Everything Willy Vlautin does ruins you with sadness. It might be the hard-luck songs the Portlander wrote for years as singer of Richmond Fontaine, or it might be his tumble-down novels of the the American West—full of broken-down alcoholics with broken-down trucks.
This spring, he's got two new heartbreaking things coming to light. On March 30, British director Andrew Haigh will release a Portland-shot film version of Lean on Pete, his 2009 novel in which a down-on-his-luck kid named Charley Thompson steals a horse from a racetrack to save it.
This Tuesday, Feb. 20, Vlautin will read from his just-published novel Don't Skip Out on Me, about an orphaned Paiute ranch hand named Horace, who hates his heritage and wants to change his identity to have a better life as a Mexican boxer. The book comes equipped with an instrumental soundtrack.
We had a free-flowing conversation with Vlautin at his St. Johns office—he's lived in Scappoose for the past decade—about sadness, fistfights and broken people.
Why are your books so sad?
Willy Vlautin: I always start out thinking it's going to be escapism. You know how people say your characters take over the book? My thing is, your characters become your heart—what you feel, what your soul feels. What was behind [Don't Skip Out on Me], I thought, "Why can't someone reinvent himself? Why can't I not be me?" Then the reality comes in. I've got a dark mind and it starts taking over.
Where'd the idea come from for Horace to want to be a Mexican boxer?
As a kid, I thought, there's gotta be an answer to how I can get by in this world better, some uncle somewhere that owns a used car lot and will adopt me. I gotta have some distant relative that lives in Australia and on a ranch. I'm gonna meet a girl who will save me, find a relative that will save me instead of being a normal person and figuring shit out. With Horace, he was like, "I've got it! I'm gonna be a Mexican! Mexican boxers are the toughest."
I want to hang out with a guy like Horace—I like that guy. He wants so badly to be something, so he's worth something to somebody else. He wants to be a champion so he's worthy of love. I like that he's ambitious enough to try, even though he's got a bad plan. He's a broken man fixing himself in a broken way. I write about people wanting to save broken people. Inside my own mind I'm saving people, but I'm definitely on the more dented side of things.
A lot of your characters seem a little broken.
It's so easy to break somebody, and it's hard to put them back together. Like Horace has the love of this broken old man, Mr. Reese. The offer isn't great: [Mr. Reese] wants to give him his place [his Nevada ranch], which is isolation. He wants to give Horace everything he has, and it's not enough. We all get broken, but some people get really broken too young. As a society you deal with that, but it's hard on the personal level, too.
Why'd you decide to write a soundtrack to the book?
I just did it for fun. Writing takes so fucking long. This book took me so long—it was like 600 pages at some point. I can write a lot of songs in three and a half years. The mood of the book was so melancholy—Horace feels like a sad song to me. I started writing all these tunes, and when I got the book done the songs were in fairly decent shape.
Fontaine, we're kinda retired, but I was really bummed out we never did an instrumental record. I gave them the roughs of the songs and they said, "Yeah let's do it." We practiced for two months and recorded the whole thing in one day. I love it because my voice isn't on it. It's the only thing I've done I ever listen to.
Do you want people to listen to it while they read?
I don't expect people to. I can't read to music. I can't do anything to music except daydream. Anytime music comes on and it's halfway something I like, I have a hard time. I can't even have a conversation. I just get sucked into it like a daydream world. I wanted it to be like when you listen to a soundtrack, you think of the movie.
People read a book and it just goes on the shelf. But people listen to a record for years, so if they fall in love with Horace maybe they'll listen to the record and think of him.
Have you seen the film version of Lean on Pete?
I liked the movie. I know it was really hard for them to get Portland Meadows and they got it. They shot in Burns [Ore.] and I was glad about that too. You're never sure about that stuff because it's all money and tax breaks, where they shoot. It was a story that didn't need to be in the Northwest, but I was glad it stayed here. The take on horse racing and the kid's life, a certain level of horse racing, the lowest big time level of horse racing—there are tracks like that everywhere.
I wrote the book right here, so I'm glad they stuck true to where the kid lived [by Portland Meadows]. I tried to buy a house there once. I was always trying to buy shacks. I always thought if I bought I house I'd be a good person.
How much of that book came from Portland?
With Charley Thompson, I just saw a kid walking down the street one day. Something about that kid's face just stopped me. It took my breath away. I thought, "I know that kid." I was on Belmont in 2002, saw this kid walking down the street and I was like, 'Oh man, poor kid.' It's like that series The Wire, when you want to break the TV and pull the kids out and save them.
Lean on Pete started with the idea of a powerless kid trying to save something that had even less power than he does. There was a horse I fell in love with at Portland Meadows, and I thought, "I want to buy it." I was living in a shitty little place at the time, and then I thought if I can't buy it, I would love to just steal it someday, and then save it. You know—save it from what? I didn't know shit. Then the reality takes over, what would really happen? Your own blood gets involved and it gets darker.
I once saw a brutal fight at [St. Johns dive bar] the Blue Bird between two construction workers in orange shirts. The young guy was beating the fuck out the the old guy, and it was awful. That made its way into Lean on Pete. The Mexican grocery store and taqueria [Tienda Santa Cruz] made its way into Lean on Pete. The movie theater he goes to, that's there [at St. Johns Twin Cinemas].
Does Charlie Plummer, the kid who played Charley Thompson, line up with your ideas of Charley?
He's really good in it. You always have different pictures of things in your head, but he's a good actor, man. I don't understand actors, I don't understand that world at all. But I did picture a little rougher-looking dude.
Go: Willy Vlautin reads from Lean on Pete on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., powells.com. 7:30 pm. Free.