I think that all good novels are based specifically in a place

Nickolas Butler was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. His writings have appeared in: Narrative Magazine, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review Online, The Progressive, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he currently lives in Wisconsin with his wife and their two children. Shotgun Lovesongs is his first novel.

The epigraph of the novel is a quote of Moby Dick. Could you tell us a few words about the book and what it means to you? Did you feel it had any influence on the writing of the novel?

Definitely. I read Moby Dick for the first time when I was 31 years old at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I had tried many times to get through it before that, but I had never succeeded. Reading it that last time, I think that the thing that struck me the most is the friendship between Queequeg and Ishmael, and also this kind of brotherhood that was aboard the ship.
I don’t really know what my book is about, but I think it’s about friendship. As I was going through reading Moby Dick, I was underlining certain passages that stuck with me. I was working on Shotgun Lovesongs, reading Moby Dick, and I hit that line which is now the epigraph of my novel and I thought “that about sums it up”.

Was it like a parallel?

Well, nobody wants to make a one to one parallel novel to maybe the greatest book of all time, and I am not gonna do that, but there were themes that I really connected to, one being friendship and brotherhood, loyalty…

Did you know before starting to write that the novel would be structured by the different voices of the characters?

I did not know that at all. In fact, I don’t think it is a very elegant way to tell a story. The next novel would not be structured that way at all. It is structured the way it is because the first chapter was written in Henry’s voice, it came very smoothly, and early on a reader told me “I hope you take us to NYC for Lee’s wedding”. I thought that was a good suggestion, but I could not see that Henry was the right person to tell that chapter. Once I realized that he was not the right narrator, I was kind of committed to doing a structure like this.

The novel feels like a love letter to Wisconsin. What kind of feedback did you get from your relatives in Wisconsin?

I think that, overall, the feedback has been really good. One of my missions, writing that first chapter, was just to show my peers at Iowa where I am from, and what it’s like for those who have never been there. I was very homesick for Wisconsin, so I just focused a lot on landscape, on a small town community. I think that all good novels are based specifically in a place. You have to take advantage of the place, the setting. Once I got the confidence to stretch it out into a novel, after that it came along pretty naturally. I think people have been really positive about it.

This idea of “a sense of place” meant a lot to you.

Yes. My favorite novels are Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, those are books that are deeply rooted in a place. Place becomes a kind of character. I also had a very influential professor in college who really encouraged us to just write deeply about place. I could not get away from it. If I’m reading a novel and I’m not seeing the place or feeling or smelling the place, then it’s likely not going to be one of my favorite novels.

Music obviously permeates the story. Did you have a particular soundtrack when you were writing the novel?

Not at all. I think the soundtrack that’s kind of pervasive in the book is this kind of classic American rock, country music, or jazz too. When I am writing, I cannot listen to lyrics. I listen to a lot of Philip Glass, or something that is pretty non-interruptive, repetitive, even some kinds of dance music.

You said that you would not repeat the structure you used for this novel in another book. Do you have already ideas in mind for your next work?

Yes. I am always writing short stories, I am writing some plays right now, and there is a playhouse in Chicago interested in putting on some stuff that I have been working on. I think the next novel is also deeply rooted in Wisconsin, but it is going to be a close third-person narrator of one character, who is loosely based on someone who is very important to me. But the narrative structure will not look the way it does in Shotgun Lovesongs.

One of the panels you are attending at the festival America in Paris is about masculine identity. Although there are a lot of male protagonists in the novel, I thought the novel interrogates first and foremost what it means to be a father, a friend, a lover.

To me, masculinity is just about being a good man, but it is not wrapped up in some kind of masculine mythos or trying to be macho. The sense of being macho is just ridiculous. I don’t really know what the panel will be about… It is very funny to see how people categorize your work or what they want you to comment on.

Your novel is indeed definitely not about the inspection of the “male psyche”.

Well, when you write a novel you want it to reach as many people as it can, you want to touch as many people as you can, including female readers, which are actually the most numerous readers these days. I think that if you had asked me a question about masculinity when I was in my twenties, I would have given you a totally different answer. But I’m a dad, I’ve been married for nine years, and the older I get, the more I see hyper masculine machist behavior, and the more I don’t understand that at all.

I incidentally thought that Beth was the most interesting character. She is really ambivalent, and of course you see her through the eyes of her husband Henry, and also through the eyes of Lee, Henry’s best friend, who has always had a thing for her. Could you tell us a few words about how this character took shape? Did you build her at the same time as the other characters?

They were all growing together at the same time in my mind, and when I switched from one character to the other, I had to take a deep breath and think “who I am now? Who is this?”. It was fun for me to write a female character. I want to do a lot more of that moving forward. I don’t think it is challenging, you just have to have a certain amount of empathy for all human beings. If I had questions about authenticity, I’d just ask my wife.