Photo Finish Friday – Willy Vlautin

This is writer/musician Willy Vlautin at Shakespeare and Co. in Missoula on 11/16/2016. He read passages from his most recent novel, 2014’s The Free, and then performed the songs that inspired the characters who populate the book. He is also in the band Richmond Fontaine, who just called it quits after their 11th album, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To, which I reviewed for the Indy here. I also recently interviewed Willy via email, here.


Willy is my favorite novelist. He writes the kinds of books I try to, the songs and music I struggle to find an outlet for, and seems to battle many of the same issues I do when it comes to presenting work to the world. Feeling like an outsider. Loving and relating to that class of folks so many in the world consider “losers,” because they feel more like our people than anyone else does, and that sooner or later it will be revealed it’s because we are secretly “losers” too. All that stuff we don’t often talk about.

It’s been difficult for me to come back to these photos and watch the videos from the event. Or to even think about it that much. It was one of the best ones I’ve ever attended, easily. I had met Willy once before, in the saddest of circumstances, and we chatted quite a bit the other night. However, I totally missed an opportunity to hang out with the guy for a couple hours in a bar later that night, largely my own doing, and I really haven’t gotten over it. It’s complicated, and sounds like hero worship but it isn’t. When I heard later of what I’d missed, the opportunity that had passed, I was bereft. I’m not proud to admit it. It was like getting a phone call that someone had died. I couldn’t believe I’d missed out, that I’d failed to hang around (something I almost always do) after the event, that I’d not been more available.

When I left my job last year, I got this tattoo as kind of a statement of purpose. That by leaving the safe and secure behind I was embarking on some heroic undertaking by truly dedicating myself to being an artist. It’s been helpful (and yeah, it sounds melodramatic too). More than once, driving and reflecting on what I’ve done, what I’m doing, looking down at my forearm has reminded me that being all in means being all the fucking way in, no turning back. I couldn’t live with myself if I gave up. I gave up on trying to make a go of it as a musician a couple decades ago and feel I’ve paid the price every drab, mono-toned fucking day since. I’m determined not to make that same mistake again, now that writing, and photography, have given me a glimmer of a second chance.

Lately I’ve been struggling with a lot of depression; definitely the “months of complete darkness” phase of this particular part of the adventure. Plagued with doubt, utterly lacking in confidence, the whole bit. Vlautin talked about that, wrestling with one’s own demons and self esteem the moment you even consider getting out of bed. But we get up and push on. Spending time with folks like Vlautin — people sharing our journeys, but maybe a good distance farther along — can be like a break in the storm, if I may continue the Shackleton tattoo metaphor, where the sun or moon comes out and allows us a moment to get our bearings and will to continue.

I missed this one. And it’s taken me down for a couple days now. I’m sure it’s been made worse by where my head already was, by the stuff I try and keep a lid on, but that doesn’t really matter. I haven’t been this filled with regret in a long, long time. But you know, shit happens. We continue on. And hope that sometimes lightning does strike twice.

Next time I’ll be ready. Until then, HTFU, La Tray….


Author: Chris

Chris La Tray is a writer, a walker, and a photographer. He is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and lives in Missoula, MT.

2 thoughts on “Photo Finish Friday – Willy Vlautin”

  1. Can I propose that HTFU is a good slogan for some days, but it’s okay to soften. I’ve been struggling with severe anxiety lately, related to the election sure but also from other aspects in my life, and it makes me FEEL so much more. It’s not always good, it can be debilitating and scary. But it also opens me to the pain of others, seeing we’re all connected. I’m trying to use it to remain open rather than closing off my heart.

    I’ve also been through a good 18-month depression and, similar to you, got a huge tattoo on my forearm – to remind myself of the journey back to the light but also that I will always feel that darkness because only the bravest people can confront the shadow without submitting fully to it. Creatives have always had the reputation of fighting with this – multiple theories on why, but just remember you aren’t alone in the undertoad.

    Book recs – “F*ck Feelings: One Shrink’s Practical Advice for Managing All Life’s Impossible Problems” by Michael Bennett, Sarah Bennett (irreverent self-help filled with profanity, I loved it but skimmed a lot); for going deeper I loved Pema Chodron’s “Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears” and “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.”

    And now I need a book rec – our library has Vlautin’s Northline, Lean on Pete and The Free. Where should I start?

    1. April, thank you so much for the honest, kind, and heartfelt comment. It is much appreciated. And I will definitely seek out the books you mention. I’m familiar with the Chodron books in particular. As for Vlautin, read The Free, as it is his latest. That’s always a good place to start.

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