Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Nickolas Butler: “Everything is happily chaotic, and that’s alright with me.”

Nickolas Butler is an award-winning author born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.

His debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, has been translated into ten languages and is in development for a film adaptation. Nickolas has also published a collection of short stories called Beneath the Bonfire, and two other novels, including The Hearts of Men, which was shortlisted for prestigious French literary prizes before its American release. 

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Hi Nickolas, thanks for joining us today! You were born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Can you tell us about your journey as a writer and how your upbringing and education influenced your writing style?

Simply stated, writing has always been a part of my life. In the fifth grade I had a wonderful teacher named Doug Smith who assigned the class a year-long project which was to be a historical-fiction of the westward migration across America in the mid-1800s.

My story was over 110 pages long; it’s still one of the longer projects I’ve ever written. I wrote movie reviews for my middle-school newspaper, and in high-school I wrote for the school paper again. Most of what I produced was not very good, but it gave me some measure of confidence, which is so important for any writer, I think.

It would be impossible for me to overstate how important my education was, not only in my journey as a writer, but also as a human being. I had wonderful teachers. I graduated in the 49th percentile of my high-school class. My teachers could have written me off. But I think they recognized that I was going to have a unique life-path. So instead of berating me or ignoring me, they gave me special projects and opportunities.

My professors in college were also great. Both in Wisconsin and Iowa. Though, I think my best teachers at Iowa basically told me what I was doing right, and gave me the confidence to move forward. It wasn’t like they gifted me any recipes or roadmaps for success. And I think that’s appropriate. You have to find your own way as a writer. You have to decide, and decide decisively, that this is the life you want. And then commit to that life. 

Your novel Shotgun Lovesongs was received with high praise and was even referred to as a “love letter to the open lonely American heartland”. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the book and what message you wanted to convey through it?

The inspiration was spending so much time alone in Iowa City and really being so homesick for my wife and young son. I began thinking about our hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and I just started writing about a group of friends in west-central Wisconsin.

I incorporated the spirit of Eau Claire – Justin Vernon’s unlikely path to stardom as a musician, the travails of small family farms, the death of small-towns – all of that I put into the novel. But I had no message, per se. I just wanted to express myself. I suppose if there was a “message”, which I don’t think there really was, it was just pride. Pride in west-central Wisconsin.

Your latest novel, Godspeed, explores themes of greed and violence and asks the question, “How much is never enough?” Can you tell us about the thought process behind the book and what message you hope readers take away from it?

“Godspeed” really developed out of an anecdote a family friend told me. He was working on a construction crew, building a very expensive house when the homeowner got everyone on the crew together and offered them all a five-figure bonus if they completed the house in the next three weeks.

My buddy said to me, “Nick, we couldn’t have finished that house in three weeks if we had all the meth in the world.” I thought, What a great idea for a novel. But instead of three weeks, let’s give the crew a few months. And instead of a five-figure bonus, let’s make it a six-figure bonus. And instead of west-central Wisconsin, let’s set the book outside of Jackson, Wyoming, where it would be possible to really amplify all the financial stakes. And finally, what would happen if this crew was driven to using crystal meth to stay up constantly to build the house? 

Again, I had no real message for my readers. Truth be told, I don’t really consider my readers or audience. But I knew the story had something to say about the wealth gap in America, the hollowness of the American Dream, and a number of other issues.

What inspired you to write a novel set in the mountains of Wyoming, and why did you choose this particular setting?

All of my other fiction is primarily focused in rural Wisconsin, certainly the Midwest, but for some reason, I could not imagine situating this Godspeed in Wisconsin. I tried. I thought about setting the house at the center of the drama on the dramatic shores of Lake Superior, or Lake Michigan. But something felt off.

Then, a number of years later, my family and I were traveling around the American West, primarily to see Yellowstone National Park. We were driving everywhere, camping everywhere out of a van, living temporarily like vagabonds. After leaving Yellowstone, we passed through Jackson, Wyoming. And that’s when things clicked for me. Suddenly I was seeing this extravagant American wealth living in close proximity to a very dramatic landscape, where winter has real teeth. And it occurred to me that I could really up the ante of the drama of the book. 

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Your previous works such as Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men have received international recognition and critical acclaim. What challenges did you face while writing Godspeed, and how did you approach writing a novel in a different setting and with a different theme than your previous works?

The biggest challenge was self-imposed. I set a deadline for writing the novel that was quite similar to what the characters in Godspeed were experiencing, so as the writer, I just felt this incredible stress to get the story told quickly, and in a frenetic manner. I wanted the narrative to have that feeling. I wanted the reader to have that feeling, that sweaty, desperate feeling.

I wanted the reader to intuit that bad things are going to happen, but I wanted the mystery of the book to be the not-knowing when the shit would hit the fan, or who would be the victim. I wanted an avalanche of bad and immoral decisions to cascade, so that the characters always have the ability to make the right decision, to end the madness, but they never do. This seemed very psychologically real to me, and interesting.

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

I don’t really abide by a routine. I have a young family and that means that some days, all I’m doing is laundry. Or shuttling kids from one activity to the next. But I try to write from about eight in the morning until perhaps one in the afternoon.

If I’m feeling very productive, very inspired, I’ll also write from about nine in the evening until midnight. But really, no two days look alike. That isn’t the nature of my life right now. Everything is happily chaotic, and that’s alright with me. I’m not a single man, I have many, many responsibilities. Not just to my family, but to my mom, my dad, my in-laws, my community, and my friends.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I would have very much enjoyed talking to Jim Harrison. I have a good friend, the writer Chris Dombrowski, who knows Harrison well, and truth be told, I’m jealous. Harrison was just so, so prolific. And some of his writing is so much more luminous than any other voice I’ve encountered. I think he saw and ate and encountered the world in a truly original way and I would have just wanted to commune with his spirit. I also hold Sam Shepard in the highest regard, and would have liked to meet him. Tim O’ Brien also comes to mind.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

I’m currently reading Iliana Regan’s second book, Fieldwork. I thoroughly enjoyed her first memoir, Burn the Place. I read Perfume by Patrick Suskind a few weeks ago. Also William Gay’s Twilight

What does your current writing workspace look like?

Cluttered. Cold. Disorganized. My office is about the size of a large walk-in closet. It is a narrow room in our basement, with a window that looks out on a galvanized steel window-well with two buffalo skulls at the bottom. It actually isn’t where I’m most productive.

I get a lot of great done in my bedroom, and that isn’t a bad joke. I like the sunlight in my bedroom and a large bank of south-facing windows that look over a large ridge and a series of farm-fields. The other day I watched a red-tailed hawk wheel all around our house. But I see other wildlife, too: coyotes, deer, eagles, and so many birds.

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