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Nickolas Butler: ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’

‘Shotgun Lovesongs’ is American author Nickolas Butler’s debut novel. It is the story of five friends who have grown up to live very different lives – one of them, Leland, being an internationally acclaimed musician. Still, they have a connection to each other and the small town of Little Wing, Wisconsin – the place of their common background. Delfinen has asked Nickolas Butler five questions about the book

By Trine Krabbe Oksen

The dust cover of the Danish edition of your novel ’Shotgun Lovesongs’ says that you grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In addition, it says that you went to school with Justin Vernon (editor’s note: Bon Iver) who the Leland character is “based on”. Due to such paratextual information, it is difficult not to read your book as somewhat autobiographical (despite the genre being ‘novel’). To what extent do you consider the book to be based on or inspired by autobiographical material? How does the book reflect your own background?

I don’t consider the book to be very autobiographical at all. For me, this book sprang from emotions (loneliness, homesickness, ambition) and not personal history. I grew up in a city of 65,000 – a much more populous place than Little Wing (more based on the towns of Strum, Eleva, Independence, Fall Creek). What is resonant to my own life is the fact that I grew up with great friendships that I’ve been fortunate to maintain into adulthood. Other resonant themes in my own life: family, connection to home/place, valuing the natural world.

And to clarify, the Leland character is “inspired” by Justin Vernon, but not actually based on him, per se. It’s true we attended the same school, but mostly he simply served as a very inspiring local figure – a kind of hero we’re all very proud of.

Varying perspectives make up the narrative of the book, so that different characters tell their story from their point of view. What were your reflections on this way of creating a narrative?

I really didn’t plan to structure “Shotgun Lovesongs” in the manner it was organized. I prefer novels in third person-omniscient. But these characters really spoke to me. And their stories revealed more and more about one another in authentic, deeply-felt, deeply-shared ways. That’s one rewarding thing about this narrative tactic – it becomes like a room of mirrors, rather than a single mirror, a single POV (editor’s note: point of view).

As a reader, one tends to interpret one of the narrators of the book as a reflection of you, the empirical author. Are there any of the characters in the novel that you identify more with? If so, in what ways?

The characters are all permutations of my personality, even if they’re not necessarily auto-biographical. Leland is my artistic side, Henry the practical father and husband, Ronny is a response to my own experience with massive brain injury, Kip – my socially awkward regrettable side, and Beth is the stay-at-home parent in me.

The small town setting and the nature of Wisconsin seem to play significant parts in the book – especially in the light of Leland’s life in New York which seems to create a contrast to life in Little Wing, Wisconsin. Why the thematizing of ‘small town America’? What does ‘small town America’ mean to you?

I suppose I never thought about “thematizing” small towns, I merely thought about writing rural Wisconsin. I think I was interested in shrinking the stage of this novel – of making the characters and setting very intimate with this deeply shared history. I really wanted to write about Wisconsin’s pastoral landscape, its natural environment – that isn’t really possible when placing a novel in an urban setting. And for me, small towns are increasing disappearing and I’m interested in why people stay-put, rather than move to the city.

According to the dust cover, the title of the novel, ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’, is inspired by the concept of ‘shotgun weddings’ – that is, weddings where the groom is forced to marry his bride with a gun to his head. In addition, it is the title of Leland’s album. What does the title’s emphasis on Leland’s album and the forced, panic way of its genesis (that is, its relation to the concept of ‘shotgun weddings’) mean to you?

When Lee (editor’s note: Leland) is describing the pressure he felt in recording “Shotgun Lovesongs” – that was really just me, describing the fear I felt while at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I didn’t want to return to another dead-end job. I wanted to provide for my family, to be considered a “real writer”. I was deeply afraid of not succeeding.