Even though everyone told me he was the nicest guy in the world, I was nervous about meeting Vlautin for beers at the Vern last week. It's scary to meet your heroes. But it turns out he is the nicest guy in the world. Makes sense, too—his stories may be unbearably sad and his characters almost hopeless, but Vlautin is nicer to the people he writes about than probably anybody else in their lives has been. They've had it rough, most of them, and he doesn't shy away from telling about the bad things they've done, but you can tell he's on their side, hoping they'll be OK in the end. He writes like he's trying to make up for all the meanness in the world.
Vlautin's debut novel, The Motel Life, just published by Harper Perennial, is less bleak than most of his songs, if only because there's more room in it for humor and small kindnesses. But Vlautin is drawn to the unlucky side of life. On page one, young Frank Flannigan's passed out in his Reno motel room when a bird crashes through the window, letting in the cold night. It's the perfect image to start off the book, this poor lost creature suddenly appearing where it shouldn't be, destroying itself and putting a hole in the world. Things go downhill from there. Frank's older, drunk brother, Jerry Lee, comes into his room that same night, distraught because he hit a kid on a bicycle while driving home from his girlfriend's house. So the two brothers make the first of a whole bunch of bad decisions: They flee.
Frank and Jerry Lee are lost souls, but they're good guys, and Vlautin keeps trying to help them out. He gives them a dog, he gives them a couple of chances, he even gives them a Willie Nelson tape. "I felt so bad for those guys," Vlautin says. "They needed Willie Nelson. I wanted them to have that kind of comfort, and to know that...that they liked beautiful things, that they weren't bad guys at all."
One of the major pieces of the book is the solace of music and stories. Frank tells wild stories to his brother and his girlfriend to make them—and himself—feel better. That comes straight from the author. Vlautin writes to keep from going crazy, the same reason he loves music. "I started writing when I was about 14," says the Reno native, "specifically because I was so shy I couldn't talk to anybody. I was too embarrassed to say that I was going crazy or I was having a hard time, because, you know, nothing dramatic's ever happened to me," he laughs. "I just wasn't a well-adjusted kid."
Similarly, Vlautin says, "I really love that aspect of music: when it's not anybody's record but yours, and you can keep them around, like when you move someplace and you don't know anybody but you have your five favorite records that you can call home. It gives you strength to get through the day."
Vlautin has already sold his next two novels, and he and steel-guitar player Paul Brainard have recorded a CD of instrumentals as a soundtrack for the next book. The movie rights for The Motel Life were sold to 21 Grams writer Guillermo Arriaga, and Vlautin adapted the screenplay himself. And, he says, he's a generally happier guy than he was 10 years ago.
"I've always have been interested in the aspect of people who make the same mistakes over and over again," Vlautin says. "Because most people do. It's so hard to change, it's so hard to try to be a better person than you were last year. I've always been interested in the struggle to try to change and not having the courage to change. Because I've done that... I always thought I'd try to learn from my mistakes and I make the same mistakes over and over, you know. Maybe that's just part of the way it is."
Willy Vlautin reads from The Motel Life 7:30 pm Sunday, April 29, at Powell's Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. Free.