Jim Butcher Interview
Author of The Dresden Files, Codex Alera & Soon To Be Realeased The Cinder Spires
JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is Jim Butcher, New York Times best-selling author of the Harry Dresden Series, the Codex Alera, and very soon something new. Welcome, Jim.
Jim Butcher: Hi.
JMW: Okay, Jim, getting to that something new. Why Steampunk, why now?
Jim Butcher: Steampunk is really hot right now, and as I get out to conventions I would be hitting the convention floor and going shopping with everybody else and just admiring the costuming and the enthusiasm for the genre. And it was one of the things that I started getting interested in and finally said, you know, maybe I should try writing something. And I had several projects that I was looking at starting next, so I put several of them together and floated it past my beta readers about a year ago to see which one kind of got me the best reaction. And I got the strongest reaction out of the Steampunk Series. So I decided I’d go with that one just because it had I think the most solid characters, the most solid story base, and it had gotten the best response from the readers.
JMW: And the opening scene had a rather interesting origin story of its own.
Jim Butcher: Indeed. I was driving home from a live-action role playing event in my Minivan and I had a band full of sleeping teenagers. And as I was driving home from between Lawrence, Kansas and Missouri I’m driving across Kansas prairie. We had a good old fashioned Kansas lightning storm came marching across the plain just as the sun was coming up. And so the top of the storm is kind of illuminated by the sun and the bottom is this huge, dark, gloomy monstrous black mass with this giant force of lightning coming down as it advanced over the plain. It was coming along parallel to the track I was driving, or perpendicular to it.
And so as I was racing along this storm the CD that happened to be in the CD player at the moment was Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral, which is kind of a very industrial sounding album, with lots of very mechanical noises to it. And so as this lightning storm is coming closer and closer, and I’m driving faster and faster, and turning Nine Inch Nails up louder and louder, the first scene from this book kind of pops into my mind. And it’s the one that’s in the first chapter as I’m driving along.
It was a very interesting morning for me; it was one of those mornings where I don’t know, I guess I was accessing my creative side because I was just so tired–and fearful.
JMW: Fearful helps.
Jim Butcher: Yes. And in any case, that was the origin of the Steampunk universe–this lightning storm. And then I started building from this first chapter that appeared in my head. I sort of started building outward for the rest of the universe, and that was where the story board came from.
JMW: And it’s going to be called The Cinder Spires?
Jim Butcher: The Cinder Spires.
JMW: You mentioned in response to the first question, your beta readers. You’re rather unusual among traditionally published authors in that you have a really vibrant and large beta reading group. Because I remember you invited input on your stories way back in 2005, 2006. Are you still doing it?
Jim Butcher: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
JMW: How big is the group now?
Jim Butcher: Right now there are 14 people in the beta reading group. There are new people who get added in every year and there are some folks who drop out every year, just because they have lives, too. But they are the ones who help me as I go along; they kind of give me an as-I-write reaction to the writing, because it gets published to the beta readers chapter by chapter as I finish it.
JMW: Like a serial.
Jim Butcher: Indeed, chapter by chapter. And I think that’s one of the reasons that my novels have kind of been sorts of things that have people staying up late reading them, is because I write them in order to drive the beta readers insane, you know.
Jean Marie: Yeah.
Jim Butcher: If I get to the end of a chapter it’s like, well, what is going to make the beta readers just absolutely screaming in frustration at the end of this chapter? That’s where I need to end the chapter, and then I’ll start the next chapter a few days later. But I feel bad for them. I call them the beta through asylum, because they’ve got to sit through all this stuff. There are people who complain and say, I had to wait for this whole line for the next book. It’s like, well, what if that had happened to you 50 times during the course of the book, and that’s what I kind of have to do the beta readers in every chapter I’m doing–give them something to go, but I want to know what happens next? But you don’t get to know what happens next, I’m still working on it, you know, don’t look.
JMW: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain there, yeah. I’m going to take you a bit on the way back machine, right now.
Jim Butcher: Okay.
Jean Marie: Way back in 2004 when we last talked with a microphone in front of you . . .
Jim Butcher: Right.
JMW: You said that you had a roughly 20-book plan for the Harry Dresden Series, and a really good idea for how it was going to end.
Jim Butcher: Yes.
JMW: How well has Harry played along with that plan?
Jim Butcher: Just fine so far.
JMW: So far?
Jim Butcher: Yes, it’s been the supporting characters that have been throwing things off. Dresden’s doing okay. All of these other people . . . what I need to do is put on a Joss [Whedon] mask and start threatening them. Listen, you people get back into line or you’re going to get axed.
JMW: Do you think it’ll work?
Jim Butcher: No, no it won’t.
JMW: I mean, in your universe they can always come back.
Jim Butcher: That’s true. But so far the story is pretty much on track. We’re still going to do 20-ish books of the Dresden files, kind of like the case books like we’ve seen so far, and then a big old apocalypse trilogy at the end. But yeah, things have been working out so well, sticking to the outline that I made when I was a college student, planning the series, that I’m a little superstitious about deviating from it now. I mean, it seems to be working; you know, it’s not broken, so don’t fix it.
JMW: Yes. I think everybody would agree that it is working very well, and please do not break it. As you’ve been going along with the series, and maybe you’ve touched on this, what has been the greatest challenge? Your minor characters, or have there been something else about the series that you have found unexpectedly challenging?
Jim Butcher: The most serious challenge is keeping the continuity of the story world, you know, keeping that in check. I’ve got this group of very dedicated beta readers, some of whom have . . . and the thing is, what I’ve discovered, that fans keep track of this so much better than a writer every could, if only because fans for the most part just get to see the final version. A writer writes a draft and then another draft and he’s got an edited copy and goes back and forth between him and the editor and then there’s a line edit and then there’s a proof to do. So maybe there are seven or eight slightly different versions of the book that he’s seen before the book goes to print. So there are a lot of small details, and that’s fine when it’s 1, 2, or 3 books; maybe you can sort of keep track. But I’m working on book 15 of the Dresden files here, so that’s about 85 slightly different versions of books. And a lot of times details will slip my mind. And the beta readers have been absolutely critical in helping me keep that stuff straight, because they’ll jump right on it and nail me to the wall with it. They’ll say, no, no, you can’t do that. You did this exact different thing; that character’s always this color, or that color. And that has been really an enormous boon to me; it’s vastly annoying and I couldn’t survive without it. It’s one of those things that I’m very grateful to have. It drives me crazy, but I say thank you.
JMW: Are you going to turn them loose on something like a world of Harry Dresden book when the series is done?
Jim Butcher: Oh, you mean like some kind of compilation?
JMW: No, like a bible.
Jim Butcher: Oh, there’s been talk of a Dresden Bible, and I don’t know if it’s something that will eventually get done. Frankly I think the role-playing game made a really good one. There are two books to the role playing games called Your Story, our World, and the Our World book is basically just an encyclopedic reference of the Dresden files of all the different characters, and I will go to it myself when I’m doing research–there and the Dresden Files Wikipedia, which the fans keep up. Because again, they are so much better at it than I am.
JMW: Okay, when I was listening to your panel today I did not realize that the Codex Alera was written on a dare. Was it really? (inaudible 9:00) poking it?
Jim Butcher: It was written on a bet, yeah. And it was the Delray Online Writer’s Workshop in 1999. It was before I got anything published or sold, and so I was just one more unpublished loud mouth on the Internet. And there was a bunch of us having a big argument on the writing list, and it was one of those discussions where you just sort of hit caps lock, you hit reply, and then hit caps lock and start typing, you know; it was kind of one of those talks. And one side of the discussion was championing the idea that the grand idea was what was important in a book, and if you had a great enough idea no matter how badly you wrote it your book would be successful. And they said, look at Jurassic Park; bring dinosaurs back, it’s a great idea. And that was their example online.
The other side of the argument was saying that no matter how old or worn out the story or how many times it’s been redone, if you come at it, if the writer comes at it and gives it his own perspective and his own spin and his own creative uniqueness, he could do that story again and make it awesome. How many times have we seen good versions of Romeo and Juliet? And I was on the writer’s side. And so this discussion went back and forth and back and forth, and finally the guy who was leading the charge on the idea side said, “Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is; why don’t you let me give you a bad idea, and then you can write it. And you could show us how it works, since you’re such a great writer.” And you know, I was in my twenties and I didn’t know too much, and I was a loud mouth on the Internet. So I said, “Oh, I tell you what. Why don’t you give me two terrible ideas and I will use them both.” And the guy said, all right, fine. The first idea is lost Roman legion. And I’m sick of lost Roman legions; the lost Roman legions should have been found by now. And that’s the first idea, lost Roman legions. And so what’s the second idea? He says, “Pokémon.” And I’m tired of Pokémon. And so, I took those two ideas and I started putting together a story world, and I went and found about lost Roman legion and I found out basically what the nine Hibernian legion was composed of. You know, it was about half Romans and half German mercenaries. And I said, what’s going to happen to these guys? When they got lost they went to where? The land of the Pokémon. Okay, great.
And so I started examining Pokémon, which is itself an idea mash up. Pokémon takes the Shinto religion where spirits of the divine live in all natural things, and have a certain amount of power and you should respect them. So a mountain has a giant spirit, a giant Kami in it, and a pebble has little tiny one. And you should respect them equally, but if you disrespect the pebble it’s kind of tiny and what’s going to happen? And they take that idea and then Pokémon mashes it with professional wrestling, and that’s where Pokémon comes from.
So I decided to take the Shinto part of that idea and I put all these spirits in the natural everything and in this world that they went to, which I named Alert, and then I thought, I’ve got to have a name for these things. And I was watching Big Trouble, Little China in the background and it was just the part where the guys, the old Chinese advisors are saying, well, all movement in the universe is caused by tension between positive and negative furies. And I said, furies–that’s a great word! I mean, it’s even Greco-Roman. I’ve got to use that. So I called them furies, and so that was where I started. I took this Roman legion and I dropped them off in this world where these furies are, and I gave them a thousand years to kind of ferment to society. And so they developed this kind of very bifurcating society; about half of it was centered around these great big cities, kind of Roman style city settlements, and the other half was German freeholds. They were out in the countryside. And that was how I built that world.
JMW: Okay. Are we ever going to see that Space Opera for viewers?
Jim Butcher: The Space Opera? We’ll have to see. It’s still on the table, and I still feel bad. I’ve got my protagonist who’s just ejected from his ship, which had a reaction core that was going critical. And indicating orbit over the surface of the moon, with a solar flare expected at any moment. And he’s been there for, I don’t know, like eleven years now.
JMW: That poor guy.
Jim Butcher: I know.
JMW: He’s just growing older and older . . .
Jim Butcher: I’m sorry, [Glen Cannon], you’re still floating in that decaying orbit, but don’t worry, I’ll . . .
JMW: Get to you eventually.
Jim Butcher: I’ll get back to you sometime.
JMW: Okay. I presume that the Cinder Spires is what you’re working on now, right? It’s occupying you full time; that an Harry are occupying you full time now?
Jim Butcher: They are. Right now I’ve got to get the next Dresden Files book in because it’s due in literally in about 35 minutes, something like that–about half an hour. It’s due in 16 minutes. Okay. It probably won’t be in quite on time, but I’m about 70% of the way through it, and I’m going to finish it up in the next couple of weeks.
JMW: Anything you’d like to add before we close?
Jim Butcher: I just want to thank everybody who’s been a reader of the books over the years. My readership has been really much more . . . you guys have gone out and pushed my books on more people. I don’t know whether to use drug dealer similes to say what you’ve been doing, or cult similes to say what you’ve been doing. But either are kind of appropriate and thank you very much for doing so. I’ve got some of the coolest readers in the world.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.