Q&A with Nickolas Butler, author of ‘Godspeed’
The internationally best-selling Wisconsin author of 'Shotgun Lovesongs' is back with a literary thriller exploring the chasmic gap between the haves and the have-nots in a Wyoming mountain town.
Childhood friends and partners in True Triangle Construction, Cole, Bart and Teddy, are offered a deal that seems too good to be true: A multimillion custom house is already under construction in the otherworldly mountains outside Jackson, Wyoming — finish it in a few chaotic months by Christmas, and each gets a $150,000 bonus. The men are flush with questions but strapped for cash, and so begins a slow rumble and the unmistakable sense that an avalanche is coming.
“Godspeed” is the fifth book for Eau Claire-raised, University of Wisconsin–Madison and Iowa Writer’s Workshop educated (and long-ago Madison Magazine writer!) Nickolas Butler. He is the internationally bestselling author of four previous books including 2013’s “Shotgun Lovesongs,” which was optioned for film and has been translated into ten languages. The origins of “Godspeed” can be traced back to 2014, when Butler and his wife had a house built on their 16-acre rural property outside of Eau Claire. An old family friend, who happened to work construction himself, stopped by to check things out. They got to talking, and the friend told Butler about a $2 million dollar house in town that he and his crew had fallen behind on. The homeowner had offered each member a $15,000 bonus if they could finish the house in three weeks. “My friend turned to me and he said, ‘Nick, if we had all the meth in the world, we couldn’t finish that house in three weeks,’” says Butler. It was obviously a joke, but something about it stuck. “I thought, whoa, that seems like a pretty good idea for a book.”
Still, it took five more years, a dozen or so literary prizes and three more books, including the 2015 story collection “Beneath the Bonfire,” 2017’s “The Hearts of Men” and 2019’s “Little Faith,” for Butler to feel like the time was right for a novel that feels admittedly different from his others, and the first that isn’t set in Wisconsin.
“We were taking a family trip out to Yellowstone and we came through Jackson and it was like, ‘My God, this is the most beautiful mountain town in the world — I wonder if I could live here?’ Then I started looking at real estate listings and was like, ‘Wait, how does anybody afford to live here?’” says Butler. Later that trip, Butler and his family were hanging out in the spectacular hot springs at a stunning national park and he started thinking: what if this wasn’t public land, but private? “What if this wasn’t a $2 million house, but a $20 million house?” he recalls. “What if it wasn’t a $15,000 bonus, what if it was a $150,000 bonus? What if the guys really did do meth?” Butler gave himself six months to follow every complex question to its breathless conclusion on the page, resulting in “Godspeed,” out July 27 from Putnam. Butler is beginning a tour that so far includes the Wisconsin Book Festival and a lecture in Spring Green in October, but he sat down for a recent virtual call to talk about “Godspeed” — that conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, follows.
From the jump, there’s a slow boil building. An unsettling sense that something bad is going to happen based on the stakes alone, the impossibility of the task at hand and the desperation it creates in each character. Did you have set plot points you were writing toward, or did the events surprise you?
I think I was pretty surprised. Sitting down to write the book, and then getting caught up in the flow, I knew bad things were gonna happen, for sure. But I couldn’t really say I premeditated those bad things at all. It’s sort of interesting, when you write a book like this — which, I don’t know if it’s a thriller or a murder mystery or a literary morality tale — but you have to start thinking, like, what would you do?
In addition to literal crimes, that “what would you do” extends to ethical questions surrounding money, morality, land use, community, gentrification, addiction, more. Did you set out to say something about these themes?
I think after we built our house — which, by the way, is not like the house in the book; it’s a nice, new house but it’s not crazy — I began asking myself questions about why we’d done that. Did I feel happier? My neighbors are pretty much all farmers around here, were they gonna think this is crazy? My wife and I are both from Eau Claire — why didn’t we just move into the neighborhood where we both grew up? So then I’m working through my own feelings, but then just imagining it on a larger scale. Like, say you have tens of millions of dollars. And if you think this house is gonna make you happy, it’s not gonna make you happy. And what about the poor people that you’re abusing to make it happen? What about the fact that the very act of building another nine figure house in Jackson Hole makes it all the more difficult for the guys who are building your house to live there?
The homeowner who has given the builders an impossible deadline is a woman named Gretchen. The men don’t know exactly who she is or where her money comes from, but we learn that she is a high-powered attorney without family who has a mysterious but powerful connection to this particular land. When did the character of Gretchen come to you and how?
Well, my wife used to be a very powerful attorney at a big law firm and she was very good at it but she gave it up because it just never stopped. People keep paying you more and more money and you don’t even have time to spend the money. You don’t really have another life. All you think about is time because you’re billing in 12-minute increments. And that was really fascinating to me, like thinking about a woman that would be at the cutting edge of women breaking into law, a woman with a certain kind of work ethic and determination and code of conduct where she was a role model for other women coming after her. But really what ends up happening, whether you’re a man or a woman, you just get stuck. You get trapped in this life. You’re accumulating all this money, but you can’t really do anything. And that seemed like a pretty interesting character to me. But at the same time, Gretchen giving these guys a deadline, she obviously doesn’t give a shit about them. Or the homeowner in Eau Claire who said, get this house done in three weeks, I mean, what do you think is gonna happen when you ask somebody to basically work around the clock? I mean, they’re not going to be operating at their best.
Which brings me to the meth. Obviously the meth epidemic has ravaged communities throughout the country. How did you approach writing about it so convincingly?
I started doing a lot of research into meth. Like a lot of drugs, it doesn’t affect everybody the same way — if it did, it’d be much easier to identify and maybe even to treat, I don’t know. So then any time I was writing about the experience of taking meth, I had a sensation inside my mind that I tried to duplicate on the page. I really wanted my heart rate to be super high and I wanted somebody to hit that language and then be like [woooosh], you know, just flying. And it was part of this larger feeling of, I don’t know, discomfort? Or, anxiety? Or, dirtiness? Like, you’re working on a deadline, you’re working for money, you’re doing everything you can to achieve those goals, even as your body is falling apart. So I just kind of kept all those feelings in mind as I was working on it. Plus, when we were out west on that family trip, there were billboards everywhere about the meth epidemic. So it wasn’t very hard to figure out that these guys are desperate — how are they gonna stay up all night? How are they gonna do this?
One of the things I love most about your books is the way you portray the nuances of lifelong friendships, particularly between men. What is that draw for you?
I’ve been really fortunate in my own life to have great friendships. To me, friendship is the purest expression of being human. Because other aspects of our lives, like a marriage or an affair or business, these things are predicated on sex or money or familial obligations. But you can be friends with somebody just because you like having a good time with them, and that’s very interesting to me. But it’s work, too. I love the idea of these three guys who probably understand what each other are thinking without any words happening. But they’re very different. Teddy’s sort of simple. Bart is probably the most dangerous or unpredictable, but also probably the most fun. And Cole is the most practical. And you shake that up and mix in some stuff, some drama, and see what happens.
Was this a difficult book to write?
I gave myself a really tight timeline — six months. This was back in 2018 and I was promoting “Little Faith” at the time, I think I visited 50-some cities for that tour. We’ve got two small kids, so I would write every time I had a second, like in the car picking kids up from school. I feel like of all my books, this one is committed to plot more than the other ones. And I didn’t feel like there could be a main character. The clock was ticking and I was just like OK, I’m going to reveal each of these characters in time as we move along, but the most interesting thing to me was the premise of this plot and how people deal with things. There were moments where I was so stressed out writing it because it was hard to be in those people’s skin, but it was also fun, some of the scenes were just super pleasurable. When the shit hits the fan, and people have to decide what to do, that was really fun to write.
I definitely got shades of Shotgun Lovesongs, but this feels different from your other books. How do you feel about it?
I’m really proud of it and it’s the book I wanted to write. I set out to do this and I did it and I’d never done anything like that before, and so I love all that. And these writers that I hold in high esteem had nice things to say about it. Something that I think about all the time is you can only write what you’re capable of writing in that moment. And this was the book that I wanted to write and that I was capable of writing at this time in my life. Before anything happened in my publishing career, I worked a lot of terrible jobs. So there’s always part of me that’s like terrified of having to go back to that — that keeps me going. I don’t take it for granted. I really recognize now, at this point in my career, more than at any other point, that I’m the luckiest sumbitch out there. And writing this book was part of understanding that, too.
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