Willy Vlautin—former Renoite, novelist and founder of the band Richmond Fontaine—is coming home for a visit
Reno native Willy Vlautin has written five novels, including The Motel Life and Lean on Pete, both of which were made into films.
His newest novel, Don’t Skip Out on Me, released this month, is about a young man named Horace Hopper who’s half-Irish, half-Paiute, and doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere. Horace lives on a sheep ranch in Monitor Valley, near Tonopah, where a kind, elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Reece, took him in as a teen. He’s a well-loved and reliable worker, but he’s compelled to prove his worth, so he sets out for Tucson to claim a new identity as Mexican and become a champion boxer.
Vlautin talked with the RN&R from Oregon, where he now lives.
What’s your connection to central Nevada? Have you lived there?
No, I just grew up camping, like in the Belmont/Manhattan area, north of Tonopah. And every summer I’d go to that area.
How did you get to know the lifestyle and the job of sheep herding in so much detail?
You know, part of the sheep herding was a nod to Robert Laxalt. As a kid, I grew up reading him. I was feeling pretty ragged in my mind when I started the book. And I wanted to go someplace that felt comfortable. And I thought of him. … In a way he was a saint of mine that I got comfort from when working on the book. His books, as a kid, were important to me, his and Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s, because they were the only Nevada writers I knew about.
I knew a rancher, an Oregon rancher, and he put me in touch with some sheep ranches in case I had questions. But, what made me really choose that story, especially the early parts, was that I was on a horseback riding trip in eastern Oregon, which is very similar to central Nevada, just on a day ride, and came across a Peruvian sheep herder whose boss never sent food. He was just this guy who didn’t even speak Spanish. He spoke an Indian dialect, Quechua, and he was just sleeping on a blue tarp, all by himself. And it just stopped me in my tracks how isolated he was. We were 20 miles from a mini mart, and then we were 80 miles from a real town. … So that was always in the back of my mind. I guess that’s why a lot of the central Nevada stuff that takes place is because of that trip—and because of growing up camping around the Monitors and down north of Tonopah.
Does the Peruvian sheep herder know that he’s a character in your book now?
Haha. Of course not. ’Cause I couldn’t understand him. You know, it’s interesting who becomes a character and who doesn’t. It’s oftentimes not the guys you would think. But he sure inspired it, that’s for sure.
How about Horace? Is he based on you?
Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of me in the kid, that’s for sure. As I kid, I was always looking. There had to be an answer for why I was the way I was. … I always thought there was, you know, a simple thing I could do to fix me. Or, I always thought maybe I really have an uncle in Florida who runs a fishing guide service, and I’ll be happy there, and I’ll go live with him. Or maybe I have an Irish grandfather, and I could go live with him in Ireland, and I’ll be happy. Instead of, like, looking within, always thinking there was a reason for the way I was, like I didn’t fit right. It didn’t seem like I ever fit right anywhere. And I think Horace is like that.
What I was interested in with Horace was the idea of, number one, he’s so dented, and he has such a fear of abandonment, and he was raised to be ashamed of himself, that even the love of this old ranching couple, a couple that want to give him everything—it makes him uneasy to get love from them. And so he feels that he has to be this great man in order to have their love, and in a way it’s their love that causes him to do what he does, which is a failed plan but the only plan he can come up with.
And Horace doesn’t see that a lot of other people in the world feel that way, too.
Yeah, that’s the other thing about being isolated, which I was interested in. In isolation, say you’re camping in the middle of Nevada, and you’re under the stars, and it’s so beautiful—from Tonopah north, to me, is the most beautiful area, eastern Oregon as well. When I’m camping out there, I think I’m going to be a better person when I get back. I’m going to work out more. I’m going to call the people I need to call. I’m going to drink less. I’m going to take care of my bills, all that stuff. When I’m out there, I always feel like I’m going to be better than I was when I was in the city. And then as soon as I hit the city limits, it all fades away, and I’m back to being me. And I think Horace—in the safety of isolation, in the safety of the ranch—he thinks it’s a good plan to become a Mexican boxer.
You wrote a soundtrack for the book, and in the notes to the soundtrack, you wrote that as soon as you start developing characters and setting, it’s just like writing music to you. How does that work in your mind?
I’ve been writing songs since I was a little kid, so if I’m working on a novel—a novel takes three years; this one took almost four years—I’ll end up writing a lot of songs about it, through the phases. All my novels start as songs. … And the idea of the song wouldn’t let go of me, and so I started writing it out in a novel.
But certain novels of mine feel like songs. I wrote a novel called Northline that’s set half in Vegas and half in Reno—and it felt like music. It felt like a sad, melancholy song. So I wrote dozens and dozens of instrumental songs for it. With this new one, it was the same thing. By page 5, Mr. Reese and Horace Hopper felt like music to me. … And I think the location, the desert, it always sounds like music to me—or feels like it. So the combination of the sorrow and the melancholy and the loneliness in the novel, mixed with the setting—I just started writing instrumental songs for it. After three years, I had maybe 25, 30 of them, little instrumentals. And then, once I had the book in working shape, I gave the manuscript to each of the guys in my band [Richmond Fontaine], and then I showed ’em the songs. And the way I write the instrumentals, they’re pretty rough, just the melody and the structure is there, but the guys always put a nice suit on them and give them a haircut and a shave and make them look good, and so that’s what they did.
What’s the status of Richmond Fontaine? You had a farewell tour in 2016, but you made this soundtrack album more recently.
We retired, more or less. We’ve been together 23 years, and I always felt like each guy sacrificed so much to get in the band. We’re a mom-and-pop band. We’re small. We’re a duct-tape band, and I was always surprised that each guy would get in the van each time. So, we just decided to stop when we were doing good. We put out a record we liked, and we kind of just pulled over on the side of the road and said, “All right, we’ve had enough.”
That being said, right when those guys get used to not having to hear my voice, I called ’em. The one thing I’d always wanted to do was make an instrumental record, and instrumental records are a hard sell to a working band, because not a lot of people like instrumental records. So the band was never crazy about the idea, but once we called it quits, there was no pressure. We still had money in the bank, and it just became a fun thing to do, just a project. We’re not going to be doing any more shows or really be a band anymore, but I’m going to hopefully get the guys to record some kind of weird art record or weird instrumental record now and then.
How long have you been gone from Reno?
I think I was 26, 27 when I left. I was a failed musician and kind of bumming around Reno, and I knew I had to move to a bigger city to be in the kind of band I wanted to be in. But I went kicking and screaming. My first novel was set in Reno, because I was so homesick that I wanted to come back, but I couldn’t make a go of playing music in Reno. And Portland is such a great music town. I met the guys in Richmond Fontaine within a year of living in Portland. And so, I just stuck it out here. … In a way, Reno is like an old girlfriend you never get over. In a way it just breaks my heart, and I get all depressed and weird. I used to come back all the time, for maybe the first 10 years of living in Portland. I used to stay at the Fitzgerald’s Casino for like five nights at a time. … Writing novels takes so long that you kind of have to write them everywhere. You can’t be precious about where you are. It just takes so long that you can’t wait for the perfect time and the perfect place. You have to just do it. I used to write a lot at Harrah’s—used to have a really cool off-track betting parlor. It’s gone now, but I used to come back and write there, or in the downtown library in Reno. I used to write there for a couple weeks at a time.
If I was a really rich guy, I’d buy that place and leave it exactly the way it is. I think that’s one of the coolest places that’s ever existed. It makes you feel better about yourself. A good library always makes you feel better about yourself.