Film Interview: What Would Willy Do?

An Interview With Novelist, Musician Willy Vlautin

Hosho McCreesh
5 min read
What Would Willy Do?
Willy Vlautin (Dan Eccles)
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At the Frontier Restaurant on a chilly Monday night, I asked Willy Vlautin if everything was hopeless.

“It can feel like that,” he said over his hashbrowns, “but something keeps people going.”

Vlautin is in an interesting place. He’s an established musician, having released 11 studio albums (first with the band Richmond Fontaine, now with The Delines). His fifth novel,
Don’t Skip Out on Me, hit shelves in February. Just last weekend the second film based on his work, Lean on Pete, opened in theaters to significant critical acclaim. And yet he remains largely unknown. In both his type of stories and with Vlautin himself, it’s as unlikely a success story as you might ever imagine. And yet it makes perfect sense.

The Reno-born, Portland-based writer kept his original manuscripts in his freezer (in case of a fire), rarely showing them to anyone for nearly two decades. Since then, he’s spent 12 years quietly, steadily building a body of work that is at once deeply affecting and empathetic of the wounded, the lost and the everyday-world-weary grind of the working class—all the while remaining singularly focused on the higher moral ground of a simple human decency. From 2006’s
The Motel Life and through his most recent novel, Vlautin finds solace and companionship in the wind-blown denizens of a high-desert lonesome, while oh-so-subtly revealing that, as a writer and a person, Vlautin, like his heroes, believes that maybe we can be better than whatever we currently are.

“I loved reading Bukowski,” he said. “but that wasn’t me,” pointing instead to the young man working security at The Frontier. “I’m far more interested in his story than in some novel about a hotshot banker or lawyer in New York.” When I asked him what all his books had in common, his answer was simple: “Loneliness.”

It’s the drama of a thousand cuts, rendered in tiny moments that build like snowfall. In other words, real problems that most readers understand, having survived such hurdles themselves. In the book (and the 2012 film staring Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff and Dakota Fanning)
The Motel Life, it’s a pair of brothers on the run from a tragic mistake. In Northline, it’s a heroine plagued by poor choices and the cycle of brutal self-criticism those choices invite. In Lean on Pete, it’s an all-but-orphaned kid and a fading racehorse in a yarn full of idealism and struggle in the cruel, hardscrabble American West. The Free follows a trio on the front lines of healthcare in America—a story that is prescient and deeply concerned with right and wrong without slipping into sloppy or judgmental moralism. Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out on Me, finds Horace Hopper—a half-Paiute, half-Irish kid struggling to find some self-worth—leaving his ranching job and the safety of the only folks who’ve ever cared for him to go “make something” of himself as the soon-to-be-champion Mexican boxer, Hector Hidalgo.

Taken as a whole, Vlautin’s work is supremely interested in people—the desperate and dented, those broken physically and broken early—trying to make their way a world that offers little. Foregoing Hollywood-drama fodder for the more realistic victories and defeats of the working class, each book and film quietly breaks your heart while scraping out a measure of redemption. Usually—but not always. And in this hardscrabble realm, as with life, it’s understandable that folks might be tempted to throw in the towel.

“But almost no one does,” Vlautin says with a sage-like rasp. “Most folks just keep strugglin’.” And that, in the end, is what matters.

Within the small moments are gigantic themes of loss, self-loathing, weakness and racism as the work travels the depths of the American caste. It’s always with a deft touch, one wherein no character is insulting, and no obvious sides are picked—existing comfortably in the realm of complexity without losing that true-north of integrity and goodness amidst the corruption. It’s something Vlautin himself finds inspiration in.

“When I’m tired, and moaning about something, I’ll think,
What would Charley Thompson do? or What would Horace Hopper do? They’d just keep going. So I get up and quit pouting,” he laughs.

It’s a nice trick if you can work it: create characters that survive tremendous struggle, then draw on their strength for yourself. As a result, Vlautin’s songs and pages are filled with an intoxicating and unrivaled authenticity. In a world absolutely lost to glitz and chicanery, his quiet and deeply human aesthetic is readable, approachable and ultimately built on hope—something that’s nothing short of revolutionary. That, as much as anything, is why his work stands out. There are good people in the world. There is a way to make it. Work hard and stay true to who you are. The world can be terrible, and Vlautin never shies away from that, but if you hang in, gut out the hard rounds, you’ll give yourself a puncher’s chance at a knockout.

That’s precisely what Vlautin has done.
Lean on Pete

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