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Author Interview: March 13, 2014

SHOTGUN LOVESONGS is the debut novel of Nickolas Butler, whose writing has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Ploughshares, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. Along the way, he has worked as a telemarketer, a coffee roaster, a meatpacker, an innkeeper (twice), a liquor store clerk, an office manager, a hot dog vendor, and an author escort. SHOTGUN LOVESONGS is the story of four friends who were all born and raised in the same Wisconsin town, and the powerful, tensile bond of their friendship --- held together by the inescapable pull of home.

In this interview with’s Jennifer Romanello, Butler talks about the inspiration behind Little Wing, the town at the heart of the novel --- a setting that is so seamlessly integrated into the plot that it’s almost its own character. He also reveals why he decided to tell the story from multiple perspectives, the paradox of celebrity, and what he’s working on next. SHOTGUN LOVESONGS, your debut novel, is a love letter to the fictional town of Little Wing, Wisconsin. What was your inspiration for the book? Is Little Wing based on an actual town?

Nickolas Butler: Little Wing is not based on a single town, it’s actually a composite of about two or three small towns that I’ve spent a lot of time in.

BRC: You structured the novel by giving each character their own chapter and voice in telling their collective story. Is that how you originally started the narrative, or did that change over time as you were writing the book

NB: It definitely changed over time as I began to realize that it was necessary to really delve deeply into individual characters to better understand how friendships and marriages fracture. Staying with one perspective, I felt, wouldn’t allow me that breadth of understanding. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. It was important to me both that everyone coddle Ronny, and that Ronny felt trapped --- for example.  

BRC: Setting is what makes the book so special; by the time I finished reading, I was ready to board a plane to Wisconsin to experience the incredible landscape. How were you able to convey this setting so effectively?

NB: I’ve lived most of my life in Wisconsin and all but three years in the Midwest. I can see the landscape and describe certain areas with my eyes closed. That was important to me. I think of writers like Arundhati Roy or Annie Proulx or Rick Bass --- writers who just know their landscapes. I’ve always admired that.

BRC: The character of Ronny talks about the “pull” of Little Wing, and how everyone who leaves eventually ends up coming back. Did you leave Wisconsin and then return?

NB: I’ve left Wisconsin twice. Once, to go to college in Chicago for a year (and then back to Madison). And then I moved from Madison to Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Now I’m back. Hopefully for good. 

BRC: The level of fame Lee achieves as a musician is what everyone who wants recognition for their work dreams of. Still, he finds himself returning home because it is one of the few things left in his life that is pure. Is this theme of a small town as a sacred space something you’ve thought about for a long time?

NB: For me, it’s not necessarily the “small town as sacred." I don’t begrudge people their love of big cities, big-city neighborhoods, even the suburbs. I love big cities. For me, the “sacred space” is home. It’s a connection to place and family. I don’t necessarily think small towns are magical or purely good --- that’s myopic and silly. Small towns have their share of problems too. 

I think Lee is drawn home, to Little Wing, because he trusts it. He knows the lay of the land. He knows that he’ll be protected.   

I like small towns because I think in smaller communities, there *can* be a sense of collective values, of taking care of each other, etc. Perhaps if I’d been born or raised in New York City or Seattle or Chicago, this book would be about a specific neighborhood. But that wasn’t my experience. 

BRC: We also see the flip side of celebrity here, the total invasion of personal space that accompanies stardom. We often don’t think about that. Is there some message there for our celebrity-driven culture?

NB: I don’t know if I intended any kind of message. I think many of the so-called celebrities that our culture adores are inexplicably famous. I just don’t understand the fascination. I don’t get it. But of course there’s a paradox there --- you get famous and you lose your anonymity. That’s part of the bargain. I could see how Lee created his music from a very pure place, and wanted success without notoriety or fame, and then, when things finally “hit,” he couldn’t understand exactly what had happened.

BRC: Is Lee based on a famous musician you know?

NB: Lee was inspired by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who I attended high school with, yes. Do I know Justin? Not really, not as adults. We have a lot of mutual friends and I find him to be a deeply inspirational person. He does so much for Eau Claire, trying to improve this place. He’s just a genuinely good force in the universe. All of that said, I’m not privy to any special secrets or origin stories. My book is a fiction. Lee is a fiction.

BRC: Did you have friends like Lee, Ronny and Kip when you were growing up?

NB: I had good, good friends growing up. Loyal, artistic, funny friends. I’m still close with many of those guys, including Swan, who the book is dedicated to.

BRC: You pretty much nailed deep-seated friendship --- and betrayal --- among the men in the group. How were you able to build up the female characters, Beth in particular, so well?

NB: My basic definition of feminism is that I think my Mom should get paid the same as my Dad for doing the same job. Well, I think that extends to fiction, too. We’re talking about writing human beings. Not men and women. I thought about my own wife, my Mom, many of my female friends.

BRC: You have an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Had you already started this novel before you attended, or did the idea and framework for it come to you while you were there?

NB: No, I hadn’t started it before Iowa. I wrote the first chapter in a single sitting during my first semester at Iowa. I was very homesick, very lonely. I began thinking about Wisconsin, about my wife and son, my friends. There was no idea or framework. Only emotion.

BRC: How long did it take you to write SHOTGUN LOVESONGS? Is this the novel you always wanted to write?

NB: It was about two years of solid writing, and another year of intensive editing. Three years total. 

Is this the novel I always wanted to write? I’ve always wanted to write about Wisconsin. I like stories about male friendships. I don’t want this to be my “best” book. I want to write better books. I want to push even harder. In that way, there are other books, future books that excite me and confound me more than this one.

BRC: Are you currently working on another book? If so, what can you tell us about it?

NB: Yes, I’m working on a new novel. Also a new collection of short stories and a longer play. I’m always working on a tangle of things all at once. I should focus, narrow it down to one project. Unfortunately, my brain does not seem to work that way.