BACK at the start of the century Willy Vlautin bought a house in Portland, Oregon and changed his life.

Vlautin was in his early thirties and working as a house painter. His band, Richmond Fontaine, were recording their fourth album Winnemucca at the same time. He’d managed to save some money and he’d seen an abandoned “mother-in-law house” in a busy street next to a Mini Mart that was up for sale for $70,000.

This was in the days before “the Big Short”, the financial crisis of 2008 when “real estate guys ran rampant over America and made a lot of money and hurt a lot of people”, he says. He needed a $50,000 loan and it was a struggle.

Looking back on it, you could say it was a make-or-break moment. “I was like, ‘If I get the house and I like the record then I’ll stay in Portland’,” he recalls now. “’If I don’t get the house and the record doesn’t do OK, then I’ll move back to Reno and call it a day musically.”

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The loan came through, the album was made, things got better. “I got the house and people seemed to like Winnemucca and the band’s life changed around that time. That was the first batch of good luck I’d had in a long time.

“And it changed my life in just the fact that I liked myself a little better. ‘Hey, maybe I’m not a complete loser, maybe I’m not a bum. I own a house.’

“It just shifted me. Those little breaks people get in life. Once in a while you get a lucky break. That was mine.”

But what, you wonder, if he hadn’t?

It’s nine in the morning in Scappoose, just outside Portland. Willy Vlautin, author and songwriter, has been up since six. “My wife kicked me out of bed because we have horses, and she usually gets up. But once in a while I’ve got be a man and get up and deal with stuff and I guess this was my day.”

Now he’s talking to me about words and music. He has a new book coming out, The Night Always Comes. It’s about a thirtysomething woman called Lynette who’s working three jobs so she can buy the beaten-up house she lives in with her mom and her developmentally disabled brother Kenny. It’s a noirish novel about gentrification and its deleterious impact on ordinary lives.

HeraldScotland: The Delines. Photograph Jason QuigleyThe Delines. Photograph Jason Quigley

Vlautin’s current band The Delines have even recorded a soundtrack to the book, all gorgeous minor-key melancholy and late-night desperation, with titles like Driving with the Safe and Pulling Glass from Lynette’s Back.

The Night Always Comes is Vlautin’s sixth book. His writing is spare, restrained and loved by everyone from Roddy Doyle to Donna Tartt. In the days leading up to our conversation I read the new novel in an anxious rush, following Lynette bounce from pillar to post, and from despair to theft in an attempt to hold onto her own American dream. She’s a compelling mix of tough and fragile.

Vlautin’s novels record hardscrabble lives. His songs, first for Richmond Fontaine and now for The Delines, are full of down-on-their-luck men and women drinking and drifting through their lives. He is one of the great chroniclers of working-class American life.

If anything, he fears, those lives are getting harder. “Portland is one of America’s great cities, I think. When I moved here in the nineties all the weird musicians from the west moved to Portland because it was so cheap.

“And then about 10 years ago I started counting cranes in downtown Portland. You’re seeing this massive amount of building going on. Whole neighbourhoods were changing in two or three years, and it was just so dramatic. Housing prices have gone up over four times in 20 years and right now if you’re going to buy a beat-up house in Portland you have to go between $50,000 and $70,000 over the asking price to get it.

“And, at the same time as housing prices have boomed, tent cities have appeared all round Portland. Homeless people living in semi-permanent encampments, which was never the case before to that degree.”

Out of this economic reality he has crafted a novel that speaks to the American moment that is also in its own strange way, a break-up novel between Lynette and her mom who decides on a whim she doesn’t want to own a house anymore.

“The mom is cynical, and she’s given up and she really just wants to break up with her daughter and cut ties,” Vlautin suggests.

A such, the mom stands in for many in working-class America. “There’s disillusionment in the working class in the US. They just don’t believe that the government is going to do anything for them, that the government cares. I think there is this sense of helplessness. Lynette’s mom is a textbook case of that.”

Vlautin knows the world of which he writes. He grew up with his older brother and his mum in Reno, Nevada. Times could be tough, as their mum tried to keep the wolf from the door. “If she didn’t like a guy but he had a house, she put up with him,” Vlautin says.

He started writing songs when he was 11 or 12. Then began writing stories at 18. His band Richmond Fontaine recorded album after album between the mid-1990s and 2018, with Vlautin on lead vocals, before calling it a day. Then he started writing and recording with a new band, The Delines, with his friend, the singer Amy Boone, which expanded Vlautin’s Americana-flavoured song writing.

I always liked Richmond Fontaine, I tell him, but I love The Delines. “Thank you for saying that. I really like them too.”

HeraldScotland: Willy Vlautin with Amy BooneWilly Vlautin with Amy Boone

Boone was a friend before they became bandmates. “I love being in a band with her. In a way it was freeing. When I wrote for myself, I didn’t have the confidence to write bigger songs or big ballads or soul-influenced songs. I just didn’t have the courage to write those kinds of songs. I didn’t even think about writing them.

“And then, when I started writing songs for Amy, I started thinking, ‘Well, she can sing any kind of song.’ So, it was like taking the handcuffs off in a way. I could try to write a song for a singer that I believed in, that I could get behind emotionally, but that I would never have had the courage to perform myself. So, it’s been a lot of fun.

“And I also love being in the back. It was a real struggle for me being in front of people like I was in Fontaine. It wore me out and this is heaven because I get to write ballads which I like writing and I can hide in the back.”

It’s strange this lack of confidence that comes up in his conversation time and again. His song writing and books are critically acclaimed. A couple – Lean on Pete and The Motel Life – have even been made into movies. And yet, there’s a lack of self-belief in him.

“Yeah, I’ve always been shaky on the confidence front. I’ve learned over the years how to trick myself, how to protect myself. You get better at some things when you get older. Some things you can let disappear and some things you think you’ve got a handle on. And they just come around and beat you on the side of the head once in a while to remind you that they’re still there.”

And yet here he is, a songwriter and a novelist and very good at both. There’s a lot to thank that abandoned mother-in-law house for. All in all, it’s a good thing that he didn’t give it all up and go back to Reno.

But maybe he wouldn’t have anyway. “There’s a beauty in being in a band that I’ve never outgrown,” he tells me at one point. “From when I was a little kid, I wanted to be in a band. I never got beyond that. And I didn’t ever think about being a rock star. I just wanted sit in a band with my buddies and drink beer and drive around.

“But my main thing was, I wanted to disappear into songs and creative worlds. If anything’s kept me going, it’s that.”

The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin is published by Faber, £12.99. The Delines soundtrack CD is available via Rough Trade