Photo Credit: Andrea Paulseth
Bearded Book Boys (BBB): From your first novel to your now second, you have immortalized your own experiences into your fiction. Does a version of Camp Chippewa exist for you?
Nickolas Butler (NB): First of all, thank you for this interview. I want you to know that today, my beard is well-waxed and groomed. I prefer a product called “WISDOM” from the folks at CanYouHandleBar.
Yes, Camp Chippewa is closely modeled after Camp Phillips (or, as it is known these days, The Phillips Scout Reservation). I spent every summer up there from about the age of 7 to 17. It is a remarkably beautiful piece of land.
BBB: I read a quote from you that the inspiration for the second act of the novel was when you met your Dad’s girlfriend on a business trip with your Dad in Chicago. What was it about that experience that made you want to make it into a story?
NB: It was just so jarring to everything that I thought was true about my world, and my father. All my notions of right and wrong were suddenly upended. It was the kind of clearly delineated moment when a person can say they’ve awoken from childhood and passed into the reality of adulthood. And in the subsequent years and decades, I can’t tell you how many other men have shared similar stories with me. I think, for a many children of divorce, this is a not uncommon epiphany, unfortunately.
BBB: You’ve had quite a few different (non-writing) jobs over your lifetime. Any favorites?
NB: I loved working as a coffee roaster. I traveled to Panama, Costa Rica, and El Salvador, and saw remote parts of those countries that your average American just doesn’t really have access to. It was physically demanding work, and I liked that. I liked having a craft, a trade; I liked being an expert in something. I’m still unhealthily obsessed with world-class coffee.
BBB: How has the reception for The Hearts of Men been so far?
NB: I think it’s been overwhelmingly positive, far as I can tell. Rave reviews in the New York Times Book Review, People Magazine, USA Today, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and I can only hope for more. The book was short-listed for two of France’s highest honors for foreign fiction. It is set to be published in over a half dozen countries, I think. That seems like a pretty decent reception, I think.
BBB: You’ve now released two novels and one short story collection, all based in Wisconsin. Do you find it easier to write about the areas you’ve grown up in or do you have plans of venturing out for future writing projects?
NB: I do have plans to write a book outside of Wisconsin, yes, certainly, though honestly, I don’t know when that will happen – maybe three books down the road. I’m really very proud of being from Wisconsin and so, I’m happy to continue writing about my home. I like the idea of Wisconsin as central locus, or pivot point to my career.
BBB: What’s one piece of writing advice that’s stuck with you the longest?
NB: Read, read, read, read, read. Wanting to be a writer without first developing a love of reading is sort of like aspiring to be a carpenter without owning a hammer. Books are a writer’s tools, a writer’s fuel. Read everything.
BBB: Right now you live a pretty rural life, but is there anything you miss about living in the big city?
NB: I miss bookstores, for sure. Haute cuisine. The occasional major league baseball game. But the honest answer is, not really. Yesterday, I saw a fisher about a mile from my house and it totally made my day. The day before, I woke up and looked outside to find six deer sleeping in the field south of my house. My family and I watched them all morning. Those types of moments are so rewarding and important to me.
BBB: Are there any books you’re really looking forward to this year?
NB: Rene Denfeld has a new novel coming out called, “The Child Finder”. I am very excited about that, and her career in general.
BBB: Almost every writer has books on their nightstand. What’s in your stack?
NB: I’m reading John Darnielle’s novel, “Universal Harvestor” right now. I’m about to start Benjamin Percy’s next novel, “The Dark Net”… Otherwise, my nightstand is completely covered in vintage Hardy Boys hardcovers and half-finished Sudoku puzzles.
BBB: Do you have any words for your fans that read this interview?
NB: Thanks for supporting my career – it literally means everything to me. When people ask me about that long line of shitty jobs I held, I think most of them assume that all that is way in my past. But I don’t think of it that way. I’m always worried that at some point, this dream I’m living in will evaporate, and I’ll have to return to those kinds of jobs. This is a real fear of mine. So I appreciate all the support of my readers, and the support of booksellers, librarians, and journalists, too. Truly.
You can find links and resources to Nickolas’ other writings and books on his website here.