Witchy Writer: An Interview With Dave Butler

Today on The Logoccentric Orbit, I am interviewing Dave Butler, author of the groundbreaking Witchy War series. I won the first book, Witchy Eye, at DragonCon last year in hardcover for being a complete sci-fi nerd, and beating the tar out of my fellow panelists at Sci-Fi trivia. It is one of the best book prizes I have ever won. I strongly recommend it, and am now about halfway through the second book, Witchy Winter, which my wife and I are reading together. This led me to invite Dave Butler to do the first author interview I’ve ever hosted on my blog.

One of the things I love about the Witchy War universe is that it is incredibly detailed, with a rich history. How much research did you do for this series before writing the first book?

I tend not to do very much research specifically for my books. For these books, I did a lot of reading, but I didn’t think of it as research at the time. Let me tell you about how I came to write Witchy Eye as an example. Several things I was reading at the time came together, and from those I concocted the basic stew of this story. One of them was a work of historical anthropology called Albion’s Seed, which is a classic work of history by David Hackett Fisher. The basic argument is that we think of the immigrants [that founded the US] as being from England, but there are at least four distinct waves of immigration coming from different parts of England, each with their different dialects and cultures. Now, I didn’t read that as research, I just read it. And then, as I was trying to think of a book to write, I was reading the Brothers Grimm to my kids. And at the same time, I was reading a history of the Thirty Years’ War and realized, embarrassingly late, that the setting of the Brothers Grimm, this whimsical setting full of lords mayor and bishops who are also princes, is early modern Germany. So what eventually became the Witchy War series started out as an idea to retell the Brothers Grimm in early America. While I tend not to research specifically for a book, what I read very much informs what I write.

Hmmm. And here I was trying to figure out how NOT to ask the dreaded commonplace: “Where did you get the idea for this book?” and yet you’ve answered it anyway. How cool is that?

Along those lines, let me throw out one more piece at you. The heroine of Witchy Eye is a character named Sarah, who is 15 years old. She has one eye that has never opened, which has become a festering wound in her head, and she is called, by various characters, ‘The Witchy Eye.” My second child, when she was four months old, my brother was visiting us and noticed that her eyes were dilated to different diameters. And it turns out it was not a sign of concussion, but was in fact a harmless neurological condition in which some people’s eyes dilate at different rates. And so, from the age of four months, I have called her my witchy-eyed child.
Also, my son was born with one ear folded flat against his skull, because in utero his head was pressed up against the uterine wall. And my third child has a recessive gene on my wife’s side for very curly hair. So she has this extremely curled, white-girl ‘fro.
So these three facts about my kids are part of the basic inspiration for this story, which is fundamentally about three siblings who come to learn of each other’s existence, and each of them is marked from birth—one with a disfigured eye, one with a strange ear, and one with strange hair—because of the inheritance they have from their dead wizard father.

That’s awesome. Now, as a history teacher, I have to ask some questions stemming from my own professional geekiness, so here goes: You have created a universe, here, in which the Enlightenment never really happened. Was there anything in particular that led you to that concept?

Well, these books are often called alternate history, which is a fair thing to call them, but they’re not alternate history in the sense in which that term is usually used. In the Harry Turtledove sense, that usually means taking a moment in history I regard as pivotal, changing the outcome of that moment, and then writing a story exploring how things might have been different as a result. And that’s not this. In a way, it’s more of a cartoon. It’s rewriting the world as it is to make a lampoon of it. I try to show some things about the world that I think are interesting or important. And if there is at a moment at which the timeline diverges, it’s pretty much in the Garden of Eden. The word ‘human’ doesn’t even appear, but there are several species of human around, and one of the major themes is the struggle among them. So it wasn’t that I wanted to erase the Enlightenment, but I did want to give the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War a different significance. And doing so meant that Protestantism got written out…

Because those got replaced by the Serpentwars, correct?

Yes. So there are movements in the Witchy War universe that are Protestant-like, but no Protestantism, but many of those historical figures still have roles to play, such as Calvin and Robespierre showing up as lawyers, for example.

I laughed out loud when I came across “St. Thomas Paine,” as a holy figure of the Catholic Church.

I find it difficult to write pure humor, but neither can I write books that are purely humorless, so the books have a number of jokes baked into them, and some are kind of “highbrow” and some are fairly broad pop-cultural jokes.

And you just anticipated another of my questions, which was what the chief point of divergence that differentiates the Witchy War universe from our own. But I noticed that of the major figures of the Enlightenment, Newton perhaps being the sole exception, most of them have been pretty evil: Cromwell the Necromancer, the Sorcerer Robert Hooke, and so on. Was there anything about Cromwell that made you choose him as an avatar of evil? Or drove you to select Newton as the good wizard that opposed him?

Well, Newton was interested in many things that we today would call occult, and in fact when he proposed the laws of gravity, many of his peers, who were steeped in Aristotelian science, said, well, that’s action at a distance and is therefore occult. And it didn’t help that Isaac couldn’t explain WHY there was gravity, only that there was. So it’s kind of a truth to say that Isaac was one of the last great wizards in history.
As far as Cromwell goes, we tend to look at him as a force of progress, a democrat who is moving toward universal suffrage. But there are other lenses through which to see him, especially when you consider the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, which says that the king is God’s representative on the Earth. From that point of view, Oliver Cromwell is a kind of cosmic villain. He is the man willing to raise his hand to strike down the Lord’s anointed. So I wanted to use Cromwell as a cosmic figure, relating to one of the book’s themes.

In the second book, I actually use a term from Classical Egyptian, djet er nekhekh, which means “enduringly and repeatingly.” For the Egyptians, there were two kinds of eternity—that which continues indefinitely, and that which disappears, but then returns. (By the way, I make the suggestion in the books that this is an idea that comes from astronomy—in the northern hemisphere, we see some stars that never go away, and some that go away and return. So that’s my great contribution to Egyptology. We’ll see if anyone notices.) One of the themes of the books is that there are differing views of eternal life. Cromwell believes that eternal life means you never die. But some of the other forces believe that it means recurrence. Cromwell is science standing against death.

Which leads to another question: Are you going to get around to explaining the theology behind this world at any point? Like, why God might have made a different decision regarding an Earth with MANY sentient species and usable magic, as opposed to our world, in which we have a Christian theology that forbids magic entirely? And with which most readers are familiar with, at least in passing?

I don’t think I mean that to be forever a mystery. Most of the gods in this series are in fact things people could be familiar with from our world, such as pagan beliefs and Vodun. So this universe is polytheistic in that sense, but I think ultimately what you will see by the end is the ecology of a God that is rooted in the Bible but that includes not just a single God, but includes a triad of gods: Father, Mother and Child and how that includes many creatures, some of my own devising.

And are the Heron King, Peter Plowshare and Simon Sword, completely your own creations, or do those have a basis in history of which I am not aware?

No, those are my own creation.

Since we’re talking about religions, here’s a question at least partly from ignorance: You’re a practicing Mormon, and as I understand, Mormon religious tradition involves the story that the prophet Nephi led his people to establish a civilization in the New World. On the back of Witchy Winter is a site designated Na’avu. I know that in the TV series The Expanse the Mormons called the interstellar colony ship they were building the Nauvoo. I don’t know the significance of that term in the Mormon faith. How much, if any, did your Mormon faith inform your construction of the world of the Witchy War?

Well, Nauvoo is Hebrew for “beautiful,” and it appears in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. The only real significance of the name is that the Mormons built a settlement in Illinois during their migration westward, and called it Nauvoo the beautiful. For me that name is one of several jokes or call-outs that some people will catch.

Am I trying to write a re-written version of Mormon history, the way Orson Scott Card did with his Seventh Son series? No.

Am I trying to influence people to think a certain way about Mormons or Mormonism? No.

Does Mormonism influence what I write? Of course. I am a practicing Mormon, I live in Utah. I’m not just a little Mormon, so of course it does influence my writing. The books are theological: not in the sense of wanting to preach or teach anything, but in the sense of exploring ideas in a context of faith. I consider myself a seeker in my faith.

There’s a lot of Bible in these books—the characters take their vocabulary from it, and their ideas about order, and their magic. I’m trying to find the soul of America as it exists for me, and many Americans have seen and still do see themselves as living out the epic of the Bible. Mormons do, certainly, but so do others. I think you can’t tell a true story about America and what it means if the Bible is not somehow involved. So as I tell this story, it’s inevitable that my Mormonism is part of the equation. But it’s not an allegory or a missionary tract.
One more thought, which I’m afraid is sort of grandiose, but I’ll say it anyway. Tolkien wrote to a Jesuit friend that he was afraid nobody would like The Lord of The Rings because it was too Catholic. T.A. Shippey, who followed Tolkien in his chair at Oxford, commenting on this letter said frankly he had no idea what Tolkien was talking about. And that’s funny, because it’s obvious that you can look at Tolkien and see Christianity and Catholicism. To give just one example, Sauron falls on March 25th, and that becomes the new year of Gondor. And Tolkien the medievalist knew that March 25th was believed by medieval Christians to be the date of the crucifixion. What was Tolkien doing? Trying to build a mythology for his native land, in which his Catholicism inevitably shines through. And I am trying to do the same thing for America. So it will have a lot of idiosyncratic stuff in it, including my Mormonism.  

Now I’d like to ask some questions about the series in general. Is magic in this universe something that anyone can do? Or only certain people?

Both. Some people have the talent to practice magic at a high, theoretical level, called gramarye. Firstborn tend to have more of that gift. Most people, however, practice magic through a sort of hedge-wizarding tradition, using the rituals of actual magical traditions.

One of the things I’m very curious about is this: Sarah is child of a union between the firstborn AND what would we would think of as “normal human?” She thinks of herself as firstborn by the time she knows her heritage. Are the firstborn traits “dominant” in any sense?

That’s an interesting question, and not one I’m sure will ever definitively answer. Even among the characters in the books, there’s not always a sharp dividing line. It’s possible I will write stories exploring this in the future.

Aside from what happens to the soul at the moment of death, what is the difference between a purely human-looking Firstborn and what we would think of as an ordinary human?

It’s possible you wouldn’t be able to tell. You could tell if they came into contact with silver, because there’s something in their blood that reacts badly to it. It will cause them pain if they contact it, and injury if the contact is prolonged.

How did you come to sell Witchy Eye to Baen?

I went to WorldCon in Reno in 2011, trying to make contacts. Among others, I noticed that Toni Weisskopf was there doing a “Strolling With the Stars” event, in which you could meet famous people by going on a walk with them. So I went and discussed Witchy Eye with Toni, and shortly after that my agent at the time dumped me. So I sent the book to Toni on my own in February 2012, and her first response was, “Hey, this might not be the best fit for us.” So you have to be smart when you talk to editors—you don’t want to crowd them, and you also don’t want to let the connection go cold. So I’d wait for good news, drop her a line, and say, “Hey, congratulations that your author won such-and-such, and I look forward to hearing from you when you’ve had a chance to read my book.” In the meantime I got a new agent, and my first sale was a three-book deal to Random House.  So I mentioned Witchy Eye to my agent, and then went to Sasquan and told her that I was going there to talk to editors about having her send them this book. She was more of a children’s literature agent, so she didn’t know a lot of these people directly. I said, I will give you the contacts and you can submit to them. So I went up and connected with 4-5 editors, including Toni, who had not yet read the book, and then had my agent submit to them. Including Toni. So in 2016, Toni came back and made me an offer. So my experience wasn’t nearly the straight line you hope for, as a beginning author. And I got very lucky, because I passed up a number of opportunities that would have seen it published if I had been willing to rewrite it in ways I didn’t really want to. And the moral, here, by the way is not, “Hold fast to your vision, you will succeed in the end.” The moral is, I got lucky.

So you’ve just delivered Book 3, Witchy Kingdom, to Baen. Do you know how much further the series goes, or is this the end?

It’s planned for six. The second half will have a different naming convention, so it’s kind of two soft trilogies. I have other projects in the works that I can talk about. The Cunning Man, which I co-wrote with Aaron Michael Ritchey, is coming out in November from Baen. It’s set in 1935, about a beet farmer who learned traditional lore from his grandmother, and uses his magic to fight the evils of the Great Depression.
I also have hopes to sell a book entitled The Palace of Sorrow and Joy, which is a kind of a sword and sorcery noir about two thinking-men down on their luck, working as thugs, who end up getting targeted as patsies in an insurance fraud scheme involving murder. I’m also hoping to publish a middle-grade series, sort of an Encyclopedia Brown/Dr. Doolittle style set of books called The Tarantula Thief, which is about a boy who talks to animals and uses that skill to fight evil in his school and neighborhood, and I’m in about 4-5 anthologies coming out this fall.

Tell me about what winning the Whitney Award means to you.

There are two Mormon literary awards, the Association for Mormon Letters Award and the Whitney Award, and Witchy Winter won them both. I’ve seen that winning awards has almost no effect on sales, but awards do mean that someone read your book and thought it was good. For years, I got used to being an also ran—I was a finalist for the Dragon Awards and the Whitneys and the AML before—so from a morale standpoint, it’s awesome to finally win.

I’d just like to take a moment at the end to thank Dave for being a great guest on the blog, and for being very approachable and helpful both online and at DragonCon last year. For those of you intrigued by the series, you can buy the first book on Amazon right here.

3 thoughts on “Witchy Writer: An Interview With Dave Butler

  1. ‘We’ think of Oliver Cromwell as a force for progress? Just who is this ‘we’? I guarantee it doesn’t include many Irish.

    • Heh. I’m sure he isn’t. I suppose it’s inevitable that Butler and I, as Americans, tend to view Cromwell as at least a step in the direction of the Revolution. Certainly our own Founding Fathers took one lesson from Cromwell: that kings are neither indispensable nor necessary.

      • I’m an American too. But I know too much of the atrocities Cromwell committed to think of him as ‘progress’. (‘Modern’, on the other hand, a case could be made. We’ve had our share of tyrants in the last hundred years.) He was worse than the kings before or after him.

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