Monday, September 30, 2013

Jim Butcher and my best friend save Christmas. More or less.

This is the story of how Jim Butcher teamed up with my best friend to save Christmas.

Okay, not Christmas. But pretty close.

As regular followers of this blog probably know, I had a birthday in early September. Some people hate having birthdays. Not me. I like the idea of having my very own holiday. I traditionally bake cupcakes and spend the day delivering them to my friends and loved ones. Nothing puts you in a celebratory mood like a cupcake, and this way I get most of the cake out of my house before I can eat it all. Win-win.

This year, the last stop on the cupcake route was my best friend, whom I’ve known since we were both gawky teenagers and whom I’ll call Violet. (She asked me not to use her name in this story, for reasons that may soon be apparent to you, though I’m not sure they’re apparent to me.) She had already mentioned wanting to give me a birthday present in exchange for the cake, and I was fairly sure it was going to be a copy of Cold Days, the latest installment in Jim Butcher’s highly entertaining Dresden Files series of urban-fantasy novels.

(Quick primer for the uninitiated: the Dresden Files, arguably the most popular series in the entire urban-fantasy genre, is about a smartmouthed wizard named Harry Dresden who also happens to be a private investigator in Chicago. The eerily accurate cover blurb describes the series as a cross between Philip Marlowe and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Cold Days is the 14th book in the series.)

Violet, bless her heart, is a latecomer to the Dresdenverse, and has recently been borrowing my paperbacks and reading them as fast as I can drop them off at her house. I had idly remarked sometime in July that I couldn’t lend her Cold Days until I bought a copy on my own—I had been waiting for the paperback because my shelf space is limited. She’d texted me the day before my birthday to say my present had arrived in the mail. So when I pulled up to Violet’s house with cupcakes at around 8 p.m., I was fairly certain I knew how the evening was going to go.

I was wrong, of course.

Violet oohed and ahhed over the cupcakes and returned my copy of Proven Guilty, the eighth book in the series, which she had recently borrowed. And then she handed me a box with Priority Mail markings on it.

There were two fat envelopes inside that box.

 “Which one am I supposed to open?” I asked.

“You pick,” she replied.

More or less at random, I picked up the envelope on my right. The top was open, and out slid a paperback copy of Cold Days. I obediently made happy oohing noises, privately wondering why Violet had taken it out of the Amazon wrapping and put it into a padded manila envelope, of all things.

 “Open it up,” Violet commanded.

I obeyed. This is what I saw:
“Oh, wow! You got it signed! That is … really impressive!” I squeaked. (I would have used more colorful vocabulary, but Violet’s infant daughter was sleeping in an adjoining room, and I’m trying not to teach her the fun words—at least, not by accident.)

“Open the other one!” Violet insisted.

Still astonished that Violet had somehow gotten me a signed copy of Cold Days, I did. This is what was in the other envelope:

And now, a word of explanation.

Dead Beat, the seventh Dresden book, is probably my favorite in the entire series. First and foremost, it’s the one with the zombie tyrannosaurus rex. If there’s anything funnier than Harry Dresden charging through the streets of Chicago on the back of a zombie dinosaur, terrorizing necromancers and National Guard troops, I don’t know what it is. But second and almost as important, my personal copy of Dead Beat was a signed souvenir of my very first Comic-Con in 2008, when I waited in line for hours to hear Jim Butcher speak and then for hours again to try very hard to act cool while he signed books and chatted with me. (I was particularly impressed with how he pretended not to notice that I was nearly hyperventilating.) Violet was there that day, utterly mystified by my willingness to spend my one con day hanging around for this one guy and his books, and she took a photo of me being very embarrassed and excited during that signing. Because I’m an arrogant so-and-so and don’t like posting photos of myself on the internet, here’s the Jim Butcher part of that image:

I was a few pixels to the right, freaking out while he talked.
Now, here’s the really important thing about the book in that envelope—

It’s not my copy of Dead Beat.

My copy was, um … let’s say “weathered.” I take very good care of my books, but I also believe that books are for reading, and my favorites don’t stay in mint condition very long. As careful as I’ve been in the last five years, that souvenir had a couple of lines down the spine, and a certain curvature to the front and back covers, and a couple of smudgy thumb-marks on particular pages. It’s well-loved, is my point.

Violet had recently borrowed my copy of Dead Beat, along with Proven Guilty. Clearly she had some explaining to do.

She got a little red in the face at this point, but showed me an email exchange she’d had with Mr. Butcher’s personal assistant, Sarah Skolaut. Apparently, sometime in late August, Violet was reading my copy of Dead Beat and juggling the baby and doing the thousand other things that mothers have to do every day, and somehow or other—the details were never clear—there was a little ripping sound and the cover of Dead Beat was not quite in its original shape anymore. It looked like this:
(Right about here Violet looked very embarrassed, and I told her then what I’ll tell you now—that sentimental significance or no, if I valued that book more than I valued her friendship, it would never have left my house. And now that I’ve seen the rip, I don’t think I’d even have bothered to notice it, except maybe to apply some tape. But I digress.)

Violet was horrified at the thought of telling me that she’d ripped my favorite Dresden book, the one I’d dragged her down to San Diego and waited in line for hours to acquire, the lucky souvenir of my first-ever convention and my first-ever encounter with one of my favorite authors. So she decided that she’d rather tell a total stranger about it instead. And not just any stranger … she rooted around on the author’s website and fired off an email to the man himself. (Or at least his PA.)

I have to assume that Jim Butcher is just as kind and generous in real life as he seems to be in his public appearances, because Sarah had no compunction whatsoever about jumping in and trying to help Violet with a situation that was the very definition of none of her business. Violet had mentioned in her desperate email that my birthday was coming up, so Sarah told Violet to send a copy of Dead Beat to a PO box in Missouri posthaste, and promised she’d try to get her boss to sign it in the narrow time window between a couple of convention appearances. Violet threw in a copy of Cold Days, apparently on the grounds that why the hell not, and the entire photo of me and Mr. Butcher at the con, and the shot of her with the ripped book.

I don’t know about you, but after one day at a convention, I feel like I’ve been hit by a train, and the feeling lasts for at least a week. And I’m not there for multiple days, signing books and talking to bazillions of people. So I have nothing but chop-fallen awe for the fact that a guy with a wife and at least one kid, with a measly couple of days of downtime between stressful travel and convention appearances, would even consider signing a book or two for a total stranger in order to get her out of hypothetical trouble with another total stranger.

I’m amazed that somebody answered the email. I’m more amazed that a box arrived shortly before my birthday—just under two weeks past that little ripping noise—containing not only a signed copy of the author’s latest and greatest but a new signed copy of my favorite with this inscription:

Friend's name blurred out to protect her secret identity.
For about five minutes after I saw that, I was making this noise, more or less constantly, only in a mezzo-soprano range:


So now I have two new signed Dresden books, and I’m carrying Cold Days wrapped in a bandana as I’m carefully rereading it, and I occasionally look at Dead Beat on the shelf and make little “ohmigoooood” noises to myself as I work on the last round of revisions to Teh Novel (I’m in the early 20s now, guys! Chapter 38’s comin’!). And I know two things:

1. Violet didn’t have to do that, but this is one of about a billion reasons why she’s my best friend.

2. Jim Butcher really didn’t have to do that, but he’s now got a fan for life.

I’m not kidding. The rest of the Dresden Files can suck like a Shop-Vac in overdrive, and I will still buy them for as long as their author cares to write them. Because some things are important, dammit. And some of those things are very, very human things—and this, in a silly and minor and not-at-all-relevant-to-the-grander-universe way, was the most beautifully human thing I’ve seen in quite a while. My friend, with the best of intentions, damaged a prized possession of mine, and wanted to make amends, even though I wouldn’t even have been upset. And somebody she’d met a whopping once, for maybe thirty seconds in which she mostly took photos, went out of his way to help her do that, apparently for nothing more than the warm pleasure of helping a friend be a friend.

Yeah. It was a good birthday.

Okay, just once more.


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