The characters in Willy Vlautin's quietly brilliant new novel, The Free, embody the embattled middle class: they're wounded (physically, emotionally, financially), they're just getting by, they're hardworking.
Of course, the title is comentary in itself. None of them is free. Not the night-shift worker at the veteran's home, who's lost his home and family; not the brain-damaged Iraq War vet; not his nurse, who's also caring for her mentally ill father. They're the people who "make the rich guys richer."
Yet, strangely, the book is infused with hope. Unwilling to give up, they fight, with what little strength they've got left. Like this exchange:
Wounded vet (in a dream): "You know, my uncle said a person can only see so many bad things before it ruins him."
Girlfriend: "I hope that's not true."
With so many beautifully sad and sadly beautiful moments in this book, I still can't figure out how Vlautin did it... He made me believe they were all going to be okay.
This book started as a series of issues I couldn’t stop thinking about, worrying about. The increasing expense of healthcare and how that affects the working class, soldiers coming home war with long term injuries, and the difficulties of taking care of someone with a long term illness or injury. All heavy and difficult subjects and the book about killed me as I was so worried about getting things right. There’s a lot of moving parts in this one, three stories going on at the same time. That being said, I always try to cut myself some slack here and there. I put Leroy and Jeanette on a boat in one of the most beautiful places in the world, I put in the great Fado singer, Amália Rodrigues, and I’ve always had a thing for nurses so I put in a pretty great nurse, Pauline Hawkins.
I dedicated the book to the patron saint of nurses, Camillus de Lellis. I wrote it for him almost as a distress call in hopes he would look after the sorts of people who are in the book: the wounded soldier, Leroy, the nurse, Pauline, and Freddie the working class guy who’s drowning in medical debt. Camillus de Lellis was a remarkable man. He was a soldier who was an alcoholic and gambleholic. He suffered a leg wound that would never heal and he ended up destitute in a pauper’s hospital. After a time he became an orderly, then a nurse and then a priest. He helped start what we now know as the Red Cross.
As a fan I tend to like novels that follow one character through a journey. Often I’m pulled out of the story when it switches points of view. My greatest dread as a fan is when I start wondering why the writer did this or that. Even thinking about the writer isn’t a good thing for me as a fan. But this story needed the three main characters and so I worked as hard as I could to make sure the transitions from character to character went as smoothly as possible. I always try to write about things that are important to me, things that haunt me or scare me or worry me. Things I can’t shake. This book is the same as my others in that regard but the subject matter was more out of my comfort zone. I write about a brain damaged soldier, health care in the US, and in some degrees religion. All heavy and heated subjects, so it was a difficult book. It took me just six months to put down the first draft but then I spent three years editing it. I think I did thirteen full re-writes before I even showed it to anyone.
I have it made in that regard. I rent an office in a part of Portland called St. Johns. The room is on the second floor and two of the windows look out across the street to a bar called Slims. It opens first thing in the morning so I can watch people drink and smoke for breakfast but I don’t have to. It’s the best. The room has free heat and I have a desk and a couch and the side window looks out at an old movie theater. The street outside has five old man bars, a bookstore, a taqueria, a record store, and donut shop. It’s heaven. I always write pretty good there, to me I feel like the luckiest person alive when I get to work there.
I’ve never been able to write to music. I day dream too much for it to work. I just start drifting off when there’s a song I like playing. But even so a few years back I made a loop of instrumental music, atmospheric mood music. Not quite whale sounds but close. I wrote an entire novel to this 45 minute loop and it was a blast. It was probably the most fun I ever had writing, but the poor novel was so damaged and beat up and off kilter that I pulled the plug on it after the first edit. It had too many holes and dents to save. Like my mind when I listen to music, the story just sort of drifted off into the ether. It was fun as hell to write that way, but I learned my lesson.
For me it’s all about not getting tired. I can go pretty good until 2 or 3 PM and then I start falling asleep. If I’m not doing good then I call it a day but if I’m on a hot streak I hit the nearby donut shop for coffee and donuts and then I plow on through until I can’t think anymore.
I used to not be able to read anything similar to what I was working on, but I’ve changed over the years. Now I can read most anything and still stay focused on my work. But every book I write, towards the end of the editing process, I read both IRONWEED by William Kennedy and FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner. Both of those books are my guide. I read those and realize I still have a lot more work to do. They make me want to try harder and my hope is always to get closer to writing a book as good as either of those.
When I’m writing fiction I try to live pretty clean. I don’t usually drink, I try to eat better and go running. It’s a long haul writing a novel. I spend so many hours sitting in a room that I have to keep my shit together. I try not to look at the internet but it’s hard not to as it seems like I’m always looking something up. When I used to write at the horse track the temptation was that I wanted to bet every race they had going on the TV’s. Gambling’s all about discipline though. I only let myself bet four races a day. Most times I was betting to break even and buy myself lunch for free but at times I’d get carried away. Nothing like being broke, having a bad day writing, and then losing fifty bucks ‘cause some long shot nosed out your horse.
>See all of Vlautin's books
>Listen to this free audiobook from Audible, in which Vlautin reads excerpts from The Free and discusses his characters--accompanied by Vlautin's own music.