your latest novel, The Free, takes a panoramic view of an America that is both materially and spiritually impoverished. The hopelessness that lies at the heart of the American Dream is confronted head on; characters like Freddie McCall work two or three back-breaking jobs and are still unable to keep a roof over their heads, health care corporations systematically defraud the sick, women are subject to brutal forms of misogyny and there is a chilling vision of a future where hardcore patriotism and Christian fundamentalism have come to dominate society. You’ve explored some of these issues in your earlier novels (and, of course, songs), but the all encompassing nature of The Free is suggestive of a renewed urgency in your work. Was it your intention to take an inventory of the country’s injustices in order to make a definitive political statement?

Willy Vlautin: It was my intention. The title comes from the US national anthem. The whole book made me nervous as hell. It started first with the idea of a nurse who’s not quite strong enough to see what she sees every day. But as I thought of her the ideas of health care in terms of the working class came into view, and always I’ve struggled with the more hawkish Christian right-wing element of US society. I grew up in an increasingly conservative family where debate or even discussion wasn’t allowed. In my house the right wing/conservative ideas were much more respected and cared for and looked after than any person in the house.

In the book you examine the malignant state-of-the-union through a series of character studies that document the hand-to-mouth existence of regular, working class Americans. Clearly you’re following the wise old maxim of ‘write what you know about’, but when you write about the likes of Freddie and Pauline Hawkins how closely are you drawing on your own personal experience of difficult times?

I’ve known a few nurses and have a friend who’s a nurse. She helped me get my facts straight about the day to day goings on in a hospital. I’ve always respected nurses. Once I was in a hospital and I was in a room with three old men. I was young, early 20’s, and the guys in the room were all in various states of dying. They were old as hell and it was scary to be in a room with your future, your future if you’re lucky. I sat there all night worrying as they had wives visiting them and I was alone. I got panicky about the whole state of living and I’d just had surgery so I was hurting as well. And then a nurse came in and just said, “Will, you’ll be alright. Don’t worry you’ll be out of here soon and I’ll make sure nothing bad happens to you while you’re in here.” She had the eyes of a person who’d seen the worst and made it and so I believed her and instantly I felt alright. That’s a small story but it’s always stuck with me, and I’ve always loved nurses because of that.

The character Freddie was based on a few different guys I knew. I was a house painter for twelve years and went to the same paint store most every day during that time. The things Freddie went through happen all the time to people. And Leroy, I wrote about him out of guilt. Guilt because all these young soldiers were coming back damaged, thousands and thousands with lifelong injuries and brain injuries and I wasn’t doing anything about it. No one I knew seemed to ever talk about it. It wasn’t in the forefront of anyone’s thoughts, or the paper’s thoughts, the radio, TV. It was a backburner worry for Americans who didn’t have a loved one in the conflicts. The US military is set up that way. Our military has become in many ways a segregated society, it’s a professional army. It has always upset me that this is the case, and as always, throughout time, it’s the working class kids and their families bear the burden of war. They risk the most, they give the most, and get the least out of it. Leroy represented them.

I’ve being re-reading John Steinbeck recently, a writer for whom you’ve expressed a deep admiration in the past. There’s a moving passage in his famous novella, Of Mice and Men, where the central character, migrant worker George Milton, downsizes his version of the “American Dream” to a simple plea for friendship, a plea for an end to the loneliness that haunts him –

‘An’ if a fren’ come along, why we’d have an extra bunk, an’ we’d say ‘why don’t you spen’ the night? an’ by God he would’.

That feeling of forlornness torments many of your leading characters too, from Annie James in The Motel Life, through to Carol Coller in The Free. What compels you to continually re-examine the theme of loneliness in your songs and novels?

You’re right I am a big fan of Steinbeck. His books have been friends of mine for more than half my life. I keep his characters in my pocket, like little saints to protect and comfort me, to make me feel less alone. And you’re right I suppose, most of my characters are lonely. It’s hard to admit, but I think loneliness is in the fabric of who I am. We all have our demons and dents and scars. Loneliness is just mine I guess.

You could argue that Steinbeck demythologised the “American Dream” once and for all, with his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, but the idea is re-born every generation or two; if you think of Kennedy’s Camelot years or Reagan’s claim of it being “morning in America again,” and, of course, for black/liberal America, the election and re-election of Barrack Obama. Did the concept of the “American Dream” ever have any validity for you?

My mother believed that if you busted your ass every day, did what your boss asked, saved your money, and made small chess moves to improve your lot you could find success in the US. But she also believed it only took a few wrong moves to end up homeless, end up living on the river. She hammered both those things into me over and over so I did believe in the American dream. But my belief in it could also be because I grew up in Reno, Nevada when it was a successful gambling town and we had little or no unemployment. My mom always said if you were sober and had a clean shirt you could get a job in Reno. So I had it pretty easy and lived with the optimism that it was up to me and my abilities to find success, but success was there to be had. There were jobs in my city and she was right if you kept your head down and busted your ass you could do alright. You could have a secure life. My problem was I wanted to be in a band and write stories. That’s a whole different idea and one that I had to figure out on my own.

Through the character of Freddie McCall, and his relationship with critically injured veteran Leroy Kervin, you examine the changing view of war in America in the wake of the Iraq conflict. When Freddie gives away his Civil War paraphernalia it’s clearly an overdue acceptance that war isn’t a game. Have you had to re-think any of your own beliefs about the way American power is exercised globally?

I think I’ve always known the US has filtered money into makeshift dictator regimes and puppet governments. America has done great things but has also done horrible things. It’s overwhelming to think about and hard to get out of bed if you think about it too much. My interest has always been in the US working class, so I try to stick my worry and concern there. In case of The Free it’s a damaged soldier coming back to a world where he lives in group home for men, where his mom is stuck as his ward, his advocate. The reason for the Civil War paraphernalia came from growing up with so many men who were obsessed with war. Mostly with either the US Civil War or WWII. Never the “bad wars” like Vietnam. These guys read about it, made models, played games centered around it, did re-enactments of it, vacationed near battle fields. I never understood the glorification or the romance of war. I know it’s in humanities blood. I’ve read that there’s been something like only 29 years total, in all of recorded history, where there hasn’t been a major war or conflict. It’s there, a part of who we are, but it’s hard for me to take. Hard for me to watch guys play around with war toys, vote to send our guys into conflict, read about it like it’s a game, and then turn their head when the soldier comes home beat up and often ruined. Many people’s comments then is, “Well, they signed up for it.” But in my view it’s the citizens who got them there, and it’s the citizens who can keep them safe. To me I think the US should re-instate the draft. I think if we send guys into war it should be rich guys, politicians sons and daughters, CEO’s sons and daughters, pacifists, hippies, Christians—all citizens. If we did that we wouldn’t have gone into Iraq or Afghanistan.

You use the futuristic storyline of Leroy, and his attempts to flee from a band of patriotic vigilantes in a post- apocalyptic America, as a means of drawing attention to an increasingly virulent form of Patriotism that’s sweeping the country. How concerned are you about the growing threat of paranoid organisations such as the Oath Keepers and Posse Comitatus, or indeed, the more mainstream rise of the Tea Party?

I wrote about Leroy in that futuristic world for a few reasons. Number one he is a science fiction buff. He and his girlfriend are obsessed with it. When he tries to disappear into his mind he wants a romantic getaway with his girl, but his mind won’t let him. He’s brain damaged and he can’t control his thoughts. Like so many people with brain damage his thoughts spiral, they tend towards darkness, frustration, rage, fear. This great kid, Leroy, is living in a wrecked mind and we put him there, we gave him that to live with for the rest of his life. The futuristic world also gave me free reign to talk about the more hawkish elements of the US right wing. In my house growing up we used to have talks about who was and wasn’t a real American. In my house there was a real honest fear about the direction America was going. The change of America as a predominately white society to a multi-cultural society, and the feared breakdown of the “American” way of life due to liberalism. To them their ideas were trying to save America, help America. They love America. A lot of people feel isolated and unheard in the US. Not just minorities, but also Christians, old white people, small town people; the list could go on for a page. They’re all worried and concerned and scared so I’d imagine all sorts of fringe groups will continue. The Tea Party is the most main stream, and has been unsurprisingly very successful. In general though I don’t think the average US citizen respects or believes in their politicians. No business in the US is run as bad as our government and everyone knows it and it’s proven with our low voter turnout.

Would you be comfortable with the description of The Free as, at least in part, an anti-war novel?

It’s most definitely an anti-war novel. I have never been in the military so I’m not the guy to write a novel about living through war, and I’m not as smart or courageous enough to attempt a book like Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel. But every person knows what it’s like to take care of someone with a long term injury or illness, and I wanted to approach it from that angle. A book about nursing, a book dedicated to the Patron Saint of Nurses.

You’ve defined the portraits of Pauline and Freddie as being a “study in kindness”. This might be an instructive way to interpret your work as a whole, because many of your most damaged characters retain their capacity for simple acts of faith. Are you still optimistic about the human condition?

You meet people every day who are kind and decent, who make you laugh, who build crazy shit, write weird songs, have strange ideas. People who spend their whole lives trying to help people. A friend of mine spends her work day trying to get ex-convicts jobs. The last thing most of these ex-cons want to do is work but she’s there day after day trying to help them. That’s kindness in a serious way.

As to the future, hell I don’t know. It seems so damn shaky so much of the time but if you read papers from a hundred years ago they all thought the end of world was coming then as well. So maybe we’ll spend eternity stumbling around and surviving. I’ve always liked what Steinbeck said, “It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.”

One of your great strengths as a novelist is your ability to write convincingly from a female point of view. In The Free the central character, Pauline, is an absorbing figure; caring, funny and determinedly independent. However, Mora and Darla are equally well written and it’s a disappointment that the novel doesn’t reveal more about them. Do you approach writing about male and female characters in exactly the same way?

Thanks for saying that. I was raised by a woman and the best people in my life as a kid were my aunt and grandmother. Maybe that helps? In general I approach male and female characters the same. My only rule is to make sure I don’t commit the ultimate sin which is make a female character my dream girl. I’ve done it before in a failed novel and man oh man was it bad. Fun as hell to write but then run out the door and burn it!

You once told me, in a previous interview, that you wouldn’t write about Charley Thompson again because “I want him safe, I want him on easy street, reading westerns and playing sports, and eating dinner with his aunt”. Given that, how difficult was it for you to abandon Carol Coller to her fate on the mean streets of Seattle?

The hard part of Carol Coller is that she has a destructive side. She’s angry and hates herself as much or more than she wants to survive. She’s on that edge and has fallen in with a rough bunch. She’s in a tough place that’s for sure. A place that she never had to be in, a place that she was forced into by her family. A family so stringent in its Christianity that instead of love and help they give their daughter to the street, they send her to the boys. It was difficult to put Carol out there, but I felt it was necessary. There are so many stories like this. A boy from a Christian family has a drug problem, his parents help him. He gets out of rehab and tells his parents the reason he was into drugs was because he thinks he’s a homosexual and he’s ashamed and scared of what they’ll say. The parents kick him out of the house for it. Where does this fragile kid go then? I don’t know what bible they’re reading, I don’t know what bible Carol’s folks are reading either.

With the publication of The Free do you have the sense that your quartet of novels, about what we might call the ‘American domestic crisis’, has reached a pitch that might be hard to sustain. Has this cycle of your work reached a natural conclusion?

These issues and these sorts of characters are just in my blood. I wish I could write a crime novel or a novel set in Spain, a novel of adventure and romance, a novel with a private jet and an island in it. I hope I do some day, I really do, but as of right now I just write the stories that make sense to me. The stories that are in my world. I’ve always tried to write with blood and I’ll just continue to stumble in that direction whether people read them or not.

Is it correct that your next book will take up the story of Lonnie Dixon, (a minor character from ‘Lean on Pete’). If so, what is it about Lonnie that you want to revisit?

You’re right. I’m nearly done with it. After The Free I needed to be around a world that wasn’t so dark. Maybe Lonnie’s a bit brooding but he’s just a cowboy working on a failing ranch. I needed to be around a guy like him, happy-go lucky, and I needed to be in the desert of Nevada. The Free about killed me, about drove me insane and so when I finished it, I told myself to watch out or my mind would cave in and so I got Lonnie to dig me out of my dark head.

You’ve been very open about the fact that you stockpiled quite a number of novels before deciding to submit any of them to a publishing house. Are your books actually being published in the order in which they were written?

Man I’d never subject anyone to my old novels. I burned a couple of them and am keeping one for myself. The first novel I really showed anyone was The Motel Life and I had just finished it when it sold. After that I wrote Northline, and after Northline I wrote a couple failed books and then I started Lean on Pete.

I think I’m right in saying you started out writing short stories? Are you still writing them now? Is there a volume of short stories ready for publication at some point?

I did start writing short stories, but I always loved the novel more. That being said I do have a collection of connected stories I’ve been working on for years but again I’m just working on them for myself. I’m not sure I’ll ever put them out. Short stories are so hard, a craft of their own. And really when I think of a short story idea I usually just frame it in a song.

Turning to your music, you’ve been touring extensively with The Delines, promoting your critically acclaimed debut album Colfax. The album was written especially for former Damnations singer Amy Boone, though it was her sister, Deborah Kelly, who sang on your last Richmond Fontaine album, The High Country, I assume you’ve been a long time fan of them both?

They’re both great. The Damnations were such a cool band too. One of my favorites. I’ve always been a fan of theirs and they’re both so damn cool. Amy’s the best to be in a band with, and Deborah, well any gal that’s brave enough to be on The High Country, is a pal of mine.

The album’s title is a reference to Denver’s Colfax Avenue, where by all accounts you “paid your dues” as a musician. Were those hard times or good times?

Both! I’ve never had a lot of confidence so that was the most difficult thing. Not so much the lack of money, bad gigs, but the feeling that those things were happening ‘cause my songs weren’t good enough. That I was letting the guys down. I felt hugely responsible. I’ve really struggled with that aspect. But all those gigs on Colfax were a blast, at least most. The one thing about RF is we always have good times whether the gig was good or not. But the interesting part of Colfax is that the bad bars and the good clubs are on the same street. Sometimes we’d play the good club and not enough people would show and you’d be demoted back to the small bar down the street. You’d do good there the next time so you’d move back up and then back down. Over and over.

Colfax is one of those albums best played with the lights turned down low and maybe with a whiskey chaser to hand. It’s a collection of numbers that you’ve described as being ‘late night songs that make you feel less alone, that if you’ve got a few dents in you, it eases you’. Have there been periods in your life when you’ve relied on that kind of music for comfort?

Ha, only every day of every week. Ballads have always been a great comfort to me. Even as a kid I liked the sad ballads, the late night songs, the lonely songs. Even at 13 I was writing ballads. I got those sorts of tunes in my blood I guess. I tried to be a punk rocker, I played as fast I could and wrote some angry songs but at the end of the night I’d be listening to “Rainy Night in Soho” by The Pogues on repeat.

Amy’s voice is such a warm and compassionate instrument, but there’s rueful acceptance, too, of life’s hardships and heartaches, that underpins her singing. How hasn’t she sold a million records?

I’ll tell her you said that and she’ll be happy as hell to hear it. I call her “Lady Royce” ‘cause she’s so damn cool and her voice is so great. She should have a Rolls Royce and the title “Lady Amy”.

How much have you enjoyed just playing guitar and letting Amy do the heavy lifting every show?

It’s the most fun I’ve had playing music. I like being a side man. I’ll probably get fired ‘cause I’m the worst musician on the stage but until then I love being the guitar player in the band.

Did writing to order, so to speak, mean that you demanded more of yourself as a songwriter?

It was freeing really. I got to write songs that I wouldn’t have the nerve to sing. I couldn’t imagine singing “Oil Rigs at Night” or “Flt 31”. So most likely I just wouldn’t have written them. I wouldn’t have written “I Won’t Slip Up” which is one of the favorite songs that I’ve written. I can’t pull off the big soul ballad, but she can so I try to write them.

The last Richmond Fontaine record, The High Country (2011), was a truly esoteric affair. Will the next album You Can’t Go Back, If There’s Nothing To Go Back To be a return to good old-fashioned Americana?

You’re right The High Country was wild, a rough record. I was a bit unhinged when I wrote it. The new one we just finished isn’t as crazy or violent or deranged. At least not in the same way. It’s a big desert record we recorded at a fancy studio and we’re all happy as hell with it. I think it’ll come out next year.

Whilst you’ve been busy writing The Free and Colfax, Richmond Fontaine has had to take a back seat. Was such a long hiatus intentional?

The one way to keep a small time band going is to take big breaks. We toured pretty hard for 8 years or so and we all needed a break and took one. And then Dave Harding, the bass player moved to Denmark so that stopped us in our tracks. Luckily it came at the right time. The Free took a lot of work to get right so I was glad to stop. During the hiatus I dreamed about being in a band with Amy and so I began working on the songs without her even knowing about it. I finally sent her the demos and a thesis on why she should join up with me and Sean from RF. Luckily ,she did.

I know that you’re a massive movie-goer. How did it feel to see your characters up there on the silver screen in The Motel Life? Was it a successful adaptation?

I liked it. You know parts of it really affected me, the way Frank lived was the way I lived for some years. The way his place looked was the way my place used to look. The movie documented my favorite restaurants and bars. That’s tremendous for me. I was so grateful they shot the movie in my hometown. So all in all it was a great and lucky experience.

Do you have ambitions to write directly for the movies, original screen plays, perhaps, or adaptations of your own work?

I don’t think so. All that is a way of life, to be good at that you have to dive in head first and I’m not sure I’m tough enough to navigate that world. There are so many moving parts and so much money to try and get to make things happen. And so many hands on each project. So many hands on each story. So I think I’ll just hide out and work on novels.

Are you now set for some well deserved R&R or will you be straight back on the road touring the forthcoming albums?

RF will tour the new record next year. The record is done and dusted and this fall we’re recording a new Delines record. So it’s the same old thing, hide out and write and record and then tour and then start over again.