Don't get bitter: An interview with Willy Vlautin

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It’s hard to say what makes Willy Vlautin’s books so wonderful. I guess something happens to you when you read a Willy Vlautin novel. One of the characters will hook into you somehow—for me, the first was Allison Johnson in Northline—and all of a sudden you can’t stop thinking about her, worrying about her, wondering if she will be okay. Even long after you finish the novel, the people and their lives stick with you. I’ll love Allison Johnson forever.

Willy Vlautin’s fourth novel, The Free, just might be his best. I could try to explain the plot of The Free to you, list the characters, hint at how the book might play out, do all the crap you’re supposed to do when describing a book, but none of that will even come close to explaining why I love it so much. Suffice it to say The Free is a novel about people in truest sense, that in every person exists vast worlds well worth exploring, that everyone has value, is a mystery.

It also helps that Willy Vlautin is one of the nicest guys in the world. Prior to the release of The Free, I called Willy up for a chat.

Here’s how it went:

Jimmy Cajoleas: I just finished your new novel The Free, and I have to say I absolutely loved it. It’s really something special.

Willy Vlautin: Thank you for saying that. That novel about broke my head on a bunch of different levels. Number one, the subject matter is so intense across the board. There wasn’t a lot of good times in the book. Some of my other books, although they can be rough, have some easy-going times, or adventure, or more beer drinking and messing around. This one was really pretty tight. And with the subject matter of the brain injury and a nurse, those were things that I had to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. You know, I must have spent three years rewriting that.

JC: Damn.

WV: Yeah, I know. It drove me nuts.

JC: It’s funny that you bring that up, because a lot of this book is about repetition, people doing their routine every day. You have somebody like the nurse, Pauline, who carries us through the book, because her attitude is so damn good. Even at her worst, she’s still able to get her dad up and get him moving. I felt like she’s sort of our guide through the book.

WV: You know, I started the book with her, with the idea of her. I’ve always admired nurses. In my family’s life and in my personal life, we’ve been lucky. All the nurses we’ve had have been like saints to us. I think I wanted to write in a way a tribute to one nurse, and kind of explore and talk about how rough it is every day to be around such intense dark situations, where not only do you have to deal with people who are suffering, but you have to deal with the tricky dynamics of families.

Everybody’s scared. That’s the part of Pauline that I was interested in. And just having met and known nurses, a lot of them do come from families that are a little rougher or there was a family member that they grew up taking care of. They were just kind of born into a care-giving situation, like Pauline. She’s scarred by the way she was raised and she still takes care of her dad even though he’s kind of handcuffed her to this isolation. The way she lives, they’re kind of codependent on each other.

So I wanted to talk about that. You don’t know when you see a person walking down the street. They could be in that same kind of grind for their entire lives, taking care of an ill or mentally-ill loved one, whether it’s a brother, mother, father, or a husband or wife. I’ve always been interested in that, especially in this book, the grind of taking care of people with long-term illnesses.

JC: I think that especially came through in the sweetness that you always allow with Pauline. She has her despair moments, she has her crying, but she’s still going to call her feet her “dogs.” She never lets the book feel hopeless to me.


WV: I think in a lot of ways she’s a great romantic. It reveals itself when she meets Jo. You find out that there is a lot of hope and love in her, and a desire to take care of somebody or help somebody out. I think that part of her she’s just boxed away. I think in a lot of ways she lives in a sort of forced isolation. Because she’s scared. She was raised by a really tricky guy where she had to navigate her whole life so she wouldn’t get beat up mentally by her father.

So I think she’s pretty stand-offish and pretty scared, and so I think she picks and chooses pretty carefully who she lets in. I think the kid who she kind of falls for and wants to help was the right combination of things to help her let her guard down enough to where she’d open up.

JC: The dad is a tough character, being capable of such love at some times, and then downright meanness. Just the unpredictability of him. But you never let him be totally evil or anything like that.

WV: In a way I think that’s what makes those kind of people the scariest. Abusers are the scariest. If you classify Pauline’s dad in that light, you see that he’s really nice sometimes, and he’s smart enough to know what he can get away with and what he can’t. It is abuse, the way he treats her, and his moods swings, whether he can control it or not.

I’ve always been interested in people who take advantage of other people or abuse other people, because usually they’re also really charismatic and sweet. There’s nothing scarier to me than being around someone that will seduce you into relaxing or being nice, and then they change and show their darker side when you’re not ready.

It’s so tiring to be around people like that. You have to build up these really immense defense mechanisms if you have to deal with people who are like that day after day after day. And that’s why I think Pauline won’t ever let him come to her house. She’s got these rules that she’s had to implement over the years, and that’s something that I understand.

JC: That type of character has come up in your work before. Like Jimmy from Northline.

WV: Yeah, that’s kind of a theme that I can’t shake, because a lot of my life was like that. It’s almost nicer if they were just mean all the time because then at least you could follow that map. But when the map and the rules of the game always change, it’s just rough.

I think that you’re right, Jimmy from Northline is like that. He’s not an evil guy by any stretch of the imagination. He’s a really confused, fucked-up guy whose life has fallen apart. He blames other people. He’s a young man so he’s more prone to violence and being a jackass that way. But still he’s got a good side to him, a sweet side. And those are the kind of guys who have the ability to beat down weaker people.

In that book, Allison Johnson is really weak, and it’s just bad. She found the wrong guy. And it makes sense that she would find a guy like that. But he was just the wrong guy for her and she just gets sucked up into trying to play his game, play his life, and she’s just obviously not strong enough to do that. His life spirals out of control, and his faults and his ability to manipulate and his mood swings get exaggerated as the novel goes on. In Lean on Pete, the trainer Del Montgomery is a little bit like that as well. Never thought of that. Holy shit.

JC: I love Allison. Talk about one of my favorite characters ever. On every page of Northline I’m rooting for her. Even the smallest victory for her feels hugely important to me.

WV:  For such a short book, that was another one that I must have written four hundred pages for it maybe. There was a time where I wrote for a hundred and thirty pages maybe where she moves in with T.J. Watson and goes back to college and all these things. I wanted her to do those things so that, in my own way, I would do those things. It would make her life easier. But it was wrong. It wasn’t what she would do. It wasn’t going to be that easy for her.

Willy Vlautin

You know, I liked her so much I wrote fake stories for her—I’m fucking nuts, but—that weren’t as rough for her. But I knew the situation she ended up going through in the book would be what would probably really happen. For instance, there’s a scene where she meets these two guys in a bar called The Doc Holiday’s. And she goes home with them. I cut that scene out maybe four or five times. But then I realized that she would do something like that, and that I just had to face it.

I think why I took that gal so seriously was that she was basically me and my mom and my grandmother all wrapped into one. I kind of wanted to lay to rest writing about weakness, and how you get into a lot of jams being weak. I guess in some ways Carol in The Free is the same sort of gal, just a little darker and a little weaker.

JC: You have this line in the The Free that Pauline says about Carol. It says, “She’s really messed up, but I like her. There’s something about her. You’d like her too, I know you would.” That describes so many of your characters, and what seems like your attitude towards them.

WV: You know, I never think of them like that… when I write Pauline or Carol or say Charlie Thompson in Lean on Pete… For instance,  with Charlie Thompson I was getting so cynical about things, and dark. I can be pretty dark obviously, and I just started running out of reasons… I just started going down that hole. And so Charlie Thompson, thinking about him got me out of bed every day, and kind of was like shaking me, saying “Alright man, this kid can get up and face these sort of things and get by, and so you should be able to too.”

I think I wrote, at the beginning, both songs and stories as escapism, or so I could have someone around me to help me out. And I still do that. I think Charlie’s like that. And Pauline has been beat up a few times obviously, but she’s tough, and resilient, and she’s still got a good heart. I think for my own life, that’s what you want to be.

You get beat up in life, and you get sucker-punched, and bad things happen. If you keep an open heart and don’t get bitter and you keep trying, then shit will break your way once in a while. I really try to believe that all the time. So I think the characters kind of reflect that.

There’s this famous old saying, and I forget who said it, but it says, “You have to remember to be kind to everyone you meet, because everybody you meet is going through a great battle.” And so remember kindness, kindness, kindness. I try to remember that in my own life, and so I think the characters really reflect that.

JC: It makes me think of the truck driver, T.J. Watson, in Northline who shares his own story with Allison. It’s a heartbroke moment that is also really hopeful.

Willy Vlautin on stage with his band Richmond Fontaine

WV: Well, there’s nothing better than when you’re down and out, and somebody’s kind to you. And there’s nothing worse than when somebody who should be kind to you is rough on you. That’s been one of the things that I’ve never really quite figured out. Or I’ve just been scarred by it, that idea of when you’re down and out and when the person who is supposed to be nice to you is rough to you and you meet a person out of the blue—whether it’s a friend or a neighbor or a teacher or whatever—who takes the time out to say, “No, man, you’re alright.” I think, for me in my own life, that’s meant a lot, and saved my life in a lot of ways.

I think maybe that’s why my characters do what they do. Like when Pauline tries to help Jo out, or when Pauline’s a kid and her neighbors take her under their wing, and when Charlie Thompson gets some breaks here and there, and when Allison gets her breaks. Because I do believe in the kindness of strangers. Some people really do go out of their way to try and help you out. And it’s not necessarily their family members are the ones that do that. I guess in my case I do tend to beat up the family members more. The kindness of strangers is more relevant to the characters’ stability.

JC: Yeah, family never quite works right.

WV: Well, for some people I think it really does. I personally have never gotten great comfort from a lot of my family, but some I have. I guess that just comes out in the books.

JC: There’s great brotherly love in The Motel Life, and in Lean on Pete, there’s some kindness there.

WV: Yeah, I’m not a total sad-sack mother, and I do have a tremendous brother.

JC: It’s nice to hear you talk about all that. You know, I’ve spoken to several writers who don’t necessarily think of their characters as anything real, as anything more than a bunch of words. One guy told me that to care about your characters in any sort of reality was foolishness.

WV: Well, yeah. I mean, everybody does things differently. I always wrote stories for myself, to help me out. I’ve always thought of writing stories as taking a box of all the things that scare you or haunt you or what you want, and pulling them out one by one. And hopefully if you write about them, they don’t scare you as bad, or you figure them out or they don’t haunt you.

For me, I write because I want to tell stories that make me feel less lonely. And I want to write stories that hopefully make someone else feel less lonely, or not so beat up or messed up. Because those are the stories I’m looking for. Same with songwriting. I always like the sad ballads, so I write sad ballads because those are the kind of songs that bring me comfort. So I’ve always written from that side.

And I tend to try to write as a fan. I’m a firm believer in a being a fan of things. I try to write with blood, you know, with the things that haunt me the most. And fuck, I’m a lot different than whoever said that quote you mentioned, because the characters I write got me through a lot of my life.

You know, it’s foolish, but like the guy in The Motel Life, Frank Flannigan, telling the crazy stories. That’s how I’ve always been, and that’s how I’ve gotten through life. When I’m stuck, or when I’m in that hole, I’ll make up a story to get myself out of it. Maybe I won’t actually get out of the situation because I’m a lazy alcoholic, but I can dream myself out of it.

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