Interview: Willy Vlautin on novels, songwriting, guitars, and horses

Willy Vlautin was at home just outside Portland Oregon when we spoke with him. Having just completed a tour supporting his latest novel ‘The Horse’ and preparing to come back for a short tour with the Delines including an appearance at Black Deer Festival. AUK’s Andy Davidson was one of many reviewers to love ‘The Horse.’ For me it’s his best book yet. The writing is sharp, and the character of Al Ward recognisable to anyone who has spent any time around musicians.

Characters are at the heart of both Vlautin’s books and songs, so that’s where our conversation started.

My introduction to your work was with reviewing ‘The Sea Drift’ for AUK. So, the first story of yours I heard was ‘Little Earl.’ I’m hardly the first to call your writing cinematic, but I got an instant visual of them in an old Buick or Chrysler. The little touches like the “AC don’t work” and you can almost feel the Gulf Coast heat. I’m interested to learn if you get a visual impression of the songs and stories as you write them?

Yes, totally. I’m a weird songwriter, maybe it’s why my songs aren’t catchy, in the pop sense, because I’ll think of them all first as stories. And then I’ll think of them as movies, and I’ll write the music to fit the movie. With Little Earl, it went through a few drafts, but the basic story of two brothers shoplifting the wrong mini-mart, and the older one getting shot was there. And then it’s just two boys panicking. The imagery of sitting on a pillow, I used to take my mom’s car out, and there’s images of that in there. I think about all that stuff before I even start writing it. That song went through a bunch of different versions. I drive Amy Boone crazy because I write a lot of different versions.

Do you approach a character differently if they will be voiced by Amy Boone in a song to how you might if they were speaking more for themselves in a story?

When it’s Amy I definitely think differently. For a couple of reasons, one because I want to make sure she likes it. I worry a lot about making sure it’s something she wants to sing. There’s certain subjects she doesn’t really want to sing about, so I want to make sure it’s something she can get her heart behind. A lot of the sings are influenced by things she’s said.

That being said so many songs come off of novels. They take so much time. The hardest thing about novels is the time they take. So, I take breaks and start writing songs. The songs are in the world or at least the emotions of the novels.

One of the things that stood out for me in the book were the instruments. What does the ‘59 Butterscotch telecaster symbolise for you? When I saw you live and on videos you seem to be a Gibson SG player.

I did that for Dan Eccles of Richmond Fontaine. He always plays some variation of a Telecaster. There was a guy in my hometown growing up who played a blonde Telecaster, they called him Johnny Fingers. So, it was for those two guys. Dan Eccles has always been one of my best pals and favourite guitar players.

For me one of the key moments in the book is when Al tries to pawn his guitars, he says he’s done with music. It feels like by giving his valuable guitars away or breaking them up in the case of the Martin, he hopes to get the urge to write out of his head as well?

I don’t think Al’s problems were ever money-based. When we meet him, he’s in a very destructive phase, his ex-wife’s just killed herself, and all his work has led him to a third-rate covers band. He doesn’t want to think about music, but he does it in a very self-destructive way. You can get like that with art sometimes. He wants to be free of himself really.

I remember Freddy Trujillo, he’s a bird watcher, and he invited me to a hawk refuge. We were surrounded by students who were all well-adjusted people trying to tell the nation about the declining bird population. And Freddy is a well-rounded guy, and he’s a lot of interests over the years. And I was like, man, I’ve never done anything except live in bars. I’ve always chased this one thing, being in love with music and books, being in a band or trying to write books. And I was like ashamed that I’ve never done anything except chase this one thing my whole life. There’s times when I’ve tried to quit, but I love being in a band, and I love writing novels. They’ve brought me a lot of success and a lot of failure, and a lot of dead ends and ditches I’ve ended up in. But they’ve been my pals.

I was just reading the acknowledgements to ‘The Horse’ and you talk about four songwriters. I only recently discovered The Sadies. 

They were my favourite band. They were the only band I dreamed I was in. I was so heartbroken by Dallas Good’s death because he was a real hero, and he was a nice guy, and we were friends. Those guys ability to play legendary sets and write cool songs. I’ve been a fan since before Richmond Fontaine played our first gig with them in 1999.

And Patterson Hood with The Drive By Truckers, he’s just a guy that’s been writing songs his whole life. He’s the coolest rock star I’ve ever met. Like me he’s a writer. Scott McCaughey the same thing. Those guys would always write songs and they are real heroes of mine.

You’ve narrated many of the audiobooks of your novels yourself – what prompts you to do that rather than let an actor do them?

I’m a big audiobook fan. It started years ago just touring around. I started getting into Audiobooks then and doing book tours in the States. I made little, short stories. I’ve done little weird audiobooks, like ‘A Jockey’s Christmas,’ so when they let me do one, I jumped at it. I love doing it.

I’ve been listening to ‘The Kill Switch’ recently.

I do stuff like that for fun, it’s a blast. And my next novel is going to be the characters from ‘The Kill Switch,’ a whole novel of those characters. It continues on with Eddie and Russell. It’s pretty close. I got some work to do on it, but it’s getting close.

There’s a film coming up of ‘Night Always Comes.’ This will be the third of your books to be filmed. How does it feel watching your stories translated to the screen. Do they come out how you think they should?

No, they’re always different. The thing with movies. You either have to get involved deeply, and there’s not a lot of guys who want the writer around. So, you just got to sell them and hope you’ve sold them to the best guys. My hope is that they have great success and make something that’s beautiful. I’ve had great experience with all of them. In ‘The Motel’ they documented my hometown when it was transitioning, so some of the places they filmed aren’t there anymore. The horse track in ‘Lean On Pete’ is torn down now. For me, those things are really exciting. I spent years at the horse track so to get that on screen is amazing.

One thing I didn’t know is that making a movie is a performance in itself. You are surprised they ever make a good movie, there’s so, many variables, you only have an actor, or a location for a day. It is such a difficult thing and such a risky endeavour, that I did learn a lot from being close to them.

I saw Andrew Haigh who did ‘Lean On Pete,’ his movie ‘All Of Us Strangers’ and me and my wife were in tears halfway through because it was so emotional. You can watch so many movies or hear so many songs, none of them are bad, but only one emotionally moves you.

The Sea Drift was one of those albums that really connected with me emotionally. For me Amy Boone is one of the best singers, in any genre around at the moment.

I feel that way about Amy. I’ve been in a band with her, and a fan of hers for a long time. It’s still like, “man I’m in a band with her.”  I just adore her voice. It emotionally moves me. When you fall in love with a singer’s voice it’s heaven. I never get tired of it.

You’re back over touring with The Delines.

I’m getting to be an old man and I’ve been travelling a lot since I got home at horse shows with my wife. But I’m looking forward to doing some shows, and just playing guitar.

You have Our Man In The Field supporting again.  They feel like such a good fit for you.

He is, the greatest, one of the nicest guys, talk about a brilliant singer, so it’s always fun hanging out with them. The best part of being in a band is travelling and meeting people who love music. None of us would get into it if you were trying to make a buck. I would probably never have heard The Sadies if I wasn’t in a band.

Thinking back into the books again, words like bruised and dented come up often in descriptions of your characters. Where do you find the characters from? I think the blind horse was a real incident.

It was. We were driving around in Nevada, and there was this blind black horse, and it stopped my buddy and me in our tracks. Horses don’t like being on their own, or not being able to see. You’re 10 miles from the nearest water. I always been thin-skinned that way. I wouldn’t be attracted to those sort of characters if it wasn’t in my blood.

You mentioned your wife does horse shows, and they appear in your books and music a lot, right back to Richmond Fontaine.

I never really think about it. The cover of the last Richmond Fontaine album ‘You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To’ was a buddy of mine painting that blind horse and there was a song on that album called ‘The Blind Horse.’ I gambled on them a lot so I fell in love with them a different way. ‘Lean On Pete’ was me breaking up with horse racing. Both that and ‘The Horse’ are both about horses and not about horses.

I appreciate your time and thoughtful answers, and I’m looking forward to the next Delines album early next year. Thanks Willy.

About Tim Martin 254 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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