Author and musician Willy Vlautin has published four novels. His most recent, 2014's The Free, features an ensemble cast of characters whose lives intersect at the outer edges of society. People who barely manage to scrape by—and who are often their own worst enemies—prevail in Vlautin's stories, both in his books and in his songs. Few artists do these kind of characters better. The Free won The Oregon People's Choice Award and a couple of his books have made it onto the big screen. Vlautin just finished his next novel, slated for release in 2018, but his musical life is seeing some major shifts. Earlier this year, Vlautin's longtime band, Richmond Fontaine, released You Can't Go Back If There's Nothing to Go Back To. It's the 11th and final studio album for the alt-country band, which started in 1994. (He also plays in a project called The Delines.) In advance of his upcoming Missoula reading, Vlautin spoke with the Indy from Germany about songwriting, rural noir and the band's final days.
You're on your final European tour with Richmond Fontaine. That's bittersweet, isn't it?
Willy Vlautin: I've been with Richmond Fontaine for over 22 years and most of the good things I've gotten in life have come from the band. That's why I wanted to leave Richmond Fontaine in a better situation than when we started. We just made a record we all love, we're still great friends, and the band is playing the best we ever have and doing the best we ever have. So we all thought it was the right time to pull over and stop.
The end of Richmond Fontaine doesn't mean the end of Willy Vlautin the musician/songwriter, though. There's the Delines for one thing. Anything else?
WV: The Delines will start up again next year, I hope. It's such a fun band, and Amy Boone, the singer, is so damn good that it's a pleasure to be on the road with them. Other than that I'll probably write instrumental music and stay home more and work on novels.
What's one record you never go on the road without?
WV: Sorry, but I have two. Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits and Some That Will Be, and Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones.
Your novel The Motel Life was made into a movie and now Lean On Pete is being made. Are you involved much at all with that project?
WV: I didn't have much involvement. I begged them to make The Motel Life in Reno and Lean on Pete in Oregon and I got lucky on that front both times. Both projects were also fun as hell to watch come to life, but my heart is with the novel and I have no real interest in navigating the film world. That's a hard and tricky game I'm not cut out for.
Rural noir is often set in the South or "Deep Midwest" as I like to call it. Guys like Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock are the high-water mark for that stuff, but those who emulate them seem to think of that genre as purely the domain of drug addicts and murderers. Your work lives in the same social class, yet you stay away from the violence, and the addictions are somehow more human. Was that a conscious choice? Did you ever feel the need to, as Raymond Chandler once suggested, "have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand" to move the story along?
WV: I like both of those writers quite a bit, especially Daniel Woodrell. I also read a lot of crime fiction. In many ways crime writers are the ones who address working-class issues and working-class lives. They also have more freedom to bring up bigger social issues. George Pelecanos is brilliant at that. For me, I've always wanted to write crime fiction without the crime. Have the intensity of a crime novel, the directness and roughness, but without the crime. I've always wanted to write working-class stories that could keep you up in the middle of the night, but not rely on having a guy coming through the door with a gun.
Your songs are like little flash-fiction pieces. How different is your approach to writing a record from writing a novel?
WV: All my novels start as songs. I'll get the idea of a story and I'll flesh it out in a tune. Most of my ideas stop at songs, but once in a while they continue to bother me even after I've finished and recorded it. The idea just won't leave me alone. One song will become three, and then a story, and eventually a novel. But you're right. Much to the dismay of my band, a lot of my songs are just vehicles for the stories. I've always wanted to have the listener disappear into the world of the lyrics. As far as the process, the main difference between a song and a novel is time. A novel just takes work—day after day after day. Songs are trickier. Sometimes I think you just run into one walking down the street and you grab onto it and try your best to keep it.
Willy Vlautin reads from The Free at Shakespeare & Co. Wed., Nov. 16, at 7 PM.