Author and musician Willy Vlautin lives in two worlds — and we don't just mean those of Scappoose, where he has a home, and the St. John's neighborhood of Portland, where he rents a room in which to write.
We mean the worlds of literature and music. The Reno, Nev., native formed the long-running alt-country band Richmond Fontaine in 1994, about six months after he moved to Portland from his hometown.
He says you can easily tell which craft he's been practicing of late.
“If I'm looking good, if I look like I'm taking care of myself, that means I'm probably writing fiction. And if I look like hell, that means I've been touring a lot ... (with) my band, or my life's falling apart. Usually, with writing, I just hole up and live like a monk, more or less.”
Take that under advisement if you are pondering whether to offer Vlautin, 44, a beer at his reading Saturday at McMenamins Old St. Francis School in Bend (see “If you go”).
Presented by the Deschutes Public Library, the Words on Tap event will find Vlautin backed by pedal-steel guitarist and Richmond Fontaine band mate Paul Brainard. Vlautin plans to perform songs related to his most recent novel, “Lean on Pete,” as well as others from a catalog dating back 18 years.
Vlautin began writing songs at 13 and has been in bands since high school. But Reno is a town whose music scene “was built on bar bands,” he said.
When even the lounge circuit deteriorated, it was on to playing “frat bars” and such. Vlautin's young adult life was spent playing these bars “and it was rough, man, and not very much fun. So I did that for years.”
Meanwhile, “Mom was not a fan of the arts to say the least,” Vlautin said, “so it's always nice to be in a city where you don't have to deal with that.”
He left Reno for the less musically restrictive climes of Portland at age 26.
“It's way easier to be a failed artist and failed musician and failed writer in a town where you don't know anyone,” he said.
Vlautin was also a big reader as a kid, “but I'd never done anything remarkable, to say the least. I was a very mediocre student, even though I tried really hard, so I just assumed I couldn't be a writer,” he says.
And then he read a masterful short storyteller known for the down-to-earth circumstances of his characters.
“I read Raymond Carver when I was 20. Raymond Carver was to me, me,” Vlautin said. “I knew all those stories that he was talking about, or at least I felt like I did at the time.
“He's obviously a genius stylist and all of that, but when I was 20, I felt like he was my uncle telling me our family stories. He kind of gave me the courage to write my stories, or things I thought were important.”
He started writing fiction at about age 21, preferring to keep the pursuit quiet.
“I just kind of kept them to myself, my novels and short stories,” he said. “It's hard to sacrifice your time and spend all your time doing something if you're no good at it. I battled with that for years: 'Should I try to sell it or show it to anybody?'
“In the end, I always felt like, 'Hey, I really enjoy the process of writing, I love the novel, and my band beats me up enough, that I'm going to save the stories for myself.'”
But that was not the final word. At 36, having written several unpublished novels, Vlautin was brave enough to show one to a literary agent who'd approached him after a show, “a really good agent who wanted to see what I was working on. So I was pretty lucky.”
It led to the publication of “The Motel Life” in 2006. Since then, Vlautin has published two more novels: “Northline” in 2008, and “Lean on Pete” in 2010. He's in the process of writing a third one, but it's from “Lean on Pete” that he plans to read Saturday.
For 15 years, horse racing had been important to Vlautin. His online bio at www.willyvlautin.com says, “An avid fan of horse racing, Vlautin can often be found writing behind a closed circuit monitor at Portland Meadows racetrack.”
But he tells GO! Magazine he lost his taste for horse racing after he wrote “Lean on Pete,” his novel about a neglected teen, Charley Thompson, who begins working at Portland Meadows with a mean old cuss of a horse trainer.
“'Lean on Pete' kind of killed me at the track,” he said. “I just learned too much.”
For about the last five years of the 15 he'd been into the horses, Vlautin had been conflicted about “low-level horse racing,” he said. “You start being conflicted about the treatment of the horses and jockeys. That life is so hand-to-mouth. It's a really rough life on everyone involved.
“The bad part is that ... (the) vices I like — drinking and gambling — are bad for you. My last one was horse racing. I'd quit all gambling except for horse racing. It's just too depressing for me.”
Does he have any vices left?
He laughs, then answers, “I like writing stories way more than I like any vice.
“I love the bars. I always like old-man bars,” he admitted. “(But) you gotta keep your vices in check. I've always been like that: I always pull back on all that sort of stuff. I have a decent level of self-preservation, and it's hard to write a story when you're hung over.”