Nickolas Butler was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He is the author of the internationally-best selling novel Shotgun Lovesongs, a collection of short stories entitled Beneath the Bonfire, and The Hearts of Men. He is the winner of France’s prestigious PAGE Prix America and the 2015 Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award, among many other recognitions.
Along the way, he has worked as a Burger King maintenance man, a tutor, a telemarketer, a hot-dog vendor, an innkeeper (twice), an office manager, a coffee roaster, a liquor store clerk, and an author escort. His itinerant work includes: potato harvester, grape picker, and Christmas tree axe-man. He lives on sixteen acres of land in rural Wisconsin adjacent to a buffalo farm. He is married and has two children.
UntitledTown: Culturally speaking, Wisconsin is often characterized as a frozen wasteland, the home of two-dimensional caricatures. But books like Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men have are part of this sort of “renaissance” for Wisconsin, a place many outsiders now realize can be haunting or serene or nostalgic…even romantic. What is it about Wisconsin that helps you to translate that magic to the page in a way that readers are now connecting with, especially those who’ve never been to the Midwest?
Nick Butler: I think the honest answer to your question is that I grew up in Wisconsin, have lived most of my life in Wisconsin, and so, it’s just fundamentally very natural for me to write about this place. Maybe if I’d been raised in Wyoming or Florida or Connecticut, I’d be writing about those places. It isn’t that there is anything inherently “magical” or special about Wisconsin; only that which we assign to a place, maybe our best memories or hopes. I also think that I try to be even-handed in how I portray Wisconsin. In Shotgun Lovesongs, for example, there was some degree of romanticizing the place, yes. But there was also this notion that small-town Wisconsin isn’t for everyone; it can be hard to find a job, people can be gossipy, the winters are hard. The Hearts of Men is also likewise open-eyed, I think. My depiction of Hurley, Wisconsin for example, isn’t overly complimentary.
UT: In a 2016 interview, you mentioned that The Hearts of Men was previously titled The Faithlessness of Men. Was there a change in the scope or tone that caused you to change the title to something less pessimistic? Or was it something you saw in the story itself that gave you some shred of hope you hadn’t seen before?
NB: I don’t think anyone really liked the title, The Faithlessness of Men – except me. It’s clumsy to say. It doesn’t fit easily onto a cover. It’s bleak… So after many, many conversations with my editor, the great Megan Lynch, I was persuaded to change the title. The Hearts of Men was her suggestion, and, I have to say, a good suggestion. This is a big-hearted novel; I think I write big-hearted books. I also think The Hearts of Men is sort of mysterious. It harkens back to the old radio show, The Shadow: “… who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…” It’s also a phrase used in The Bible and Tolkien. Anyway, I’m happy with The Hearts of Men.
UT: Like many of the characters in The Hearts of Men, I read that you yourself were a Boy Scout. Based on your experiences and throughout the process of writing of this book, would you say you agree more with Wilbur, who sees Scouting as “essential” to a young man’s growth, or Jonathan, who describes Scouting as a set of “impossible codes and laws, mottoes and slogans that can only be seen as outdated, arcane, antique”? How has Scouting played a role in your writing?
NB: I was recently in Chicago where I had a couple of readings. I met up with my old friend, Mike Tiboris, who works for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a prestigious think-tank. He told me that one thing he admired about THOM was the fact the book sort of interrogates our classic American societies or organizations that were founded to model a kind of moral code. He said that the important thing isn’t whether or not a boy (or man) truly led his life by each and every Scout law or motto, but that he tried. I consider Mike to be one of the more thoughtful people in my life, and I deeply appreciated his perspective on the book. So, do I see Scouting as “essential” to a young man’s growth? No, not “essential”. But certainly helpful, yes. In its purest form, yes, Scouting is I think incredibly formative.
I’m not sure that Scouting has played a great part in my writing career, per se, except inasmuch as I think that writing is about determination and grit. It isn’t easy. There are many days I don’t feel like writing. But I have to. I do think Scouting taught me a certain doggedness.
UT: Both of your novels study the ways in which boys grow into men, and how their greatest plans are forever steered by decisions they made in their youth. How do you see our values shifting generation by generation?
NB: In many ways, I am hopeful for our society, and the ways in which our values are changing. I believe in feminism, gay-rights, equal protection, the rights of the disabled… But I am deeply worried about the degradation of our natural world, the ways in which humans are alienated from the natural world. I am worried about hyper-capitalism. I am worried about global-warming. I have two young children. I don’t want to leave them in the lurch, on a super-heated planet made chaotic by more and more mass migrations of refugees fleeing war-torn, impoverished, drought-stricken, or arid homelands. And I think we’re just beginning to see what our future looks like. I am worried that while we quibble about what is fact and what is fiction, we should be uniting to solve these problems.
UT: I read that the dinner scene of a father revealing his affair to his son was based on a personal experience, a time when you realized your mom was “the hero” of your family. When you wrote about this moment—and any moment you have such a personal connection to—do you feel like you’re processing your emotions through writing, or reflecting on moments you’ve already processed and come to terms with?
NB: Yes, I was definitely still “processing” things. Honestly, long after I’ve finished the book I’m still processing my emotions.
UT: Women are strong, essential characters throughout The Hearts of Men, in some cases emphasized by their very absence. Who are some of your female role models, and how have they helped shape your life?
NB: My mom is definitely a big role model in my life. She never complains about anything. She is uncommonly kind and generous. She is one of the most voracious readers I’ve ever met. And I give her all the credit for guiding me towards books and libraries. She is also an incredible grandmother, mother-in-law, gardener, and friend. My wife is another female role model, and I would NOT be a successful writer without her. We are a team in life, we work together. She is an amazing mother and wife and daughter and friend and I see (intimately) all the ways she quietly helps people through her vocation as an attorney. My wife is one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met, and I see now, how much easier it is to go through life when your marriage is a happy union, when things are generally smooth, when life is full of laughter and light. Other female role models: my grandma, my mother-in-law, Annie Proulx, Senator Tammy Baldwin, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Samantha Chang, several of my school-teachers from childhood, Professor Rebecca Walkowitz…. I have been fortunate to have many great female role models in my life.
UT: Lastly, I told my 12-year-old stepson that I’m interviewing authors I greatly admire for this book and author festival. I asked him, “If you could ask your idol anything in the whole wide universe, what would you ask?” So, on behalf of him, I’ll end this interview on a tough one: What’s your favorite color?
NB: I am reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Blue. No, green!”
BONUS CONTENT: Read Grant Cousineau’s review of The Hearts of Men here.