Stories That Make Us Feel Less Alone

Last night Gideon Coe had an interview with a really unusual  artist, Willy Vlautin of the band Richmond Fontain, an alt folk group known for the strong lyrics he writes.

Here is their We Used to Think the Freeway sounded like a river:


But he has also published four novels and numerous short stories, which makes him rather extraordinary. He talked about how he tried to write punk rock country ballads but could never get the witty one liner for the ending. Then he discovered the Australian singer Paul Kelly who had written a song based on a Raymond Carver short story and somehow that clicked.

Here’s Paul Kelly, with To Her Door

He took to writing semi catchy songs, story telling ballads that ramble on for 8 minutes and drive everyone to want to strangle him. He spoke of how he writes stories like a madman, obsessively. He has written loads of novels from the age of 23 to 36, but just threw them into a closet, but when he was in London he had just finished one and met a friend who had an agent who read it and got it published.

The fudging of literary/music boundaries goes further, as a band that he loves, Drive By Truckers, have recently written a song based on a character from one of his books,which he is delighted about.

He claims to have lost the confidence gene when he was growing up – kids always have it. He claims to be a janitor in the world of writing, but maybe that’s good because it makes you work harder. He hopes to write one great piece of literature before he dies.

Coe described his book Free as a wonderful piece of work, and was holding back reading his latest as that would make him want to read the next one, which is high praise indeed.

The story of Free is it is a dedication to the patron saint of nurses,  and inspired by the life of – I think he said Camelia Silelis, an alcoholic and addictive gambler who ended up in a pauper’s hospital, but founded the Red Cross. I’m a bit confused about this as the Red Cross was founded by a Swiss man, Henry Dunant. But the book is dedicated to and about soldiers in all the wars the US has started, of families with long term sick kids, and the kinds of issues that keep us awake at night, which is a lovely notion.

Coe commented on how he seems to write about ordinary America, though Coe has no idea what that is. He asked if he is always looking for characters and ideas, but Willy said he is just living. He wakes up in the middle of the night and a certain story just sticks with you. He has always loved stories of the working class. He read all of Ian Fleming, but when he discovered John Steinbeck and Ireland’s Roddy Doyle he realised that that was where his real passion lay. They tell stories about your neighbours, about you because they make you feel less alone. He claimed his songs and books are mostly dark, so he will never get a cadillac, or live anywhere but in his own neighbourhood.

He sounds like one of the nicest and most contented people on the planet. Maybe that’s why people want to strangle him.

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