Author Nickolas Butler’s characters, and the stories they tell, have you thinking about them long after you’ve read the last page. His latest book, “Little Faith,” published in March, was inspired, in part, by true events that occurred in 2008 in Weston, Wis. Kara Neumann, 11, died of complications of diabetes after her parents chose prayer over medical treatment. Her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, were convicted of reckless homicide.
The book itself takes place over the course of a year, with the main characters changing and evolving along with the seasons.
The story centers on Lyle, a 65-year-old man who Butler describes in a phone interview as “closer to the end of his life than the beginning.” “He’s just kind of forced to start reconciling his own faith,” he said. Lyle’s daughter, Shiloh, and her young son, Isaac, move in with Lyle and his wife while also participating in a more fringe church than the St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church where Lyle has been a parishioner for decades. The story that unravels, Butler said, is “about friendship, love and faith.”
Q: What made you want to write about the Kara Neumann case and faith-based healing? That case took place more than 10 years ago. Has this idea been percolating for a while?
A: I think it was one of those cases, if you were living in Wisconsin, it was a case you were definitely aware of. It hung around the media for a lot longer … because the parents appealed the case all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I found the case really, really disturbing. Years later I started doing research … I didn’t realize what a long, dark, horrible history (faith healing) has. I think we’re kind at a point in American history … where we have Islamophobia … but we don’t tend to look at the dark side of Christianity a whole lot. There’s darkness in all kinds of religious communities.
Q: What kind of research did you do for “Little Faith?” Did you attend any of the more fringe churches like the book’s Coulee Lands Covenant, which takes place in a former movie theater?
A: I did a lot of reading, but, no, I didn’t attend a church (like Coulee Lands). However … you want to watch some scary sermons … YouTube is fantastic for that. This church that Shiloh attends is a lot more fringe than a lot of the stuff.
Q: Do you consider yourself religious?
A: I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. I grew up in a fairly liberal ELCA Lutheran church. My family and I go to church … and I teach a Wednesday night youth class … (but) I don’t consider myself to be a particularly religious person. I think for me I struggle every day with notions of faith and I’m still trying to figure it out. (Writing about faith healing), if I set out villainizing people going to churches like that … I don’t think it would be a very good book. The idea is that you try to somehow understand where those people are coming from. In the end, I just came away from it with this broad spectrum of beliefs.
Q: I know you live in Eau Claire, the book takes place in and around La Crosse and the original incident happened in Weston. How did you decide where to place the novel?
A: There was no reason to set it in Weston … the dramatic action of the book is totally different than what happened with the Neumann case. I’m really inspired by that whole Mississippi Valley area … it’s a place I’ve traveled through pretty extensively. I just wanted to set a book in that area.
Q: “Little Faith” came out in March. What kind of response have you gotten from readers?
A: It’s been really intense. Really positive. For some readers, if you’re going through something … a family sickness, death … the book seems to be really resonating with people. I think if we’re honest, even if you’re an atheist, you still might have questions about what happens to you or your spirit when you pass away. (Responses from readers) have been really edifying … super emotional, authentic. It’s not like a big flashy book. I’m just counting on it having this grassroots (momentum).
Q: I want to ask about the ending without giving too much away. Did you know when you started the book how you wanted it to end? I sort of loved and hated the ending.
A: I think a lot of readers share your feeling about that. There’s two characters in the book who are headed toward a sad sort of ending. My thought was, how much of that does the reader really need to see played out on the page.
Q: As a parent, it was hard to read about a child suffering. I know you have young children, how hard was that for you to write?
A: What was hard was doing the research and reading about real life cases where kids are really … abused. It would keep me up at night. I really actually felt that this was an important book because there could be family members who are experiencing something like (faith healing) from the outside … and might not have the bravery or strength to step in. I wanted to write a book where people actually did (take action).
Q: The character Hoot provides an interesting contrast to young Isaac. Hoot is old, knows he’s sick and is seeking treatment — did you intend for him to be this foil?
A: No, I wasn’t aware of doing something like that. There are a lot of aspects of this book that are very personal. The character of Lyle is sort of based on my father-in-law. Hoot is sort of based on a family friend. I knew I always wanted to write this Lyle character, but I didn’t know the proper way of telling … a story. The Kara Neumann case gave me an idea of getting into (Lyle’s) character. What would you do as a grandparent to protect your grandchild from your own child?
Q: Toward the end you describe Lyle trying to save a nearby apple orchard where he works from a late frost by setting fires to keep the trees warm. It’s a beautiful scene — what inspired it?
A: I think when I’m writing a book, I’m not thinking about themes. One thing that naturally is in all my books is fire, or an image of fire. I like the idea of this guy, who’s lost so much, trying to save something. I needed to place him in the orchard while the blooms are coming down.
Q: What’s the next project for you?
A: I’m working on a new novel (and) I’m about a quarter of the way through. It’s kind of a departure for me … it’s not based in the Midwest and is more of a suspense novel. We took a family vacation … flew into Denver and drove through Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. I was just really inspired by the landscape and kind of wanted to set something out in that area. I never wanted to be in a position where somebody would say “the only thing this guy can write about is the Midwest.” I think of it as a little bit of a challenge.