Willy Vlautin is the author of three novels, The Motel Life, Northline, and, most recently, Lean on Pete. He is also the frontman for the alt-country band Richmond Fontaine. Lean on Pete was shortlisted for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin literary award. His work appeared in subTerrain #16 & #20.
subT: You started off writing short stories and now predominately write novels and songs. Has this just been a sort of a natural progression or did you always intend to write novels? Do you still write short fiction?
WV: Ever since I was a kid I have always been a huge fan of the novel, that’s all I read. So I think I’ve thought in terms of them with my own work. Your right, when I first started I wrote short stories. At first I was too intimidated to write longer pieces but it was always my hope to eventually write a novel.
subT: All of your main characters—from the brothers in The Motel Life to Allison Johnson in Northline, to Charley Thompson in Lean on Pete—seem to be running away from their past. A troubled past certainly gives them something to be in opposition to, and also allows the reader to speculate on a history, to try to unravel a past that’s shadowed in some degree of mystery. Is this something you see around you in contemporary America? Did you know people like this when you were growing up? Or is this simply part of a good formula for complex, engaging characters?
WV: Ha, you know I never think of things in terms of character development or plot or formula. I never think of what people might like, I probably should! I began writing because it took a huge edge off of me, it was a way for me to analyze things that scared me or haunted me or hurt me. The hope was that if I looked at them long enough I would be free from them. That’s why you have characters like the Flannigan brothers, Charley Thompson, and Allison Johnson. Those characters are a part of me. I try my best to write with blood, to write with my heart, and write a story that keeps you up at night. My characters are either banged up or flawed in serious ways, most times both, because that’s the way I am. That’s the way I see the world, and those are the sort of people I’m interested in and who make me feel comfortable.
subT: You said somewhere in another interview that “there’s a price to be paid for being weak” … can you elaborate on that?
WV: If you base your decisions on weakness usually you end up doing things you don’t want to do, or often times it means you allow other people to make decisions for you. If you’re scared or unconfident, sometimes you’ll not take opportunities that you’re given, you won’t stand up for yourself. You try to just disappear. That way of thinking always has a cost. Maybe life is all about the fight, and if you don’t fight you shrink away from yourself, you give yourself away. And that usually ends badly.
subT: Your characters do not come from the privileged classes—hell, they don’t even come from the upper middle class. They are the working poor of America, people who haven’t had an easy go of things in the “land of opportunity” and are struggling to get by. Sometimes they’re dealt a lousy hand; other times Fate swings its heavy sceptre; sometimes it’s a few bad decisions and suddenly they find themselves at the end of a bleak street wondering what to do and where to turn next. What was your upbringing like?
WV: I had a very stable childhood, economically. I was raised by my mother. She worked the same job for thirty years. She worked with a lot of guys with rough pasts. We were raised to believe there wasn’t a huge gap between us and the guys she worked with, some of whom were bums living in motels or by the river when they began working at the same place she worked. She raised two kids and kept her head down and grinded it out for thirty years, all out of fear that she would end up losing everything if she didn’t play her cards right. So that way of thinking is in my blood. If you don’t have a family and you get some bad breaks you can easily end up in some pretty dire situations.
subT: Small acts of kindness seem to be important to you … the belief that there are people out there willing to go out of their way to help others with no expectation of personal gain. I’m thinking of Guillermo in “Pete” and the old bartender and his wife in Northline.
WV: Maybe it’s from being in a band for so many years. When you’re in a struggling band you rely on the kindness of strangers for places to stay, food, etc. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times people were nice to my band. The world can be harsh and unrelenting when you’re down, but people can be very kind as well. In my own life there have been a handful of people who have helped me up when I’ve gotten the shit kicked out of me. People that didn’t have to, but who did it out of kindness. So in my novels I’ve always wanted to show that side as well.
subT: To me, the most compelling aspect of your work is the voice. Even though the three novels are very different, the voice is consistent—an unembellished, straight-ahead narrative voice pushes the story forward. And it is not so much the conflict or contradiction in your stories that give them their power, but your characters’ authenticity. The character of Charley in Lean on Pete, where’d he come from?
WV: Thanks for that! I’ve always wanted to write simple stories written with blood. When I started I wanted to write a novel that a guy could read after he got off work. A novel that could keep the attention of a tired working-class guy who’d rather watch TV. A novel that just laid it out clearly but with intensity, with life or death at stake. I still try to do that, ’cause those are the novels that move me the most. Novels that keep me up at night, that make me feel less alone in the world, those are the books that make me want to write.
Charley Thompson is a kid I’ve written about half my life in one form or another. He was in The Motel Life, he was cut from Northline but he was in there as well for a while. I have a handful of songs about him, and a few novellas. I wrote about him and never really thought about why until Lean on Pete.
More than anything that kid was always there because I didn’t like being a kid. When I was sixteen and had access to a car and could make my own money, that was when my life began in many ways. From then on I knew I could make it on my own if I had to, I could get by without relying on anyone. It gave me a great sense of stability and safety. Charley is on the edge of that, he’s almost sixteen, but in the novel he has to rely on his father/adults, he isn’t yet able to control his own life. The problem is he doesn’t have anyone looking out for him.
He’s one of my favourite characters, he’s like a saint to me, a gift. He is who I want to be, he’s resilient and kind, he can get beat up day after day and still he’ll get up and try. He got me out of bed for a couple years, and Lean on Pete was the most fun to write. And now whenever I’m having a hard time I just think, ‘Charley Thompson wouldn’t be bitching, he’d just do it.’
subT: Who are the writers that have influenced or inspired you?
WV: The guys that I think about the most are William Kennedy and John Steinbeck. Both, I think, write with great kindness, both are dark but they see the other side too. They are great storytellers and they have characters and worlds I want to disappear inside. I think they have written important working-class novels. I have a lot of influences, but those are the guys whose pictures I have hanging in my house.
subT: Lean on Pete recently made the shortlist for the IMPAC Dublin Award, the world’s most valuable annual literary award for a single work of fiction published in English. First, what did it feel like to receive that news? And, second, how do you feel about literary prizes in general?
WV: I mean it’s always nice when something good happens to one of my novels. I work so hard on them and I worry about them. I want them to do all right. Things like the IMPAC shortlist help Lean on Pete and that’s all that matters to me. I think prizes are important because they get people to read the novels that win or are shortlisted. I don’t think about them outside of that, I don’t get into the politics of those things, I just feel lucky as hell that Lean on Pete was given a boost, that Charley Thompson and Pete are given a new little lease on life.
subT: What are you working on, what’s next?
WV: I’m working on a novel about nursing that I almost have done. I also am working on a collection of related stories that I hope to have done in the next couple of years. The band just got done with a long touring cycle so hopefully if I don’t fuck around too much I’ll get some work done.