When you can’t get to a reading, you bring the reading to you.
I’ve hardly been able to get out to Twin Cities events in the last six months, so I clearly wasn’t going to be able to get to Iowa City on Monday, March 24, 2014 to hear Nickolas Butler read from his buzzed-about debut Shotgun Lovesongs. Luckily, the legendary Prairie Lights bookstore streams audio of their lit events. After this brutal winter, I bet there are a lot of people in the Twin Cities who wish more establishments would offer this service (noting, of course, that it’s much more difficult to buy a book when you don’t set foot in the bookstore…). And while the atmosphere projected by my laptop wasn’t quite as inviting as stacks and spines and a roomful of booklovers, and while the tinny audio through my speakers didn’t do justice to Butler’s disarming and wholesome voice, I do have to say that it felt good to be attending a reading again, even if from afar.
After an introduction from one of his classmates at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (this was a homecoming of sorts for Butler), the author launched into an excerpt, noting that it “isn’t the usual piece I read, and I’ve decided to read this part because it was here in Iowa City that this section made it into the book. This began as a poem, and I wanted it to work as a poem, but [I didn't catch the name of the person Butler referenced here] told me that it had to be in my book. And now it is, and I’m glad it is.”
The portion in question detailed a square-dance, in which he lyrically describes the open arms of the community and the jubilance of the music. A quotation from this section was recently singled out in the New York Times as an example of the tasteful “overwriting” that Butler is smart enough to avoid in abundance. Hearing that it was originally written as a poem makes perfect sense.
After his reading, the event turned to the typical Q&A. From the audio, it sounded like a good turnout, and the audience came prepared with questions. Does he write about Wisconsin and the Midwest intentionally? (“It’s all I know, and I know it well.”) How did you get in the mindset of a depressed character so convincingly? (“I had to leave my wife and new child over and over to commute to the Workshop, and it was a very sad time.”) When you were commuting between Minnesota and Iowa, did all of that driving help you with your writing? (“It was a quiet, undisturbed time when I could reflect on something somebody said in class. I didn’t even have a smartphone, so yes, it was helpful.”)
Butler bristled a bit when a questioner brought up the Justin Vernon/Bon Iver connection. “I respect Justin and he’s an inspiration to me, but this book isn’t about him,” Butler defended. “I told my publisher that if they wanted to do some marketing promotion capitalizing on Bon Iver’s success, then the deal was off. This had to be a standalone book or it wasn’t going to happen.” Surely Butler has taken this question at every reading he has given, and he must be tired of it already. At the same time, it’s a question that surely won’t go away, given the similarities between his character and the legend that pesters Bon Iver.
Fortunately, even with his defensive feathers ruffled, Butler is a genuine and disarming speaker who easily conveys that his intentions are not to ride the coattails of his peers to literary stardom, but to understand, as his Justin Vernon-esque character does after the square dance scene, “what America [is], or could be.”