IF IT’S NOT CLEAR which is the main job and which is the side hustle for Willy Vlautin – is it being a songwriter/musician, currently touring Australia again with his band The Delines, but previously in Richmond Fontaine; or the author of five novels and other stories, including his debut, The Motel Life, which was named one of the top 25 books of 2007 – it doesn’t really matter. Por qué no los dos?
They are, of course, interrelated thematically, coursing through the lower levels of American society in its “new” west, and concerned with the way lives can seem to hover between destruction and just hanging on, never saved by love but sometimes soothed by it.
While The Delines’ songs, as he explained yesterday, do search for hope more, pictured in diffused light and quiet corners like elegant torch tunes, Vlautin’s books work more in shades of grey and greyer, eschewing elegance for a layer of lived-in dirt and setting up an almost cinematic atmosphere – the cinema here being ‘90s American indie films of low budgets and low horizons.
In fact, a number of his books have been filmed, including the much-awarded tale of a 15-year-old boy on the road with a doomed horse, Lean On Pete, and The Motel Life. Comedies though, they are not.
Vlautin has said that writing his 2018 novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, “wrecked” him, which you can’t image was the first time a book did that to him – just as a reader, Lean On Pete on page and film, devastated me - and Richmond Fontaine albums worked (and worked you over) in similar territory. How does he prepare to go to those places? Does he have to be certain he is emotionally solid first?
“Oh yeah. I always wrote for myself, to be at peace with maybe the pain I was going through or the uncertainty or the thin ice I was walking on,” Vlautin says, from his semi-rural home where he and his partner run some horses. “With writing I get obsessed with bigger themes, so with Don’t Skip Out On Me that was isolation obviously, loneliness, identity – which is a big thing in America – and also I just got so tired of seeing beat up kids and people who don’t take care of their kids or care about their kids.
"The older you get, the harder that is for me to see year after year.”
It sounds trite but still, not only must that take a lot out of him but surely it weighs on his mind beyond the writing.
“I still think writing about something takes away the anxiety of it. So if you are scared of something, or troubled by something, if you write about it – and I don’t know if this thing makes sense – it takes the anxiety of it away because you are in the moment,” he says. “Writing about dark things was never that hard for me because my mind was there, but it also relieved my mind because I was living it instead of being scared of it.
“Instead of trying to block out memories or scars, I would write about them and for a brief period of time I was free of them.”
A chance to escape? The writing helped, no matter the predations visited on his characters?
“I like writing these sorts of stories because those are the kind of stories that bring me comfort. Forrest Hopper is the kind of kid in Don’t Skip Out On Me who if I was reading a novel would bring me a lot of comfort in my own life because I liked him,” says Vlautin. “Why that one wrecked so much is, is … is because I loved that kid so much and all it would have taken is a couple of different moves and he would have been all right. He was loved, he was really loved, he just couldn’t quite get there to accept it.
“So yeah man, that and a novel of mine, Northline, are the ones that wrecked me the most, or hit a nerve in me the deepest. Those two threw me off a cliff for a bit.”
There is a line from the song All Along The Ride, from the most recent Delines album, The Sea Drift, that seems relevant at the moment: “I’ve been trying my whole life to get a thicker skin”. Has he, as a writer, developed a thicker skin by working through these stories and these emotions, and these scars? Or is a thicker skin the last thing he wants?
“I’ll say this, the reason I love novels so much is because they’ve helped me feel less lonely,” he begins. “When you read a novel that really moves you, and emotionally you connect with it – maybe the hardships of it if that’s what you’re after; which was what I needed – it alleviates a lot of loneliness. When I started writing myself I always equate it to there is a box, and inside the box is all the things that really scare you that haunt you or you have been damaged by, all your biggest fears, and I always try to take one out at the time and look at them from all different angles to try and take their power away.
“I always thought that by writing maybe it would. It hasn’t happened.”
How does that help though, if answers seem even more distant?
“For me at times I think I have figured stuff out but the older you get the less you seem to understand about anything. So I haven’t gotten a thicker skin. I just feel like there is some big ass prison guard 50 yards behind me coming my way so I better keep moving forward so he doesn’t catch me and beat the shit out of me,” he says with a dry laugh. “Like anybody in life there are things I’ve got more at peace with, and things where you are like the same guy you were when you were 10 years old, emotionally or scared by the same things.
“Some dents you have you can’t ever get rid of, and that’s always frustrating, but you try to get through the emotion of it. You can’t change it, but you hope you are emotionally smarter, won’t take the bait of it.”
Therapists do like to say that you never escape the child formed by a damaged parent or conflicting life, you just hope you’ve learned to prepare for it, or how to deal with it when it rears its head again.
“Or you hope you’ve opened your mind enough to want to. There are plenty of people who leave the bogeyman in the box and the box opens up once in a while and pounds the shit out of them, then goes away, and they don’t do anything about it.
“They are miserable and usually the people around pay the price.”
You don’t have to be in a Willy Vlautin novel to know that truth.
Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel is The Night Always Comes.
The Delines, with Jimbo Mathus, play:
Brunswick Ballroom, June 8
Memo Music Hall, St Kilda, June 9
The Great Club, Marrickville, June 10
The Eltham Hotel, June 13
Merri Creek Tavern, Northcote - one-off album show playing The Imperial in full, June 15
Meeniyan Town Hall, June 16
Odessa At Leaver’s Hotel, Creswick, June 17.