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'Lovesongs' Examines What It Means To Come Home


How long do good friends keep growing up with each other? Leland, or Lee, is a rock star. He tours the world but keeps coming back, if not back home, to the place where he grew up - Little Wing, Wisconsin, a fictitious Midwestern town that feels as real as Eau Claire, which is where the author, Nickolas Butler grew up. His new novel, "Shotgun Lovesongs" interlaces the stories of friends who keep coming back to each other and try to get hold of where they are in the world.

It's been acclaimed in advance of publication, including the American Bookseller Association's citation as No. 1 indie pick. Nickolas Butler joins us now from the studios of Chicagoland Public Radio. Thanks so much for being with us.

NICKOLAS BUTLER: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: So, you grew up as someone who became a rock star, didn't you?

BUTLER: Yeah. That's true. I went to high school with Justin Vernon, who is the front man for the band Bon Iver. And he was a year behind me in school and just a genuinely good guy who has come back home and is doing all sorts of good stuff in the community. And we all witnessed him struggling, like, even as a teenager, you know, to try and make it. And he just stuck with it. And for me that was hugely inspirational. When he did, to think, you know, I knew this person when they were just a teenager, you know, and I guess, you know, if you stick with something long enough you can make it happen.

SIMON: So, Lee is not Justin.

BUTLER: That's true. Lee is inspired by Justin. The way that his music makes me feel and makes other people from Eau Claire, Wisconsin feel, that is true. But there's really not a lot of similarities, I don't think.

SIMON: You've got also in here members of this group of friends. You have Ronnie, rodeo rider - he's had an accident - Kip, who's become an urbanite in Chicago, and his wife Felicia. Henry and Beth are a farm family. Did you know these people in real life too?

BUTLER: I guess I knew permutations of them. And I am probably part of those characters, a little bit. But, I mean, the reason why Ronnie is a rodeo rider is that I grew up going to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan in my summers and my grandparents, they would take us to the rodeo. And I went to the rodeo every summer. I love rodeo. So, there's just little facts that kind of get in there, you know?

SIMON: Help us understand the range of things you did before you became a novelist.

BUTLER: Well, I guess it starts probably in my teenage years. I mean, I was the worst maintenance man possibly in the world for Burger King. You know, I worked a Christmas tree farm. I worked at Shopko, which is, you know, kind of like Wal-Mart or something. I worked as a telemarketer, a coffee roaster, a liquor store clerk, an innkeeper twice.

SIMON: Could you tell us, as I think a lot of people want to know about this, your days working for Oscar Mayer. A meat packer, right?


BUTLER: Yeah. I basically worked on, I think you can call it an assembly line. And we were packaging lunchmeat. And I ran a giant steam press that sealed up the yellow packages that you buy at the supermarket. And my shift was 4 a.m. to 1:30 in the afternoon and I worked with the best people in the world.

SIMON: Were you working that job at Oscar Mayer or any of the other jobs you describe, all the while knowing that you would become a novelist? 'Cause it seems to me that tuned your mind in a certain way.

BUTLER: I never thought, oh, I'll take this job to accumulate experiences and later dump them into a novel. I did it 'cause I needed the money and I couldn't find another job.

SIMON: At the heart of your story here in "Shotgun Lovesongs," without trying to give away too much, Leland and Henry have to work out a big problem.


SIMON: You know, the old high school thing. They both are kind of sweet on the same girl.

BUTLER: Um-hum.

SIMON: They're both kind of sweet on each other too in another way, aren't they?

BUTLER: Sometimes I hear the term bromance, which I think is degrading and sort of shallow. I have always been interested in friendships like that and I've had good male friendships and I don't think there's anything corny or silly about having a friend, a male friend, that you love and that you're willing to do anything for.

SIMON: You seem to speak up for regret in this novel. That kind of stands out in this time, doesn't it?

BUTLER: I think maybe it does. Mostly because I will hear from time to time a young person say I'm going to live my life without regret. And I just think if you can't go back and examine your mistakes or the way that you've mistreated other people, how are you going to improve and grow? I think from time to time to feel regret and then to act upon regret is a good thing.

SIMON: Nickolas Butler. His new novel, "Shotgun Lovesongs." Thanks so much for being with us.

BUTLER: Really my pleasure. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.