Willy Vlautin tells Declan Burke that a strong work ethic — and a dark heart — have made him the author and songwriter he is today
NEVER judge a book, as they so rarely say, by its title. Willy Vlautin is a proud American but there’s an ironic twist to the title of his latest novel, The Free.
“The land of the free, the home of the brave,” he says. “That’s why I named it The Free, sure, it’s from the US national anthem. So much of America, in my opinion, spouts this kind of jingoism about how it’s free and great, but I grew up in a really conservative home, where they threw around a lot of rough, negative rhetoric, like ‘No one’s as good as America’ or ‘We’re the Promised Land, we’re the free’.
“That’s always stuck with me, and part of the book was me trying to figure out that aspect of my personal life, and how I handled, or didn’t handle, living in a home that was that conservative.”
Originally — and still — a singersongwriter with the critically acclaimed alt-country band, Richmond Fontaine, Willy Vlautin was born in Reno, Nevada, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. He published his debut, The Motel Life, in 2006, and subsequently Northline (2008) and Lean on Pete (2010), novels which have seen him hailed one of the great American writers of his generation.
The Free, his fourth offering, is set in and around Portland, and opens with ex-US Army soldier, Leroy Kervin. Suffering from a brain injury, Leroy lives in a group home but spends most of his days in a comatose state. When he wakes up one night to experience a rare moment of clarity, Leroy attempts to commit suicide.
“Leroy sees what his life is,” says Vlautin, “he gets the gift of realising that this is all he has, all he’ll ever have, so he decides he’ll kill himself, he’ll disappear.”
Leroy fails in his bid, relapsing instead into a coma that reads like a dystopian nightmare of a futuristic America ruled by a militaristic class.
“His girlfriend had always wanted to take this trip up the coast of Canada,” says Vlautin, “and so Leroy wants to disappear into this romantic world, but his mind won’t let him. And the kind of horrific stuff he has to deal with, that’s the kind of thing guys with bad brain injuries, they might feel that kind of story.
“That’d be a horrific way to live — whatever your personal nightmare is, that’s what you’re living through.”
Through Leroy we meet The Free’s other main characters, caregiver, Freddie and nurse Pauline. Despite living in a democratic country, where they have freedom of speech and freedom of movement, the pair’s every minute and cent are so accounted for, they are essentially slaves to the system.
“Freddie in particular, the way I wrote him, is kind of a symbol of the working class,” says Vlautin. “Meaning, you can cut his hours, you ask more of him, you can force him to get a second job to pay his bills — you can take and take and he’ll put up with it.
“Most people put up with a lot. But then eventually they’ll break. And Freddie breaks by breaking the law, he rebels by having a [marijuana] grow operation in his basement, trying to hold on to his house.
“He doesn’t want to do it, he’s not cut out for it, he’s not a criminal and it’s against his nature — most people don’t want to be criminals, break the law or go against what they value. But Freddie’s forced to.”
The Free is to a large extent an anti-war novel, in which Leroy’s nightmarish existence is juxtaposed with Freddie’s obsession with war.
“Freddie, he’s one of those guys who glamorised war,” says Vlautin. “All the books he read were about war, and when his home life was falling apart and his child was really ill, how he spent his spare time was building this recreation of one of the most horrific battles that ever happened on American soil, the Battle of Gettysburg.
“So he’s spending his spare time glorifying hell — the worst part of humanity, I would guess, is war. I think when he sees Leroy he sees what the reality of war is — a guy in a group home who is barely functional and hopeless.”
Despite the bleak tone, The Free is nevertheless an uplifting read, not least because Freddie and Pauline are prepared to give of themselves on behalf of strangers.
They are quietly Christian in their deeds, Vlautin says, by comparison with other characters, “who wear their religion like boxing gloves.”
“I’m not a politician, and I’m not a scholar,” he says when I ask if he is optimistic about America’s future. “So I don’t know if I have the right to make broad statements. A lot of the stuff in the book, that’s me trying to figure it out myself, y’know? Or lay it to rest.
“With Freddie and Pauline, I guess I’m saying that there’s a goodness in people that will always survive. And kindness breeds kindness. Freddie and Pauline helped me to remind myself of that.”
Encouraged by his older brother, Vlautin started writing songs aged 13.
“I liked The Pogues growing up,” he says, “they made a lot of sense to me, mixing folk into punk rock. And there was Los Lobos, Green on Red …” He also cites country & western legends, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson as musical influences, but it was the great short story writer, Raymond Carver, (see Carver biography review on page 35), who proved the strongest influence on his prose.
“I’ve always been a fan of working class stories,” he says. “Maybe that’s why Raymond Carver, he was the first guy I ever read where no one was a great person, and no one had done anything except scrape by, and all the men were kind of losers, hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
“I really identified with that. And it gave me the courage to say, ‘Well, I’m not a great person, but I know those stories.’
“I wanted to write for guys who worked a hard job, and see if you could get them to read at the end of the night. Most working class guys aren’t going to read novels — you go home and watch TV, or you fall asleep on page four. So I hoped to write stories that are almost written with blood and really clear — like, you don’t mess around, and you keep them kind of short, so they’re not intimidating, and you can get a guy to read after work. That was my dream when I was in my 20s, and it still is in a lot of ways.”
Acclaimed as a songwriter and more recently as a great American novelist (“I wrote novels from when I was 21 to when I was 35, but I was too scared to show them to anybody”), and with Richmond Fontaine back in the recording studio, Willy Vlautin seems to be riding high, especially with a movie adaptation of The Motel Life due to arrive on our cinema screens in April, starring Emile Hirsh, Stephen Dorff and one of his all-time heroes, Kris Kristofferson.
Vlautin, softly spoken, down to earth and at times painfully modest, doesn’t necessarily recognise himself from that description.
“It’s like looking in the mirror,” he grins. “Some days you like yourself and some days you don’t, y’know? You always got to work hard. I don’t have a great gift with language like some writers.
I have certain ideas that I like writing about, and I enjoy it, but a guy like me always has to be a workhorse, because I wasn’t given any great gifts. Except maybe a dark heart.”