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Willy Vlautin: “I want to tell working-class stories”

We caught up with the 54-year-old author and musician to discuss gentrification and why the pandemic was a great time for creativity.

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Author and musician Willy Vlautin presents his new novel The Night Always Comes at ilb 2021. Photo: Lee Posey

Willy Vlautin is a 54-year-old author and musician from Portland, Oregon. He began writing songs as a child and books as a teenager, in a quest to find the stories he himself wanted to read. He now has several accolades – including the Oregon Book Award and the People’s Choice Award – under his belt, and two of his novels have been made into films. At ilb 2021, he presents his new novel The Night Always Comes (Nacht wird es immer in German) with an accompanying self-penned score. It tells the story of 30-year-old Lynette who’s desperately trying to buy the house her family lives in, gaining them some security in Vlautin’s gentrification-shaken home city.

So of course the first question is: What made you write this novel? Is there personal experience in it?

There are so many cities in the US undergoing extreme gentrification. In the city I live in, Portland, housing prices have gone up almost 5 times while minimum wage has only increased twice. I started worrying about that and wanted to tell the story of one family and the effects of gentrification on one family, and if they could survive this rapid change of their city where suddenly it’s become too expensive for working people.

And you’re releasing a novel and also a music album, right?

Yeah. Some novels of mine feel like music. I wrote a novel called Northline that felt like music so I wrote a soundtrack with it. Don’t skip out on me felt like music so I wrote a soundtrack. This one was different. This novel was so panicked and desperate that it didn’t feel like music. But I’m in a band called The Delines and the trumpet player brought in a ballad to practice that he had written, and it was such a beautiful song. The second he finished it, I said: “That’s Lynette [the main character]! That’s what she feels like!” And he let me name the song, which was very nice of him, but then I went home and the songs started coming. Because my friend, his name is Cory Gray, the trumpet player and keyboard player for The Delines, he kinda opened my mind to the music that should fit the book. So I wrote a bunch of songs, and he wrote a bunch of songs, and we put a soundtrack together. But that did not come out with the book here, it will come out later on.

Do you think one has to have the book and the music together so it makes more sense?

Nah. The only reason I do it is because if you read a novel, you usually only read it once. But if there’s music with it that fits, maybe you’ll like the records and the story stays alive a little bit longer. Because when you listen to the music, you think of the characters once in a while.

Is it hard to find funding or representation for this kind of project? Or do you just go to a record label and publishing house separately?

Well, it depends. Our band, we own our record — we have a small label that helps us. But I never worry about stuff like that. With my earlier novels, Northline and Don’t skip out on me, I just gave the music with the book because I thought they belonged together. So if it makes sense to give the music away, I’m fine with it. 

So if you bought the book, you got the soundtrack for free?

Yeah. This one is different ‘cause we didn’t do it at the same time. And also, because of Covid, we had time to make a record, but the book had already come out when I started writing songs for it. It was different. But my band had time because we weren’t touring, so we recorded more.

It’s not your first book about social issues. How do you see your role in society? Do you think of yourself as an activist?

I guess I’m a political writer in a lot of ways. I always wanted to write working-class stories about issues that meant something to me, or I was troubled by, or that I couldn’t figure out. In that way I’m political, I guess. So yes, The night always comes is a political novel.

Do you think this novel being in the world will change anything?

I mean, a novel can’t really change a person. The goal of a novel, or some novels, is empathy. Maybe when people read the novel they will look at characters like Lynette, and will be more understanding of the plight of the working-class people that get pushed out of their homes. But that’s a lot to ask of a small novel.

Do you have a solution you would like to see implemented for the housing problem? How would you go about it?

Well, it’s a complicated issue. Affordable housing would be first. In my city they talk about it, but they yet have to do that. I mean, it’s hard, affordable housing and developers don’t go together, you know what I mean? But it’s a complicated issue. But that would be a start, to build affordable housing for the working-class people. In my town they build tons and tons of apartments, but they are really expensive. I think they should have to build housing that is affordable. Developers should have to be accountable for that.

In Berlin, there’s going to be a referendum with the upcoming elections. We have a couple of housing companies that own a lot of houses here in Berlin, raising rent, not really taking care of the tenants… and now we’ll have a referendum that will take the apartments away from these apartments away from these companies so we can socialise them and have cheaper rent and more influence by the tenants. What do you think about that?

I mean, of course that’s good, right? It’s a tricky thing – you know, my book talks about that: the “American Dream” is home ownership. Because in owning a home, your rent doesn’t go up, you fix everything, you have power. So I think in that regard it’s becoming unaffordable for so many working-class people in American cities to buy homes, so you have to rely on landlords. So landlords should be accountable. It’s tricky.

Ok. What do you think which character in TNOC is most like yourself, and why?

Well, there’s not a lot of characters in the novel. The main character, Lynette, I relate to her a lot. I like her a lot. I think of her as a beat-up, ragged sort of saint. But I don’t think I’m a lot like her. I understand her, I think, but I’m not like her. There are characters that are more like me than others, and there are parts of me that are like her. 

For example…?

She struggles, mentally. I understand that. She doesn’t give up, and I understand that. She tries really hard, but she might not be the smartest person.

She also has a disabled brother, right? Do you have someone like that in your life, or how did you research that?

I was interested in the economy of your city changing but you’re barely surviving anyways. Every family has burdens, whether it’s a sick relative, a disabled brother, a death, bills, mental health problems, physical health problems… everyone’s family has burdens. So here’s this family that’s already burdened and broken to a degree, and then all of a sudden their stability is shifted because the rent has gone up, housing prices are going up, but they haven’t changed. How a dysfunctional family survives gentrification like that. In regards to Kenny (the brother), I wanted a mother and a daughter that have been together longer than they should have been. I wanted the idea of capitalism versus community.

Lynette sees her family losing power: they have the opportunity to buy their house and the family breaks apart because the mother doesn’t want to be with Lynette any more, she chooses herself over their goal to buy this house. Now, she has justification for it, but I was interested in the idea that she chooses herself over her son and her daughter. I was interested in the effect of greed on society. If our leaders think capitalism is god and that greed is okay, being rich is the most important thing – how does that look for the working class, the community?

Can I ask how you live? Are you also renting an apartment?

No, I own a place. It was a big deal for me. I was always brought up to believe that if you could own a house, you had made it in life.

You “made it” through writing?

No, I was a house-painter. And it was affordable for a working person 20 years ago. It was really cheap then. And now even a couple of two house-painters would struggle to buy that same little house.

Okay. So, last question: How did the pandemic impact you writing, or maybe your look on society?

I mean, for my writing, it was great! I didn’t travel, I stayed home, so I just worked. I didn’t have any engagements. It was the longest I’d been home in 20 years, so I liked it. As for society, like everyone, it makes you scared. I was scared about my band, if I’d ever get to play a gig again. You worry about your family and their safety, of course. You start worrying about money, that you won’t be able to survive if you can’t tour. That was how I’d made my money, and that all stopped – for the last year and a half, I didn’t make any money from touring. It was scary. But it was fun to get to work every day and not worry about stopping and starting a project because of touring. I just got up in the morning and worked, it was great.

So you wrote the novel during the pandemic, and also did the album?

Yeah. I had a lot of free time. (laughs) And it was nice, I had never seen a complete season where I live. I had never seen a spring, or summer, or fall, or winter in its entirety, because I was always gone. And now I got to see that, and it was nice.

Do you think you’re going to write a pandemic novel next?

Nah… But it’s scary to be around people that don’t believe in it or don’t take it seriously. I didn’t think it would be a struggle here, but it seems like Germany struggles like the US struggles with people not following the rules, and getting the vaccination rates up… it’s just tough. You have people it seems in so many places that are wary of the vaccine, they get tired of wearing masks. And the news of it changes so rapidly, because it’s new. It’s tough… It was also weird for my wife and me that suddenly I was home all the time, when she used to have the house to herself for weeks at a time. But it was fun! I think some couples probably had a hard time. I’d assume a lot of couples fell apart… and others had babies.