The partnership between prolific novelist W.E.B. Griffin and his co-author, who also happens to be his son, has become so successful that it’s hard to discern where one’s writing stops and the other one’s begins.
BY DAVID MARTINDALE
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
It’s impossible for William E. Butterworth IV to talk about his life as a novelist without mentioning his famous father.
After all, his dad, W.E.B. Griffin, the prolific author of six bestselling book series, casts a long shadow.
“Dad’s one of the masters,” Butterworth, a longtime North Texan, says. “His body of work is huge. But he’s also 80 years old. He’s had a little more time doing it than I’ve had.”
Using the W.E.B. Griffin pen name since 1982, William E. Butterworth III has cranked out more than 40 fat military, espionage and crime thrillers. More than 45 million copies are in print. Figuring in the other dozen or so pen names he has used through the years, he has more than 150 titles to his credit.
If it were a competition, Dad would win hands down.
But Butterworth IV — or “Four,” as he is sometimes called — is not a rival. He is his father’s biggest fan, his best friend and, for the past five years, his co-author.
Their fifth novel with a shared byline, The Honor of Spies (Putnam, $26.95), arrives in bookstores Tuesday. It is the fifth installment of Griffin’s “Honor Bound” WWII-era espionage series, in which American OSS agents match wits with their German counterparts in Argentina.
Butterworth IV — who lives in Flower Mound, often writes at a condo at Possum Kingdom Lake and has two daughters (Catherine, 21, and Alexandra, 19) enrolled at TCU — wasn't the lead writer of The Honor of Spies, although he worked closely with his father throughout. His other Griffin novels are The Saboteurs (2006), The Double Agents (2007), Death and Honor (2008) and The Traffickers (2009).
Before collaborating with his dad, Butterworth was an editor and feature writer for 21 years at Boys’ Life magazine, headquartered in Irving. There, he worked with such literary giants as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and John D. MacDonald. His ties to North Texas date back to the early 1980s, and his first newspaper job, when he wrote entertainment stories for The Dallas Morning News.
The Butterworths work together so seamlessly, even writing in the same distinctive, detail-rich style, that longtime readers are often hard-pressed to figure out where one author leaves off and the other picks up. Which is the way it’s supposed to be, Four says.
“We’re so close and we’re so alike in so many ways,” he says, “that we’ve been known to finish each other’s sentences.”
So why not do that in print as well as in daily conversation?
We talked with Bill Butterworth IV about his literary living legend of a father, about their work together and about the future of the W.E.B. Griffin name:
How did you start collaborating on the Griffin novels with your father?
It started small. I was reading his stuff, because he would have his books sent to me from the publisher. I was reading them as any fan would, and there were typos and inconsistencies. I said, ‘Why don’t you let me go through the galleys and catch some of this stuff before it gets to press?’ That was 1998. I also started handling some of his back-office business, dealing with contracts and so on, and setting up the book tours. It worked, so he started feeding me more to do. Soon he was sending the chapters as he wrote them, and he would say, ‘What do you think?’ I would say, ‘I would like to see this fleshed out a little more.’ Suddenly, I was playing his editor. The next thing I knew, some of the stuff was being left in the way I wrote it. Not that he needed my help. But he felt, if it added to the flavor of the story, why not put it in? At that point, I was doing maybe 10 or 15 percent of the work. Then, when I started writing some of the books, it flipped and he was doing the 10 or 15 percent.
Was it also his idea for you to take over some of the heavy lifting?
He used to do two Griffin books a year, and then he went to one. When the publisher said, ‘We’d like to have two a year again. Would you consider a co-author?’ Dad said not just no, but hell no. Then he turned to me and said, ‘But why don’t you give it a try?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. You’re Griffin for a reason.’ But I got over that fear because it was a nice challenge. And surprising the hell out of everybody, I actually pulled it off. Now it seems to be getting better with every book we do.
Is it a challenge to mimic his writing style? Or does that come naturally?
Well, I have read him all of my life. I also know how he thinks. I know his voice. I know his flash points, which is to say I know what makes him angry and what gets him excited. I used to be that flash point. There is a lot of energy in his writing and a lot of emotion, and, having grown up with him, that just came naturally. We’ve become so interchangeable, and I think it’s because my DNA is almost a mirror copy of him. We think the same. We have the same opinions. I’m not convinced I’ve successfully copied his style 100 percent. But we’ve had more than one reader or critic say, ‘You can tell that this is where the old man left off and the kid picked up.’ And we go, ‘Nope, missed that one completely, but nice try, thanks for playing!’
One thing that’s unique about the Griffin espionage novels is how red-tape bureaucracy often gets in the way, forcing the heroes to make end runs around the system. Did your dad witness that kind of bureaucracy firsthand when he served on the staff of Gen. I.D. White, commander of the U.S. Constabulary in Germany?
He definitely saw it. He would write a lot of correspondence under the general’s name, so he knew what games you had to play to get things done. It’s the old idea that it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. That’s the classic way around bureaucracy. There’s a character in ‘The Corps’ series named Macklin. The way Dad described him is ‘forever stumbling upward.’ I think everybody, in any line of work, knows someone like that. And it’s always fun when Dad’s characters go around the roadblocks, when the petty bureaucrats get their comeuppance.
How much research is required to get places, dates, people and details of the 1940s right?
It starts with a personal fascination with the period. Dad was there, of course, so he has a very good taste of what was going on. But I’m always doing research and I get totally immersed in the period. When I was writing the OSS books, I would play the XM ’40s channel. It got to the point that, if you asked me anything about 1943, I could answer like that. But if you asked something about what was happening in 2005, I was clueless. ‘What’s on TV tonight?’ ‘I have no idea. What’s a TV?’ It drove my kids crazy.
At the risk of sounding ghoulish, your father is 80. What’s the long-term future of Griffin books?
We’ve talked about that. It’s a fact of life that none of us gets out alive. That’s why both names are on the books: to keep it going. We’ve got other series in mind. We’d like to put out more books. But you can only do so much. And longer term, we honestly don’t know. That really hasn’t been decided. The way everything is changing in publishing on a near daily basis because of new technologies, it’s hard to say. But clearly the Griffin name is a great brand. You don’t want to walk away from that.
Is there a story behind why your father adopted the W.E.B. Griffin pen name?
Dad had written a series of about 12 M*A*S*H books with Richard Hooker, who was the real Hawkeye: M*A*S*H Goes to New Orleans, M*A*S*H Goes to London, etc. They were very popular. Dad used his own name on those. Then, when he started the ‘Brotherhood of War’ series, he and his editor got to thinking, ‘Well, we can’t use Butterworth. People will pick it up thinking they’re getting a ha-ha funny satire.’ He had already had nine or 10 pseudonyms, so he just came up with another. W.E.B. was easy: Those are his initials. As for the last name, the first ‘Brotherhood of War’ book he wrote was The Colonels, although it wasn’t the first one published in the series, and a griffin is a mythical creature with the wings of an eagle and the loins of a lion. And he thought, ‘The Colonels and a griffin: It fits. Because, wings of an eagle and loins of a lion, that’s the way most colonels think of themselves!’ Anybody who’s ever known a colonel gets a good laugh out of that when Dad tells that story.