Have a Little Faith: Confronting the Complexities of Writing with Nickolas Butler

Credit: Jeff Rogers

Credit: Jeff Rogers

Lauren Becker

If you live in the Chippewa Valley, there’s a good chance you know Nickolas Butler. But even if you don’t live in the Valley, there’s an equally good chance you’ve come to know his intimate storytelling. Following up Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men, Butler is set to release his latest novel, Little Faith this March. In anticipation of his March 4 reading at Volume One, Butler agreed to share his time with us, giving fellow writers and readers insight into the process that’s brought us his latest work.

Lauren Becker: Religion can be a difficult subject to navigate, especially when trying to convey the complex relationship community and religion have in rural spaces. What led you to tell this story?

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Nick Butler: I’d been thinking about the Kara Neumann case since 2008 when her death came to light.  It was just a horrendous story and something that still resonates with any adult who was alive at that time, but especially those with children. So I knew I wanted to write about something like that, something related to faith and prayer-healing, but that seemed like a very dark rabbit hole indeed. Then, about three years ago, I decided the way into the narrative was to create a grandfather character and to show the really unique and magical relationship between grandparent and grandchild.  The real tension of the book would be drawn between generations in a family – faith, parenting, forgiveness, love, trust, hate… I felt like I had the makings for an incredibly special book.

LB: Can you speak a little on the personal pilgrimage you may have had to go on to write this novel?  

NB: Every book is a pilgrimage.  Every book you write is a complete leap of faith.  You never know how people are going to interpret things; if they’ll enjoy the narrative or characters.  And it’s a lonely endeavor; it’s thousands of hours of staring at a computer screen conjuring make-believe out of the ether.  And when the book is done, I always feel incredibly bereft, just lost for between six to twelve months before I pick myself back up and go on to the next one. It’s an incredibly strange way to make a living.

LB: Your novel grapples with some of our most intense and intimate journeys we experience in life. Those of death, spirituality, and of course, family. If you could summarize Little Faith in just a few words, how would you convey the ideas that pervade your writing?

NB: For me, the best novels always confront three key issues: family, place, and something (money, work, love, pride, faith, etc.) worth fighting for; so in everything I write, I’m thinking of those three components.

LB: You note in the preface to your book that this novel was inspired in part by true events. With that in mind, how much of these vivid characters are inspired by the very real folks in your life?  

NB: More than a few characters in Little Faith are inspired by real people which can be a difficult and emotional consequence of writing a very personal novel.  Look – I don’t know how NOT to be influenced by the people I love, namely my family and friends. I also don’t know how to write about the world I’m struggling to understand, the world I’m trying to celebrate, the world I’m trying to critique, without incorporating my own feelings, perceptions, and history.  So it often seems that my books very much have the fingerprints of real people all over their pages. 

LB: Throughout writing this novel, and perhaps at its conclusion, did you find any ties to current events within your writing?

NB: I think that much of the political divide in our country can be traced back to organized religion, it’s another way for politicians to stir discord amongst us.  Little Faith isn’t attempting to explain that divide or to place blame. Little Faith is a story with characters, it’s a fiction. But as I was writing the book, I was certainly cognizant of certain national political discourses, certain trends…  I’m also personally very interested in political conversations about quality-of-life issues and end-of-life issues, as well as confronting global climate change, and rural versus urban political dynamics. All of these ideas drip into the art, but it’s important to understand that the art isn’t “about” those ideas.

LB: Your novels are well known for their heart and ability to move us deeply through connection to home and rural spaces. Could you speak about the importance of setting in your writing?

NB: I like a book with atmosphere; I like being transported somewhere.  Right now, I’m reading Ellie Catton’s The Luminaries which is famously set in New Zealand during a 19th Century gold rush.  It’s incredibly evocative and sets the characters against the landscape.  I like that sort of book. I think of: East of Eden, Sometimes A Great Notion, or The Shipping News.  And writing about rural Wisconsin just comes easily to me because, guess what – it’s right out my front door.

LB: What are you hoping to communicate to readers that didn’t grow up in rural areas?  

NB: I’m not sure I’m trying to communicate anything. My philosophy has always been to write a narrative that compels a reader to turn pages and a narrative populated by characters that a reader can at least somewhat identify with, even if they don’t necessarily like that character.  I try to write round characters, and I try to push myself – to move past easy impulses and to complicate the writing in hopefully new and authentic ways. Basically, I don’t worry about my readers. There was a time in my life when I had NO readers and back then, I was writing for myself, for my own enjoyment.  I try to remain in that space.

LB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?  

NB: Read a book.  Any book. But hopefully one of mine.  Thanks.

The Chippewa Valley Writers Guild is thrilled to host Nickolas Butler as our fiction writer-in-residence for this summer’s all-new Priory Writing Retreat. When asked to comment on our upcoming retreat, Butler had this to share:

“Every year I sincerely look forward to the summer CVWG Writing Retreat.  It’s a weekend that I always enjoy for so many reasons. Greeting writer-friends that I’ve worked with in the past and certainly meeting new writers as well.  I like that sense of discovery, of potentially working with a great new voice in American literature. And too, the food, camaraderie, bonfires, and beer aren’t bad either.”

Inspired? Wonderful. Click here to sign up to secure your spot at this summer’s writing retreat!