The Saint of Perseverence: An Interview with Lean on Pete Author, Willy Vlautin

When talking about the first time he read Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh (45 Years, Weekend)  describes a feeling that overcame him, of a need to "reach into the pages to help Charley" the young boy whose journey through life takes a bad turn. It's testament to the words of Willy Vlautin, author of the novel, that Haigh should feel such an unshakable connection with the lead character. We spoke to Vlautin about the novel, Haigh's film adaptation, and where all that heart and soul comes from.

When did you first hear of plans to adapt your novel for film? Presumably you were asked to give your blessing, but were you at all apprehensive about the idea? 

It was not much after the book came out that I began talking to people who were interested in the movie rights to Lean on Pete. That’s how I met Andrew Haigh. He was interested and then I saw Weekend and I loved it. I knew from the movie that he was not only a good filmmaker but a good writer. Then I talked with him and after that I was sold. He’s damn cool and the real deal.

Weekend  (2011)

Weekend (2011)

When you write a novel, I imagine you finish it and publish it and people read it, and that is the work of art, completed. Is it ever at the back of your mind that there might be more to come like a film adaptation? 

I’ve always been a huge fan of movies but a fan is what I’ll stay. I do think about if a novel of mine would make a good movie but that’s only after I’ve finished it. I don’t write thinking of movies and I’m not really interested in writing for movies. Life is short and I love the novel. I believe in the novel as an art form so I’ll just write them and if I’m lucky and there’s movie interest I’ll sell the rights if the fit seems good.

Were you involved in the making of the film? Is filmmaking something you have experience of, or was the process completely new to you? 

A film was made of my first novel, The Motel Life. So I’d been around movies a bit, but not that much. With Lean on Pete I showed Andrew around Portland Meadows horse track, took him to a couple races, and introduced him to a few people I knew who worked at the track. But I didn’t have much more involvement than that. Andrew had his vision. He knew what he wanted. During the shoot, Andrew and Tristan Goligher, the producer, were so damn nice to me. They were both juggling a dozen things each and still took out the time to be cool to me.

Lean on Pete

You published the novel in 2011, so must have been writing for some time before that. What brought Charley and Lean on Pete to you at that point in your life?

In a way it was two things. I was beginning to break up with horse racing around 2007. I’d been a gambler at Portland Meadows for years but I made a couple mistakes gamblers shouldn’t make. I got crushes on jockeys and horses. Slowly I began to realize how rough racing is on jockeys and horses and it was too much for me personally. So I had quit going and I was so heartbroken over missing the track that I started work on the book to try and process it. That’s the first part.

Lean on Pete

The second was Charley Thompson. I picked a 15-year-old kid because although I spent years at the track I didn’t feel I had the right to comment on it as a pro, only as a person that had never been around horses or the racing. An innocent. Also I never liked being a kid and Charley’s at that rough age. He’s close to independence but he still has to rely on his parent to get by. He’s waking up to his situation age wise but still needs help. Food, shelter, and an advocate. 

Lean on Pete

You’ve owned horses yourself. Is there one in particular that inspired Lean on Pete? And what is it about that horse’s personality that makes him who he is? Did you meet Starsky, the horse who played Lean on Pete in the film?

The novel’s Pete is based on my own Quarter Horse, Dash. He raced at Portland Meadows but wasn’t fast enough. I got him as a retired 11-year-old. His looks and mannerisms are Pete’s in the novel. But there was a real horse named Lean on Pete at Portland Meadows. It was one of those rare horses that I always won on. I always played him right. He was owned and trained by a respected horseman named David Duke who is the opposite of Del in the novel. From what I’ve heard Pete was sold and raced in Canada. I don’t know where he is now. But man oh man did I have a crush on that horse. 

As far as Starsky, I did meet him briefly and he was a gem, too.

Lean on Pete

You have roots in the same region of the US as Charley, Del and Bonnie. Are the places we visit in the story ripped directly from your life? The racetracks, the diners, the drinking holes, are they based on specific places? 

For years I was in love with the track. I couldn’t get enough of it. I tried to buy a house near it in the neighborhood I put Charley and his dad in. And I hang out in St. Johns where Charley ate and saw movies and I go to the truck stop for breakfast sometimes. Most of the places in the novel are real. That was what was so great about Andrew. He took the time and checked out all the places and filmed in many of them. I mean he even shot in the Apple Peddler in Burns, Oregon and somehow got Portland Meadows racetrack’s permission to film. So I owe him a lot for keeping it so loyal to the book.

Lean on Pete

To some, the story is about the forgotten people. The veterans of a contentious war. The gas station attendants who work out in the middle of nowhere. The racetrack where people go to bet their last bit of hope. The horse that doesn’t run anymore. And they’re all people Charley could become. Since 2011, do you think the situation for people like this has changed in America? Or is it a constant symptom of a country so vast, that there will always be those who are abandoned by it?

Working class people have it rough and that will always continue I suppose. The rich taking advantage of their workers and the working class often voting against their own self-interests. What’s different in my time is the growing homeless populations. It’s staggering to me, the amount of homeless people in the US. Kids, women, teenagers. In general I’ve always been interested in working class stories. Even as a kid. Part of that must come from reading John Steinbeck. When I grew up he was heavily taught in our school. I think I read six of his novels in high school alone.

Lean on Pete

The other part was I was raised by a single mother who struggled to get by. She was obsessed with the fear of being homeless. I don’t think she was that far off in her worry. So I was raised to know that it didn’t take much, a serious illness, a bad economy, a lost job, to find yourself in a fix. It’s that idea and the fact that I’ve always worked manual labor jobs that interests me in these stories. Plus I don’t know a lot about the world except from that viewpoint. And as a fan of novels I always wanted people I knew to be the heroes. Why can’t a house painter be a hero for change? 

Lean on Pete

You once described Charley as ‘the saint of perseverance’ and he seems to have the kind of spirit where he could shape his future. Is the future already set for Del and Bonnie? If we were to visit Charley, Del and Bonnie in five years time, what do you think they would be doing?

I think Charley will have some rough times ahead. He’s a beat-up kid and that stuff doesn’t just go away. But he has his aunt and he tries hard. I think eventually he’ll be alright. As for Del and Bonnie I think their story is mostly written. Horse racing is fading in Oregon and they know it and they aren’t even the best at their craft even in Oregon so there’s not much hope they’ll do much but try to hold on to what they already have.

Lean on Pete
Lean on Pete

Do you have a favourite scene in the film, one that you feel best captures what you had created on the page? 

I love all the scenes where Charley and Pete are alone together. Those are my favorite. The scene of Charley swimming in the river and Pete’s on the shore. That’s a beautiful moment. That’s a moment you wish those two could live in together forever.

Lean on Pete

Lean on Pete

Proving himself to be one of the most gifted, insightful and versatile directors working today, Andrew Haigh (45 YearsWeekend) returns with Lean on Pete, a powerfully moving and deeply emotional story about a young boy’s search for belonging on the fringes of contemporary American society.

Lean on Pete play in cinemas from Friday 4 May

Or watch it at home with Curzon Home Cinema