Off Like a Shot

debut novel generating international buzz, Hollywood interest

Eric Rasmussen

Nickolas Butler at his Chippewa Valley home. Butler’s book, Shotgun Lovesongs, will be out in March.
Nickolas Butler at his Chippewa Valley home. Butler’s book, Shotgun Lovesongs,
will be out in March.

Just in case you have ever wondered about this sort of thing, here is how an interview with a western Wisconsin author might go. The author and interviewer meet at the author’s house at a mutually agreed-upon time that allows both to put their respective kids to bed. Upon arriving, the interviewer is introduced to the author’s wife, who, although they have never met, inquires about an embarrassing story from the interviewer’s childhood. She just so happens to work with the interviewer’s uncle, who equipped her with the story earlier that day. Throughout the interview, the author and interviewer inquire about mutual friends and acquaintances, and they even discover that the author’s mother lives just down the street from the interviewer. Of course, the entire interaction takes place over several beers.

Although Nick is quick to acknowledge with classic Midwestern modesty that the book may flop ... he is very well poised to become Eau Claire’s most successful native author, and potentially the next addition to our growing list of local celebrities.

The process has a delightful small-town quality to it, which blends perfectly with the situation surrounding author Nickolas Butler and the impending release of his debut novel. Nick is a Memorial High School graduate (and former Volume One contributor) who recently moved back to the Chippewa Valley from the “big city” (well, Minneapolis) with his young family. Also, his book tells the story of five friends in their 30s who return to their own hometown, which looks a lot like Fall Creek or Eleva, although Nick explains that the fictional town of Little Wing drew inspiration from numerous small towns throughout Wisconsin.

After those elements, though, Nick’s story very quickly loses that small-town character. His book is being published by St. Martin’s Press, and its initial print run is 150,000 copies, an impressive number for a debut novelist. Nick spent most of his October and will spend nearly all his upcoming March and April traveling around the country promoting the novel. “They (St. Martin’s) told me I won’t be home in March,” says Nick, “but I don’t know exactly what that looks like. I’ll just wake up every morning, drink a lot of coffee, and be ready to go.” Fox Searchlight, a studio that produces a large percentage of the stories it acquires, purchased the film rights to his novel, and, according to Nick, “They already have a screenwriter working on it and producer attached to it.” And the book is already receiving accolades in the one place where it has been released. That place? Germany.

Although Nick is quick to acknowledge with classic Midwestern modesty that the book may flop, no one may like it, and little more may come of it than the initial hype, he is very well poised to become Eau Claire’s most successful native author, and potentially the next addition to our growing list of local celebrities. For an author who never set out to write novels, it all seems quite surreal. Nick majored in English at UW-Madison, and wrote for numerous publications after graduating and before earning acceptance to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a prestigious MFA program. During his time at Iowa, a few of his short stories earned him a literary agent. Then, an idea for a series of inter-connected novellas that focused on four weddings transformed into the book Shotgun Lovesongs, which was snatched up by a publisher in a bidding war only days after it was offered. According to Nick, “He (Nick’s agent) drafted an email basically saying here’s my client, here’s what the book is about. He sent that off to 25 different executives at publishing houses. By Monday we had interest. By Tuesday we had so much interest that we couldn’t just make a deal – we had to put it up for auction.”

“They already have a screenwriter working on it and producer attached to it.” – Nickolas Butler, on the potential film version of his debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs

The book is a masterful mix of all of the tenets of fiction set in the northern Midwest – loyal, genuine characters who must weather their own shortcomings just as they weather the bleak winters. The story is told from the perspectives of five characters: four guys who have been friends since childhood, and one of their wives. Butler adds a twist to this Midwest, 30-somethings-returning-home archetype, though, by making one of his characters a celebrity, finding inspiration in the mythology of the Chippewa Valley’s other most famous artist, Justin Vernon.

Shotgun Lovesongs is a very good book, but lots of very good books never earn their authors agents and contracts, much less the type of national attention that Mr. Butler is preparing for. So what is it about this story? Nick’s answer is “I wouldn’t know. When you first start writing something, you’re not thinking about trends. At the end of the project, you’ve got what you got.” Like all engaging fiction, the story is built on the strength of the characters, and the characters that populate Little Wing are dynamic and endearing. The book also features several of the tropes found in many beloved American stories: the love triangle, the prodigal son and questions of whether one can go home again, even a dose of celebrity obsession. Ultimately, though, this is not the type of fiction that succeeds because it finds some fresh angle on a genre formula. This is the type of narrative that finds striking depth behind something familiar, like a well-done photograph of a scene you see every day.

Whether the book becomes one of next summer’s hottest beach reads and Hollywood’s next blockbuster, or something more modest than that, Nick Butler has already done well enough to make a career out of writing novels, which he will continue to do from his home in the Chippewa Valley. After March 10, though, if everything goes according to plan, many more people will hear his name, through author appearances at bookstores, media interviews, and maybe even a review of the book in The New York Times. Back home we here at Volume One will keep you up to date too, so stay tuned. If the rest of the country appreciates a picture of small-town life in western Wisconsin as much as those who care to live it, Mr. Butler will certainly be our next hometown hero.

What to know about:
SHOTGUN LOVESONGS

Author:  Nickolas Butler
Published by:  St. Martin’s Press
U.S. Release date:  March 11, 2014
Initial release:  150,000 copies
Film rights:  Fox Searchlight

Nickolas Butler will be reading from Shotgun Lovesongs and signing books at a release party at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., at 7pm on Monday, March 10, 2014.

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“You will be moved to laughter and tears, plugged in to a melody that brilliantly shares the story of our lives.” – Benjamin Percy, author of The Wilding

“Nickolas Butler ripped my heart out with rare honesty and good old-fashioned unapologetic love.” – Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook

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