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Novelist Willy Vlautin On Inspiration For 'The Free'

Novelist and Musician Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin calls his fourth novel, The Free, “a distress call to the patron saint of nurses.”

Vlautin is a novelist and songwriter for Richmond Fontaine (and more recently, The Delines) who writes unflinching pieces about working class people that are also full of heart. Talking to Vlautin, a native of Reno and a driven storyteller who’s been known to spend a lot of time writing at the Portland Meadows racetrack, you feel like he’s as open a book as one of his page-burners that can’t be put down.

“I write all my books just for me, you know, and I wrote it [The Free] as a distress call saying, ‘Will you remember all these vets who come back with brain injuries? Will you remember the nurses who see such hard things day after day? And will you remember the guy who doesn’t have healthcare, and whose kid was born with so many problems that it busts up marriages? Remember those kind of people and look after ’em if you can.’”

Vlautin is a skillful storyteller, so his distress call comes in narrative. The Free weaves together those three stories by spinning them all out of a group home for the ill.

Leroy Kervin, a veteran of the war in Iraq who’s suffered a brain trauma, starts the novel with a shocking reaction to clarity, and spends the rest of it retreating inside his own science fiction/action-adventure fantasy. Freddie McCall, a worker in the home, is so financially desperate from his poor pay and his alimony and his sick son that he turns to alternatives that, in Vlautin’s hands, feel authentic and downright reasonable. 

And then there’s Leroy’s nurse, Pauline Hawkins. Pauline steals the book, and Vlautin admits that’s probably not an accident. “I always wanted, before I die, to write one good story about a nurse. ’Cause in my opinion, if you’ve ever been in a hospital by yourself, overnight, and you’ve had surgery and you feel horrible, it’s really lonely. It maybe is the most lonely a guy ever feels.”

Vlautin recalls the time he spent in a hospital room with three men who were all much older and worse off than he was. Vlautin was lonely, with no family around and a little lost in the middle of the night, when a nurse walked in. “She just looked at me with those eyes of like, ‘Man, I’ve seen it all. You’re gonna be OK – you’re not alone.’”

In The Free, nurse Pauline shields herself from heartbreak while compulsively caring for others. But her shield comes down when she meets Jo, a runaway who comes under Pauline’s care after she develops an abscess — a direct result of needles and homelessness and the savage boys who took advantage of her. (Watch the video at the top of the article to see Vlautin read the passage where Pauline and Jo first begin to talk.)

Pauline Hawkins is such a rich character, she inspired Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers to write a song about her. It’s one of Vlautin’s favorite bands, and he beams at the eponymous tribute to his made-up nurse.

“It’s like finding a thousand bucks on the street — they can’t take it away! Maybe he’ll regret it, but it’s on the record.”

To learn more about Willy Vlautin, watch the Oregon Art Beat story.

Willy Vlautin novelist musician

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Novelist and Musician Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin is a novelist and musician with Portland band Richmond Fontaine. His novel "Lean on Pete" won two Oregon Book Awards: the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and a Readers' Choice Award. Vlautin writes a story into every song, and his prose has been called an elegy of pain, sorrow, beauty and hope.

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Learn about the legacy of the famous William Stafford on Oregon Art Beat on OPB TV airing Thursday, January 16th at 8pm. Details: All poems Copyright 1954, © 1960, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1973, 1977, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1998 by William Stafford and the Estate of William Stafford. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of the William Stafford Family Trust.

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