Shotgun Lovesongs may just be the sleeper hit of the season, so evocative is it of the kind of small town American life we don't get enough of in literature these days. The story of a mill town and four guys who love it, leave it, and come back to it forever changed but still somehow the same, it doesn't just tug at the heartstrings; it lodges itself in the heart. And that's one reason I selected it as my Editors' Pick in our Big Spring Books feature.
I spoke with 34-year-old Nickolas Butler about the setting and character choices he made and how his debut novel has already changed his life.
Sara Nelson: You grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is near the setting of your novel: a fictional town called Little Wing. Are we to assume the book has elements of autobiography?
Nickolas Butler: Well, I think there's a little bit of me in everyone, including Beth [a Little Wing native married to Henry, the seemingly most solid of the four guys.] If I had to describe the book in a nutshell, I'd say it's about friendship and decency and love, and about a place, a very specific place: rural Wisconsin.
SN: I keep describing Leland -- the one who goes off and becomes a famous musician -- as a "Springsteen-esque" character, but apparently you had a younger model, closer to home?
NB: I say that the book was inspired by Justin Vernon [who won the 2012 Best New Artist Grammy as Bon Iver ], but I want to be careful to say I haven't seen him in 18 years. We went to high school together; he was a year younger. But I don't want to make the relationship seem like something that it's not.
The thing is, though, that in Eau Claire, there was just no example for succeeding in the arts before he made it. To have known somebody as a normal human being, a teenager, and then see them experience a wonderful kind of success that you know they worked really, really hard for just gave me a huge amount of confidence to move forward and try to be a writer.
SN: So, are you the most like Leland, then, in that struggle?
NB: I don't know anything about writing music. I'm not musical at all, but I do understand the pressure of hitting a certain place in your life and feeling like, "If I don't make a go of being a writer now, with a kid or two in the family... I'm gonna have to figure something else out." That's why I felt a huge amount of pressure when I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop to make sure I was using my time effectively, to come out of the program with a book that was as good as I could [make it]. Which is basically the same kind of pressure that Leland is feeling when he's recording his first album.
SN: The book is organized around four weddings that bring the friends together. Why did you choose that organizing principle?
NB: What happened was that my wife and I had a two-year period when we were averaging six weddings a summer. I'm not even exaggerating. Weddings were just foremost in my mind. I was going to these weddings. I was sitting in the pews of churches and as a writer/observer, I was thinking about the little dramas and thinking that this would be good for a book somehow.
SN: Throughtout the book, and not just because of the marriages, these four old friends each change and come together and apart a number of times. The novel, in fact, starts with a situation between Leland and his old friend Kip, a scene that could destroy a friendship forever...
NB: When you first see Kip, he starts off, well, as sort of a villain, but then you see that he's trying to become a better human being, but he's just awkward. He's probably like a lot of us. He just doesn't always do the right thing and then realizes what the right thing is, afterwards -- and feels bad about it.
SN: How have your old friends, and the community in Eau Claire, responded to the book?
NB: So far, the reaction has been very positive. Everybody's just really excited. Both my wife and I have these deep connections in the community and people that we knew are just really supportive. I'm really grateful. It's like I just kind of woke up inside my best dream; I can't believe this is happening. It's like I'm 12 years old and I woke up playing 3rd base for the Minnesota Twins.