Willy Vlautin Author


Willy Vlautin portrait
Image: Adam Levey

Every yellowing trinket and scrap of paper crammed inside the battered wooden writing space that Willy Vlautin calls “The Shed” ( The author is pictured, left, outside his Scappoose writing shed ) is a beloved piece of his personal history: from the racks of battered vinyl and the memorable quotes from authors like William Kennedy or John Steinbeck stuck on the wall, to inspirational photos of drunken troubadour Shane McGowan and ill-fated starlet Carol Lombard. But the most impressive bit of archaeology is the glittering marquee that once hung above the Last Dollar, Vlautin’s favorite—but now defunct—watering hole in his hometown of Reno, Nevada. All it took to acquire was a 12-pack of beer, offered in trade to a Reno bartender who wanted the sign taken off his hands. Of course, the gin-slinger experienced a little barterer’s remorse soon after. “I said I’d leave it to him in my will,” Vlautin says. “So if anything fishy happens to me, you know who’s responsible.”

The desert in general, and the seedy folks who live there in particular, have played major roles in each of Vlautin’s novels, The Motel Life and Northline, both of which have elicited rave reviews from the New York Times and the Washington Post , have become best sellers, and have been optioned for films. It’s an effectively bleak playground for his characters—normal folks knuckled under by hard times. But, although the 40-year-old still pines for the fading glitz of Reno, from a literary standpoint he’s moving on.


makers vlautin
Image: Adam Levey

The manuscript currently sitting on his desk chooses the green grass oval and churned sod of Portland Meadows as its backdrop instead. It’s called Lean On Pete, about a kid who ends up living at the weathered North Portland racetrack, one of Vlautin’s favorite hangouts and creative-rut-busting spots.

“I wanted to name the book after a Meadows horse,” says Vlautin, who will preview his new work in November as part of Portland’s Wordstock literature festival. “I went down when Pete was racing. I thought, If he wins I’ll name the book after him.” Pete won, and after Vlautin tried and failed to jump into the winner’s circle photo, the horse’s owner expressed mock concern about the author’s choice of inspiration. “He said, ‘You can’t tell if that horse is gonna run or be a piece of shit,’” Vlautin says, “which I thought was a perfect description of the book.” —BB