Perhaps it’s fitting that the first book that Willy Vlautin loved was My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. It’s the story of Sam, a 12-year-old who runs away from New York City to the Catskill Mountains, where he lives alone in a tree with a falcon.
“It was the first time I’d ever read a book where I was like, ‘God, I want to be that kid,’” the Portland-area author said. “But I had no courage to run away. I could barely get out the door, man.”
In those few sentences, Vlautin articulates the dilemmas and desires of so many of his characters: their need to flee situations that overwhelm them, and their paralysis when they can’t find a way out. Both his books and songs (Vlautin is a songwriter for two bands, Richmond Fontaine and The Delines) are peopled largely with those who seek not fame, power, or riches, but peace: a place where they can retreat, somewhere they can’t be hurt – or hurt anyone else.
From Northline’s Allison Johnson, who flees an abusive boyfriend to navigate the uncertainty of a new life, to the brothers in The Motel Life who go on the run after a hit-and-run accident, to the teenage boy in Lean on Pete who embarks on a journey with a broken-down racehorse to find his missing aunt, Vlautin’s protagonists know what they’re running from, but not where they’re running to.
But Lynette, the protagonist of his new novel, The Night Always Comes, is different. She not only knows what she wants, but she also has a plan to get it. To give her family stability in a rapidly gentrifying Portland, Lynette wants to buy their rented home. She saved money for the down payment by working two jobs and is attending night classes to secure a better life down the road.
There’s just one problem: Because Lynette’s credit is bad, the whole plan rests on getting her mother to sign for the loan. When Lynette comes home to find her mom spent all her money on the new Buick in the driveway, she knows she’s going to have to act fast to keep those dreams alive.
The Night Always Comes chronicles 48 hours in Lynette’s life as she crosses the city, trying to claim money she’s owed and regain control of her life while still supporting the developmentally disabled brother she’s taken care of since she was a child. It’s also my favorite of Vlautin’s books, which is saying something, and I was lucky enough to talk to him recently about his writing process, our mutual love of Sam Shepard, and why Myrna Loy is his toughest editor.
Vlautin, a few minutes late to our Zoom meeting, apologized profusely. “It took me longer to get out of my house today than I thought,” he said. “My dog wouldn’t come back and I have horses and it all fell apart. I have a band practice later on and I forgot my shit. You know how it is.”
I’ve been on the call with him for only two minutes, and I feel exactly how his work always makes me feel: right at home.
Smith: The Night Always Comes has such a film noir vibe to it, starting with the title. Was that a conscious effort? Are you a noir fan?
Vlautin: Yeah. I always think of noir, especially the novels, as desperate people writing about desperate people. So much noir feels like the writer is also in a desperate, frantic situation. I really thought about that a lot, because one of the ideas with the book was that the economy in the city is changing so fast but you can’t. On a good day, you’re barely getting by and your family’s barely getting by, and that might be your own fault or your own set of circumstances, or maybe you’ve driven yourself into the ditch that got you there. It’s like you’re still walking down the street and everyone around you is suddenly driving and you’re like, “How the hell did they figure out how to drive when I’m still walking?” And I wanted it to have that kind of panic feel to it.
I think the Northwest can have a really noir/desperation feel. Maybe Portland’s has shifted. It’s a different kind of darkness, maybe less planted in unemployment and more planted in homelessness and rising prices.
I grew up on noir as a reader more than anything: James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, David Goodis — the more edgy noir writers. They were huge heroes of mine because they could write a story in 150 pages that could keep you up all night. I worked at a trucking company, but I could get off work and still want to read those more than watch TV. They were really freaky and scary and kind of funny and there wasn’t a lot of crime in them. These were really messed-up dudes writing about really messed-up dudes. I told myself from that early age that I wanted to write those kinds of books, without the crime.
But the woman is never the agent, never the one really in pursuit of truth. That’s part of why I loved Lynette so much, because she had that kind of agency. I just kept thinking, “Oh, what Ida Lupino could have done with this.”
I wanted to pick one dysfunctional working-class family. Then I thought it had to be a woman, because the man would have left. He might have given some money to his brother, might have given some money to his mom, but he wouldn’t have stuck it out. So I thought Lynette had to be a woman, because she is more honorable, and I thought she would have just stayed and tried to make it work.
She’s the only one with a conscience. She’s the only one that cares about communities, and all the guys she meets throughout the night represent different kinds of greed and shortsightedness. In a weird way, it was my idea of capitalism versus community, and I wanted that to have a noir feel as well.
She’s the toughest one in the book. No one knows that she’s the toughest one, but she knows she’s the toughest one. They all find out by the end. She has the edge that she doesn’t care if she lives or dies. And that’s a big edge to have over somebody.
You definitely get that vibe: not that she is fearless, but that her pursuit of what she needs overrides that fear.
Yeah, I really liked her. You know, if I spend two years with somebody, I always want to care about them. She gets beat up a lot by life and she keeps getting up. But most of us do. It makes her heroic, but I think those people are heroic.
It reminds me of my aunt, who had a five-alarm fire and lost everything. She told me, “Everybody keeps saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re so strong. I couldn’t keep it together like you are.’ But what else am I going to do? I have to live.”
Yeah. You know, my mom ended up with two kids. She never had a job and she was an agoraphobic. And you’re like, “Man, you’re tough.” And she’s like, “Well, it’s either you lose your kids or you figure it out.”
I think with Lynette, it’s the same. She’s never gotten to be a kid properly. She was a caregiver to her brother from an early age. When you meet her, she’s had a couple of mental breakdowns. Her way of getting control of her life is to explode and freak out so she can recalibrate and scare people away so she can get control of herself again. But that’s a hard way to live and it’s a hard person to be around.
Despite its heavy subject matter, The Night Always Comes was fun to read. As a Portlander who’s been here since the ’90s, I particularly loved Lynette’s journey through the night: all the old haunts she visited from the Hotel deLuxe to the Original Hotcake House. Was that fun to write? And do you have some kind of master map of where she’s at every minute?
I did end up mapping it out and doing the times to see if you could make that drive and all that sort of logistics. But yeah, it’s always a lot of fun to write about places you love. It’s one of the reasons I love writing.
I always got a lot of comfort from places. There’s something about The Overlook say, like if I was really depressed or things were just falling apart, if I could sit at The Overlook and a waitress was nice to me then I would just go, “All right man, I can do this. I can get through it.” The horse track was like that for me for years, where I could just lean on it when my life was falling apart. So when I was writing the book, I wanted not sentimentality, but just this idea that Lynette’s still clinging to the places that bring her comfort. And they’re disappearing quickly as well.
When my mom died, my sister suggested a restaurant for the wake. At first I thought, ‘Why there?’ Then I realized: All of the places Mom loved are gone.
Yeah, it’s a really weird thing, as you get older, when you start watching all these places you really love go under. I’ve been writing out of the same office in St. Johns for 13 years, looking out over all the different stores, and you just watch them go by the wayside. It kind of makes you feel more lonely when you fall in love with places and then they change and you’re like, “I got to just keep rolling with it. I got to embrace it and go to the new place and hopefully they’re as nice to me as the old place was.”
As I was reading The Night Always Comes, I kept thinking this would make an awesome play.
Because of the long, extended arguments.
Exactly. Also there’s an episodic nature to it. Has anybody ever approached you about doing a play of your work?
Early on, somebody did a play of a novel of mine called Northline in Holland, but I never saw it. They had really cool music for it.
You know, it was a risky move doing those long arguments. Some people haven’t liked it or thought it was over the top, but I wanted to start a novel with an argument that’s been brewing for 20 years. Some families don’t talk at all and some just can’t stop talking. And then you keep picking at each other. You keep hitting each other with these little daggers. Those kinds of long arguments are really fun to write, and then you just try to edit them in a way that at least people can read and don’t seem too wild.
I’m a huge Sam Shepard fan and those extended arguments felt very Shepard to me. That’s a large part of why I love your work: It’s the only writing that brings me close to that feeling
That’s really nice of you to say. I’ve always been a fan. It seems like he was a troubled guy from when he was a kid to his last days. He seemed like he always battled to find some kind of peace with himself, with his relationship with his father, his relationship with women, his need to always be moving from one thing to the next.
I’ve always felt the same way, like I just never fit anywhere. There’s a sadness in Sam Shepard that I’ve really leaned on to give me comfort. And I remember seeing Shepard & Dark [a documentary about the friendship between Shepard and Johnny Dark, his ex-father-in-law], and I told my brother to see it and he called me and he goes, “Jesus, we’re him. You know, without being good-looking and famous.”
He’s just so edgy and he’s so troubled and you’re like, “Goddamn, it never goes away.” It’s nice to talk about him because not a lot of people are big fans.
Nobody I know reads Sam Shepard. Nobody.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. It might be hard for women to relate to him. Also, his prose is deceptive — he’s working on so many levels. And when you look at his body of work, that’s what tells the story. I bought a biography of his, but I can’t think of a biography that I’m less interested in reading – it’s already there, on the pages of all his books.
He’s really truthful, [facing] up to all his relationships and philandering, his alcoholism. I think there’s a sadness to him that not a lot of people would understand. The way he writes maybe isn’t just mainstream enough. I don’t really know either, because he was such a famous playwright.
I do love him. I give him for gifts all the time. And his obsession with his father is really interesting, because you always think you’re going to overcome or let go of traumatic stuff that’s happened to you. And to some degree you do. Then some days you wake up and it’s right in front of you, like it just happened. And you’re like, “Goddamn.” I just relate to that guy on that level.
My one story about Sam Shepard is I was doing a reading at City Lights with my pal Barry Gifford and there was a little party afterwards across the street at this bar called Tosca. They had a big picture of Paris, Texas. I asked the owner [why she had it] and she goes, “Because they wrote it back there.” Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard used to argue in that back room for hours about it. And to think of those two guys back when it wasn’t like fancy or anything, and they’re just like in San Francisco writing Paris, Texas, it’s just… Just kill me.
The only person I get to talk about Sam Shepard with is my brother. He’s a big fan. We talk about him all the time. We keep hoping that as you get older you’re going to become happier and figure it out and you watch Shepard and you’re like, “Nah.”
It seemed like it got worse for Shepard over the years, like he became unmoored somehow.
I think it’s easy to get unmoored. I’m trying hard not to become unmoored.
I’m reading a book of letters he exchanged with Joseph Chaikin, a theater producer he worked with in the early years. Even then, you can see the cracks: how he can’t reconcile these opposing sides of himself. I wonder if he was afraid to lose something creatively if he tried to come to terms with it all.
You wonder with stuff like that, like his problems with his dad. If you keep making a lot of mistakes throughout your life, maybe you just keep leaning on that idea that it all started because of that. I don’t know if he kept that wound open so he could keep mining it, like it was a wound that never healed, so he had to write about it. I don’t know the answer to those kind of weird art things, like why people write what they write.
One of my all-time favorite songs of yours is A Ghost I Became, about a man who spends more and more time in the desert, presumably because he wants to disappear from the world. The song always makes me think of Shepard.
That’s really interesting. It’s like you get that urge to just disappear, but then you fight it because you’re like, “Man, there’s nowhere to disappear to.” My brother always says you’ll end up in a worse situation, doing the exact same thing you are right now. But there’s that pull of it, you know, and I’ve always struggled with that.
That song really leans on those ideas and it’s very Sam Shepard. I never thought of that, but it is. I’ve always related to Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. There’s a certain amount of self-hatred, like you’ve caused such pain and you’re in pain and you want to punish yourself. So he forces himself to not speak and to just disappear. He leaves wreckage behind him and accepts the pain and stays in it.
I think there’s a loneliness in [Shepard’s writing] that a lot of people have. Family doesn’t bring him comfort, religion doesn’t give him comfort. Alcohol gives him comfort and then beats him on the side of the head for getting comfort from it. And his past won’t ever let him go or he won’t let it go.
Your books are grounded in the specifics of your characters’ day-to-day lives, from what groceries they can afford to how many times it takes to get their car started. But of course there are always larger themes of economic dislocation, loss and loneliness, and family disconnection. Is that idea of the American dream (or myth) on your mind intentionally as you’re writing? Or is that just incidental to the story you want to tell?
I usually write in bigger themes. Like for The Night Always Comes, I started thinking about this idea of trickle-down greed. If that’s the idea, if Jeff Bezos is trying to be a spaceman, then, “OK, this is how it looks at the bottom.” So I started thinking about the idea of everyone trying to get what they can get. Like Lynette’s dad is making so much money being a painting contractor and using illegal help that he feels like he’s beaten the system. And really, you’re like, “Look, man, you’re really shortsighted.” He might be getting a new boat because he’s making so much money. But he doesn’t care about his community.
Part of why I love your work is that it feels like the story comes first. It’s not a narrative exercise.
In my twenties, I wanted to see if I could get men to read novels, like the guys I grew up with, the kind of meathead idiots who barely read the CliffsNotes to pass the class. I always wanted to see if I could get them to read a novel. And so I wanted to write something really simple, but really heavy, written in my own kind of blood, like Shepard or something, so you’re not fucking around at all and you’re not hiding what you’re saying — you say it. Then I try through the story to layer it with as many ideas as I think fit the overall scope of what I want to say.
Do you come from a bookish family?
My grandmother was an English teacher and she was really cool. She turned me on to Roddy Doyle. My mom read thrillers like Stephen King, but she wasn’t a fan of the arts. She was not a fan of me writing books or being in a band or any of that kind of shit. But they always were readers.
If you could assign books to your characters in high school, something that would get them to read, what books might you give them?
I’d give them all John Steinbeck. Steinbeck gets a lot of heat for being sentimental, but I think there’s a darkness and a warmth that are injected into you when you read Steinbeck. There’s both a deep sadness and a deep will to keep going. And I think most of my characters probably could use that. For Lynette, I don’t know what would give her comfort. I would be scared to give her something too dark. I would probably give her The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle. I’d probably give her that to help her. That’s an interesting question.
You’ve said in other interviews how much you love Myrna Loy. You called her a “tough editor.”
It’s because of The Thin Man. She’s an heiress who makes her husband cocktails in the middle of the night and likes adventure and she’s so fucking beautiful and she’s the smartest person in the room. Her husband’s a drunk and he might be a brilliant detective, but she’s the master of knowing what the fuck’s going on. My dream gal’s always got to be smarter than me. And I mean, I hate to say it, but they’ve got to be lefties. She was a big FDR gal and they’ve got to be a force of good. I can never have a thing for Barbara Stanwyck because she was right wing. Even when I was watching The Big Valley as a kid, you know, I was like, “Man, I know she’s beautiful and everything, but I don’t really like Barbara Stanwyck.” But when I see Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, I want to build a time machine and figure out how to live in that movie.
I’m also that way with Carole Lombard. She’s really funny and like the first kind of slapstick comedian and actress. I think she’s really wild and really smart. And I think she was also kind of a lefty.
The only other gal that helps me is Gail Russell. She was a really shy high schooler, like clinically shy, but really beautiful and lived in L.A. and she wanted to be an illustrator. Some casting director saw her and said, “You should do movies.” And her mom signed her up to do it. She just did movies and she drank herself to death. I always think of her pain, like, “Man, you can’t drink your way out of pain. It never works. It didn’t do Sam Shepard any good. It doesn’t do anybody any good.” So I look at her and go, “Man, that’s what happens. So don’t do it – please don’t do it.”
I’m hoping maybe she’s up in heaven somewhere saying, “Don’t fucking drink so much today, Will. I’ll hang out with you by the pool if you don’t.”
How much of your published book typically resembles the first idea?
Over a cup of coffee, I could tell you the start, middle, and the end of my book before I start it. So I know the arc generally, and that usually stays the same. I’ve never really had any of them shift a lot. But I don’t really know a lot of the little stuff.
Like I did with The Night Always Comes, I’ll write the first draft and it’ll be like 60 percent there. My only gift as a writer at all is I just edit. I could write a draft in six, seven months, and then I’ll spend two or three years tinkering on it. I just start on page one and I get through the first chapter. It might take me three weeks to fix the first chapter. Then I do that all the way through the book. Then I start on Chapter One again and I go all the way through it again, and then I start again. Then I start worrying about sentences: if my sentences are pretty or if they work.
During each edit, I’ll go like, “Why would Lynette really do that?” Just getting to a deeper level of why a person does what they do.
I spent a year doing that. I didn’t want to do it because it hurt too much; it’s a hard thing to do. And it’s like Lynette when she has her boyfriend, Jack. She can’t accept love. She tries to be a movie kind of girlfriend. She doesn’t get any peace from it or any stability. It actually rocks her world in a bigger way. And she’s with a really sweet, nice person who cares about her, who hasn’t been damaged in life, and she can’t handle it. Once you go into those deeper ideas, like “Oh man, Lynette’s really broken,” you have to live with that kind of brokenness for a long time. It takes me a long time to get there, to the next level with it. I get scared going to the real reasons. It just takes me a long time to write about the darker things.
There’s a lot of darkness in your books, but also small acts of kindness that feel genuinely hopeful. With everything going on in the world today, what is giving you hope right now?
That’s a tough one. You probably picked me on a bad day to answer that. I don’t know what gives me hope. I mean, I like my wife and I like things everybody likes. I like my dog and my horses and I like being in a band. But I guess I’ve got to say I’ve lost a lot of comfort. Steinbeck always said that if we humans were all bad, we would have disappeared a thousand years ago. It’s an ongoing fight. I guess I’ve struggled with humanity in a way that I haven’t in the past, where I’ve always thought there were 52 percent good and honorable people. Now, as I get older, I’ve lost that. So I guess I get the most comfort from disappearing into stories.
Is there anything you’re working on right now?
I’m working on two novels that I’m going back and forth on. One’s about the life of a casino musician. It’s set in Reno — the life of a guy that grew up playing in casinos up until it kind of dried up. Just the life of a failed musician. I’ve got a few drafts of that one in.
Then I’m working on one about a house painter in St. Johns. I wrote a short story called The Kill Switch and this is a novel about those same characters. I’m five or six drafts into that one, so it’s just starting to come together.
The Delines keep postponing stuff and are going to start working again next year. We have a new record almost done. We’re hoping COVID lets us be a band again, because we tour mostly in Europe and we have to keep postponing tours or canceling tours and then rebooking them. So we’ll see.