February 01, 2014
When Willy Vlautin’s first book, Motel Life, came out, I brought it with me to the beach house where my family (parents, siblings, spouses, kids, etc.) meet up for a week every summer. I read it in an afternoon, loved it, and passed it on. By the end of the week no less than six people across three generations were diehard Willy fans. We have all read (and loved) every Willy book since. So, when an advance copy of Willy’s new book recently landed in my hands, I felt I owed it to my family to get this guy on the phone.
Our conversation took place over two hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Willy has a great voice with a lot of gravel and a little bit of twang—he sounds like a really smart country boy who’s read a lot of books. We skipped the usual small talk and went straight into the heart of things: writing, love, life, family, childhood, happiness, drinking, and his latest book The Free—which happens to be the official March selection of The TNB Book Club.
Willy said way more than is fit to print in a single interview, so here are some highlights from one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had with a stranger:
What was your childhood like?
I come from a family where my mom didn’t like arty stuff much at all…I grew up with my mom and my brother. She was pretty conservative and started going out with a guy who was really conservative. I was in bands all in high school. It struck a nerve and I think she was embarrassed and fairly ashamed of it.
She was ashamed that you were in a band?
It was hard on her that I played music.
What did she think when your books were published?
Did she read them?
I gave them to her. But I don’t know if she read them.
What did she say about them?
When I gave her The Motel Life the first thing she said was, “What’d you say bad about me in it?”
What did you say?
Nothing, man, what do you say? I mean, I said, “Of course I didn’t write anything about you. I wouldn’t do that to you.” She was a tricky lady, pretty insecure, and like I said, conservative. Not a patron of the arts, but she was a good lady in a lot of ways.
She worked the same job for thirty years, and I had a pretty easy life growing up because of that. I grew up in the same house from when I was born, and we were never broke. So she tried as hard as she could and you have to hand it to someone for slugging it out in a job for thirty years.
Where did you grow up?
Reno, Nevada. Lived there till I was 26. Now I live in the woods an hour outside Portland. Like Twin Peaks.
One of the things I love about your books is that you have these characters doing horrible things or acting out in horrible ways, and yet there appears to be no judgment. All these people seem to be loved by the narrator—or the writer—in spite of the many ways they fuck up.
Sometimes you have to talk yourself into seeing the other person’s point of view. It makes it easier if you have to be around that person or grow up around that person. You have to see the good, because those are the people you’re with and usually there is always good . . . A friend of mine told me a quote that said something like, “You have to remember to be kind to everyone, because everyone’s at war. Everyone is in the middle of their own personal war that they’ve been fighting. So always be kind.” I try to remember that, especially when I’m with someone I could pigeonhole as being awful. Most people—unless they’re sociopaths or murderers or freaks—have as much goodness as bad. But maybe just 49 percent of them is good and showing. You just have to get past the 51 percent. That’s pretty tough sometimes. I guess when I’m writing, that’s naturally the way I think of things . . . But I do pick on certain guys in The Free.
Well, yeah, Pat, the paint store guy who listens to Focus on the Family with his wife on the phone while eating his microwaved lunch. I loved hating him.
He’s a combination of a couple bosses I had. I worked for a chemical company where I loaded trucks with barrels of chemicals that we sold to mines throughout Northern Nevada. It was me, a salesman, the head office guy, and a truck driver. During lunch I had to leave the building—the head office guy made you leave—while he listened to Focus on the Family with his wife on speaker phone. He was obviously pretty religious yet at the same time he was fairly suicidal. He would drop hints about killing himself. One time he confided in me he just joined the church to find a woman, and then he confided in me another time he wanted to blow up an abortion clinic. That he wanted to do “real work.” He was the most un-Christian guy I’ve ever met yet all he talked about was Jesus. I feel bad for the guy. In a lot of ways he was struggling, he had demons, but all in all he wasn’t much of a man. So the character Pat is based on him and another boss I had who inherited his dad’s business and destroyed it in less than ten years.
Did he microwave his lunch every day like Pat in The Free?
His wife would make him the best lunches. He gained a hundred pounds in a year and a half. She made these great lunches and he’d microwave them. Fried chicken, Salisbury steak, chicken and dumplings, things like that. Southern comfort food.
Do you ever listen to talk radio?
I was a house painter for ten years and at around 2 o’clock each afternoon I’d start falling asleep. Luckily Dr. Laura would come on and I’d listen from 2 to 3, and she’d piss me off and that would keep me awake. You can hate them [Dr. Lara and James Dobson] but they do say some good stuff. Dr. Laura says don’t fuck people you don’t love, don’t steal money, and be accountable for your mistakes. Not bad advice. I’d listen to her to stay wake because I was just painting houses and they don’t like you sleeping on the job. The second I quit painting houses, though, I quit listening to Dr. Laura.
Let’s talk about Freddy, the guy who works in the group home and the paint store. Everyone seems to shit on him, but he just carries on with grace and composure.
Freddy, to me, is the working class. You’re right: he gets treated poorly. His back is against the wall yet he tries to act honorably and he shows up and busts his ass. The majority of the working class do that. Freddy has two jobs, all he does is work and still he’s just barely keeping his head above water. Even so, he keeps his decency, he keeps, in his own way, his honor and humanity. That’s hard to do, that’s hard for people to do under duress…Both Freddy and Pauline [the nurse in the book] act with Christian values—really Christian in that aspect of giving and humility and trying to do the right thing. The professed Christians in the book, Carol’s mom and Pat, are the most extreme Christians and yet the most uncaring and un-Christian-like. They treat their religion like it’s a gang…Those types of religious people, and what it means to be Christian, those were some of the ideas I was trying to figure out in the book.
Carol’s such an odd name for a young girl.
I’m in love with Carole Lombard, the great actress. I always have been, she’s my dream girl, so I like the name Carole. . . So I named the girl Carol. I really felt for the character Carol [the runaway teenager in the book]. She really could be a great kid, a great adult, but she’s not tough enough to get through the situation she’s in and she’s got a dark streak in her, a self-destructive and self-hatred streak, and worst of all she’s all alone. At her root, she’s more scared and self-defeating than she is strong . . . With help, if her mom had been accepting of her, she would have done great things . . . Her mother’s extreme belief and un-acceptance and Carol going against everything her mom thinks she’s for . . . that basically kills the kid. The mom’s killing her by ostracizing her. Leaving her out there in the world, alone. There are so many kids, even around Portland, living hard and fringe lives like that. You see them every day, and those kinds of people stick with me, I can never quite shake them.
There are so many sleeping bags in the book. Do you plan these recurring images, or do you write with some higher intelligence, some unconscious or subconscious divinity that organizes this stuff in your books?
I wish I wrote with a higher intelligence! I do try to write in themes with certain ideas I’m trying to figure out. I’ll explore the same ideas over and over and in different ways in a novel. But not in this particular case with sleeping bags . . . I guess the sleeping bags . . . I don’t know, I always equate them to being unsettled and to being on an adventure. Oh shit, man, you got your sleeping bag, you’re on the run a little. Unsettled.
There’s a lot of loneliness in The Free. In all your books, really.
Loneliness . . .Maybe at the root everybody’s lonely. I don’t know, I always think in terms of my head and the framework through which I see things. I do think the way I look at things is pretty lonely. I definitely write from that side of me, dipped in loneliness. I was always of the belief, and raised to believe, that all it takes is a couple of bad moves and you could be on your own with nothing. These bad moves could be from things you’ve said, or financial, or bad luck. I’ll talk about the financial side. My mom always said, we’re from a small family and if you fall on hard times, if you’re not careful, we’re not that far from being destitute. There wasn’t anyone to pick us up and save us . . . My mother worked with a lot of bums off the river, ex-drunks and part-time drunks. She saw how it could happen. She had a real and unreal fear of being homeless. In general I guess I’ve always seen things like that, that you’re only a few steps away from being on your own with not much to your name. Not the most fun way of looking at life, but it comes in handy sometimes.
What about the theme of silence, or not having a voice, in the book? There are so many people who can’t, or won’t, speak.
I did know that Carol [the runaway] was going to be nearly mute when we meet her. I’d heard a story of a girl, a fifteen-year-old who came into a hospital and she’d given up and wouldn’t talk. She quit eating and refused to talk to anyone. She was only fifteen and she was so damaged and beat up she was already through trying. That image of her stuck with me for years. I related to that. There’s great power in being silent because people forget you’re there. You can navigate yourself through difficult situations by being silent. If you’re in a rough situation, being silent can get you out of it. Pauline [the nurse, who is silent as a child] learned to be tough and survive by being silent, by watching every move she made with her dad. Watching everything she said. She has also had that quality that made her get up and try each morning when no one cared if she did . . .She’s a cracked person, but she hides her cracks and protects them and is tough and cool enough and cares about herself enough to make it. But Carol is lost in the wind and too young and too full of self-hatred to stand much of a chance. And Freddy [the working class guy], he’s such a good person, he’s silent because at work he’s scared he’ll lose his job, and to his daughters he just doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t want to mess anything up. But most of all he’s silent because I think he’s just trying to keep it together, and I think if he stops and analyzes things maybe he’ll implode, he’ll give out. Like a car held together with duct tape, you’re scared that if you stop it and mess with it at all, it’ll conk out for good. That’s a different kind of silence—it’s a troublesome silence. Pauline and Carol’s is a coping mechanism from childhood. [Leroy, the soldier, doesn’t speak either, but that’s because he’s suffered a brain injury, among other things.]
All through growing up, I didn’t say a word. I was shy. I couldn’t talk to anyone I didn’t know sober till I was in my twenties. Being in a band cured me of that.
From an early age, my best friends were books, records, movies. They were tattooed in me. If you saw a movie, and you liked it, there’s a window where the movie or story seems so real that it could be yours. You could go to sleep thinking that was your life, that was your house, your girl. I’d ride those feelings until they gave out and then I’d find another movie or book that would get me like that again. Always on the quest for another one.
Writing stories and disappearing into other people’s novels, movies, and books—that was always the way I got through life. I’ve never grown out of dealing with life that way. Maybe it’s a stupid crutch to use, a lot of the time I think it is, I’ve just done it so long that it’s a part of me and hard to kick.
I started writing songs at 12 and 13, obsessively. I really believed in the songs I’d hear. I believed them as the truth. Maybe the only truth! But hell, I was a kid and the songs were such good friends to me. And it was the same with the novels. I had no business writing novels, but I wanted to be a part of it. I just wanted to create a world that I could disappear into. And where most guys with my skill set would have quit, I just never quit.
Did you have friends as a kid?
Yeah, I had a lot of friends. I played sports with the same guys from age 7 to age 18. You always have friends in sports. A couple of those guys understood books and music, but most of them didn’t. So I lost track of nearly all of them. But sports really was a lifesaver for me. Being extremely shy, sports helped teach me how to be part of a team, taught me how to navigate around a lot of different kinds of people, and most of all it was fun ‘cause these were all guys I’d known since first grade. It was comfortable for someone who was shy ‘cause I didn’t have to say anything ‘cause they all knew me. As I got older I knew I was different. Reno wasn’t a big art town when I lived there, so you had to work at finding people who liked playing music or believed in novels, or weren’t narrow-minded to different ways of living. But most guys from small towns who want to be in a band or write novels go through that. Most have to skip town. I didn’t want to leave Reno but I ended up doing that as well.
How do you start a novel? Where do your stories come from?
In general I start with a feel, like the feel you get off a certain song that breaks your heart . . . I try to write a novel, dipped in a certain feeling, and that’s how I start. With The Free I was really troubled—just as a citizen—about the soldiers coming back mentally and physically beat up from Iraq and Afghanistan. And I come from a really hawkish, pro-military solution family, so I heard day in and out why it was such a “right” thing to do. But they never had the conversations about the aftermath, the cost. They would look away from that side.
At the same time, a friend of mine worked at an adult disabled group home and he’d tell you about how many families split up over caring for a disabled kid, how hard it was on the families to have a child with severe disabilities.
I was also thinking about the charity of nurses. I went out with a nurse for a few years, and I admired how nice she always was to her patients and how hard the job is, day in and day out. If you’ve ever been in a hospital, you know that you’re the most defenseless just then . . .Especially if you’re really hurting and you don’t have any family around. Just to have someone be nice to you, care that you’re alive, is one of the greatest feelings you can have.
Those three things [group home, soldier, nurse] came together. Those were the things that I couldn’t stop thinking about. The Free was a lot out of my comfort zone, those are big subjects, hard subjects, but I wanted to give it a shot. I wanted to tell those stories and lay them to rest a bit in my head.
With Leroy, the dream sequence is my way of dealing with growing up in a conservative family where they would throw around extreme rhetoric without really thinking about what it would mean to go through with what they were saying. It was also my way to write something really romantic. I wanted to say, hey you took Leroy and destroyed him, and by doing so you destroyed these two people who loved each other, who were meant to be together. As Willie Nelson said, 99 percent of us don’t find the right person, and that’s why there will always be country songs, that’s why the jukebox is always full. Leroy’s girlfriend [who we mostly see in the dream sequence] is his right person.
When did you first start writing fiction?
I started writing fiction after listening to a Paul Kelly song—he’s a genius, the Australian Bob Dylan. He’s also a huge reader, and he wrote a song called “Everything’s Turning to White” based on the Raymond Carver story “So Much Water so Close to Home.” I read the story and I was blown away by it and found Carver . . . Carver’s stories seemed like my stories. I knew those stories and the people in them. And Carver and his characters hadn’t done anything great in their lives, they were just people trying to get by, and I really identified with that . . . Carver could be any guy. After reading Where I’m Calling From, I started writing novels.
When I was 19 I wrote a novella about a guy and his uncle who got drunk, stole cars, and parted them out. That story got me addicted to writing . . . all my stories started out as fantasy and then my darker mind got a hold of them and twisted them up. I sent out stories, a few got published, and I’d get them back and realize how bad they were so I stopped sending them out when I was 26. I quit short stories for the most part after that and just wrote novels till I was 35. And then I was touring England, and I met this really cool writer who interviewed me for a rock magazine. He introduced me to his agent, and she was seriously nice and looked at my book. That she did and was kind to me was like a gift from God. If an agent wants to see your stuff, you’ve got to show it, and you might find out that you suck at it, that you’re horrible, but you might find out the opposite as well. I had always been scared that if I found out I was horrible, I’d stop doing it. I was frightened to know the reality—I liked writing more than I cared about getting published . . . but after ten years of writing them the chance to find out if I was any good got to me. I gave her Motel Life and she sold it.
So is Carver your favorite writer?
No, and to be honest I won’t really read him anymore. He brings back too many bad memories for me. I want to be surrounded by more romance and life and adventure when I read now. Larry Brown, he’s writes the best working class, working stories. His people are cool, full of romance and despair and violence and humor. I always read William Kennedy’s Ironweed. I read it once a year. Kennedy is everything I wish I was: a really good stylist and a genius with language. Real Irish at heart, dark, funny as hell, and romantic. And he’s got magic realism in his stuff, I’ve always been drawn to that both as a fan and in my own work. The problem with Carver is, he just reminds me of being a kid.
Flannery O’ Connor, she’s so fucking crazy and genius. I’d quit if I thought about my stories against hers. That’s one thing I try never to do, but I’m definitely the janitor in her company. She’s just the best, a serious American treasure who’s got an edge and a bent eye and a wicked sense of humor.
I read Steinbeck all the time. I always save him for when I feel lonely, because I want to be in his head . . . When my life’s going downhill, I’d read Steinbeck and force myself inside Cannery Row. I live with Mac and the boys. Listen to Mac come up with bad ideas all day and then sneak over for a drink with Doc and listen to his records.
You’re into music, reading, and writing. Anything else?
Sadly, not much. I used to buy muscle cars. I was obsessed with Dodge Darts. At one point, I had two on blocks on the lawn and also a ‘68 Pontiac Le Mans. It had everything. It looked like the worst piece of shit, but inside was great, the engine, the tranny, the front end . . . I didn’t want it to get all precious, didn’t want to be one those guys who kept something so precious so I refused to paint it, but it ran like a dream and handled like a new car.
Other than that I don’t have a lot of hobbies. I’m obsessed with movies. I ride horses but I’m just good enough at that to really get myself killed. I like seeing bands but I live in the sticks now. I do like getting drunk…I’ll shake it when I have to shake it. Drinking is like playing with a poisonous snake—it’s gotten close to kicking my ass, but I’ve got it in the corner right now.
Are you happy?
Shit yeah, I’m happier than I am sad, and I like talking with you. You’re funnier than hell and you’re nice and best of all you like novels and you’ve been to Reno.
Ah, you’re nice, too. I’ve loved talking with you.