Nickolas Butler is the author of the novel “Shotgun Lovesongs” and a forthcoming collection of short stories entitled, “Beneath the Bonfire.” 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.
Describe your first job and what you remember most about it.
My parents owned a warehousing and distribution business during all of my teenage years, so my first job was probably working for them, packing pallets full of fluorescent lights destined for various Menards stores across the upper-Midwest. That job sometimes paid. My first *real* job was working as a Burger King maintenance man. I remember feeling very clueless, struggling to pack the right tools, learning how to drive a stick-shift, waking up way before sunrise to work on the machines inside restaurants before breakfast started. Smelling like fast-food. Grease in my arm-hair. Calibrating the soda-machines so that the ratio of sugar and water was correct. Being stranded on the roof of a Burger King in wintertime because while I was working on an HVAC system someone closed the roof-hatch and left me up there, freezing. That sort of thing.
I’ve had a lot of memorable and bizarre vocations. The Burger King job was definitely one of the strangest.
Tell us about a moment that changed the direction you took in your working life.
When I was about 28 or 29, my wife and I were living in Madison and because of a complex set of life circumstances, we were forced to apply for state benefits (food assistance, etc.) I was working part-time and my wife was in graduate school. At about that time, I just decided that I had to do something differently, either I was going to find a more conventional job that paid better money, or I would commit myself completely to becoming the best writer that I could be. Luckily for me, the writing thing has worked out. But let me tell you something. If you’ve never paid for your groceries with state coupons and a state food-card, it can feel: embarrassing, sad, guilt-ridden, surreal – a whole suite of desperate emotions. That experience was very profound for me, very life-changing. I reassessed everything.
What does a regular day in the life of Nickolas Butler look like?
Pretty boring, I think. I help get the kids ready for school. I read books to my daughter. I answer emails and texts. I drink a lot of coffee. Then I try to write for as long as I can. Sometimes it’s not very long at all, a little poem, a few sentences. Other times, on good days, I might write for four, six, eight hours on end, and later in the evening, several hours more. I take walks around our property: filling the birdfeeders, fetching the mail, stretching my legs, etc. I run errands: the post office, the grocery store, Target, etc. I write letters to friends and literary heroes when I get bored or bogged down. Then our nightly routine: make dinner, read more books to the kids, get everyone ready to sleep, wash dishes, good night. Basically, I’m a stay-at-home dad/best-selling international writer. Sometimes I get on a plane and go to Chicago, France, The Netherlands, California, Michigan. Most of the time I stay put, here in Eau Claire, and look out the window.
What do you see the future of your work looking like?
I’m interested in exploring different genres. I’ve written some plays, recently a screenplay. I’ve got a book of poetry that is now in need of a publisher. But fiction is going to be the central gravity of my career, I think, the focus. I want to explore certain themes: kindness, friendship, love, nature, decency. I see future projects being rooted here, in Wisconsin, or certainly the Midwest. I don’t know. I’m very fortunate. I’m just having fun right now. Thinking about new ideas, new characters, new moral conundrums.
When you think of the difference between making a living and making a life, what comes to mind?
This is a tough question to answer thoughtfully because I think the question is sort of circling around ideas of money, sacrifice, meaning, fulfillment, art, and duty. I also think that the question asks me to define the difference between “making a living” and/or “making a life”, and I’m not sure semantically what that difference is, or whether or not most people even perceive a difference. I don’t want to demoralize or denigrate anyone out there who is just scraping by, maybe working a job they don’t adore, or perhaps working a very “ordinary” 9-5. I’m also not sure how this question relates to new immigrants to this country, or folks saddled by heaps of college or medical debt – do they have the privilege to think about the nuances of this question? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know.
I feel very blessed. I had a passion, I followed that passion, and now my life is unfathomably happy. But not everyone has a passion, and that’s okay. Or maybe their passion is their kids, or their church, or their garden, and what they do 9-5 really doesn’t matter to them. I think that’s totally okay. The honest answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know.
This interview with Nickolas Butler is part of a series. We hope you’ll keep reading, and learn more about our Working Lives Project: Making a Living and Making a Life in Wisconsin.
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|Making a Living and Making a Life in Wisconsin||In the Breakroom with Penelope Trunk||In the Breakroom with Jessie Garcia||In the Breakroom with Brad Lichtenstein||In the Breakroom with Michelle Wildgen (coming March 4)|