My first year as a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I rented a room in a drafty house from an adjunct professor of English who shelved her books according to color (white, ROYGBIV, black – from left to right, if memory serves) and whose cat (I’m allergic to cats) was named Trotsky. In my room were literally three pieces of furniture.
1. One half of my brother-in-law’s childhood bunk-bed; painted fire-engine red and affectionately known as ‘Red Bed.’
2. One small white desk, courtesy of my mother-in-law.
3. One folding chair, black.
That first semester in Iowa, my workshop instructor was James Alan McPherson, and because there weren’t many of us in his class, I could submit a story just about every third week, which was great for my productivity and no doubt excruciating for my peers. In early October, sitting at my desk, staring at the wall, thinking about my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, homesick for my wife and son, desperate for some kind of literary break, I wrote the first 35 pages of Shotgun Lovesongs in one very long sitting. At the time, it was titled Them That Were Not Invited (nobody, except me, liked that title).
I submitted the story to workshop and my peers were overwhelmingly positive. They all loved Ronny, loved the image of his scarred, tattooed chest. They loved Leland’s story, his power, his music. They loved the images of Henry and Beth’s bedroom, their old clothing.
So obviously, I thought, ‘They’re all f*#king with me.’ And though I cared about the characters, I let them be until spring, when I wrote another long chunk of their story for Sam Chang’s workshop. This one I entitled Brother, Bullet and it was essentially about two very marginal characters in Shotgun Lovesongs, the Giroux twins. My brother-in-law was living with us at the time, and he came home one night from a party with this unbelievable tale of a stolen pickle jar, a main-street drive-by shooting, and an ad hoc surgery, and I just thought, ‘That’s the best goddamned story I’ve ever heard. I have to write it.’ But I knew it couldn’t be pickles (though I love Arlo Guthrie). It had to be pickled eggs – a tip of the cap to Paul Newman and Cool Hand Luke. So between the a love-triangle involving the Giroux twins and this incredible anecdote of stolen pickles, I thought I might have the bookends for a pretty decent novel, though I have to admit that I always thought of it more as a collection of loosely organized novellas, a la Josh Weil’s The New Valley.
Shotgun Lovesongs was completed in the summer of 2012. Some characters had their roles shrunk, others grew unexpectedly, their voices rising in volume until it was necessary to let them occupy their own narrative space (in particular, I think of Ronny, whose perspective and voice took the most amount of time and care). A huge amount of credit is due to my friends and peers at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, most of whom are credited in the acknowledgements of the book. And a great debt of gratitude is owed to my agent, Rob McQuilkin, who after reading Them That Were Not Invited, asked, ‘Well, I hope you’re going to take us to New York next? Aren’t you?’
To which I calmly lied, ‘Definitely, it’s already in the works.’
Nickolas Butler on landscape, books and what he hopes Shotgun Lovesongs will be for readers. Video by Peter Elliott Eaton on Vimeo.
Nickolas Butler reads a passage from Lee's chapter of the novel. Video by Peter Elliott Eaton on Vimeo.