When Nickolas Butler was attending the University of Iowa’s M.F.A. program, he commuted from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, where his wife and son lived, to Iowa City once a week. On the days away from his family, he began writing Shotgun Lovesongs, out of a “place of homesickness and loneliness,” he says.

The book, which took two years to write, follows a group of longtime friends in Little Wing, Wisc., through marriages and divorce, and the perils of fame. One of the novel’s primary characters, Leland Sutton, is loosely based on musician Bon Iver—“but it’s not meant to be a one-on-one,” Butler says. “His story is such inspiration to people from my part of the world.”

Butler’s story is equally inspirational. Shotgun Lovesongs eventually sold at auction as part of a two-book deal (the purchase included a collection of short stories) to Katie Gilligan at the Thomas Dunne imprint of St. Martin’s press for “high six-figures”; it’s slated to be released in March. Before the deal, Butler worked as a hot dog vendor, a liquor store clerk, and a Burger King maintenance man. “I don’t know how to gauge my experience against normal,” he says. “But everyone at the Flatiron building has been wonderful.”

Gilligan, who received the book on submission from Butler’s agent, Rob McQuilkin of the Lippincott Massie McQuilkin Agency, tried to preempt it. “I printed it out on a Monday afternoon, stuck half of the pages in my bag, and from the second I started reading, I knew it was something big,” she says. “I had to go back to the office to get the rest of the manuscript. I finished it overnight.”

The publisher has very high hopes for Shotgun Lovesongs, and has sent Butler on a preliminary author tour, galleys in hand, to indie bookstores across the Midwest. “We are pulling out all the stops for this, and hope that it will be the start of a very robust career for him,” says Gilligan. “The sense of home struck everyone who read the book.”