Last week we posted a review of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar, two debut novels that explore the complexities of childhood friendships in adulthood. This week, we have interviews from both Butler and Thorpe, in which we asked each of them questions related to both works, as well as questions specific only to their title. Enjoy the interview with Nickolas Butler today and come back later this week for our conversation with Rufi Thorpe.
One of the things that I saw across both Shotgun Lovesongs and The Girls from Corona del Mar is that they’re focused on childhood friendships and what happens to them in adulthood and that loss of innocence that accompanies that transition in those relationships. It really reminded me of the closing line of the movie Stand by Me, based on the novella by Stephen King, where the narrator says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” What is it about childhood friendships that make them so special, almost mythic?
I think it’s hard to be a teenager. I think all your emotions are right there at the surface and you’re trying to figure out who you are as a human being. So I think the loyalties that you develop at that age are extra special. I also think the older you get, maybe, at least for me, the more shy I’ve gotten. I don’t go seeking friends. So the friends that I have are the friends that I made a long time ago and that I’ve kept in touch with.
Do you think it’s possible to develop friendships in adulthood that have that same quality?
Yes, I do. I totally do. I think the friendships of your childhood are somewhat predicated on geography, you know, who’s closest? Who lives in the neighborhood? It’s not necessarily very deep or complex that way. Yeah, I have made some good friends as an adult but the people who, for the most part, I’m closest with, are still the guys that I met in middle school.
Part of what defines the friendships in this book, particularly between Lee and Hank, are the dichotomies between them. Lee is the famous, successful, rich one looking for love; Hank is the struggling farmer who never left Wisconsin but has this really rich family life. Do you think we continue to assume roles in our adult friendships even after we’ve theoretically come of age and know ourselves?
I don’t know, that’s hard. I think the reason there’s a difference between those characters and in their friendship is I was interested in trying to explore the differences that happen or that seem to be highlighted in a person’s early 30s and why that time in our lives is unique. Some people have established families and things seem very natural and easy for them with their families. Why is it that other people’s bodies, for example, don’t cooperate with them, they can’t have kids or maybe they want to establish professional careers before they have families, but maybe there’s always the pressure to have a family. Why is it easy for some people to make money and other people not to make money? I’m not sure that I was thinking about roles, necessarily. But mostly about just these observations that certainly I was having at this stage in my life and trying to explore those things.
On that same note about the different stages of life, you were able to write about these characters in their early 30s as you were in that stage of life, but what do you think some of those challenges to friendships might be in middle and old age? Are our grandfathers secretly sorting out their differences through petty crime?
Probably not. The easy answer to that is probably not. … I think things are always changing in friendships. When I look at somebody like my father-in-law, for example, his friendships seem predicated on recreation and community service, stuff like that. I think there’s a little less neediness in his friendships than maybe what I need or have observed in my own life. I don’t know if that’s him as an individual or if that’s something you’re going through at more of an advanced stage. … I have a feeling that Lee and Hank won’t be stealing pickled eggs in their 60s.
I don’t want to put you on the spot to speak for all of men, but I do think that writers can often tell us more about society than sociologists because they’re just great observers of people and how we behave. So given that this book is a portrait primarily of male friendship, if you had to define what that fundamental difference is between female friendship and male friendship, what would it be?
I don’t know that there is a difference. I think if I was trying to argue that there is a difference I bet I would rely on stereotypes that aren’t true. I think good friendships are probably pretty much the same across gender lines. You’re talking about love, you’re talking about loyalty, you’re talking about just being interested in another human being and sticking with them over a period of time. I don’t really know how that would be different without engaging in shallow, cultural expectations of men or of women. … I think for the most part men and women are pretty similar.
There’s such a sense of place in this book. I’m in Ohio, so for me it’s a very familiar place, it’s not all that far removed from the area that I grew up in. That sense of place really seems to be resonating with readers all over the world. You’ve gotten a great response from readers in Germany, places that are far removed from the Midwest. The Midwest is so often referred to as America’s heartland, and it’s coveted and wooed by politicians, and held up as the epitome of Americanness, but we don’t see many novels in Midwestern settings. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know, I’d like to think that maybe that’s changing. You said you’re from Ohio and I was thinking about a friend of mine that I met at a conference named David Giffels, who’s getting all kinds of really good recognition for a non-fiction book that he wrote about Akron and his life in Akron. Or I think about some of the musical stuff that’s happening in my community in Eau Claire right now. I think that maybe things are changing. I would like to think that we’ll see more Midwestern novels, more attention given to the Midwest. I don’t know for a fact that there aren’t a lot of Midwestern novels. The only thing that I could sort of presuppose is that all the power in publishing is in New York City and I do feel that there’s a sort of degree of truth to that old New Yorker cartoon where the world kind of ends on the other side of New York City. So that’s the only thing that I can think of—everything is based there, maybe it’s natural that there’s not a lot of Midwestern novels. I’m not saying it’s fair, but maybe it’s natural given that the whole industry is based there.
Throughout this book there’s this subtle tension between small town America and urban America. Part of that tension seems to be, to a certain extent, that small town America is poor America. At one point, Henry says to Lee, “You don’t fit in anymore. Not properly. You’ve got too much.” Do you think there’s an expectation in the Midwest that people not be too successful or have too much wealth, and if they do reach those levels they’ll either leave the Midwest or if they do stay they won’t really fit in?
I think there is a level of discomfort in succeeding too much in the Midwest. For example, Eau Claire’s a pretty successful community, certainly middle-class, maybe upper-middle class. A lot of doctors and attorneys and successful business people here, but you really don’t see a lot of high-end cars. And I think that says something. If you’re in California or you’re in New York City, even Chicago, which I suppose is solidly Midwestern but I think the culture’s a little bit different there, people aren’t shy about showing, displaying their wealth. Whereas, at least where I’m living, people are a little chagrined about that sort of thing. I think it’s fair to say that culturally we’re sort of modest. Another adjective is cheap. My wife’s relatives are all Norwegian farmers. Buying new stuff wasn’t really in their code, you were supposed to fix up what you had, and save stuff, and not be buying new stuff all the time. So that doesn’t really fit in with conspicuous consumption. I can only speak for myself. I know I felt a little bit uncomfortable after the success of the book. I didn’t want to be singled out.
Tell us a little about your writing process. I know you wrote the first 35 pages in one sitting but in terms of your work as a writer in general, are you an outliner, a character sketcher, fits and starts, what works for you as a writer?
I really don’t map anything out. I don’t really chart things. I like to think that my writing comes from emotion and less from ideas. Not that I’m not exploring ideas, but I’m kind of interested in the reader making an emotional connection to the character, so that’s my priority. The first 35 or so pages came very easily, the last 75 pages came very easily, the middle was the hard work for me. I had been a short story writer before this and I’d been a poet before this. Those disciplines you can do in one sitting after you’ve formulated an idea or had the emotion you want to explore. I could sit down after my kids had gone to sleep and bang something out overnight. But the hard thing about this novel was just giving the characters time to grow and surprise me. And just giving the whole thing room to breathe. And nobody can really teach you how to write a novel, either, unfortunately. They can give you tips for good writing but really I think the best advice for writing a novel is that you just gotta hang in there, and keep going. And that’s not very helpful. It’s a long, long road.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m actually just finishing the edits for a short story collection that’s coming out in 2015. My first book of poetry’s coming out in 2015, as well. So both of those things are really exciting. And I’m trying to figure out what the next novel is. I’ve got a couple ideas. I’m a little ways into those ideas, those directions, but I’m just not sure what the right direction is, and I want things to be done well, so I’m kind of taking my time. But yeah, I’m working on that, too.
We can’t wait to see what Nickolas Butler comes up with next! In case you missed it last week, check out the audio clip of Shotgun Lovesongs below. We think you’ll agree that the cast, which includes Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos, does a fantastic job capturing the spirit of the Midwest.
Stop back later this week to read Rufi Thorpe’s take on some of these same questions, as they relate to The Girls from Corona del Mar.
Shotgun Lovesongs, available from Macmillan Audio