Novelist hones skill at telling hard-luck tales with book, songs; his latest book is 'Don't Skip Out on Me'

COURTESY: DAN ECCLES - Willy Vlautin has a new novel, 'Don't Skip Out on Me,' about a young man facing the world mostly alone. He writes characters living on the margins.Willy Vlautin's wrenching new book, "Don't Skip Out on Me," comes with a musical soundtrack, rich with slide guitar and lonesome harmonica sounds that make the eyes well up.

Writing soundtracks for his novels is only natural for Vlautin, who is the front man for the Portland band Richmond Fontaine.

Vlautin's earlier books include "The Motel Life," "Northline," "Lean on Pete" and "The Free."

The story goes that Vlautin wrote much of "Lean on Pete" (HarperCollins, $15.99) from a diner at the Portland Meadows racetrack.

Set in the world of small-time horse racing, "Lean on Pete" has been adapted into a film that releases March 30 with actors Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi and Charlie Plummer as Charlie. Soon after Charlie moves from Tacoma, Washington, to Portland with his dad, he starts hanging around a nearby racetrack and taking care of a horse named Lean on Pete.

"Don't get attached to the horse," the friendless boy is pointlessly warned.

Meanwhile, "Don't Skip Out on Me" (Harper/Collins, $22.99) also is about a young man facing the world mostly alone.

The story: Horace Hopper is half-white and half-Paiute Indian. His mother left him when he was 8 years old with his white grandmother, who is a racist, and Horace lives mostly in a shed behind the house.

A bit of good fortune falls on Horace when he's taken in by a couple of old ranchers who love him like their own. But Horace is driven by his need to be someone, to courageously step out into the world and cut his own path. He dreams of becoming a professional boxer and returning to the ranchers a hero. In the shame he's learned over his true identity, Horace remakes himself as Hector Hidalgo.

Vlautin's writing style is spare and honest. His characters speak plainly. At the heart of things is a sensitive person surrounded by callous people twisted by circumstance and failed dreams. In his calmly paced books, daily life is meted out in pickup trucks, spent beer cans and diners.

"Don't Skip Out On Me" is a heartbreaker of a book that appeals to our better nature. It leaves readers wanting to hang on to their loved ones and extend a hand to the strangers and overlooked people we pass every day.

The Scappoose resident is on tour in Europe and answered the Tribune's questions by email:

COURTESY PHOTO - One of Willy Vlauntin's books, 'Lean on Pete,' has been turned into a movie, starring Charlie Plummer, and it opens in theaters in late March; it screens at the Portland International Film Festival on Feb. 28.Tribune: How did "Don't Skip Out on Me" come together? Do you have the story in mind first and then write the music?

Vlautin: All my novels started as songs. The song will be a subject that just won't leave me. Like a song I did called "Laramie, Wyoming." I finished it, but the idea wouldn't leave and it became the novel "Lean on Pete." Same with the new one, "Don't Skip Out on Me." It started with the song "Don't Skip Out." ... And then the ideas in that song wouldn't leave me alone.

As far as the soundtrack, the book just felt like music to me. From the first 10 pages, it felt very cinematic and, at the same time, like a sad ballad. So, I started writing instrumentals while I was working on the book. After a few years, I had about 25 and I brought them to the guys in Richmond Fontaine and they were nice enough to make it into a real record.

COURTESY PHOTO - Willy Vlautin's novel 'Don't Skip Out on Me' comes with a soundtrack by his band Richmond Fontaine.Tribune: Do you compose music for the characters and scenes in your novels?

Vlautin: I do write songs for characters. I think I've written songs for most of my main characters. I spend years tinkering on the books and thinking so much about them that it makes sense to me to write them songs.

Tribune: I read the book in about a day. Did you know the ending when you set out to write the book?

Vlautin: Before I start writing I can usually can tell you the overall arc of a novel over a cup of coffee. The main ideas and themes. Then I spend years trying to make it work, and I never get less clumsy. I usually edit for at least a year or two. So it's a lot of work.

Tribune: Horace has been nothing but skipped out on. Yet he decides to leave the warmth of the old ranchers to reinvent himself as a Mexican boxer in Tucson. Why do you think Horace picked this path?

Vlautin: With Horace I was interested in the ideas of shame and abandonment. He's part white, part Native American and has been abandoned

He's dented with shame by the time the old ranch couple take him in. They love him as their son, they want to give them everything they have, both monetarily and spiritually, but Horace can't accept it.

He thinks he doesn't deserve it so he sets off to become a Mexican boxer, something he admires, hoping to come home a champion and worthy of their love. He wants to come back a savior.

Tribune: Your book is about people on the margins. Horace has so much dignity but no one has his back. He's used by trainers, bosses, co-workers. He isn't a saint, but he's pretty close. What could save him?

Vlautin: One of the main themes in the book is the idea, "can you fix broken people?" It's easy to break a kid, but hard to fix them when they're adults. So much effort. With Horace, if one of his parents would have loved him right he would have had an easier time. He would have been able to accept love. He tries so hard to undent himself but that's a hard thing to do.

Tribune: What themes interest you most?

Vlautin: I guess various themes always run through my books: working class issues, alcoholism, isolation and loneliness. I never think of those things when I start a book, but by the time I look up after a few years those things are usually in the fabric somehow. Sometimes I don't even see them until someone points it out.

Tribune: What books have you liked most lately?

Vlautin: Right now I'm re-reading "Kes" by Barry Hines. It's a favorite of mine.

Tribune: What writers do you admire?

Vlautin: I've always been a fan of writers like Flannery O'Conner and William Kennedy. I read them over and over. And always I've been a great admirer of Ursula K. Le Guin. We were so lucky to have her in Portland.

Tribune: What do you read or listen to that might be surprising?

Vlautin: I do listen to a lot of soundtrack music. Not sure if that's surprising, but it's a real problem with me. I can listen to soundtracks all day long and I do.

A friend of mine, John Askew, just made a great instrumental record I listen to at least once a day. Also been listening to Red Fang. I've always dug those guys.

Among his many upcoming appearances, Willy Vlautin reads from "Don't Skip Out on Me" at Powell's City of Books, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb 20.

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