Willy Vlautin knows what it's like to hit the road to bring his work to audiences. He's been leading his alt-country band Richmond Fontaine for 20 years, doing vans-and-better tours of the U.S. and Europe. So while a typical novelist usually does a limited number of readings around a book's publication date, it's now three months since Vlautin's fourth novel, "The Free," was released, and he's happy to have a chance to bring it to L.A.
"With books it's like dropping off a 7-year-old kid in downtown Detroit with 3 bucks. "I feel so bad for 'em, to be left alone in the world." Reached by phone at his home in Oregon, he continued: "I usually walk around with them for a few months, hope that they find a place somewhere before moving on. I try to tour the books a lot because I love them."
And his book will have very good company: Chuck Palahniuk ("Fight Club") and bestselling author Chelsea Cain are throwing an L.A. reading/party at The Echoplex on Thursday. Palahniuk is known for throwing over-the-top events for his books -- on one tour he threw free blow-up-dolls into the audience -- and Thursday night's is a pajama party, nightwear and pillows encouraged. Tickets are $24; those in PJs will be eligible for special gifts, and with the entry comes a signed copy of Vlautin's book, "The Free."
Event hilarity aside, "The Free" is a serious novel about working-class people struggling to get by in the Pacific Northwest. Leroy is an injured soldier who will never be the same; he lies in a hospital bed, his mind caught in a semiconscious loop. His nurse Pauline, who tries not to care too much for the people on the ward, decides to help a drug-abusing runaway girl. Freddie works in a paint store and on a night shift, barely sleeping as he tries to pay off the healthcare debts of the family that's left him. In the grind of their lives, there is a light of kindness, a thread that makes the unbearable bearable.
The lives of your characters are difficult. Was it hard to spend time in that world?
Sometimes writing stories about hard subjects eases my mind in a way -- I’m not worrying about it because I’m in it. In "The Free," Freddie and Pauline are studies in kindness, how to be kind when you’re under duress. I think I was losing sight of that. Another reason I write stories is to remind me of things.
It reminds me of a quote -- a Greek quote I think -- something to the effect that "Remember to always be kind, because everybody’s in a great battle." Everybody’s in a great war with themselves, with their family, just trying to get through their day. Remember to be nice, at least gentle, to them....
Are there parts of your novels that come from real life?
I always tell half-truths. The heart of it is always something that either haunts me or scares me that I haven’t quite figured out. I usually write a story based on a feel, the way a sad song makes you feel -- I’ll try to write a novel that feels something like that. With "The Free" it was a little different, because there are so many heated subjects: Healthcare, soldiers returning with injuries, religion. "The Free" was a book that had been stewing in me for years.
At first the title "The Free" made me wonder if the book was going to be flatly patriotic, but it's ironic, even twisted around in some pretty dark ways.
All the characters are anything but free. Their American Dream is shattered, changed from what they thought as kids, what they were brought up hoping to believe in.
Is there a connection between your books and your music?
All my novels have started as songs. If I write a song, say, I wrote "A Letter Called to the Patron Saint of Nurses" about a guy that’s really worried about his girlfriend who’s a nurse who’s kind of cracking under the darkness of her job. That idea of a nurse wouldn’t leave me alone – I think I wrote that song in 2008, 2009 [and it becomes Pauline].
I wrote a song called "43" which was basically Freddie in "The Free" -- he wouldn’t leave me alone. I was a house painter for years, and I couldn’t shake a couple stories that I’d heard about a guy that works at a paint store whose kid was born with severe disabilities and watching his life kind of implode every day, slowly.
With songs they usually come and go, and then there are certain subjects that stick with you that are bigger than a song.
You were playing in Richmond Fontaine and also working as a house painter?
I painted houses up until 2005. I had my own little painting business; it was the greatest job I ever had. I used to have to quit jobs to go on tour, or to write a novel. I would quit a job and then try to write a first draft of something before my money ran out. With painting, once I became my own boss, I would lie and say I had another job somewhere and then I could take the afternoon or morning off to write. It was the best money and the best job, but I’m super glad to be done with it. Every time I see a guy dressed as a painter or a painting truck I break out in a cold sweat that I’ll have to go back.
How did you go from being a guy in a band with a house painting business to a novelist?
I think I wrote my first novel novel when I was 20; I maybe wrote four or five by the time I was 35, and I didn’t show them to anyone. I had no desire to, really. After being in a band and watching the band get beat up -- some people liked what you did and some people didn’t -- I never wanted to do that to my books at all. I just assumed I would write them and put them away then write another one.
Around 2004, my band for whatever reason started doing good in Europe... I started doing interviews with journalists who are also novelists. And a lot of rock journalists, I’ve found out, are big fans of noir -- I hardly knew anyone that was a big fan of Jim Thompson and Charles Williford and Davaid Goodis, these old-school noir guys. [One of the novelist/journalists] brought his agent to a gig we were doing. I think she was drunk, even, and she said I’ll look at your stuff....
I got the courage up when I got home; I figured that’s as lucky as it gets. Then you have to decide if you want to take the shot. If you get lucky your book will be in a library and live with all the other books, it’ll be at a bookstore. Which is more enticing than not, taking that chance, so I did. And she was – obviously she was brilliant because she sold it.
I was really surprised.... I went to City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and they had my books. I almost started crying, I was so happy. I’m in City Lights bookstore at least for this moment in time, it’s good.
What do you think will happen at the Echoplex Thursday night?
Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain are really nice to let me tag along. I’ve never done one of these things with them but they’re big events.... They have beach balls with glow sticks in them, they give away his books, I’m excited.
I’m reading a bedtime story and singing a couple lullabies. The thing sad this is, I’ve written like three nice songs in my life, one about my horse and a couple for my nephews. I’m slim on upbeat, soft-going lullabies; my lullabies will definitely have a knife in them.