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In 1996, the now-defunct No Depression magazine announced that Willy Vlautin, co-founder of the Richmond Fontaine band, had “relocated to Portland from the musical wasteland of Reno, Nevada.” Although the Reno native has not returned to the Biggest Little City to live, the Northern Nevada burg is far from a wasteland to Vlautin given how it has shaped his career.
More than a decade after he left Nevada, Vlautin’s music has received high acclaim for its unique alternative-country sound, and his back-to-back novels, The Motel Life and Northline, have been honored for their simple and gravelly depictions of people surviving challenging conditions. He writes his songs and novels almost exclusively about Nevada, and the conflicted relationship that his characters have with Reno and the surrounding landscape.
Vlautin, who spoke with Caleb Cage in July, is a 2007 recipient of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame Silver Pen Award, granted to successful mid-career writers.
Q Your music and writing is based largely on Reno and the outlying desert, so why did you move to Portland?
A I played in bands in Reno until I was almost 27, but there wasn’t really a market for the kind of music I was playing—depressing country and folk songs didn’t seem to pack in the crowds. A large part of the reason I stayed in Reno was because the writing teachers at UNR were so nice to me. I played every dive bar in Reno for years, and it was the same five people showing up. I had to move somewhere, and I wanted to stay in the West.
Q What sort of people influenced your writings and songs about Reno and the rest of the state?
A My biggest writing influences have always been guys like Raymond Carver, Larry Brown, Jim Thompson, and William Kennedy. Kennedy embraces Albany, New York to the point Albany becomes its own character. When I was working on The Motel Life and Northline I was hoping to do the same with Reno. What inspired me about Nevada was just living there—and as a kid driving around and camping. My mom was a Basque food fanatic so we’d hit all the Basque restaurants in Northern Nevada, and both my dad and stepdad loved to drive around in the desert. Both would go on about how nice it was, so that rubbed off on me. And then when I turned 21, I fell in love with Reno and the bar/gambling culture.
Q What surprised you most last time you visited The Biggest Little City?
A I come back so often that it’s hard to say. I guess just the growth. The major difference between now and when I left is downtown Reno. It’s made a huge comeback. When I left it was on the slide. It felt a lot rougher.
Q Rural Nevada plays a significant role in your writing and music. Do you have a favorite place to go when you are by yourself or when you are touring the state?
A If I had the time and the dough I’d spend most of my year driving around Northern Nevada. It’s my favorite area. I’ve always liked the Black Rock Desert. Jarbidge is a great area, too. My band plays in Winnemucca once in a while, and it’s always a great time. Another great area is outside of Belmont—the Monitor Range is really something.
Q What kinds of reactions do you get from people when they hear you describe Reno in your music and books?
A Most of the Reno residents who I’ve met said they thought I hit the rougher side of Reno pretty well. I hope so. I wasted enough years in bars so I’d hope I’d at least get that right. In the first two novels I was interested in a certain side of Reno, but the city is more than motels and bars.
Q What’s your favorite line about Reno or Nevada in a book or song not written by you?
A Any time someone mentions Reno or a town in Nevada, that’s great. But right now the one that comes to mind is by Tom Waits. “I’m driving all the way to Reno on the wrong side of the road.” That’s a cool line.
Q Are there any other writers who you think capture the real essence of Reno or Nevada?
A My favorite Nevada writer is probably Robert Laxalt. I also like The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. I had a harder time with City of Trembling Leaves and Track of the Cat, but I’ve re-read The Ox-Bow Incident a handful of times and really think it’s something.
Q I hear The Motel Life has been optioned for a movie.
A Actually both novels have been optioned for movies. If they’ll be made I don’t know. I don’t know much about that world. I just know I liked both of the guys who bought the books. Guillermo Arriaga bought The Motel Life and a guy from New York, Jeff Sharp, bought Northline.
Q Are you planning any more books about Reno?
A I hope to write at least one more novel set in the area and also a book of short stories. Reno’s always a great inspiration. When I’m having a hard time figuring out a story sometimes I come back to Reno and sit in the downtown library for a week or so. That place has never let me down.
Q Do you think you’ll ever live in Nevada again?
A Over the years I’ve tried to move back. I’ve always wanted to own a house in Reno by Wells Avenue, but I haven’t ever quite had the money to do it, but I hope to some day. Reno would be a great town to be an old man in. Also, I wouldn’t mind living north of Winnemucca in Paradise Valley. And if I lose my mind a bit and want to live way out [laughs], I’ll try to get a place in the Monitor Range.
WORTH A READ