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
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
I doodle and plan until Iím
ready to explode, and then I start chapter one, and write straight through to
Why would you want to
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
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
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
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.