Willy Vlautin’s Visit at OES

Photo credit: Lee Posey

Ava Kobos

The author Willy Vlautin visited 9th and 10th graders on Wednesday to discuss his novel, which was new to the 9th grade English curriculum last year. 

Willy Vlautin, the author of Lean on Pete, visited OES on Wednesday to discuss his novel and answer questions from 9th and 10th Grade students. Vlautin is a local author who grew up in the Portland area, and his book was introduced to the 9th Grade English curriculum last year. Lean on Pete is about a 15 year old boy named Charley, and the novel follows Charley’s journey to save Lean on Pete, a race horse, and find a place he can call home. 

Although the meeting with both grades got cut short due to a scheduling error, I was able to attend the smaller meeting during lunch. Vlautin thoroughly answered students’ questions, and his responses are below.

Why was Lean on Pete the title character, and what was Charley’s goal? A ninth grader asked.

“There could be up to 200-300 horses [at Portland Meadows] for months and months at a time. For the last ten years of its existence it was pretty beat up. And there was a horse named Lean on Pete. I used to bet on Lean on Pete all the time, and it always won for me. I liked that aspect of it. But I liked the idea that they’re all leaning on this horse. All these people are trying to make money off this horse, they’re taking advantage of this horse. Even Charley leans on the horse for comfort.So much of the book is about powerlessness. Obviously, Pete doesn’t have any power. I think Charley sees it on a gut level. He’s a really damaged, really fragile kid. He’s tough, but he’s pretty shut off, emotionally. I think it just hits him that this horse, and he doesn’t know much about horses, it hits him. This poor guy is, people are taking advantage about him and he’s going to die. Somebody has got to save him, and everyone around him says it doesn’t matter cause the horse isn’t fast anymore. We just care about him if he’s fast. Charley doesn’t really think it through, so his goal is to get to his aunt, but I think his goal goes sideways because he just feels for Pete, like “I got to save this horse”, so he panics. Like you do when anyone panics, you don’t think things out the way you should sometimes. I think he’s really brave and cool to take the horse, but it’s a big responsibility to be brave. There’s a cost to taking a chance like that.” 

Did you mean to write the meaning behind why Charley subconsciously or not saved Lean on Pete because he saw himself in the horse and wanted to give him a chance? Was it about control? Isabelle H. ‘25

“I think he just kind of saw this horse. He didn’t understand the whole idea that the horse is just not good for anything but running fast, and if it doesn’t run fast it’s like a car that doesn’t run good, you just sell it and move onto the next car. You don’t care about what happens to the car that doesn’t work very well anymore. [Charley] doesn’t understand that concept. He’s so lonely I think he puts so much of his loneliness and lack of love onto this horse, this horse that’s just a horse. He puts a lot of meaning onto this horse that doesn’t exist, and I think he sees that it’s going to die, that they’re going to kill it. And I think he realizes that he can save it, and he wants to be a good guy. He wants to be a hero in his own way, a champion. There’s been times in my life where I wish I had stood up and been a champion to somebody or done something like that and I never could. But he actually does, and obviously it gets him into a lot of trouble, and it doesn’t go real well for him, but he tried. That’s the interesting thing about a damaged person, he puts a lot of love and a lot of emotion behind something that doesn’t make a lot of sense to most people because he needed to save someone because nobody saved him.”

Why did you make Charley this beacon of kindness in a world or area where everybody else doesn’t care, or is selfish? Will ‘25

“With Charley, he doesn’t get to chose who he hangs out with, so he’s hanging out with a lot of people who are near the bottom. For instance, Del, the trainer. Del’s kind of a failed guy, like you can tell his health’s failing, he doesn’t feel good. He’s not that successful. It’s like if you have a relative or neighbor who hasn’t been that successful in life, and they get older and you start realizing that they’re just grumpy all the time, or they say really negative things all the time. You start realizing they probably don’t feel good physically, but they’ve had a lot of disappointments in their life. If you hang out with somebody that let’s that consume them and you start hanging out with somebody who’s really negative all the time and you start thinking about it and you’re like, oh, they got a lot of damages and a lot of little failures in their life. I think Charley’s surrounded, he hasn’t experienced that yet. He’s still young and romantic enough to think that he can save this horse, that if he believes, he can do good. So he’s got that in him.”

How did the substance abuse around Charley affect him as a person? Nathan B. ‘25

“That’s the weird thing about writing. Sometimes I’m not interested in drugs, writing about them, for a couple reasons. I had friends who really destroyed them, drugs did. And I’m like I don’t really want to spend two years of my life thinking about those guys or what they did, so I don’t spend a lot of time talking about drugs. I do at times, but it’s not my interest. I think the erraticness of it, like Silver, say, the guy in the trailer. I worked with a guy like that. I didn’t know he drank out of the same soda cup all day. Right, the same Coke can. All day long, the same one. He would just nurse it all day long and I never saw him get another one. And we worked at an airport, filling cracks in pavement, so you know, in like a tarmac, it just goes on forever. So your boss would say “just fill that crack” and it’d go on for like half a mile. So me and this guy would be doing that, and what you’d realize was he was drinking booze out of this can all day long. So by two or three in the afternoon he was nuts, and he was crazy, really mean. In the morning, he was just grumpy, and in midday he was really nice. So in midday he was just kind of hungover, midday he was drunk or whatever and feeling good and really cool, and then he’d get really weird and mean. So in that regard, Charley has to be around these unpredictable guys. Del gets like that to where he doesn’t understand it cause he’s too young, and he’s not a drinker, he doesn’t understand why that person is really nice and all of the sudden really mean. I think it affects him in just not trusting anybody. It makes him really scared of people, and he doesn’t understand that these people are under the influence of stuff, and that they’re not rational. He just sees that they’re really nice and then they’re really mean.”

Are any other background characters that were influenced by people you’ve encountered in your life? Savannah ‘25. 

“There’s a jockey and Portland Meadows named Twyla Becker. Portland Meadows had the most women jockeys, and one of the most successful women jockeys of all time named Katherine Mayo, Kathy Mayo. But Twyla grew up on Portland Meadows, and there were times in her life when she lived in the back in a makeshift stall. She helped me edit the book and I didn’t really put her in it cause she’s really cool and really tough, bu the esexism that she faced I put in with Bonnie. There’s parts of Twyla that are in it, so in that way she’s a part of the book in a big way, cause she helped influence so much. But again, I didn’t want to put her in it, cause I wanted to respect her privacy.”

How would’ve events gone if Charley had more control? Benjamin W. ‘25.

“If he had a decent life none of this would’ve happened. He wouldn’t have met Del, he wouldn’t have to get a weird job like that. If he had a parent that was reliable, he’d go “hey, there’s this horse, what do we do?” He would’ve had someone to talk it out with. The problem with him is that he doesn’t, like there’s these ideas like the tv is his best friend in some ways, and he carries the tv with him room to room because he’s lonely. So he doesn’t have anyone to bounce this stuff off with. And also I think he’s a romantic cause he’s grown up watching tv, and so he doesn’t have anyone to really talk about it. He just watches these things on tv and so he’s a pretty lonely, lonely guy in that regard. If his dad was a better dad none of this would’ve happened. Maybe that’s part of the story too.”