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The Wizard interview with Jim Butcher

Jim, why donít you tell us a little about yourself.

Because it might be used against me in court. :) Oh, wait, that is a serious question. Well, thereís not a whole ton to tell. I grew up in Independence, Missouri with a mom and a dad and two older sisters, all of whom treated me far, far better than any kid has a right to be treated. I got involved in about a million different activities, from football (ouch) to forensics and drama (ouch) to performance horseback and stunt riding (ouch) to music (not much ouch potential, there), and many others.

I was heavily involved with Kansas City Youth For Christ, a nondenominational youth organization, all the way through junior high and high school, and performed with the music groups there on television, in large live performances, on tours through the US and overseas. Iíve been cursed by an Amazon jungle witch doctor festooned in living snakes, fallen off a horse running at top speed while performing vaults over its back, nearly drowned when caught in a dangerous current on an Acapulco beach, and impaled my foot on a deer antler. (Donít ask.)

I married my high school sweetheart, Shannon, after our first year of college, and we had a son who we named James Joseph, after my father. I worked as many as four jobs at a time while getting myself and my wife through college, from yogurt store employee to door-to-door vacuum salesman. (I only ever sold one vacuum--sorry, JB.) I got my degree in English Lit which immediately qualified me for a position in the exciting industry of graduate school (or optionally, I could continue the fast track as a yogurt store clerk).

What made you become interested in writing?

Repeating Ďmay I help youí about a zillion times was a part of the equation. :) But mostly, it was just something that I had more or less always done in one sense or another. I had been a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy since about the first grade, when my sisters got me boxed sets of The Lord of The Rings and The Adventures of Han Solo. The first movie I can clearly remember seeing was Star Wars (also a sister-assisted venture). For most of my life, if I wasnít watching science fiction, or reading it, I was drawing pictures with that omnipresent Death Star half-circle in the bottom right hand corner or writing stories.

I remember that I felt frustrated at not being able to find that Ďperfectí story--you know what Iím talking about. That story that absolutely rings true in every sense as you read it, that makes you laugh and cry and when its over leaves this glowy, satisfied feeling resounding inside you. Nowadays, I have the feeling that everyoneís perfect story is a bit different, but in the effort to find mine, I eventually wrote my first novel when I was nineteen.

It wasnít perfect. In fact, it was terrible. But I tried to hang in there and upon getting involved with the Professional Writing program at OU, I wrote my second novel in an effort to make the perfect story.

It wasnít, either. In fact, it was even worse. Ditto the third novel. The fourth was at least a little bit better, but it still wasnít good, much less The Perfect Story.

The fifth novel I wrote, though, all the stuff my teacher had been teaching me seemed to fall together. The book was then called "The Dresden Chronicles, Book One: Semiautomagic." After a fairly light round of editing, it became "The Dresden Files, Book One: Storm Front."

(For the record, I still havenít gotten the Perfect Story written. But maybe it will be the next one. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. Or...)


 

How do you come up with the characters for your books?

Callous as it sounds, mostly it depends on what I need them to do in the story. :) I hear a lot of talk about plot-driven books versus character-driven books, but my own impression on the subject leans more towards the idea that plot and character cannot be usefully separated from one another. But from the aspect of a writer who has a deadline and who needs to be able to plan and reliably produce a reasonably good story, I tend to make things easy on myself whenever I can. I figure out what I need a character to do in my story, and then I build a character who would do it.

I needed someone to provide both threat, motivation, and distraction for Harry in "Storm Front," for example, and got two characters who could do those jobs. John Marcone got to show up as the negative criminal element in the story, the human face of lawlessness and crime. Karrin Murphy is his opposite number, representative of the law, society, and order.

Neither one of them seems to do much for Harry that doesnít make his day worse and worse, nine times out of ten, but no oneís perfect. :)

Bob the Skull came about in the same way. In fact, heís something of an in-joke for the writers in the program at OU. Debbie Chester, my writing teacher, often warned us about producing an old and worn-out trope for our stories, called Ďtalking headsí. Talking heads are characters with no real purpose in the story other than to show up and explain something so that the reader can get whatís going on. I knew that I was going to need a character who could explain things about magic to Harry (and through him to the reader) so that the magic Ďrulesí would hold together and make sense. So just to be a smart-alec to my teacher, I made a literal Ďtalking headí for Harry, who gets to serve as an advisor, a information source and an annoyance--I canít plan a character, these days, without figuring out how itís going to drive Harry nuts.

What is the first thing you do when you start a book?

The first thing I like to do is to figure out the whole story--not tiny step by step, but generally speaking. I want to know what problem my characters are going to be facing, what they want to do to fix it, and whatís going to get in their way. Generally speaking, I have an idea for two or three dramatic scenes that I really want to do, so I try to get everything I want in the story down on a huge piece of paper. Then I sit down and start working out how to get in everything I want to, while making sure that it makes sense with regards to all of the characters and with what they know.

I doodle and plan until Iím ready to explode, and then I start chapter one, and write straight through to the end

Why would you want to write.

I think Heinlein said it best: writing is a way to make a living without working, but without actually stealing anything from anybody. :) Though he was tongue in cheek, it is good work if you can get it. Getting it can be something of a problem, but I deeply enjoy the entire process, from putting together creative notions into a story to cobbling together character and motivation with a set of guidelines for the actual structure that I try to use to make sure my stories remain interesting and fun to read.

I think I would probably be writing anyway. As long as Iím going to be compulsive about it, I thought I might as well try to get paid for it. And if I can make a living at doing something I enjoy so much, so much the better. :)
 

Is it hard to get a book published?

It is almost heartbreakingly difficult to break into the industry. Something like one manuscript in every three hundred thousand submitted to publishing companies that actually sees print is written by a previously unpublished author. The rest are either the work of established authors, or are rejected entirely. Breaking in requires a great deal of research and hard work, stubbornness, and a certain measure of both arrogance and insanity.

Fortunately, my wife tells me I have all of those in abundance. :)

What is the best part of having your first book published?

Thatís hard to say. When I got my first actual copy of the book, actually held it in my hands, I sat down on the floor and started crying. It took me more than eight years of constant effort (and rejection) to get that far, and when Iíd finally done it, I hardly knew how to handle it. Nothing had really prepared me for actual success--I had handling rejection down to an art, but this was way new.

After the initial shock was over, I think the best part of having the book published is that I can keep a copy right next to my computer. Then when I need to look up a detail that hasnít stuck in my head, like what colors Harryís car is, I can just grab it and find out. :)

The second best part is a small degree of confidence that the stuff Iím producing now will actually get published (and read). :) Believe me, itís much easier to sit down at the keyboard and plunk away at a story when Iím really tired if I am fairly sure Iíll actually see a degree of success from it. That added security (tiny though it may be) has really helped me out

Have you finished anything new recently?

Most recently, I finished a more mainstream fantasy novel, called "Shepherdboyís Fury." Itís set on a fantasy world and features a much larger cast of characters than the Dresden books get to use. It has not, at the time I write this, been sold, but I have good hope that it may get picked up before the year is out.

I get to do some fun stuff in that novel that isnít in the same venue as the Dresden books. Kings, treacherous advisors, spys, farmers, soldiers, killers, madmen, murder, deception, sorcery, lust, love, faith, despair, fantastic beasts, clashing armies, inhuman allies, mortal enemies--

Oh. Hmm. Maybe it isnít all that different. :)
 

What do we have to look forward to in the Dresden Files?

Assuming that the series is successful enough that my publishers want to continue it, look for more of the same. Harry is pathologically unable to ignore people in trouble and he seems to be just as stubborn about looking the other way when something bad is happening. By the end of the third book in the series, heís already wading into hot water, and I donít really see how heís going to avoid getting in deeper and deeper as the stories progress.

My current plan gets Harry more deeply involved in the supernatural world in general, puts him onto the trail of his parentsí past and the mysterious circumstances surrounding their deaths, makes him about a million new enemies, a hatful of new allies, and calls for him to never have a car that runs too well, a romance that moves too smoothly or rent that gets paid on time. :)

The series does have a definite beginning, middle, and end as I look at it right now. Iíve got loose sketches for about twenty Dresden novels, with a nice big fat epic trilogy to capstone the series, but a great many things could affect how it turns out. Iíll have to play it by ear, but I hope that the adventures of Harry Dresden and company are just beginning, and that the stories will be around for a long, long time.

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