Willy Vlautin

Glenn Patterson talks with the American novelist and songwriter about Obama Care and The Free

'Thanks for coming out on an awful dirty night,' No Alibis bookstore owner Dave Torrans tells the crowd who have braved the inclement weather to fill the lecture room of the Ulster Museum to almost capacity.

We are here to see Willy Vlautin, author, singer-songwriter and one of the freshest, most honest, voices in American fiction in conversation with Belfast author Glenn Patterson. And the rain be damned.

After welcoming the audience, Torrans lays out the timetable for the evening. A conversation between the two writers will be followed by questions from the floor before, after a short intermission, Vlautin will perform some songs. 'Willy asked how many songs he should do,' Torrans tells us. 'I said we’d leave it to the audience. So, he’ll be doing about 100 songs then.'

Patterson and Vlautin make an incongruous pair. The former is, as always, dressed sharply in a steel grey suit paired with a black shirt. In contrast, Vlautin is dressed casually – like a character from his novels – in a blue pearl button western shirt and jeans.

Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, Vlautin started playing guitar and writing songs as a teenager. He founded the band Richmond Fontaine in 1994. Having released nine studio albums as well as a handful of live recordings and EPs, Richmond Fontaine have been critically acclaimed as one of the very best of the Americana, alt-country bands to come out of the states in the past 20 years.

Vlautin has also published four novels, beginning with The Motel Life in 2006, followed by Northline (2008) and Lean on Pete (2010). His latest, The Free, is the reason we are here this evening.

A stunning novel, The Free tells the story of Leroy, a young, wounded Iraq War veteran whose attempt to take his own life ends in failure. He is brought to the local hospital, where he is looked after by a nurse named Pauline, and visited by Freddie, the night-watchman, from his group home for disabled men.

As the stories of these three wounded characters intertwine, we learn more about their lives as they struggle to overcome their damaged pasts and attain, in different ways, their own measure of freedom.

Patterson begins the conversation by telling the audience about the ‘envy gland', which is when a writer reads another writer’s good work and wishes they had written it, or been able to write like that. 'I was suffering from envy glandular fever after reading The Free,' Patterson admits. 'It’s an extraordinary novel.'

'He’s way too nice,' Vlautin responds bashfully. 'I’m going to have to buy him a car or something for that.'
The pair discuss the inspiration for The Free; Vlautin reveals that the story started out as a song, as most of his prose writing does.

'I started to write it as a distress call to the patron saint of Nurses, Camillas de Lellis,' Vlautin recalls. 'I’m not a religious man, but I like the saints because they were real people and supposedly they’d done these real great things.'

Camillas de Lellis, an alcoholic and inveterate gambler, ended up in a pauper’s hospital. Becoming an orderly there, he worked his way up to a nurse and then became a priest.

'He started what basically became the Red Cross. I was thinking about him and I was writing him a letter to shake him and say, "Hey, will you remember Leroy, the soldier with a brain injury? And will you remember Freddie, who’s drowning in medical bills and has lost his family over a child who was born with severe medical problems? And will you remember the nurse who is worn out?" The Free started with those really big subjects that scared the hell out of me.'

Writing the first draft in six months, when he took time off from touring with the band, Vlautin then spent the next three years rewriting it. 'I wanted it to be strong enough to get beat up and still maintain its integrity,' he admits.

The novel reveals how the American health care system affects those on the lower rungs of society, and how easy it is to fall into debt and poverty as a result. It also looks at the effects and ravages of a foreign war on the young people who go off to fight in it. 'I’m tattooed with a dark streak,' Vlautin reveals. 'I try to write that side of me out.'

The pair discuss the writing process, and Vlautin reveals why he writes almost exclusively about working class characters. 'They’re stories I understand,' he says. 'Most people are a little beat up, but most people get out of bed and do the best they can.'

'Decency is what they represent,' Patterson adds. 'And dignity is what they aspire to.'

Taking questions from the floor, Vlautin reveals his influences (Steinbeck, Raymond Carver) and discusses the difference between writing songs and novels. 'If you see me and I look like I’ve slept under a car, I’ll have been writing songs. If I look good, I’m writing stories,' he jokes.

Delivering his verdict on Obama Care, he compares it to a cousin who turns up late to his grandma’s 80th birthday party. 'He’s drunk, he has a cast on his feet and he’s brought a prostitute along as his date. But, at least he showed up.'

Vlautin also reveals that he’s recorded an album with a new band, The Delines, featuring vocalist Amy Boone. 'She’s a real singer, not like me. I wrote her a record. It’s late night country soul. We’re touring in June. Then Richmond Fontaine will be making a new record.'

After a short break, Vlautin returns to the stage armed with his acoustic guitar, and delivers a short set of songs, new and old, which delight the audience as much as his talk. Afterwards, he patiently signs copies of The Free for the crowd, and takes his time talking with anyone who wants to.

As Vlautin says about his characters, he’s a good guy doing the best he can. In a world where it seems sometimes that it’s the bad guys who win in the end, it’s good to see the good guys not giving up without a fight.

Visit the No Alibis website for information on forthcoming talks, concerts and book signings.