Interview with D.J. Butler, Lawyer and Speculative Writer

Interviewer: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

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D.J. (“Dave”) Butler grew up in swamps, deserts, and mountains. After messing around for years with the practice of law, he finally got serious and turned to his lifelong passion of storytelling. He now writes adventure stories for readers of all ages, plays guitar, and spends as much time as he can with his family. He is the author of City of the Saints, Rock Band Fights Evil, Space Eldritch, and Crecheling from WordFire Press, and Witchy Eye from Baen Books. As Dave Butler, he writes adventure stories for younger readers, including The Kidnap Plot and sequels, from Knopf. Read more about Dave and his writing at http://davidjohnbutler.com, and follow him on Twitter: @davidjohnbutler.

Witchy Winter

Witchy Winter: (Published: 4/3/2018; SKU: 9781481483148; Ebook Price: $9.99): Sequel to Witchy Eye. Butler delivers another brilliant Americana flintlock fantasy novel. Sarah Calhoun paid a hard price for her entry onto the stage of the Empire’s politics, but she survived. Now she rides north into the Ohio and her father’s kingdom, Cahokia. To win the Serpent Throne, she’ll have to defeat seven other candidates, win over the kingdom’s regent, and learn the will of a hidden goddess—while mastering her people’s inscrutable ways and watching her own back. In New Orleans, a new and unorthodox priest arises to plague the chevalier and embody the curse of the murdered Bishop Ukwu. He battles the chevalier’s ordinary forces as well as a troop of Old World mamelukes for control of the city and the mouth of the great Mississippi River. Dodging between these rival titans, a crew of Catalan pirates—whose captain was once a close associate of Mad Hannah Penn—grapples with the chevalier over the fate of one of their mates. Meanwhile, a failed ceremony and a sick infant send the Anishinaabe hunter Ma’iingan on a journey across the Empire to Cavalier Johnsland, to a troubled foster child named Nathaniel. Ma’iingan is promised that Nathaniel is a mighty healer and can save his imperiled baby, but first Nathaniel—a pale young man with a twisted ear who hears the voices of unseen beings—must himself be rescued, from oppression, imprisonment, and madness.

Faktorovich: A year ago you started a new independent venture, DJ Butler Consulting, LLC, in Utah. Why did you decide to incorporate it as opposed to running it as a sole proprietorship or another business structure type? I have been considering creating a corporation to start a non-profit branch of Anaphora, but the cost has always seemed a bit much. So, what’s your legal reasoning behind choosing an LLC? Can’t you just consult people on their businesses without the LLC? Are clients more likely to work with you with this protection? Are there tax benefits?

Butler: Oh, interesting question. In theory, the LLC might provide some protection from liability, but I’m not really worried about that in the consulting business. The LLC gave me and my co-owner, my wife Emily, a vehicle for investing together, with some tax efficiencies.

Faktorovich: For the last couple of years, you have been working as the Acquisitions Editor for WordFire Press, which also employs dozens of editors and proofreaders. On their submission page they say they are not open to new submissions. Are you actively working for them at this time? At what frequency do they close and open for submissions? Is most of the team employed as independent contractors who are paid when the press solicits and accepts submissions? Editing isn’t something that appears on your CV previously, so why did you choose to take on this job? It looks like you published a few books with them before taking on this role. Did you learn that they needed help through this connection? How do you like working in acquisitions so far? Can you describe the worst or the best experience you’ve had so far acquiring books?

Butler: I was picked up by WordFire as an author before anything else. I spent a year traveling to popular culture conventions (comic con-style) to sell my books as well as the books of other WordFire authors before the acquisitions editor opportunity came about. When the owner, Kevin J. Anderson, mentioned to me at a convention in Miami that he was looking for an acquisitions editor, I sent him an email with a list of reasons why that editor should be me.

We haven’t been officially closed for submissions since I’ve been acquisitions editor, but that doesn’t stop writers from querying me—and good for them, frankly. So we have been soft-closed most of that time, which is to say closed generally, but open to exceptions, and the making of those exceptions has been agreed between me and Kevin Anderson. We are at present hard-closed, by which I mean you’d REALLY have to be unusual to be acquired by us right now. Most of our team works either on a volunteer basis or is paid out of royalties on the books they work on, with a modest advance.

The wonderful thing about working in acquisitions is that you get to make people’s dreams come true. Every single novel acquired has given me a heart-warming experience, and most of them have resulted in strangers becoming friends. I do have worst experiences, but to tell you them I’d have to talk a bit out of school, so I will choose discretion. Among my best experiences I’d include acquiring and editing R.M. Meluch’s Blood of Akhilles—she’s a learned classicist (does her own translations out of the Greek) as well as a terrific novelist and a joyous personality.

Faktorovich: Up until a year ago, you worked as a Senior Consultant/ Corporate Trainer for Acumen Learning, which advertise itself as having taught acumen to 500,000 business leaders. Their marketing goes on to say: “How many of your leaders would rather have a root canal than a discussion about financial statements?” They promise to help people understand “business.” Did you seriously believe in what you were selling; did you get disillusioned with it before or since this job ended? It seems like what they’re selling is similar to hypnotism. Instead of giving information about business strategies, or using real-world examples, they talk about the theory of understanding something otherwise incompressible about business. If this isn’t the case, can you give an example of practical advice you gave in this position?

Butler: Business is one of those areas of human endeavor (military strategy is another) into which a great deal of thought has been invested, but that investment has largely happened outside the academy. There is rigorous thinking about business, and it comes down to some fairly obvious fundamentals, but because of the priorities built into our public education system, most people go through an entire career in for-profit businesses with only the most tenuous understanding of what they’re doing. Orders seem arbitrary and selfish and results appear random or pre-determined. Cynicism and disillusionment result.

So if you can communicate those fundamental ideas in engaging stories and a logical progression of ideas, it turns out that most people are able to give themselves good advice about how to increase cash flow, raise profit, or maximize return. So yeah, with a little allowance for sales puffery, I do believe it.

And frankly, I think more writers could benefit from exposure to business knowledge, and especially to start-up theory. Every writer is a small business, and most writers are startups that fail—that don’t reach a large enough group of customers before running out of cash or will.

Faktorovich: Prior to switching to consulting, you ran an independent law firm for three years (2010-3). How could this business have an end date? If you’re still an attorney, why wouldn’t you keep this company open indefinitely in case somebody finds it and asks you to represent them? Even if my publishing company ran out of money and I did not have time to work on it, I can’t imagine fully closing it down.

Butler: Well, it’s not free to keep open any business, and especially a business like a law practice, where you have to pay bar fees and insurance premiums. I enjoyed representing startups and tech companies in Idaho when I did, but I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, and I’m thrilled that’s taking off now.

Faktorovich: What advice do you think start-ups, entrepreneurs and other clients you represented as a lawyer most need to hear? Is there a legal mistake that came up most commonly that you prevented? What’s the main reasons entrepreneurs should hire an attorney when starting or evolving a business? What’s the worst that can happen if an entrepreneur relies on their own legal research?

Butler: It’s easy to over-lawyer, especially if you have the money. Hiring a lawyer is a way to mitigate risk, but being an entrepreneur is a high-risk venture, regardless. I think entrepreneurs are well-advised to consult a lawyer when the stakes are highest—for instance, in negotiating with investors, and in bet-the-company contracts.

Faktorovich: Just before you started your own practice, you worked for Numonyx as the Director of Corporate Legal. You started with them in the year it was founded, 2008, and stayed with them until they sold it to Micron Technologies in 2010. Since this point it has started generating $3.6 billion in annual revenue and had over 6,000 employees. Since you guided this company from infancy to this mega success, why didn’t you stay on to bask in the profits? Was there something about this job that convinced you that you had to work for yourself in your own law firm? Curiously, you had worked as an Associate General Counsel previously for the company that bought Numonyx, Micron. Did you help to make this acquisition happen because of your connection to Micron?

Butler: I’m grateful for my time at Numonyx. I stepped up into more senior corporate leadership, got terrific experience, and made great friends. Helping the company survive through a time of falling chip prices and then transactioning the company to Micron was an adventure. For sure, my being a former Micron lawyer and having relationships with all of Micron’s attorneys made a lot of the communication easier, but I wasn’t the one who arranged the deal. Semiconductor manufacturing is a small world, and the executives all knew each other to begin with. Once we’d sold Numonyx to Micron, I’d gone as far as I ever wanted with my legal career, and that success gave me the opportunity I’d long wanted, to take a stab at getting published.

Faktorovich: Right out of New York University School of Law in 1999, you found a great job as an Associate for Clifford Chance LLP and stayed with them for 6 years. Did it take a lot of effort to find this first job, or did an NYU degree make it pretty simple? Did they scout you rather than the other way around? Did you work with an employment agent that found the job for you? What does “cross-border capital markets”, your field of expertise at Clifford, mean? Was this work interesting? What surprised you the most when you first started? Were you prepared for the realities of the work involved through your law school, or was the reality more mundane in comparison with how this job is advertised in law textbooks, TV series, or mysteries?

Butler: NYU didn’t do the leg work, but the imprimatur of an NYU degree made a job at Clifford Chance a possibility, and Clifford Chance recruited me out of school directly. Cross-border capital markets means that I helped companies raise money from investors in international transactions—helped a Polish cell phone company sell bonds in the US, for instance, and helped an Italian spirits company list on the stock exchange in Italy and sell shares to American investors.

In law school, I had learned to work and think, but most of what you do in law school is geared at case-law analysis, and was therefore not relevant to my new job, which was conducting due diligence, drafting prospectuses, and negotiating contracts. My reality was more like Barbarians at the Gate than like Better Call Saul or Perry Mason, and I’d say the thing that surprised me most up-front was how little of the actual work was legal analysis. I’m grateful I did it, because it was a fantastic education in business, people, and the world.

Map by Bryan G. McWhirter on the back of WITCHY WINTER

Faktorovich: I met you at the Baen Publishing Enterprises booth a few days ago at the Texas Library Association (TLA) convention. Baen has published two of your speculative novels: Witchy Eye and Witchy Winter. You had a gigantic couple of stacks of your book that you were signing and the editor said he covered your hotel stay. Is this type of treatment better than what you have seen from your other publishers? As you are moving into publishing more children’s fiction with Penguin/ Knopf, do you think they will or have they provided even better marketing packages? Do you think a speculative novel could sell well without a massive marketing plan like the one Baen offers? Do you know how the distribution deal with Simon & Schuster works; does Simon or Baen provide the funding for marketing?

Butler: I understand that Baen’s funding is independent, and that Simon & Schuster acts as its sales force, getting books into bookstores, but I could be mistaken. I have been working hard at selling and marketing my writing for six years now, and I continue to invest; I covered my own flights to Texas, for instance, as part of a trip that also took me San Jose’s Silicon Valley Comic Con, to stand on the show floor and sell books for the weekend. I have paid for chibi stickers, tote bags, and hats that I have given away in marketing events. I’ve recorded and given away CDs of music. I leverage my consulting travel to visit bookstores and go to conventions. Wherever Baen’s funding comes from, they have shown great willingness to co-invest in marketing with me, and I think we’re seeing the results. I’m absolutely thrilled to have a partner that seems to be as excited about me as I am about them.

As it happens, I was published by Knopf before I was published by Baen. Books written for middle readers are harder to sell than science fiction and fantasy written for adults, because you can’t sell to the children directly (unless you’re Scholastic), so you end up trying to market to adult decisionmakers like teachers and parents. An indie fantasy writer can use tools like Amazon, Bookbub, Wattpad, and Goodreads—an indie novelist writing middle grade fiction has to physically go to schools to reach his audience.

Butl_9780553512953_jkt_all_r1.indd

Faktorovich: Both of these stories have shocking opening paragraphs. Witchy Eye starts with a description of the witchy eye the title refers to: “her eye bulged in its socket, useless, sealed shut, and glinting with a hint of pus…” Witchy Winter starts thus: “With one last push and a hiss of triumph, Waabigwan gave birth to their child…” Both of these are pretty unusual for the genre. It is very common to see opening paragraphs where somebody is murdered, dies an otherwise tragic death, or suffers some other “ticking-bomb” mechanism disaster that starts the story rolling. Focusing instead of bodily functions like pus in the eye and afterbirth is shocking, but a bit grotesque. Can you explain how you settled on these starts? Did editors convince you to go in this direction, or was this something you insisted on? In fact, in your Knopf children’s book, The Kidnap Plot, you also open the story with a discussion of “toenail fungus” and “smeared” “goop.” So, would you say the grotesque is an element of your signature style?

Witchy Eye final

Butler: That’s funny, I hadn’t made that connection. Maybe some amount of the grotesque is part of my writing, but I would have defined all three of those opening scenes in terms of conflict. Witchy Eye begins with Sarah Calhoun, who is offended by the Englishman Obadiah Dogsbody (he stares at her because of her eye), and who determines to take Obadiah down a peg by humiliating him and his master. Witchy Winter begins with a ritual conflict (with a predetermined outcome), between the doodems of Maa’ingan and his wife Waabigwan, to determine which clan will have their child; when the ritual goes awry, it creates a new level of (real) conflict. The Kidnap Plot begins with Charlie running from bullies in the alley, and by the end of the chapter has him facing an adult with genuinely malign intentions.

Faktorovich: Are children’s books more profitable than speculative fiction for adults in the current publishing market? If not for profit, why did you decide to write books for young readers like The Kidnap Plot? After decades in corporate law, is it difficult for you to write at a reading level that can be understood by kids? Is there a trick you use to enter the mind frame needed for this style of composition?

Butler: The market for middle reader and young adult novels is larger, and therefore those publishers generally pay larger advances than science fiction and fantasy. I write for readers of all ages because I have stories I want to tell to people of all ages. As a business matter, I also want to capture readers when they’re young with complex adventure tales, and then keep them their entire lives.

I’ve found I don’t have any particular challenge writing for younger readers. There are subject matters to be more careful with or avoid, and you have to pull your punches slightly with respect to vocabulary, but that’s all. Children have just as much brain power as adults, and it’s important not to condescend to them with stories that are too simple, or boring, or predictable. I’m looking for smart young readers, just like I’m looking for smart adults.

Faktorovich: In the children’s book version of your bio, you mention that you currently live “in an old house” in Provo, Utah, and work “in a study where one of the biggest bestsellers of the twentieth century was written.” You’re referring to Stephen R. Covey (1932-2012), who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The bio adds: “He has kept the room’s original shag carpet and wood-veneer walls.” Why did you keep the carpet and the walls as-is after purchasing Covey’s house? Did you meet him while he was alive? Were you a fan of his writing? What do you admire about him or his work? Do you really believe there’s something effective people do that others don’t? It seems as if guessing what successful people have in common is like reading Tarot cards: generalized guesses are likely to be true but cannot really offer practical advice on how to get there. Have you found any advice in his work helpful to your own effectiveness?

Butler: I never met Covey in life, but I’ve met a number of his family members and people who worked in his business. I think he successfully packaged up some fairly conventional middle-class wisdom and reintroduced it to people who needed a reminder, and that’s a valuable service. Yes, those habits do help a person achieve practical success in life. It’s worth reading the 7 Habits, and of his seven, I would say “Sharpen Your Saw” is the one that resonates most with me. I’m a relentless autodidact—on the cross-trainer, I read novels in French, Dutch, German, and Catalan for practice, and I’m currently teaching myself the banjo.

Mostly, I kept the green shag carpet because it’s cool. But you know, just in case Stephen’s office mojo helped sell those bazillion copies of his books… I’ll keep the décor for now.

Faktorovich: The style you use in Witchy Winter is focused on actions and speedy dialogue, but these are interrupted with some curious backstory and intricate descriptions, such as this: “The myrrh ink Luman had made himself, grinding the chunks of resinous tree sap into powder over the course of days with his stone mortar and pestle, and then bottling it up in a small flask of brandy, as if he were mixing laudanum. The myrrh he’d acquired from a Venetian trader in New Amsterdam, who’d parted with it in exchange for a curse of wakefulness cast on a romantic rival for the affection of a fat meneer’s daughter” (325). You go on to describe that the curse in question did not fully work, but still drove the other suitor mad and to his death. In addition to being a great bit of description, it’s also pretty brutal, or a kind of magical realism, where human follies are personified in this magical realm. Did you do a lot of research into Wicca or other magical potions and beliefs? What were the techniques you used to visualize and describe things that might have no basis in reality?

Butler: In fact, with respect to magic, I try pretty hard to ground it in real world magic, either from the point of view of a practitioner or the point of view of an anthropologist. I am not myself a magician of any kind, and I didn’t study Wicca, but I have read a lot about braucheri, vodun, Greco-Roman magic, rune practice, astrology, and other arcane traditions. It’s a fascinating area of study, and the precise line between religion and magic is very hard to pinpoint. Fantasy novels, being the what-if literature of the human spirit, are loaded with opportunities to explore the human psyche with just these symbols and ideas.

Faktorovich: The main character in the Baen series, Sarah Calhoun, enters politics in the first book, and then fights to defeat seven rivals for the Serpent Throne in the second. Did you intend her struggles to be symbols for the political struggles America is currently facing in the Trump presidency, or across previous cutthroat politicians? Did you consciously research assassinations or political assassinations of rival candidates in the modern world’s reality to come up with the plotline for this fantasy? What do you think about the realities of modern American political life? Would you ever want to write a non-fiction book about such realities? If not, why not; if so, how so?

Butler: Actually, I try to avoid politics, because I find that I can more easily lose friends than make them that way. The models for Sarah’s challenge have more to do with the Thirty Years War and Josiah’s Reforms than with contemporary political conflict.

Faktorovich: If you met yourself at eighteen today, what advice would you give him to direct your life in the best possible direction? Feel free to speculate on if you would have taken your own advice. How early should he start writing books? Should he spend any time on the law? How can he go about finding a great literary agent?

Butler: You know, my life hasn’t been easy or stress-free, but it’s been good. I took up writing late, but I hope that means I took it with a greater sense of irony, and maybe more wisdom. I can’t regret my large decisions. In my small decisions, I’d urge myself to be kind, compassionate, and patient. I might tell myself that I’d never stop being shy, but that I’d learn to get out of myself, and discover that I really like people.

Faktorovich: Thank you for participating in this interview. Are there any other comments you would like to make, or any other topics you would like to discuss?

Butler: Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure. To anyone preparing to read my books for the first time, I would just say this: when you read anything in them that sounds like a cock-eyed joke about history or a sly reference to popular culture… it probably is.

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