Vlautin's new novel shows 'panic' of Portland
Author and musician Willy Vlautin enjoys the solitude of his home in the woods outside of Scappoose with his wife, horses, dog and cats.
But even Vlautin got a little stir-crazy over the past year, isolated because of the COVID-19 pandemic and not able to tour Europe with his band The Delines. He often would go into his office in St. Johns and work, if only for the change of scenery. "I write better when I can look out the window and see weird people walking around," he said. And it's scenery that helped him polish off his sixth book, "The Night Always Comes" ($26.99, HarperCollins Publishing), which features a distinctive Portland flavor with a universal theme.
It's about a woman (Lynette) not making much money and caught in the web of gentrification with her mother and older brother. She wants to buy a home, the one the family has rented, to be part of the American Dream. But, problem is, Lynette needs to make a lot of money just for the downpayment, and it's practically impossible without working multiple jobs, including an illegal one.
Vlautin would sit and look out of his office window and see St. Johns change on an almost daily basis. Mom-and-pop shops giving way to big apartment buildings, or the promise of them. It scares him, he admits, because it's a lot of change happening quickly as Portland grows into an even larger city that many residents might not recognize or be proud of — including the increase of homeless people and tent cities.
"You can feel it in Portland," Vlautin said. "It started when I began counting cranes downtown, and started realizing how many new buildings were going up — slowly realizing in St. Johns, anyway, the mom-and-pop businesses going away, and buildings staying vacant. Old Craftsman houses were suddenly unaffordable for working-class people, or torn down and fancier houses put in their place. Walking down the street, and being passed by fancy cars."
He could hear the thoughts of the working-class folks, who are usually the focus in his novels. "What am I going to do? How am I going to catch up?" The book, he said, "has a feel of panic to it," and it should hit home with many people in Portland.
"It's a 30-year-old woman who lives with her mother and older brother who is developmentally disabled in a North Portland rental house, next to I-205, for 30 years. They're a struggling family that are carrying burdens with them. Then they have the opportunity to buy the rental home. When I wrote it, starting four years ago, I made the house cost $280,000. That's laughable now. I decided not to change the price, to show how much it's gone up when starting the book to finishing the book."
The mother, 60, says it's too much to pay. She works a job at Fred Meyer and "she's tired, and she doesn't understand why things cost so much, like a $4,000 couch or $400 shoes. The daughter is trying to convince her it's the last chance at the American Dream, homeownership," Vlautin said.
He remembers having the discussion of the American Dream with his mother. "She told me if you owned a house you weren't a loser," Vlautin said. "So, how does a working-class guy buy a $400,000 house in Portland? You don't." And, it's a failure in the system, from greed of CEOs and banks trickling down to common people.
It's a "hairy ride, a fast read and has the noir panic feel," he said.
The past year has been all about writing for Vlautin, 53, because The Delines haven't been able to tour. Usually they're in Europe playing shows. He has been a musician in Portland for more than two decades, after moving from Reno, Nevada, in 1994, and making his name as the lead singer and guitar player for Richmond Fontaine — while also writing novels.
His novel "Lean on Pete" was made into a film (starring Chloe Sevigny) and filmed in Portland. Another novel, "The Motel Life," was made into a movie starring Dakota Fanning.
Vlautin has always melded songwriting with nonfiction writing. The Delines have produced two albums ready to release. He's also still teaching writing remotely for Pacific University in Forest Grove.
He gets the most enjoyment in writing books.
"Novels are like kids. Whether they're good or not, I love each one of them or I try as hard as I can to love them," he said. "I'm really lucky to get to write novels. When I was younger, I'd get up at 4:30 a.m. and write till I went to work. Now I feel lucky that — I don't know if I have that stamina — I can write full time.
"The bottom can drop out, there's always a guy making something cooler or writing a better book."
He's also appreciative of playing in a band that people like. With The Delines, he plays guitar while Amy Boone sings. He likes the background aspect, as a self-described shy person who always enjoyed not being the center of attention.
The alt-country Richmond Fontaine band was together for 23 years. He thought of the band "as an old van. I was scared the wheels would come off," Vlautin said. Members parted in 2016, although two followed Vlautin to The Delines, and Vlautin started writing more soul ballads.
Writing songs and books at the same time has always felt natural to him. "Lean on Pete" was a "failed 8-minute ballad, but when I finished the song, I knew the song wasn't going to make it, but I realized that I could tell it in a novel better than a song."
Vlautin added: "What's tricky with music is the melody, you don't know where melody comes from. It's a mystery to me. No reason for it, never find it again. With writing, you're digging a ditch, you don't know where you're going and you have to do the work. I like that aspect of writing; for a novelist it's the grind, the tinkering, but with music every time you write a song that's halfway decent I feel like I got lucky, someone gave me a gift."
Meanwhile, Vlautin hopes that "The Night Always Comes" helps readers understand the plight of working-class people trying to make it in Portland. And, for them to realize that when you see homeless people and camps, not to "normalize it."
He said: "That kind of stuff shakes me to my core. The normalization of it, the accepting it as part of living in a city, is so heartbreaking to me. I've always loved Portland, but it's growing and growing fast because people realize how beautiful and successful of a city it is. Nobody can handle all the change well. It's taken some rough hits."
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