"I wanted to write about Wisconsin,” Nickolas Butler says of the genesis of his soulful first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, which gave voice to his homesickness.
“My first semester at the [Iowa] Writers' Workshop, I was down there alone. I was sleeping in this terrible apartment,” Butler says. Picture a fire-engine-red lower section of a bunk bed borrowed from his brother-in-law, a white table borrowed from his mother-in-law, and a folding chair, the only furnishings in the Iowa City apartment where Butler lived from Monday to Thursday before returning to his family.
“I missed my wife; I missed my son; I was just overcome by loneliness and homesickness,” he recalls. “I was sitting at that table, thinking about my hometown, and I started writing. The first 35 pages came basically in one sitting.”
Those opening pages are told from the point of view of Henry “Hank” Brown, who, with his wife Beth and their two young children, struggles to maintain a family farm on the outskirts of a tiny Wisconsin town named Little Wing. Hank’s is one of five voices that tell this story of contemporary small-town Wisconsin life and of close friendships disrupted by the passage of time.
“There’s a little bit of me in every character,” Butler says during a call that reaches him at his home in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, a hamlet outside of Eau Claire, where he grew up. “Hank is probably the moral, ethical side of me. He’s got this strong moral compass. He’s the most boring character in the book for me, frankly. Because basically he’s not going to do anything wrong, and that’s not super exciting.”
Small-town Wisconsin roots link five longtime friends in Butler's lyrical novel.
Most readers won’t actually agree with Butler’s assessment of Hank’s boredom factor. Hank is the novel’s true north, an intelligent, observant exemplar of the best of Midwestern values. He is in many ways a far better man than his close childhood friend, turned not-so-close friend, Leland “Lee” Sutton, who under the nom de musique Corvus has become an international rock star. Lee’s first album—“Shotgun Lovesongs”—was recorded in a converted chicken coop outside of Little Wing and gives the novel its title. Lee’s ill-advised confession to Hank leads to one of the bigger disruptions among boyhood friends in Little Wing.
The character of Leland has also already brought some national media attention to Shotgun Lovesongs because of Butler’s real-life relationship with Justin Vernon, founder of the Grammy-winning band Bon Iver. Butler went to high school with Vernon, so some early readers have assumed that Leland is a thinly veiled representation of Vernon. Butler says he hasn’t spoken to Vernon in 18 years.
“You have to understand that in this community there was no template for artistic success before him. Justin gave a lot of us this sense of confidence that we could go out and do something different. So the character Leland is inspired by him, but he’s obviously not based on him. Justin has never been shot in the leg, and I don’t think he’s even ever been married. One thing that sets him apart from so many other people is that he went away, gained success, and then came home. He’s really involved in the community. Being homesick for Eau Claire and thinking about its landscape, he was a really nice way to get into all of that.”
Still, Butler says there’s much more of himself than Vernon in the character of Lee. “The story of Lee’s first album is a lot about the pressure I felt with this book. I was nearing the end of grad school. I’d had a string of terrible jobs that never paid any money at all and were at times dangerous, and I didn’t want to go back to that. I had a young kid, and I just wanted to be something more. So I felt a great pressure and urgency to write the book.”
Through Lee’s and Hank’s difficulties with each other, Shotgun Lovesongs vividly portrays the tensions that sometimes develop in male friendships as people grow away from high school and college and into adulthood.
“I’m hitting a point in my life when some of the easy friendships are becoming more difficult because of all the different real-world pressures: money, marriage, kids and jobs,” Butler says. “All of a sudden friends begin wondering why it’s so easy for somebody and so difficult for somebody else to make money. Why is it easy for couple A to have kids when couple B can’t? Something happens when these sorts of jealousies get overlaid on long-term friendships. I was experiencing a little bit of that in my life and was wondering why.”
"For me it was important to say, hey, this is the face of small-town America right now. It’s not what you think.”
Butler’s novel also voices an emphatic love song to what he calls “my place on earth,” and to small-town life in general. Not that Butler is unaware of the difficulties and of the changing nature of America’s small towns. Several characters in the novel end up leaving for greater opportunities in Chicago or Minneapolis. Lee for a while lives in a rural boarding house with Mexican laborers. “I don’t think it’s offensive to say, but a lot of the work being done around here is not being done by natural-born American citizens. It’s being done by really hardworking Mexican people, and that’s not something I’ve seen in literature. For me it was important to say, hey, this is the face of small-town America right now. It’s not what you think.”
For a number of years while he made his weekly trips to Iowa, Butler and his wife, an attorney and “a voracious reader,” and their son lived in the Twin Cities area. As he was revising the novel, the couple had a second child. Butler says they had been saving for years to return to the Eau Claire area, where his wife had also grown up. With the sale of the novel, last August they bought their house and 16 acres of land in Fall Creek. “My kids have all four grandparents within a 10-minute drive,” Butler says. “You can’t beat that.”
And despite the fact that it is 18 below zero outside when we begin our conversation, Butler says, “This world that I inhabit is important to me. It is beautiful to me. . . . I feel extremely fortunate now. I do feel like I’m kind of living inside a dream.”