Wednesday, January 29, 2014: Maximum Shelf: Shotgun Lovesongs
by Nickolas Butler
In an elegant but down-to-earth debut, Nickolas Butler envisions small-town America through the eyes of four men--one of them a world-famous indie rock star--and one of their wives, all natives of Little Wing, Wis. "These men, these men who have known one another their entire lives. These men who were all born in the same hospital, delivered by the same obstetrician," says Beth, the aforementioned wife, who sometimes envies their male camaraderie. Every lifelong relationship has its ups and downs, though, and over the course of four weddings and several years, their bonds pass through trials of distance and betrayal.
Lee, better known to the general public as indie rock singer Corvus, tours the world but always comes home to Little Wing. "When I had nowhere else to go, I came back here. When I had nothing, I came back here. I came back here and made something out of nothing." When he returns, his friends always receive him with open arms. Charismatic and innocently arrogant, Lee envies his best friend Henry's family life and ties to the land, never imagining the simple life might come with its own obstacles.
While Lee feels jealous of Henry's life, steady and honest Henry sometimes wishes he weren't too proud to ask Lee for a loan. He and his wife Beth have never seriously considered living anywhere but Little Wing, but their small dairy farm runs on a budget so tight that Beth has looked into food stamps. Money troubles aside, Henry and Beth know that their greatest blessing is their fierce love for each other and their growing family. Beth sometimes fantasizes about the life she might have had if her long-ago fling with Lee had grown into more, but even then, her focus spirals back to knowing she and Henry were meant to be: "Would Lee and I come over to Henry's house and have dinner with him and his wife, their children buzzing all around us, and would I look at Henry and detect some infinite sadness, an emptiness that was my absence in his life?" But when Henry belatedly learns the truth about Beth and Lee's brief connection, over 30 years of shared history may not be enough to repair the damage to their marriage, or to Lee and Henry's friendship.
Although his other friendships may falter, Ronny's loyalty to Lee is unshakeable. A former rodeo star, Ronny's career ended prematurely due to a head injury caused not by a bull, but by a simple drunken stumble. Now a recovering alcoholic who lives in a rundown trailer, Ronny tries again and again to pack up and leave Little Wing, but well-intentioned neighbors always notice and bring him home. For Ronny, Little Wing is a reminder of his fallen star and good times now gone.
Finally, there's Kip, always farthest out in the orbit, never feeling he belongs. After a successful stint in Chicago, Kip returns to Little Wing with a wife and a mission to finally prove he belongs in his hometown by renovating the old feedmill that figures so prominently in his high school memories: "Because on top of those old wood and cement grain silos, we found narrow places to lie on our backs and stare at the stars, to drink beer, to talk big, to dream. Our town, Little Wing, down there, not much to see and always shrinking, not even a stoplight blinking against the night, and everyone, all of us, putting it down, talking about leaving, going somewhere, going anywhere but here." Kip has visions of a thriving restaurant, of using the mill to put Little Wing on the map, but his dreams carry a hefty price tag. Of the four friends, Kip is most emblematic of a young professional generation trying to find its place, of wanting to belong in the place you call home but discovering home no longer fits.
Butler's story of five 30-somethings seeking to make sense of how their future relates to their beginnings may focus on small town living, but it will resonate with anyone who ever struggled to reconcile dreams with financial security, true love with real life, and unwelcome changes with changes that never seem to come. Each character must make his or her peace with the road not taken. Butler doesn't fall into the trap of romanticizing small town life, instead showing the difficulties that make rural living often more trying than rewarding. Like any small town, though, Little Wing's strength is in the character of its residents. As Lee observes: "America, I think, is about poor people playing music and poor people sharing food and poor people dancing, even when everything else in their lives is so desperate.... And people can say that I'm wrong, that we're a puritanical people, an evangelical people, a selfish people, but I don't believe that." After spending time with the people of Little Wing, readers will agree. --Jaclyn Fulwood
Nickolas Butler: Hard Work and Determination
|photo: Olive Juice Studios|
Nickolas Butler was born in Allentown, Pa., raised in Eau Claire, Wis., and educated at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Along the way he has worked as a telemarketer, a coffee roaster, a meatpacker, an innkeeper (twice), a liquor store clerk, an office manager, a hot dog vendor and an author escort. He lives on 16 acres of land in rural Wisconsin. His next-door neighbors are about 30 buffalo. Butler recently spoke with us about the upcoming Shotgun Lovesongs and his view of small-town life.
The manuscript for Shotgun Lovesongs generated so much interest, it went to auction. How did it feel to have such demand for your debut?
It was overwhelming. I'm not particularly comfortable receiving praise, and the week before the auction was incredibly intense for me. Talking to new people and just trying to process what had happened--everything moved so quickly. It was hard to comprehend that all these people in New York City had read my book and had connected to it. As a writer, you spend so much of your time alone, that to suddenly be linked to your readers in that kind of fashion was quite surreal.
You started out with an idea for a series of connected novellas.
I was incredibly impressed by Josh Weil's The New Valley. I think a lot of us at the Iowa Writer's Workshop were taken by that book. So originally I had intended to link several novellas together. Through conversations with friends and certainly my agent, I gained the confidence and patience to just keep building, keep accreting details, etc. I can't say that I ever had a concept, though. I just knew that I had some solid storylines and characters. I had a desire to write about Wisconsin, about place, friendship, love.
What does small town Wisconsin--small-town America, for that matter--mean to you?
I don't know, exactly. I suppose that around here (Eau Claire), small-town America is about producing crops or milk or beef or pork or chicken that goes out across the country and feeds people. But the people behind that work and their towns, all of that is invisible in the grander scope of things. I suppose I think of hard work and determination, determination to maintain a life-style that doesn't always make sense/cents. To commit to a place even though other places may seem sexier, more interesting. I'm not sure if that answer makes any sense or not. I think one has to be careful not to be too nostalgic for small-town America, which still has its share of problems. I think Shotgun Lovesongs is pretty fair to small-town America: some characters don't stay in Little Wing and that's a good thing, good for them. You won't find haute cuisine or a good bookstore in Little Wing, for example--two of my favorite things.
Tell us about the towns that inspired Little Wing.
There are two towns south of Eau Claire that influenced my vision of Little Wing. They don't exactly resemble Little Wing 100%, but I think their spirit does. Just these little towns that have slowly decayed yet still persist. And why? Why do they persist? Who is keeping things in place? Where does that new energy come from? I won't give you the name of those two towns. You'll have to visit Eau Claire, buy a map and start guessing.
How important is it to you that your five narrators have distinct voices?
The five narrators in the novel are joined by marriage, by lifelong friendship and by their common geography, which to my mind makes creating distinctive voices very difficult. These people should sound a bit alike. I think of married couples who finish each other sentences, or friends who don't need words to communicate. So the key is really in detail selection. A few early readers of the book wanted me to make Beth sound "more like a girl" (i.e., the use of "like", or other sort of "Valley Girl" idiom, something decidedly not-male). But I didn't think that was right. Beth and Henry should sound alike. But the truth is, Henry would not work in a salon, and Beth would. Beth is the kind of woman/person who occasionally likes to smoke cigarettes in social settings, and Henry is too cheap and too upstanding/boring for that.
Why did you decide to include a celebrity as a main character?
I think it sets up a nice dichotomy between small town and big city. Between struggling farmer and famous musician. It's another layer of tension. As a writer, you can make a celebrity-character do things that you can't make a farmer-character do, for example. You can take the narrative away from Little Wing for a while, and bring it to New York. You can give that character talents that are inspiring and different. You can give him wealth, a famous girlfriend, power.
What do you hope readers take away from Shotgun Lovesongs?
This is a very difficult question, because the reality is that readers will take away whatever they want, far apart from my hopes. But I suppose my hope is that they've just enjoyed the characters and the story. I'm incredibly thankful for their support, more than anything. Rather than hope, I'd like to say thanks. --Jaclyn Fulwood