Interview: Willy Vlautin

The much-loved frontman of the now sadly defunct Richmond Fontaine and pivotal member of The Delines,  Willy Vlautin is a man of many talents. Not only an exquisite songwriter, guitarist and one of the good guys, Vlautin has established himself as a ‘must read’ novelist whose tales of life’s chancers and dreamers have been cherished by readers and critics alike. Over for a short visit to these shores promoting his new book, ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’ AUK’s Alan O’Hare caught up with him for a coffee and short chat.

Willy Vlautin is one of America’s great writers.,” Roddy Doyle said that. It’s a hell of a statement.

I held my head up for a couple weeks after I saw that,” says Vlautin. “I’ve read his books since I was a kid and I’m a huge fan – it’s a lucky break for him to say something like that about me.”

It is lucky, but the happenstance is based on the fact that when inspiration strikes it has to find the artist working and Vlautin never stops. His fifth novel in just over a decade, ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’, is out now and once again finds the blue notes in the musical mosaic of modern America.  “I think certain stories of mine are dipped in the melancholy of a sad ballad,” he reveals.

Despite the image, Vlautin is a multi-media making modern creative and ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’ comes with its own Richmond Fontaine-recorded soundtrack, featuring deft pedal steel and mariachi horns. Locating the heart of the book’s people and places, the music is magical…

Do you hear music as you’re writing your books? Not when I’m writing, no. I can’t do anything when music plays except listen and drift off! It’s a bad habit… I have a hard time even holding a straight conversation when music’s playing! I guess it’s a certain melancholy in a story that makes me think of a song.

Did that happen with ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’? From the first page… and by page ten I’d already written a couple tunes. After that, I decided on the soundtrack and was lucky that the guys in Richmond Fontaine were up for doing it.

You’re happy with it, then? I gotta’ say it’s my favourite record of ours! I mean, I don’t have to listen to my voice…

Nice. Thinking of that Doyle quote, what defines ‘an American writer’? I’m not sure… maybe being raised and living in America makes you an American writer. Usually, when I write a novel that’s heavy on location it’s just because I want to live in that place. I’m pretty simple that way. I write about my hometown of Reno because I’ve always wanted to move back there. This time ’round I wrote about a Nevada ranch because I’ve always wanted to live on one! A part of the book is set in Tucson just because I like it there.

‘Living Where You’re Not Wanted’ is my favourite song on the soundtrack – what is it about that lonesome feeling that attracts you to desperate characters? I guess more than anything it’s something I’ve struggled with in my own life. Maybe it’s in my blood or how I was raised, but I’ve never been able to shake loneliness. I always thought it would ease up the older I got… but maybe that’s why I always write about the things I write about: they’re all still puzzles that I can’t quite figure out.

How happy were you with how your first novel, ‘The Motel Life’, turned out in its big screen adaptation? There were some things I really liked about the movie and it’s lucky as hell to get a film made of your book. They also shot it in my hometown which was great, as they documented some of my favourite places and I’m grateful for that. I had some problems with it… but I know the filmmakers tried the best they could.

‘Lean On Pete’, your third novel, is a film now, too… I got really lucky on that one. I saw Andrew Haigh’s first movie, ‘Weekend’, and thought it was great. And, Jesus, then he gets ‘Lean On Pete’ made and I really can’t say enough great things about him.

What’s your favourite film adapted from a book? I know Ken Kesey would roll over in his grave, but ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was pretty damn good. So was the B. Traven book, ‘The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre’, and the Coen brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’ was amazing… as was Larry McMurtry’s ‘The Last Picture Show’, too.

What’s next musically? We just finished a new The Delines record and I’m so damn excited about it. We might get to be a band again after Amy Boone‘s accident.. it’s been almost two years since she was hit by a car and she’s still struggling, but we’re hoping we’ll be able to do some shows this fall when the record comes out.

Don’t Skip Out On Me‘ s out now on Faber And Faber

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