It’s been a very busy time for Willy Vlautin of late: his fifth novel Don’t Skip Out on Me was published in February, he reformed Richmond Fontaine to record a soundtrack to accompany the novel, and he has embarked on tours in the US and UK. On top of that, one of his previous novels, Lean on Pete has been adapted as a major film by director Andrew Haigh, released in the UK in May. In our latest Editor to Author interview, Editorial Director Angus Cargill catches up with the Portland novelist and singer-songwriter.
Angus: Don’t Skip Out On Me is a boxing novel, of sorts – was that something you always wanted to take on in your fiction, and was it daunting at all, given the history of American boxing literature, both in fiction and non-fiction?
Willy: It was daunting when I thought about it so I tried not to think about it. I just knew I liked boxing literature and was a fan of the sport. And I’d always wanted to write at least one boxing story. But you’re right it’s a subject that’s been done a lot of different ways, both successfully and unsuccessfully. I just wanted to write about the desire within someone who has average talent. About a man who no one thinks can do it but still he tries. This isn’t Rocky, though. It’s not a rag to riches story. I wasn’t interested in that.
A: Do you think boxing is a conflicting sport now, and was that part of the appeal to you as a novelist (a little like horse racing in Lean on Pete)?
W: Maybe there is something to that. Often the things I’m drawn to are the fading things. I’m not sure why exactly. Horseracing and boxing are both in decline but for different reasons. I’d guess societal shifts have caused the decline in horseracing. Young serious gamblers aren’t attracted to it and the potential average fan is so disconnected from horses that racing them often seems cruel. It only takes a few horses breaking down to turn off a fair weather fan for life. Boxing on the other hand has been ruined by bad business. The business of boxing is so disjointed and corrupt that MMA has begun to take its place. I’d argue that MMA is more violent than boxing yet it, in general, is more successful. So two different reasons but both waning. For me I tend to write about things I’m either in love with or conflicted by, and with boxing and horseracing it’s both.
A: We get hints of what happened in Horace’s life and the damage that was done, before we meet him at age twenty one. Your characters – such as Horace, Alison in Northline or Pauline in The Free – always feel so brilliantly realised and rounded. Do you plan or write out characters’ backstories before you write the novels themselves?
W: I always start with a framed-out backstory. I have them pretty close when I start but I do a lot of edits and with each edit they get clearer. I might go through a novel fifteen times. Fifteen serious edits. With each one I get closer to who the character really is, each time hoping to get to another level of understanding them. It’s a lot of work but it’s the work I like best.
A: This is your fifth published novel in twelve years, alongside the numerous albums you’ve released with Richmond Fontaine and The Delines. Are you the hardest working man in showbiz?!
W: It doesn’t seem like that much stuff, but maybe it is. I do know that for years I just wanted a chance. A chance to be in a working band and then later, a chance to be a working novelist. When I got each break I didn’t slow down, I just worked harder and harder. It’s so lucky to be able to work on this stuff full-time, so that’s what I do. I just work and work because I feel so fortunate to have gotten the chance.
A: Two of your novels, Northline and Don’t Skip Out on Me, include instrumental soundtracks. Was this part of the writing process or did the tunes come after? I’m interested in how you see the relationship between the two.
W: All my novels start as songs. I’ll write a few tunes about a general idea and sometimes that will get me rolling on a book. But after that phase I usually stop writing songs set in the world of the book. It was different with Northline and Don’t Skip Out on Me. Those two felt like music from the very first page. They are stories dipped in melancholy, and I think because of that the instrumental songs appeared with each chapter. Both novels gave me song after song, and I’ve always liked the idea of a soundtrack accompanying a novel. My hope has been that after you’ve read the novel you’ll sometimes listen to the soundtrack and the characters and the world of the novel will come back to you. They will stay alive a bit longer.
A: There’s obviously a crossover between your songs and stories/novels, with characters reappearing or sometimes just being mentioned in passing. Is this because you feel like there are characters you can’t let go of?
W: I’ve always tried to create a world where people from different novels meet. The Flannigan brothers meet a kid in Elko who’s sleeping near the river. That kid becomes Charley Thompson from Lean On Pete. Lonnie Dixon, a side character in Don’t Skip Out on Me, was also a side character in Lean on Pete. They are connected. Some characters like Lonnie never seem to shake me. I like that kid. The drifter/street boys in The Free are seen again in Don’t Skip Out on Me. It’s that idea of worlds meeting, novels meeting.
A: Congratulations on the movie of Lean on Pete: it’s a terrific adaptation, and the second of your novels to make it to the big screen already, after The Motel Life. What was your role in that process, if any, of the books becoming films?
W: I don’t have a lot of involvement. I just try to sell the rights to the best person who’s interested. I got lucky with Andrew Haigh. I can’t say enough good things about him and I hope the movie is a great success for him. In general I ask only that I can give notes on the script and that I can tell them who I wish would do the soundtrack. I tried for Calexico on The Motel Life, and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for Lean on Pete. I’m a big dreamer! I didn’t get lucky on either, but I sure tried. The reason I don’t get more involved is that by the time I write a novel I want to move on from the subject. If I get involved with the movie I’d be living in the same world for 5–7 years after I’d already spent three years writing it. Life’s too short for that.
A: Your previous novel, The Free, was a little more experimental in form, and felt more explicitly political. How did people react in the US?
W: It was my most well-received book critically, but I think among fans it was divided. Older readers found the science fiction part odd and didn’t appreciate it while younger fans liked that section the best. But with all the readings and events I did for the book, I never had anyone disagree with the ideas in it. It’s a novel about nursing, it’s a novel about US working class people and their relationship with our healthcare system. It also deals with the hardships of taking care of people with long-term injuries and illnesses. In general, the US has not dealt honestly or pragmatically with healthcare, nor have we been able to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Both are quagmires that I was interested in writing about in my own way.
A: I know you’re touring Don’t Skip Out on Me in the US right now, how does it feel out there, politically and socially? Can you find any reasons to feel positive in the current climate?!
W: That’s a hard thing to comment on when you’re travelling because people everywhere are so nice. No matter what the political landscape, when you get down to it people are always generally pretty cool no matter what side of the aisle they vote. But America is as polarised as ever right now and I don’t think anyone, no matter who they voted for, sleep easier knowing Trump is in the driver’s seat. He breeds and thrives on uncertainty and discord. That’s hard to take day after day. But all that plays secondary when the economy is good. And the economy has been getting better in the US for the last six years. If there are jobs and money being made, people will turn their eyes away from almost anything that might disrupt that, even our broken political system.
A: And to finish, a few lighter, more quickfire questions
A: What are you reading right now?
W: While I was on the road I was given A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. It’s a perfect paperback. I love the novel and have read it a few times, and I’m rereading it now. It’s one of those I wish I would have written. Right now I’m on tour again and I’m driving myself, so during the day I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Lincoln in Bardo by George Saunders. Man, oh, man, what a production that is!
A: What are you listening to?
W: Lately, I’ve been listening to The Unthanks, and two records in particular: Vol. 4: The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake and Songs from the Shipyards (Diversions, Vol. 3). I love The Unthanks. I’ve also been listening to Alela Diane’s Cusp. The production on that one is great and she has such an amazing voice.
A: What was the last great movie you saw (other than Lean on Pete)?
W: I just saw Lady Bird and thought it tremendous. And maybe for the first time, Sacramento, California was a hero.
Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin is available here: