While Don’t Skip Out on Me is a tragic story, the heart and the humanity at the core of the novel carries the reader through the tough times, just as in life.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Vlautin via email over the course of several weeks. I even got to meet him once: a stubble-framed grin, a Western shirt, and a slight wince in the corner of his kind eyes. Some writers wear the weight of their novels like a cloak. Others write from a set of feelings they’ve carried with them their whole life. Reading this book, talking with Vlautin, I get the feeling he’s the latter type.
COLIN WINNETTE: For a novel that’s not really about music, music is all over this book. There is Horace’s relationship to metal, which changes as he does — or tries to. And you’ve actually put together a soundtrack for the novel, written by you, performed by your band, Richmond Fontaine. How did you think about the music going in?
WILLY VLAUTIN: In the book, there’s the mention of metal bands like Slayer, Metallica, Pantera, et cetera. Those are Horace Hopper’s favorite bands. He’s half-white and half-Paiute, but has no real ethnic identity. Yet the music he is drawn to is more or less angry white male music. When he decides to become Mexican he feels guilty for listening to them. He feels he should listen to only Mexican music if he’s going to become Mexican. He’s just so damn lost. In the end, he feels isolated even from his favorite band, Slayer, and it kills him to stop listening to them but out of ambition and shame he does.
For me, Nevada always feels like music. So when I began this book the songs appeared. Horace Hopper and Mr. Reese felt like music from the first page. So I just kept writing instrumental songs. Finally I decided Horace and Mr. Reese needed their own soundtrack. Luckily the guys in RF were nice enough help. It was a blast. From the beginning of Richmond Fontaine, I’d selfishly wanted to make a full-on pedal steel record, and finally, without much arm twisting, we did. We recorded a desert record in a rare snowstorm in Portland.
When did you start playing music, and what kept you going?
I began writing songs when I was 12. I liked disappearing into music, and by writing my own tunes I could disappear into a world specifically designed for what I needed. Escapism. I got hooked on it. Writing novels is a way to disappear for years, instead of moments like with a song. So I gravitated toward that as I grew older. As a kid, I never wanted to be a rock star or even really play live but I did want to be in a band. I wanted to be in a band that had a van and camaraderie, and we could drive around and escape normal life. On and off I’ve had that for long stretches, so I’ve been pretty lucky.
This is a great boxing novel. You handle the fighter’s internal ambition well, that struggle — but the fights themselves are also super compelling to read. The action. Were you ever a boxer? How did it find its way into the book?
I grew up watching boxing. Reno was a decent fight town for a while. I like the idea of it, the discipline of it. When I was a kid I had a picture of Colin Jones by my bed. He was a Welsh boxer who fought once in Reno. During the time of that fight he used to get up and run miles to a job digging graves by hand. After work he would run home and then train. I always wanted to be that tough, I’d dream about being that tough, but I was too busy listening to Yes records or Japan or Springsteen. I was too much a wreck, I was just a king daydreamer. I liked the idea of not being scared, the idea of digging graves and running and being somebody. Of being a champion of something. Colin Jones was a big inspiration for a while. I subscribed to The Ring magazine up until a few years ago. For maybe 20 years I had it. I love reading about boxing. It’s pure tragedy. The majority of the stories are: a kid brought up in violence, gets obsessed with boxing, finds a trainer — a father figure of sorts — starts winning, gets love and money, and then it slowly or quickly vanishes. And then the boxer’s left with nothing but a broken mind. I’m drawn to those stories, I always have been. That’s why Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez is in the novel. That’s boxing.
You often write about such hard-working people. What draws you to those stories? What kind of work did you do growing up?
I always worked labor sorta jobs. Not for any reason except that I could get them and I didn’t have confidence to get anything else. I was also extremely shy until I was nearly 30. You never had to be too social in those types of jobs. I just got what I could. I worked in warehouses and trucking companies until I was in my late 20s, and then became a house painter. That was the best job I’d ever had, because after four years of it I went out on my own and started my own business and then I could work half-days or come in late if I was working on a novel. Early on I quit a lot of jobs to work on novels that I never even showed anyone. It didn’t make sense, but I loved writing them and didn’t have the confidence to show them around. So if I had the money I’d quit a job and write a big junk of a novel and then find another job. Not much of a plan.
But the thing is I never liked manual labor and to this day I break out into a cold sweat passing warehouses. I just couldn’t figure out how to work a job that wasn’t like that. In terms of my writing, I just always wanted to write stories where a guy working in a warehouse was a hero. Or your favorite checker at the grocery store was the hero. Why can’t a janitor be a hero? Or even a house painter? Even a guy who drives a forklift and he’s not even that good at it — why can’t he be the focus in a novel? He deserves a place in a book, doesn’t he?
I loved that element of this book. That it deals with that question: what if the hero isn’t all that good at what they’re trying to do? Not comically terrible, just not that good. You’re clear from the beginning that Horace is going to have a rough time of it, and he might not make it. How do you go about hooking readers to a character like that?
Horace isn’t a gifted boxer, but he has courage. The problem is that he freezes in the ring, he panics. He’s flawed. He overcomes this to a degree, but it’s that idea of ambition. Even knowing he’s not that great of a boxer, he moves forward and tries to be the best boxer he can be. It’s tragic. When he should pull out, he doubles down. That’s why I like him so much.
It makes it all the more painful, that he’s got this spark, because it still doesn’t necessarily mean he’s got a shot. There’s a lot working against him.
The other problem is when you’re not good, the people that will work with you aren’t good either. Horace gets himself in a fix. It’s the idea that if you’re not exceedingly gifted in any real way, people bypass you, overlook you. They often don’t help you, or they just use you. It’s only yourself and the people who love you, who actually care what happens to you. And the people who love you just want you to be safe, they don’t care about your ambition. Mr. Reese doesn’t know anything about boxing except that it could ruin Horace’s life. He loves the kid, no matter what he is. It’s only Horace who believes he has to be more. And he does this purely out of the idea that to get love he must be someone worth loving, he must be a champion in something. It was a bad idea and it costs him.
Something this book really captures is all the different ways people depend on one another, for just about everything: a place to lay their head, guidance, support, money, a ride to a boxing match. Everyone’s leaning on someone in some way, or, in some cases, hurting themselves by refusing to. Like you said, Horace feels he has to become someone worth loving. He doesn’t know how to accept the love that’s already there.
One of the ideas of the book is: Can you fix a broken person? Can you heal a broken person? Can you make the scars of someone disappear enough so they can get by? Can the love of Reese’s help get Horace into adulthood in one piece? Horace’s isolation comes from shame and self-hatred. His own parents have abandoned him. His white grandmother told him he should be ashamed of who he is, which is part Paiute. There’s nothing he can do about these things. They just weigh on him. He doesn’t feel that he fits anywhere. Not even with his favorite band. Not even with the old man, Mr. Reese. But the Reeses, who genuinely love and care about Horace, want to give him everything they have both spiritually and monetarily. They dream about him being their son. But sometimes even that isn’t enough. When you walk around any big American city you see how many broken people there are. People living on the streets. It’s staggering. Just staggering. It stops me in my tracks. That was the initial idea behind Don’t Skip Out on Me. The difficulty of fixing broken people.
Horace is trying to prove himself, striking out on his own and cutting himself off from a home that has opened itself to him, which leaves Mr. Reese to confront the fact that he’s too old to handle the ranch on his own. You mentioned Horace’s isolation, and it got me thinking that everyone’s dealing with isolation in some way in this book, right?
I was interested in the idea that in isolation we can build up who we are, the way we wish we were, the way we perceive our best selves. Like me lying in bed looking at Colin Jones saying, “Someday I’m gonna be a guy so tough that I’m never scared and I’ll run five miles to work, dig graves, and then become a boxing champion.” But when the next morning comes and it’s cold as shit outside and I’m failing algebra and biology, then really more than anything I just want to crawl back in bed and listen to Rush and read comic books. So I don’t go running. I don’t dig graves. I just daydream and hope that somehow, magically, I’ll stumble into being that tough.
Horace is different. He’s the isolated dreamer who is tough enough to actually get out there and try to be someone. He’s hoping his ambition will fill in the loneliness and self-hatred he feels toward himself. In a way, the Reeses’ love creates this ambition. If he is a champion, he’s worth their love. He’ll be able to accept it if he has something of value to give back. Mr. Reese knows his days on the ranch are numbered, but his wife doesn’t want to leave so he’s stuck. He knows Horace is damaged and he wants to help him but doesn’t know how. He’s just an old man that’s trying to save the people he loves as well as the place he helped build.
Life on that ranch reads as tough. People work it past the point of what their bodies and minds can handle. Throughout the novel, you write about working at something until you just can’t manage it anymore — hard work and the limits of the body. What do we gain from living that kind of life? What made you want to write about it?
I’ve always worked manual-labor-based jobs, but I never glamorized it or embraced it. Once I got on a stucco crew and had to carry five-gallon buckets of cement up scaffolding all day. It was an awful job, so damn hard, and the guys just smoked weed and listened to metal. They weren’t that cool either, and I can’t smoke weed and I get tired of metal. But I didn’t think, man, I need a different job. I just wanted the easiest job on the crew, which was getting the concrete mix right. Being on the mixer. Luckily one of the guys got too stoned and fucked up the mix and I got the job of being on the ground and hanging out by the mixer. To me, that was success. I was just never able to see outside of it. It’s a fault of mine. So I write about that sorta work ’cause it’s the only work I know. But man oh man, I’ve never liked it.
As far as ranches, I just love them. I always have. To live on a Nevada ranch seems like heaven to me. I have three horses. I love them more than anything, but to be honest I’m like a junky. I like to disappear. So I spend most of my free time disappearing into a novel. I’m ashamed of it sometimes, but it’s how I’ve gotten by. Bands and music are camaraderie and friendship, but novels are escapism. Peace from the real world. Even horses aren’t as big a pull as disappearing into a novel.
Colin Winnette is the author of several books, including Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio) and Coyote (Les Figues). His latest novel, The Job of the Wasp, was released by Soft Skull Press in January 2018. He lives in San Francisco.