Interview with D.J. Butler on The City of the Saints

William interviews D.J. Butler on his self-published serialized novel The City of the Saints, an alt-history, Mormon steampunk story featuring Sam Clemens, Poe, etc.

Several weeks ago friend of AMV Nathan Shumate posted an ebook cover he had made. When I saw it, I knew that I needed to interview the author. The cover was for Liahona, the first volume in D.J. Butler’s The City of the Saints series. The second volume — Deseret — was just released last week.

D.J. Butler (Dave) is a novelist living in the Rocky Mountain northwest. His training is in law, and he worked as a securities lawyer at a major international firm and inhouse at two multinational semiconductor manufacturers before taking up writing fiction. He is a lover of language and languages, a guitarist and self-recorder, and a serious reader. He is married to a powerful and clever woman and together they have three devious children.

For more on the series like the City of the Saints Facebook page; read more about D.J. Butler’s writing at his author website:

What was the genesis of The City of the Saints series/long novel (both in terms of the idea and the writing process)?

The genesis lies in the real world. In the real world, in 1860, Captain Richard Burton, famous explorer, linguist, and soldier, arguably discoverer of the source of the Nile, and anthropologist who had successfully completed the pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise, came to Salt Lake City. He wrote a book about his experiences, called The City of the Saints, in which he gives us a thumbnail portrait of Brigham Young, talks about going shot for shot with Porter Rockwell while talking about the dangers of the road to Carson City, and otherwise reports a lot of wonderful detail with a clear and experienced eye. It’s a great book, and you should read it. I stole Burton’s title (dropped the article), and his experience: City of the Saints is a gonzo action over the top steampunk version of his real journey.

I had been wanting to write a novel with Richard Burton as the protagonist since I’d read the Riverworld books three or four years ago. One day, literally, I saw the spine of The City of the Saints on my bookshelf and thought “that book would be awesome as steampunk.” So I made it my next project.

What is the story about? Give us your extended elevator pitch for it.

1859; war looms between the States. The U.S. Army sends special agent Sam Clemens in his amphibious steam-truck the Jim Smiley to the Kingdom of Deseret. President Buchanan wants Deseret on his side in the coming war because, thanks to the possibly-mad inventor Orson Pratt, Deseret is the world’s only air power, and is even rumored to have developed phlogiston weapons. Clemens, a man obsessed with technology but also haunted by the death of his brother, has offers to make to President Brigham Young, and a mission of sabotage if the offers are rejected.

Clemens isn’t the only one interested in Deseret’s air-ships. Her Britannic Majesty Queen Victoria wants southern cotton to continue to come to English mills. She’d rather have peace, but if there’s to be war, she wants Deseret on her side and the side of the seceding south. Her emissary is Captain Richard Burton, irascible, unshockable, indomitable, and a dangerous man with a sword. Burton is conflicted over his recent engagement to be married and the possible end it threatens to put to his life of adventure, and is saddled with a useless diplomat who may be lying to him, and is definitely getting in his way.

The clandestine Confederate leaders, and their spymaster Robert E. Lee, have sent their master agent Edgar Allan Poe. Poe has been living underground for a decade, having faked his death after a nearly fatal encounter with the Mormon agent Eliza “Roxie” Snow. Now, dying of consumption, he travels with a murderous carny in disguise as exhibitors of Egyptian antiquities. The great Horace Hunley has armed him with lethal devices disguised as Egyptiana: a hypnotic hypocephalus, a jar full of flesh-eating scarab beetles, and the mysterious Seth Beast. Poe has offers to make to Brigham Young as well, and also a rendezvous with the Madman Orson Pratt himself”¦ who appears to be playing some kind of side game.

Deseret’s most loyal defenders, meanwhile, are the counterintelligence agents Eliza R. Snow (poisoner, counterfeiter, seductress) and Ann Eliza Webb (kung fu chick), and the Deseret Marshal Orrin Porter Rockwell. AWOL because Brigham won’t listen to their warnings of Danite machinations, the Mormon agents struggle against their gentile counterparts struggle against and more sinister plotters in an escalating tale of sabotage, hijacking, kidnapping, murder, explosions, and worse, that may seal the fate not only of Deseret”¦ but of the United States.

The setting is steampunk. Why use a steampunk setting for telling a story about Mormons?

Because steampunk Mormons is awesome.

The (clears throat importantly) more academic answer is that one of the things steampunk excels at as a genre is stories that explore the boundary line between man and machine. City of the Saints is a rollicking action story, and not a theme-driven plodasaurus, but it does have themes, and one of them is the line between man and machine”¦ in organized units. Can a society reduce its people to cogs in a machine? For that matter, can a divine plan do so? And is that a good thing?

You include quite a few historical figures in the novel, both Mormon and gentile”“what was the overall approach to the use of such characters? Obviously it’s an alternate-history adventure story so you didn’t need to hew only to historical fact, but what were you looking for/to accomplish as you decided which historical characters to include. For example, why Poe?

Burton was a given. So were some of the Mormons (John D. Lee, Bill Hickman, Orrin Porter Rockwell, Orson Pratt). After that, my principal criterion was awesomeness. For instance, the Liahona is a steam-truck that operates as a land ferry between Fort Bridger and the Great Salt Lake City. Its captain is Dan Jones, and his five-year-old midshipman is John Moses Browning. How awesome is that?

I thought Sam Clemens would be fun to write as a cynical, homespun homilist, and a great fit for steampunk. And I was right. Ha!

Poe was a little harder to hit upon, but I knew I needed a southern champion, and once the idea occurred to me, Poe was irresistible. I could write him as a great over-thinker of everything, paranoid, a self-hating romantic with doom on his brow. In, naturally, a top hat and fingerless gloves.

Without getting too-spoilerish, what are some of the historical deviations you build in to the story?

Poe is alive. He faked his death, after Eliza R. Snow nearly killed him.

Slavery has not been an issue since Eli Whitney revolutionized the southern economy with clocksprung workers and beasts of burden. A significant portion of the black population of the south relocated to President Harriet Tubman’s Mexico (there are major Mexican characters in the story, too).

Bishop Koyle’s Dream Mine was dug earlier than in real life”¦ and in Pleasant Grove.

You know, crazy stuff.

Why did you decide to self-publish The City of the Saints and why as an ebook series?

From the beginning, I thought I might have to self-publish it, since I don’t know how much appetite the general population of spec fic readers has for Mormonalia. I wrote it in four equal-sized parts thinking it would be good to publish as a serial, if it came to that, but in the first place I sent it to my agent, to sit in the queue of books of mine he was not reading.

After my agent and I parted ways, I moved to a strategy that included both the traditional publishing quest and self-publishing. In that strategy, City of the Saints might have gone either way, but it fits nicely into the self-publishing side, and, frankly, I was anxious to get it out and to readers. Because it’s too awesome to just sit on my hard drive.

I like ebook novellas as a format. They’re quick to get out, and you can price them cheap. Publishing novellas means that if someone discovers me today, they can go to Amazon and discover multiple things of mine to buy”¦ and more coming soon. And the genius of Createspace means that after I put out the ebooks, I can also bundle them as paperbacks.

You worked on the cover art for the ebook editions with Nathan Shumate, one of my Monsters & Mormons contributors. What was the process like and how did you decide on the cover art?

Nathan read City of the Saints as a beta reader. Then he pitched me on doing the covers by showing me how he thought they’d look. I gave him almost no comments (maybe literally no comments), so what you see is entirely Nathan’s work, and the fruit of my policy: only work with awesome.

What narrative works are you digging right now?

I’m early in my second read of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books (I think #4 is next on my list). Can’t beat “˜em. Finishing Anansi Boys right now; this may be my favorite Gaiman book, since it has better plotting than they usually do, with all the cool fabulist. And I just realized that I have a collection of Hawthorne’s novels on my nightstand that I’d forgotten about, so I’m excited to get to that.

Tell us about your other writing projects. What’s next?

I also write an action-horror pulp fiction serial called Rock Band Fights Evil. I am in the middle of #6 (The Good Son) right now, and should publish it in August, before Timpanogos.

Then I owe Nathan a novelette about spacetime-traveling Egyptian priests of Nyarlathotep for the upcoming anthology Space Eldritch.

Then I think I’ll write a follow-up to a short book on the Book of Mormon I published this spring (Plain and Precious Things: The Temple Religion of the Book of Mormon’s Visionary Men).

After that, I want to publish the first of a middle reader series that’s sort of an inside-out comedic ghost story take on Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Devil’s Interval (The Drollery Letters, No. 1).

That should all be out this fall. Follow me at my website for further developments beyond that.

Thanks, Dave!

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