Searching for self and keeping on: An interview with author Willy Vlautin

by Patty Templeton

Author Willy Vlautin writes about ordinary people battling everyday shitstorms with (sometimes) broken umbrellas. His wide-open, Western-toned worlds are filled with deeply-flawed folks struggling to love themselves and connect to others. Vlautin’s newest novel, “Don’t Skip Out on Me,” follows Horace Hopper, a young man who wants something more than the Nevada sheep ranch his mama abandoned him on at age 8. Horace’s search includes becoming the lightweight Mexican boxer Hector Hildago. Only problem is Horace/Hector isn’t Mexican. He’s half-Paiute and half-Irish. Through Horace, Vlautin examines the lives we can create and the hard facts we can’t outrun.

Vlautin will be at Maria’s Bookshop at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 18. DGO talked to the author about writing characters that kicked his ass outta bed each day and how his characters aren’t the rough-and-tumble drifters reviewers peg them for.

Horace is a character between worlds. He’s half-Irish and half-Paiute but wants to be a Mexican boxer. Can you talk about the conflict boiling in him?From age eight, Horace was dropped off by his mother at his grandmother’s house in a really small, decaying town in Tonopah, Nevada. The grandmother happens to be racist. She is racist against Native Americans, Mexicans, and blacks. She’s scared of them and she hates them. She loves her grandson, but every day she puts in little digs in – not directly about him – but about Native Americans. He’s been raised consciously but not directly to be ashamed of himself so he feels he does not fit in at all.

Everyone says they’re Irish. That’s why I put that in there. Everyone has a grandfather or great grandfather that’s Irish, but it doesn’t give you that much comfort ethnically when you have a vague grandfather, in this case, that’s not in the picture that was from Ireland. It was about the idea that Horace is nothing. He has no ethnic history to rely on. No ethnic community to rely on. He’s not a part of the Native American community and he feels lost.

Horace’s gramma loves her half-Paiute grandson but hates Native Americans. Can you talk about that?It makes perfect sense to me how someone can love you and dislike who you are. In my own case, my mother loved me, but she was horrified that I was a musician. It was really something she didn’t like, and she didn’t like that I wrote books. I understand that idea that you love your kid but dislike their life, but in Horace’s case, there’s absolutely nothing he can do about what his grandmother dislikes. He wants to be a good son, and he’s a cool guy who works hard, but the digs that she would give would be so difficult to deal with – it’s like being in an abusive relationship where your partner is sweet to you, and then vicious to you, and then twice as sweet to make up for being vicious, and suddenly you’re exhausted and you don’t know what to do. You’re in a quagmire. I think Horace is in a quagmire from 8 years old. He has grown up disliking himself in a weird, vague way because there was also love there.

When you write, do you think of the larger cultural context that you’re writing into?I always try to write with bigger themes … If you don’t have any kind of ethnic community, family community, it can be lonely. People gravitate towards that stuff in America. When you go to Ireland, for instance, you ask someone, “What are you?” They’ll say, “I’m an Irishman,” and they are. But when you ask an American what they are they’ll say, “Well, I’m part Dutch and French,” or Mexican, or from the Philippines but with a Spanish father or grandfather or, “We’re from Italy,” but really, they’re from Italy 200 years ago. I think everyone wants a community. I was interested in that.

Then, there’s the question, is Horace Hopper Native American? Granted, he has Native American blood. He looks Native American, but he also kinda looks Mexican. Who is he? Who does he identify as? Who can he identify as? I find all of that really interesting. People say he looks Native American … but his argument is well, hey, I also look Mexican and can I be Mexican? Because he respects Mexican boxers so much, and he’s so weighted down with shame and the dents he’s had from his folks abandoning him, and his grandmother instilling shame on who he is. He’s young enough to think, maybe I can change all of this if I become Mexican and change my identity. Obviously, changing your identity can be a tremendously hard thing to do, and for him, his version of change is impossible.

Why write this book right now in your life?It started out as supposedly an easy-going book. The book before it was “The Free.” It was, kind of, my State of the Union address. I wrote it for the patron saint of nurses and it was my commentary on health care in America, and our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how hard it is for working class people to figure out our health care system and get by in it. I was exhausted, and politically exhausted too, after I wrote it. So I started, “Don’t Skip Out on Me.” I’ve always loved central Nevada, and as a daydreamer, I’ve always wanted to own a place out there. So it started out that way. I’ve always loved Mexican boxers, and I’ve always loved boxing in general, so I said, “Oh man, I’ll figure this story out.” Then, like they do, my own mind gets involved, and then my own heart gets involved, and it can get dark.

I think I could have always written about Horace any time. That’s a guy I really understand and who has been a part of me. The old man? Mr. Reese? I probably couldn’t have written him until I got older myself. That kid though, Horace? Those ideas of wanting to fit somewhere and not wanting to be yourself and living where you don’t like yourself in ways you can’t do anything about, I’ve always understood that.

Your characters are often pointed at as drifters or on the margins, but I think they’re normal folks who get put into a hard, sometimes unusual spots and they don’t give up. Who do you think you write?I never think of my people as on the fringes or hardscrabble, and people always say that. I don’t even think of them as drifters. Horace is not a drifter. He has money. It’s kind of his own self-destructive tendencies that cause him the most grief. Mr. Reese owns a ranch. He’s not a billionaire but he can get by. He’s put his kids through college and his family loves him.

The Free” was the same. A nurse makes a good living. A guy that works at a paint store? He’s going in debt but he has a job. Throughout the books, I’ve never thought of these people as on the edge or on the fringes. I think of them as normal people. Whether they are or not, hell, I don’t know. I think they’re normal, but I could be crazy.

Could your version of normal be skewed because you’ve been a musician leading what everyday workers might consider a not-so-normal life? Until 35, I was a housepainter. I’ve lived a pretty normal life and still hang out with the same people I used to hang out with.

Why don’t your characters give up?The idea of the struggle to keep trying, that’s always something I’ve battled with. I’ve always written for myself for comfort first. I wrote for 15 years never thinking about if I was going to publish or anything. I wrote for me.

In my second book, [“Northline”], a character, Allison Johnson, she is a young alcoholic woman who has gotten herself in a lot of bad situations because she’s weak and has anxiety. The idea of her keeping trying, not giving up, and always working to improve herself a little bit made me want to keep trying and improve myself. Same thing with “Lean on Pete.” The kid, Charley, doesn’t quit, so when I’m living with him for a couple of years, I don’t quit. He drives me to get up every monrning and try. Even now when I am thinking about how lazy I am and haven’t done this or that, I think, well hell, Charley Thompson, he’d already done it. So just get your ass out of bed and start doing it, and then you’ll get it done.

I write to not quit because I don’t want to quit. Quitting is tough. If you quit for good, you’re dead. You get nothing by not trying. You might think it takes the pressure off by not trying, but it always keeps asking stuff of you when you quit trying. If you keep trying, it’s a pain in the ass, but eventually you get gifts for not giving up. You don’t have to be great at something to get gifts every once in a while for staying in the game of whatever you’re doing.

Your band, Richmond Fontaine, created a soundtrack for “Don’t Skip Out on Me.” It’s fulla pedal steel, which sounds like the prettiest and saddest thing you’ve ever heard.It’s a sickness. I don’t know what it is about that sound, pedal steel. Some people don’t really like it. I’ve tried to give it up. There’s certain records of Fontaine that haven’t had a lot of pedal steel, because Fontaine got labeled as a country rock band because of the steel, and some of the guys aren’t even huge pedal steel fans, but I always have been.

When we did this instrumental record, it was going to be the last Richmond Fontaine record. I wanted it to be a pedal steel extravaganza. I wrote all those tunes with pedal steel in mind, and Paul (Brainard) really showed up to the session and played really great. It became one of the most fun records I’ve ever made, and was the record I’ve always wanted to make, which was a Paul Brainard pedal steel record.

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Interview edited and condensed for clarity. — Patty Templeton

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