Willy Vlautin is the author of five novels: The Motel Life, which was made into a film starring Dakota Fanning, Emile Hersh, and Stephen Dorff; Northline, Lean on Pete, which won two Oregon Book awards and was made into an A24 film starring Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, and Charlie Plummer; The Free, which won the Oregon Book Awards Reader’s Choice Award; and Don’t Skip Out on Me, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and an ALA Notable Book. Vlautin lives outside of Portland, Oregon and is the founding member of the bands Richmond Fontaine and The Delines. His latest novel is, The Night Always Comes, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Night Always Comes ?
In a part of Portland called St. Johns, I walked by a house for sale. It was a beat up working-class two bedroom that was built in1920. The price was $350,000. Twenty years ago the same house would have been $120,000. On that same day, downtown Portland had thirteen cranes that were a part of the skyline. Meaning thirteen new high-rise buildings going up. Portland’s a boomtown. You could argue the house in front of me was a teardown, but what you couldn’t argue is that $350,000 prices out most of the working-class people the house was designed for. Across the street was a guy, 30-40 years old, on the sidewalk passed out with a plastic bottle of Early Times between his legs. On the street next to him was his old Chevy van and next to the van he had a barbeque, a bike, a couple stacks of plastic totes, and an outboard motor sitting on a lawn cushion. What was happening? There were suddenly tent cities in Portland, rents were going through the roof, and beat up little houses in marginal neighborhoods were $350,000. The story started there. I was just bewildered and I went home that night trying to think of a way a working family could afford a house for $350,000 that needed probably another $50,000 put into it just to keep it upright.
Are Lynette, Kenny, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
They aren’t inspired by anyone I know. I was just interested in the burdens families carry. Not that Kenny, who is developmentally disabled, is only a burden, he’s not, but he’s a lot of work. The novel starts with that basic idea that this family has a lot of weight on their back, maybe too much weight to survive a rapidly gentrifying city like Portland. So how will they survive, how will they react to the change and the challenge? I was also interested in the idea of how Lynette’s entire life (she’s Kenny’s little sister by two years) has been connected to Kenny. From an early age, she has been his caregiver. In a way, she was an indentured servant to her brother. I don’t think she would look at it that way, but her mother put her in the role of caregiver from age ten. It can’t help but shape the way she looks at life as an adult. She never really got to be a kid in a home that was ever on anything but survival mode.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I always thought the more novels I wrote the easier they would become. But so far that hasn’t been the case. This one was hard because I wrote another half about Lynette on her own. It starts directly after the two days and two nights of the novel. That second part takes place over the course of six months. And I spent a year and a half on that section alone. I could just never get it right. And then I woke up one morning and knew I had to cut that section out and once I did the novel started working. It just clicked. I think I knew it all along but I’m not the smartest guy.
The tension you describe in the novel between long-time residents in a neighborhood and those desiring to “develop” that same neighborhood and move it financially out of their reach is a nationwide problem. Do you have any ideas how these seemingly conflicting perspectives can be balanced?
I think in general, at least in a lot of big cities in the US, gentrification means that the idea of the American dream is changing. The standard of living is changing. Expectations are changing. I grew up thinking that homeownership meant you had succeeded in life. It gave you equity, power, and autonomy. That was the dream. Maybe I’m clouded by thinking that way still. Because that idea is unattainable for so many now no matter how hard they work. And affordable housing always seems to be just out of reach. It’s heartbreaking here in Portland. Because in my mind Portland is one of America’s great cities. But now you have rents going up four times faster than the living wage, you have housing prices going through the roof, and at the same time tent encampments are appearing on the sides of freeways, at the edges of parks, and people living in cars and vans and in broken down RVs. For the last 13 years, I’ve rented an office in a part of Portland called St. Johns. The commercial real estate market there is going through the roof. A lot of mom and pop store/property owners have cashed out. A lot of money is being made and invested all the while just out my window a tent camp has sprouted upright on the main business street.
In addition to being a published author, you are also a musician and songwriter. Do you have a preference for, or do you enjoy, one type of writing over the other?
It just depends which day of the week it is and which one of them is giving me fits. In general, I like the work ethic of writing novels the most. It’s a grind, a lot of workday after day just to get your character from point A to point B. But I love that grind and I love tinkering on stories.
The grind of music has nothing to do with music. It’s the grind of traveling and the business side setting up the logistics of touring. For a smalltime band, you spend a lot of your effort on those things. I love writing songs but they are elusive and I never have any idea where the melody comes from or why one of my songs is better than the other. There’s a lot more mystery there. But with music, you have the band and I’ve always loved being in a band.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I’m reading Shoshone Mike by Frank Bergon. I just re-read Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. I’m always amazing at how good Woodrell is. What a master. I also just read a great collection of stories by Claire Boyles, one by Yukio Mishima who is amazing, and Megan Abbott’s great novel, The Song Is You. Next up is Jess Walter’s new one.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
William Kennedy—Ironweed is one of my favorite books and a book I re-read quite a bit. John Steinbeck—I read all his major books by age 16 so he’s just sorta in the fabric of who I am as a reader and writer. Barry Gifford—he’s just so damn cool and precise and wild. Flannery O’Conner—because her mind is so tough and weird and her stories bleed anger and humor and insanity. And it was reading Raymond Carver who changed something in me. He made it possible for me to write. I think I was twenty and I didn’t know you could write about failed and sort of hapless men. When I read him something in me clicked. I was like, you can write about those kinds of guys? Jesus, I know those kinds of guys. I am one of those guys. I’m nobody and not even a Billy the Kid sorta nobody or Charles Bukowski romantic nobody. I’m just a, I want to do good but can’t seem to get there sort of nobody. Carver wrote about those guys. When I knew it was okay to write about them I really started cranking out the stories.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
My Side of the Mountain. I read that novel over and over. I wanted to live away from where I was living and the idea of living in a tree with a falcon and not being scared about being alone was heaven. That kid was so tough and cool. I never was but I wanted to be.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
There was never a book like that for me. I wasn’t cool enough to even know a book like that existed. And my mom didn’t care about things like that as long as I went to school and did alright and didn’t get thrown in jail. The best thing I had that way was a girlfriend in high school who would underline the sex scenes in novels for me.
What is a book you've faked reading?
I was at a party in Sydney, Australia. I’d had a few drinks and was intimidated by all the smart people at this shindig. So they were talking about Thomas Keneally’s book, Australians: A Short History. They asked me if I’d read it and I was like, “Sure, I loved it.” Then this friend of mine came up and said the book’s over a thousand pages and it just came out. Why did I lie, she asked. Jesus, I don’t know why I lied. I guess I just wanted to be like one of those people who could read a book like that over a weekend and discuss it.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Jim Thompson’s A Swell Looking Babe.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Probably Ironweed by William Kennedy. Kennedy is a master of language. I don’t know how he does it. At the same time, there’s such a failed humanness to it. It’s so simple and real and tragic, yet the language is breathtaking. For a guy who has a few dents in him, it’s a great comfort to live inside that book. It’s a novel that always makes me feel less alone in the world.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. My grandfather gave that to me when I was thirteen. I’d love to disappear into that world once again for the first time.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
I’ve been listening to Natalia Lafourcade quite a bit. She’s been doing these traditional Mexican records and I can’t stop listening to them. Her and Irma Thomas’s first three records: Wish Someone Would Care, Take A Look, and In Between Tears. Those are amazing. Also been on a big Joan Crawford kick. Man oh man she made some cool, hard movies.
What are you working on now?
Right now we’re finishing a new Delines record. I’m really excited about it and can’t wait for the world to stop ending so we can go out and support it. Other than I’m working on a novel about the life of a casino musician and it’s as dark as that sounds.