Willy Vlautin talks his latest novel and music ahead of Nevada tour

By Will Houk and Joe McCarthy

“I’m just dented I guess. I always just assumed I might end up a bum,” so says the genuinely humble Reno native Willy Vlautin.

Vlautin is now a well-received author of five novels. For more than 20 years, he fronted his alt-country band, Richmond Fontaine in Portland Oregon. 

Fans of Vlautin’s work include Donna Tartt, Roddy Doyle, and Colm Toibin. Ursula K Le Guin wrote, “Willy Vlautin is one of the bravest novelists writing today. Murderers, cheats, sadists, showy examples of the banality of evil, are easy, but it takes real courage to write a novel about ordinary people.”   

Nevada Humanities chose his latest novel, Don’t Skip Out on Me, as one of three books for its 2019 Nevada Reads program. The selection includes reading dates in Carson and Gardnerville, Reno and Elko.

Will Houk, music correspondent for Nevada Capital News and host of Roots, Rednecks and Radicals on KNVC 95.1 fm, Carson City Community Radio recently checked in with Willy Vlautin and filed this report.

Q & A with Willy Vlautin

Tell us about the different projects you’ve been involved with over the years, different bands and many novels?

“Oh, man. I grew up in Reno. I was 27. I was just kind of a failed musician. I’d written novels, but just for myself. Then I moved to Portland, Oregon. I had a job in a trucking company. They transferred me to Portland and I started a band called Richmond Fontaine that I was in for maybe 23 years. I wrote a bunch of novels in that time. We retired. I started another band, The Delines, not the singer. I write the songs. I’ve always pretty much done the same thing, up and down on varying degrees of minor success and failure.”

You are touring Northern Nevada in support of your most recent book, Don’t Skip Out on Me, It features a soundtrack from your band. Tell us about this project?

“I’d written a book that’s set in central Nevada, north of Tonopah. I grew up camping in that area. Some books I write feel like music, some inspiring music. In this one, it’s like a soundtrack to me. Real desert music. 

“I start writing all these instrumental songs. I called the guys up and said, ‘can we do an instrumental record before we quit?’  We always wanted to do an instrumental record, but we never got around to it. There are 17 tracks on the record, Don’t Skip Out on Me. We cut a bunch of tunes for it. It’s my favorite record, and it’s the only Fontaine record I can listen to because it doesn’t have my voice on it. I was lucky that it worked out with the book and the soundtrack.

Nevada Humanities chose the book, Don’t Skip Out on Me, as one of three books for its  Nevada Reads 2019 selection for its a statewide book club. They they set up a tour for me. I’m doing some dates in Carson and Gardnerville, Reno and Elko.”

You say you can’t listen to your voice. What do you mean by that?

“Oh, man, I just can’t live in my own voice. It drives me crazy. I might sing a line that I don’t like now that I did like back then. 

“My other band, The Delines, the singer, her name’s Amy Boone. I love her voice so much. I can listen to that stuff easy. I don’t beat myself up over lyrics with that band like I do with Richmond Fontaine. I won’t exactly jump out of a third-story window when I hear my voice, but I might be running down the stairs, that’s for sure.”

You grew up in Reno. Describe the influence Nevada has had on your life and art?

“I lived in Reno ’til 2006-2007. I didn’t want to leave. I was a failed musician and I was writing stories. My mom was really conservative. She was not a big fan that I was in a band or wrote stories. I had to leave. I picked the least scary city in the West Coast, which is Portland at the time. When I got to Portland, every weird guy like me from Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, we’re all in Portland trying to get in bands together. All of a sudden, you’re seeing all these other guys like you. They were just kind of misfits where they were from. Portland had all these great bars you could play in, cut your teeth to become a working musician. But I was homesick the whole time. 

“I always liked Reno, I would have never left if it wasn’t for trying to get in a band. After a while, you just get entrenched with all the musicians I know and my bands based out of there. But I always thought about it. So my first couple of novels were homesick novels. And my first few Richmond Fontaine records were homesick records. Then you end up just staying where you’re at. My wife lives up there and her family too. My bands are based out of there. I just stayed. But I always loved it here. 

“I tried to move back to Reno a couple of times, but then, you know, my band was just, we were almost big enough to live in different places, but never quite enough. We were kind of a working band. We needed to live in the same town. 

“I used to go back to Reno all the time. I used to write my novels in Reno a lot.” 

Your characters are down on their luck, struggling through life. You write with a sense of empathy and understanding. Did you grow up around people like that? How do you know them so well?

“I’m just dented I guess. I always just assumed I might end up a bum. My mom was always really frightened. She worked with a lot of real rough dudes. When I was a kid, sometimes we’d see those guys that she worked with ended up living by the river. She was a single mom. She was always worried about that. I was attracted to it. When you’re 15 or 16, you think it’s romantic. Then in your early 20s, you think, oh, man, maybe I’m not good enough to be anything but a bum. You go through that phase, and then you’re in your 30s, and you’re like, Jesus, I don’t want to be a bum, please don’t let me be a bum.

“I was always interested in working-class stories. I read John Steinbeck at a really vulnerable age. I read most of John Steinbeck’s stuff. It really stuck with me and influenced me. My mom was such a hard-working woman – paycheck to paycheck kind of lady.

“I started writing my own stories, I loved all the weird guys … all the different kinds of drifter guys that lived in the motels … wondering how and why they were living that way. And as a kid, you think it’s all romantic. As you get older, you realize, holy, holy hell, I don’t, I just don’t want to end up like those guys … but always attracted to working-class guys, kind of on the edge. You know, I have always been on the edge.

“I hung out in that world, enough. That stories just kind of fell out. I wrote a lot of the crazier parts of that novel, The Motel Life (2007),  in the old Fitzgerald Casino, because I used to stay there from Sunday to Thursday because their rooms were 22 bucks. I always traveled with guitars and they were safe. It was a safe enough place. You can leave your guitars there. Then on Friday, Saturday night, I’d go stay at somebody’s house. Then I moved back into the Fitzgerald.”

Where are you playing in Nevada?

“My mom’s favorite restaurant was JT’s in Gardnerville. I called them up. They were nice enough to let me play. It’s a beautiful bar. It’s a beautiful restaurant. I’m excited. 

“Then I’m playing my other favorite bar joint in Winnemucca, the Martin Hotel. I love that place, I go there all the time. 

“In Reno, I might try to play at the bar I used to live right down the street from – Corrigans. I used to hang out there for years. Sadly, I spent too many years in that bar. It’s really fun to get to play Corrigan’s as a musician and not just be a drunk. I lived right down the street on Vassar and Wells. I stumbled down there all the time. I was like, man, I could end up living in this place.” 

Tour Details

Wednesday, September 11 – 5:00 – 6:30 pm
Willy Vlautin in Conversation
Douglas County Public Library

Thursday, September 12 – 12:00 – 1:00 pm
Willy Vlautin in Conversation – Brown-bag lunch talk
Nevada State Library, Carson City NV 

Thursday, September 12 – 9:00 pm
Willy Vlautin in Concert
JT Basque Bar, Gardnerville NV 

Friday, September 13 – 7:00 pm
Willy Vlautin in Concert and Conversation
The Martin Hotel, Winnemucca NV

Saturday, September 14 – 5:30 – 6:15 pm
Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl: Performance and Discussion

Ceol Irish Pub, 538 South Virginia Street, Reno
Monday, September 16 – 7:00 pm

Willy Vlautin in Concert and Conversation
Western Folklife Center – Elko NV