Interview: Nickolas Butler

Nickolas Butler | Photo: Jeff Rogers

Nickolas Butler | Photo: Jeff Rogers

By Alison Wagener

Local writer Nickolas Butler's debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs received international acclaim, a spot on the New York Times Bestsellers list, and a deal with Fox Searchlight. Raised in Eau Claire, Butler attended UW-Madison and then the acclaimed Iowa Writers Workshop before publishing the book, which contains multiple references to the Chippewa Valley. His second novel—The Hearts of Men—is poised to release on March 6.

This summer, Butler will return to Cirenaica to host a writer residency on the theory and practice of fiction. Details here!

We recently sat down with Butler to ask him a few questions...  

CVWG: The essential first question: did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Butler: I think writing’s always been a big part of my life. I don’t think that I ever thought it could be my job maybe until I went to Iowa, and I started gaining a momentum, and I could see there was some kind of path for me moving forward. But I think when you grow up in the Midwest, the notion of dreaming of becoming a writer seems sort of far-fetched. So maybe even if that’s what I wanted to do, I never would have vocalized that.

So it just clicked for you sometime during college, you decided to pursue writing in grad school and everything fell into place?

I mean when I was going to grad school, my wife and son were living north of the Twin Cities, and I was commuting down to Iowa City from there. And it just felt like there was a lot at stake for my time in Iowa. What was my wife sacrificing for? Why was I away from my family if not to really work hard all the time? So I used my time really efficiently during that two years and was able to write two books while I was there, and I was lucky enough to get an agent halfway through my time there, so everything just kind of clicked, yeah.

Both Shotgun Lovesongs and your new book The Hearts of Men are set in the Chippewa Valley, the Eau Claire area. Is that you writing what you know best, or do you think it’s something more of a tribute?

It’s writing what I know best. This book takes place mostly north of Eau Claire; it’s in a Boy Scout camp kind of near Rice Lake. But it also ranges to Vietnam, to South Africa, to Botswana—so it’s kind of more around the world than Shotgun Lovesongs was. It’s what I know the best, but it’s also just what comes naturally, too. I’m not really interested in writing about anything else right now.

Were you a Boy Scout growing up? Do you think that played into your idea of what men should be?

Mm-hmm. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, ultimately an Eagle Scout, so yeah, I was going to camp from when I was eight until I was 16 or 17… I don’t know that I could say that I thought Boy Scouts necessarily was instructive of what I thought masculinity was going to be. For me it was ultimately more about being a good person than a good man or a good woman. The book is interested in masculinity, but I think that’s sort of separate from the Boy Scouts. It’s convenient that the Boy Scouts are there. But they’re not the same thing.

I think I was thinking about masculinity from more of the standpoint of being a young father, and thinking about the job my own dad did, and the job that I have to do moving forward. I don’t know that Boy Scouts really colored my idea of what masculinity is. At least I don’t think. Nobody’s asked me that before.

As I read, it seemed like Nelson sort of became a paragon of masculinity over time, even though he’d certainly gone through his own troubles and his own transformation. I was just wondering if for you, is what Nelson becomes your ideal of what men should be? Does that ideal even exist?

I don’t know that I think about Nelson as a paragon necessarily—I think what’s good about him and what’s good about most of the characters is that they’re trying to do their best, and it doesn’t always work out. But they’re trying. The notion that he has some kind of code, or thinks about a code, is what’s most important.

And the funny thing is, like, people think about the Boy Scouts as like a punch line, you know? If someone thought you were a dimwitted rube, they might say oh, you’re such a Boy Scout: you’re not complicated enough to act in an indecent way, or something like that. Like, what’s wrong with trying to have a code? What’s wrong with trying to be your best person? And also, is that possible? What happens when you fail – are you a bad person when you fail your code, if you can’t live by it all the time?

There’s quite a spectrum of morality and masculinity within your characters. Maybe I was reading a bit too much into the masculinity theme, but the book is very male-centric, with characters who do and don’t try to follow that code. What do you hope the men in your book collectively convey about what it means to live morally?

My dad, who was not always a very good dad, shares some of the same qualities as Johnathan. My dad’s dad, my grandpa, was often gone on merchant marine ships. He wasn’t around for my dad’s childhood. And I think even when he was around, he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to do because his own dad died in a coal mining accident before he was born. So he had no exemplar. My dad used to tell me, “I’m not a good dad, but hopefully you’ll be better than me, and your son will be better than you.” So I think part of the job of the book, especially because it takes place over sixty years of history, is asking if we’re trying to become better.

Masculinity is a hyper-loaded word, and I never set out to make any sort of statement on that. I like to think about myself as a pretty sensitive person, and I’m raising both a son and a daughter right now. But I think the project of the book and of these characters is just to improve over time, to try and set a moral code out for themselves, and then try their best to live by it.

Can you tell us some more details about the release?

It’s coming out nationally March 7. There’s going to be a reading at Volume One March 6, so that’s kind of fun. By all rights, everything seems to be going just as well as it could be. We’ve gotten three-starred reviews from Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly—Publisher’s Weekly called it one of the top ten books to look forward to this spring. It was nominated for the highest foreign literary achievement in France—this one actually meant a lot to me—it was nominated for another one of France’s highest foreign literary achievements by an all-female jury. It’s called the Prix Femina. It’s an award that’s always been selected by a female jury, so I love that. Made me feel good that this book that is kind of dominated by male characters was accepted that way, and I think they could see that I was critiquing male behavior, not celebrating it necessarily. So you never know, the New York Times could take a big shit on it tomorrow, and that would stink. But I wrote the book I wanted to write, and so far it seems to be going pretty good.

Cirenaica writer's retreat, Summer 2016

Cirenaica writer's retreat, Summer 2016

So let’s shift a bit. Last year, what do you think went best with your Cirenaica residency? Do you think there’s some things you’ll do differently this coming summer?

The one thing I was fortunate to have last year was a great group dynamic. We had about ten people who really seemed to get along right from the start. That’s really important to me, whether it’s teaching at Cirenaica or teaching at UW-Eau Claire, whatever it is. You need to make everyone in the workshop feel valued and feel comfortable, because it’s not about just listening to me pontificate. There would be no point in having a workshop, then. It would be better if it was just one-on-one teaching. I need everybody to be invested in the group, and I need everyone to be comfortable listening to one another’s criticisms. We were very lucky that last year went that way. I hope that this summer’s group has that same kind of camaraderie and spirit. In terms of what could be improved on? I don’t know. I thought we had a really good first year. There’s going to be air conditioning this year, which is a big step up. There’s gonna be a printer, which is a big deal. The first year, we were just trying to feel things out, like what is this space, how do we use this space, what do we need, what do we have? I don’t mean to paint too rosy of a picture, but it really was a nice experience for everyone.

Well it sounds like an amazing break from real life – you get to go sit in the middle of the woods and do what you love for a few days.

Yeah, and we had a range of talents, which I frankly think is good, because if you’re just starting off your writing, and you’re exposed to somebody who’s doing really good, advanced writing and exposing you to something you can strive for, I think if everybody comes in at the same level, then there’s more room for jealousy or petty bickering or something like that. I’m looking forward to it.

Have you thought about what you’re going to be focusing on yet, what you’ll do during the residency?

I’m going to conduct it the same way I did last year, which is basically that everyone gets a workshop, everyone gets a one-on-one meeting with me. Everyone gets a handwritten critique from me, and then I’ll just be around to chat. And I think sometimes a workshop is for the piece and for the person who’s being critiqued, but sometimes the most important stuff that a person learns is from casual conversations when you’re having a beer. How did you do that? How did you find an agent? How did you get published in a literary journal? Questions like that. And it’s hard to find a casual resource for some of those questions. But that’s what this thing is for, to learn how to break through and make your way.

Anything else?

I mean, I hope we fill up the Volume One store March 6. It will be a fun night, and then everyone is invited to go across the street to the Lakely, and we’ll have drinks afterwards. I think it’s pretty special that the release date is a day early, and it’s here in Eau Claire, which is cool. As far as Cirenaica goes, my hope is that at the end of the weekend, my workshop feels like they’ve created nine or ten new friends. That these people communicate with each other and move forward after that. And I hope that they get good feedback from me, and that it’s – I’ve been told that my workshops are very useful. We don’t waste a lot of time. The idea is to give you positive feedback right off the bat and then work with you about what’s not working quite as well. So I think people will come out of it feeling like they’ve got direction moving forward, and that they’ve also got a support group moving forward. And it’s set in a beautiful spot, it’s pretty cheap. People should use it.