Escapism: Colin Winnette Talks to Willy Vlautin About His New Novel, “Don’t Skip Out on Me”

Reno was a decent fight town for a while. Finally I decided Horace and Mr. That it deals with that question: what if the hero isn’t all that good at what they’re trying to do? 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. 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. Some writers wear the weight of their novels like a cloak. I always have. During the time of that fight he used to get up and run miles to a job digging graves by hand. I just daydream and hope that somehow, magically, I’ll stumble into being that tough. When did you start playing music, and what kept you going? ¤
COLIN WINNETTE: For a novel that’s not really about music, music is all over this book. I just wanted the easiest job on the crew, which was getting the concrete mix right. Of being a champion of something. If he is a champion, he’s worth their love. 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. He’s just an old man that’s trying to save the people he loves as well as the place he helped build. Bands and music are camaraderie and friendship, but novels are escapism. 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. That’s why I like him so much. I always worked labor sorta jobs. He lives in San Francisco. 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. Not for any reason except that I could get them and I didn’t have confidence to get anything else. It was a blast. And the people who love you just want you to be safe, they don’t care about your ambition. You often write about such hard-working people. It’s tragic. Peace from the real world. How did you think about the music going in? They often don’t help you, or they just use you. He’s just so damn lost. His white grandmother told him he should be ashamed of who he is, which is part Paiute. So I spend most of my free time disappearing into a novel. Yet the music he is drawn to is more or less angry white male music. I began writing songs when I was 12. 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. I’ve always worked manual-labor-based jobs, but I never glamorized it or embraced it. 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. Reese to confront the fact that he’s too old to handle the ranch on his own. His latest novel, The Job of the Wasp, was released by Soft Skull Press in January 2018. After work he would run home and then train. Like you said, Horace feels he has to become someone worth loving. So I write about that sorta work ’cause it’s the only work I know. Reese doesn’t know anything about boxing except that it could ruin Horace’s life. What made you want to write about it? Colin Jones was a big inspiration for a while. They dream about him being their son. I like the idea of it, the discipline of it. I was just never able to see outside of it. You handle the fighter’s internal ambition well, that struggle — but the fights themselves are also super compelling to read. Life on that ranch reads as tough. When he should pull out, he doubles down. It stops me in my tracks. For maybe 20 years I had it. It’s staggering. His own parents have abandoned him. I like to disappear. Horace Hopper and Mr. Reese. People living on the streets. Reese felt like music from the first page. But I didn’t think, man, I need a different job. 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. 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. Mr. This is a great boxing novel. Not comically terrible, just not that good. It was an awful job, so damn hard, and the guys just smoked weed and listened to metal. I worked in warehouses and trucking companies until I was in my late 20s, and then became a house painter. I’m ashamed of it sometimes, but it’s how I’ve gotten by. 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 even with the old man, Mr. I subscribed to The Ring magazine up until a few years ago. There’s a lot working against him. Vlautin writes with patience, tenderness, and a sharp eye toward the subtle things that can wear a person down — the fights we don’t know we’re losing until it’s already too late. To live on a Nevada ranch seems like heaven to me. WILLY VLAUTIN: In the book, there’s the mention of metal bands like Slayer, Metallica, Pantera, et cetera. There is Horace’s relationship to metal, which changes as he does — or tries to. FEBRUARY 22, 2018

DON’T SKIP OUT ON ME, the latest novel by Richmond Fontaine frontman Willy Vlautin, is a boxing novel, a ranch novel, a coming-of-age novel, and an “I’m getting too old for this shit” novel. Not even with his favorite band. I liked the idea of not being scared, the idea of digging graves and running and being somebody. I love them more than anything, but to be honest I’m like a junky. So when I began this book the songs appeared. In a way, the Reeses’ love creates this ambition. There’s nothing he can do about these things. What do we gain from living that kind of life? Not much of a plan. When you walk around any big American city you see how many broken people there are. It’s a story about people who work hard, people who live hard, and people who do both. Can you heal a broken person? Reese needed their own soundtrack. Escapism. We recorded a desert record in a rare snowstorm in Portland. Writing novels is a way to disappear for years, instead of moments like with a song. On and off I’ve had that for long stretches, so I’ve been pretty lucky. Just staggering. It’s a fault of mine. So I don’t go running. And then the boxer’s left with nothing but a broken mind. He doesn’t feel that he fits anywhere. He’s flawed. 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. But the Reeses, who genuinely love and care about Horace, want to give him everything they have both spiritually and monetarily. 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. People work it past the point of what their bodies and minds can handle. Reese knows his days on the ranch are numbered, but his wife doesn’t want to leave so he’s stuck. Can the love of Reese’s help get Horace into adulthood in one piece? The problem is that he freezes in the ring, he panics. Were you ever a boxer? Can you make the scars of someone disappear enough so they can get by? 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? I just couldn’t figure out how to work a job that wasn’t like that. I had the pleasure of interviewing Vlautin via email over the course of several weeks. Horace gets himself in a fix. But beyond all that, it’s a novel about the different ways human beings come to rely on one another, as well as the hardships we face when helping one another is still not enough. Or even a house painter? I got hooked on it. He overcomes this to a degree, but it’s that idea of ambition. But the thing is I never liked manual labor and to this day I break out into a cold sweat passing warehouses. I was also extremely shy until I was nearly 30. I loved that element of this book. It’s only yourself and the people who love you, who actually care what happens to you. It was a bad idea and it costs him. He feels he should listen to only Mexican music if he’s going to become Mexican. He loves the kid, no matter what he is. I have three horses. That’s boxing. When I was a kid I had a picture of Colin Jones by my bed. Horace is different. The action. As far as ranches, I just love them. For me, Nevada always feels like music. Mr. Those are Horace Hopper’s favorite bands. The other problem is when you’re not good, the people that will work with you aren’t good either. You never had to be too social in those types of jobs. I’m drawn to those stories, I always have been. It’s only Horace who believes he has to be more. Horace’s isolation comes from shame and self-hatred. You’re clear from the beginning that Horace is going to have a rough time of it, and he might not make it. When he decides to become Mexican he feels guilty for listening to them. Others write from a set of feelings they’ve carried with them their whole life. 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. He’s the isolated dreamer who is tough enough to actually get out there and try to be someone. 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? So I just kept writing instrumental songs. Reading this book, talking with Vlautin, I get the feeling he’s the latter type. 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. And you’ve actually put together a soundtrack for the novel, written by you, performed by your band, Richmond Fontaine. Once I got on a stucco crew and had to carry five-gallon buckets of cement up scaffolding all day. Even knowing he’s not that great of a boxer, he moves forward and tries to be the best boxer he can be. He deserves a place in a book, doesn’t he? I don’t dig graves. Even horses aren’t as big a pull as disappearing into a novel. How do you go about hooking readers to a character like that? They weren’t that cool either, and I can’t smoke weed and I get tired of metal. That was the initial idea behind Don’t Skip Out on Me. Luckily the guys in RF were nice enough help. He was a Welsh boxer who fought once in Reno. Being on the mixer. It didn’t make sense, but I loved writing them and didn’t have the confidence to show them around. He’s hoping his ambition will fill in the loneliness and self-hatred he feels toward himself. It’s pure tragedy. I grew up watching boxing. 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. He’ll be able to accept it if he has something of value to give back. It’s the idea that if you’re not exceedingly gifted in any real way, people bypass you, overlook you. But sometimes even that isn’t enough. Everyone’s leaning on someone in some way, or, in some cases, hurting themselves by refusing to. The difficulty of fixing broken people. To me, that was success. 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. I just got what I could. Horace isn’t a gifted boxer, but he has courage. ¤
Colin Winnette is the author of several books, including Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio) and Coyote (Les Figues). He knows Horace is damaged and he wants to help him but doesn’t know how. He’s half-white and half-Paiute, but has no real ethnic identity. How did it find its way into the book? 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. Why can’t a janitor be a hero? You mentioned Horace’s isolation, and it got me thinking that everyone’s dealing with isolation in some way in this book, right? What kind of work did you do growing up? But man oh man, I’ve never liked it. Or your favorite checker at the grocery store was the hero. That’s why Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez is in the novel. Early on I quit a lot of jobs to work on novels that I never even showed anyone. I liked disappearing into music, and by writing my own tunes I could disappear into a world specifically designed for what I needed. I was too much a wreck, I was just a king daydreamer. They just weigh on him. What draws you to those stories? I wanted to be in a band that had a van and camaraderie, and we could drive around and escape normal life. So I gravitated toward that as I grew older. I love reading about boxing. In terms of my writing, I just always wanted to write stories where a guy working in a warehouse was a hero.