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Vlautin from the Rooftops
You may know him as the lead singer with alt.country rockers Richmond Fontaine. But Willy Vlautin is also a critically-lauded writer, with several acclaimed novels under his belt. As his latest tome hits shelves, he discusses what motivates him as an author.
The Hot Press Newsdesk, 19 Feb 2010
The act of writing might be described as a benign way of turning a neurosis into a vocation – and for the lucky few who can keep their overheads below their advances, a living.
“Between you and me, writing is all I ever think about,” says Oregon-based novelist and Richmond Fontaine frontman Willy Vlautin. “I started writing as a crutch when I was a kid, 13 or 14, mostly fantasy stories, and then when I was about 20 I started writing pretty seriously. It evens out my head when I write. I’m nicer to be around ‘cos I can get all the things that haunt me or worry me out, and I can control ‘em.”
But as anyone who has read Vlautin’s three downbeat but resolutely decent novels (The Motel Life, Northline and his latest, Lean On Pete) will tell you, there’s a always a shadow side.
“What kills me is self-doubt,” he says. “My ability with language. And just my intelligence. I’m really hard on myself about all that stuff. But for me the day that I found out The Motel Life got bought, it was one of the biggest monkeys off my back. That’s a lucky feeling to have. It takes a concrete weight off your back and then hands you a pick.”
And Vlautin has certainly multiplied his talents. Three novels in four years, and Lean On Pete is his best, the hard luck story of a disadvantaged teenager, Charley Thompson, who harbours ambitions to be a football star. Shortly after moving to Portland with his dissolute father, Charley begins working at the local track, where he befriends an aging racehorse that he attempts to save from the boneyard.
Vlautin belongs to a long tradition of writers – among them Nelson Algren, William Kennedy, Ray Carver and Denis Johnson – who anatomise the underbelly of dispossessed America, but his tales rarely glamourise their subject matter. This is no college dropout who once drank a couple of Buds for breakfast and thinks he’s Bukowski. Vlautin’s stories possess an Edward Hopper diner melancholia. Like those of Steinbeck, they hit you where it hurts.