Willy Vlautin: ‘I had a picture of Steinbeck and a picture of the Jam’

The American musician and novelist on breaking up his acclaimed band Richmond Fontaine, and how Raymond Carver’s stories opened his eyes

Willy Vlautin is an American musician and novelist based in Portland, Oregon. His alt-country band Richmond Fontaine won critical acclaim with their 2004 album, Post to Wire, and Vlautin’s second novel, 2008’s Northline, was named by writer George Pelecanos as his favourite book of the decade. In 2013 Vlautin formed a new band, the Delines, with singer Amy Boone. Richmond Fontaine are currently touring the UK.

Richmond Fontaine are calling it a day after 20 years and 10 albums. How does it feel to be on the road knowing the end is in sight?
Oh, I just feel incredibly lucky. I always thought of Richmond Fontaine as an old van you love but you’re always waiting for a wheel to fall off. It never fell off.

So why call it a day now?
It just felt like the right time. We still get on and like each other. That’s pretty rare as far as I can see. The camaraderie is strong and we’re really proud of the new record. It’s a good way to bow out – it will tattoo the band in good memories.

So it’s nothing to do with your success as a novelist?
Well, my heart has always been in the novel, but I like being in a band and writing songs. When I was a kid I had a picture of John Steinbeck on my wall beside a picture of the Jam. That says it all, really.

You’re a romantic at heart, but you haven’t written too many happy songs along the way.
No. I’ve gotten older, but I haven’t been able to lighten up [laughs]. I like to think I’m melancholic without being depressing. It goes back to my childhood. I had a lot of confidence problems and I had a hard time fitting in at school. My older brother, who was a folk songwriter, bought me a guitar and said “Write about what hurts you and haunts you”. That’s pretty much what I’ve done ever since. Along the way, I somehow forgot to write about the girls and the parties.

Your home town, Reno, Nevada, emerges out of your songs as a pretty broken-down place full of drifters and losers. What was your childhood like?
I was pretty lost as a kid. I grew up in a place where prostitution is legal and a big rite of passage was a bunch of guys picking you up in a car and driving you to a whorehouse because it was your turn. You had to do it or you’d get a real hard time. That happened to me when I was 14 years old. When I was 19, I started hanging out in old mans’ bars instead of at my friend’s parties. It was a perverse way of feeling comfortable. Back then, I thought it was romantic to have a tattoo on your neck and start drinking at 10 in the morning, but now I try to run from all that stuff.

Listen to Whitey and Me from Richmond Fontaine’s new album

So writing was a way out of that world?
I guess so. My best friends were my records, my books and the movies. They were a constant. And I couldn’t sleep without my guitar. I started writing songs at 13 and I had a box full when I was 26, but I realised they weren’t good enough and threw them all in the dump. Now, though, I keep every bad song and story to remind me how hard the process can be sometimes.

You’ve written four acclaimed novels. That must be hard work compared with writing songs?
Well, it’s work all right. You have to get up every day and do it until it’s done. And then redo it, which is the part I enjoy. Writing songs is more like walking down the street and finding money – they just come to you. Don’t Skip Out on Me [from Richmond Fontaine’s new album, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To] came to me as I was sitting by a wood stove trying to get warm. It was like a gift. I had to fix it up a bit, dress it in a new suit, but it was pretty much there when I grabbed it out of the air.

Do you have a personal favourite of the novels you’ve written?
Well, I love Northline because it feels like a sad ballad to me. There’s a bit of Raymond Carver and a bit of Tom Waits in there. It wasn’t until I read Carver’s stories that I realised you could write about the lives of beat-up, working-class Americans like the ones I saw around me in Reno. I wrote my first novel, The Motel Life, for all the guys I knew who didn’t read novels. I wanted to write a book you could read when you were dog-tired after a day’s work: short and really intense.

Some of your characters turn up in your songs and in your stories.
Yep. That happens. Northline is about a beat-up person, Allison Johnson, who is putting one foot in front of the other to get out of her bad life. There are bits of me and my mum and my grandmother all wrapped up in her. I wrote a song about her too [Allison Johnson from Post to Wire]. She’s real close to me. The thing about fiction is that you can turn your mum into an old obese truck driver from Florida and say the things you want through that character without hurting anyone close to you.

The Motel Life was turned into a film starring Stephen Dorff, Emile Hirsch and Kris Kristofferson. How was that for you?
Well, I got to meet Kris Kristofferson. And, when I went back to Reno during the shoot, it was the first time I ever went home and didn’t feel like I was a bum.

Watch the Delines perform The Oil Rigs at Night on KEXP

What’s next for you? A solo record?
Hell, no! I don’t have the nerve to go it alone. I’m going to keep writing songs and playing guitar for my other band, the Delines. I love [Delines vocalist] Amy Boone’s voice and I love hearing her sing my songs. She turns them into country soul ballads. Plus, I’m working on another book, and Andrew Haigh is going to make a film of my novel Lean on Pete. I trust him. I know he’s going to bust his ass making it. That’s all you can ask.

Richmond Fontaine’s new album, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To, is out now on Decor; the band’s UK tour continues tonight in Leeds. Willy Vlautin’s latest novel, The Free, is published by Faber


Interview by Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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