Jim Butcher Interview
by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
Date: May 2006 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: What was the catalyst for Proven Guilty?
Jim Butcher: Oh, mostly Dead Beat, I suppose. That's the way with most of these books. Ideas for the next book are simmering while I'm working on the current one, and the ones that I want to write the most start congealing into a story. While I want the Dresden books to be readable stand-alone novels, even if you've never picked up another one, they are all very much part of an ongoing story arch that I have always enjoyed working with.
SFRevu: What is usually the first part of the inspiration that says "I've got to write this?"
Jim Butcher: My mortgage, mainly. :) Though in general, each of the books has had a central theme to work with, in terms of one particular set of beings Harry's going to face, and I look forward to playing with a new gang of villains. Storm Front was about an evil wizard, Fool Moon had werewolves, Grave Peril was about ghosts, Summer Knight was about Faeries, etc. For this one, I wanted to play with some bad guys inspired by the more modern movie monsters--horror movie villains. I grew up with the Halloween movies, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and they left a certain impression on my vulnerable young mind. This story was a chance to trot out some villains similar to those old ghosts of mine and see what kind of fun I could have with them.
SFRevu: It seems that Harry Dresden has almost come full circle from when Ebenezar McCoy stood for him and taught him and now Harry has his own pupil to train. Harry has grown and changed from Storm Front to Proven Guilty, I'm sure you have more in store for him. How do you see Harry's growth so far? Was it as you expected or did he change in ways you didn't expect, and if so how?
Jim Butcher: Harry has always been kind of a boy scout character, at heart. He's very much an idealist, and he's willing to act on his ideals and beliefs. As he's gone through life, though, he's learning how few people both share those ideals and are willing to pay the price that can be required to uphold them. Harry's had to experience some fairly bad things, and he has more than once had to set himself to some grim and unpleasant business in the name of protecting those who can't protect themselves. He's also very much aware that it's precisely that kind of person who can suddenly find himself becoming a monster in the name of some loftier goal.
That's one of the major themes in his development as a person--how to handle the responsibility of so much personal power. How far must he go to live up to that responsibility? What are its limits? Where is the line between being a protector and becoming a well-intentioned monster? And when does the price he has to pay become too high?
I'd planned for those. The developments that have surprised me have been all about love--and not just romance, either. Harry's romantic life has pretty much resembled some kind of blood-drenched Greek play. Or possibly pay-per-view wrestling. The romantic story arc was something I deliberately left open as I began writing the series, to give it a chance to take shape on its own and to see where it would go. More than that, though, the issue of love has become something very central to the books. Harry began the series living in essential isolation. He stayed in his apartment, ran his business, but had very, very few relationships that were anything more than professional. Since then he's made friends, discovered that he has living family and fallen in love.
Love can be a terrifying thing. When you love someone, you become vulnerable. It gives them tremendous power to harm you, even unintentionally. Maybe worse, when you love someone, you can also lose them. We live in an uncertain world. Life can end swiftly and without any kind of warning, and the pain of losing a loved one can leave you in agony.
Harry was an orphan for most of his formative years, and his isolation as an adult, while painful, at least had the merit of being familiar. As he's gone on through the books, he's accumulated physical and psychological scars, and he's found more and more people to care about. He's become increasingly determined to protect them--and he's absolutely terrified of losing his family and friends, and returning to that isolation.
SFRevu: Some writers outline the story and know from the start where they are going and others prefer to have an idea of the end and just go with it. Do you outline or just jump into a book?
Jim Butcher: I always have at least a rough outline before I start chapter one. I know where the story will begin, what I want the ending to be like, and I usually have several "stepping stones" in between that I want to make sure to include. At times, I have had to make alterations to my story outline, as the ongoing book reveals necessities of logic or pacing or tone that I had not foreseen. But I usually know more or less what I'm doing when I sit down to write a chapter, and so far I've managed to start at the beginning and make it to the end on a consistent basis. :)
SFRevu: Along with that do you consider yourself a visual writer essentially writing what you see in your head or do you have to build up the scene word by word? Or is it more a combination?
Jim Butcher: Oh, visual, definitely. I see the book playing in my head as I write (sometimes live-action, sometimes comic-book panels, sometimes anime cartoons), and I just try to convey those images to the reader as clearly as I possibly can.
Maybe I watched too much television growing up. :)
SFRevu: Most writers sort of have images of the characters that they write in mind when writing? Do you think having met the actors who will be in the Dresden Files and being on the set will effect your mental images of the characters in your writing?
Jim Butcher: At this point? Nah, not really. I was on the set for about a day and a half. I've been writing Dresden for nearly ten years. The Dresden in my head doesn't look like anyone I can remember seeing, and his personality is very clear to me by now. I don't think the show would change that very much--especially given what a great handle the writers and producers and actor have on the character of Dresden. Paul nailed his attitude pretty darned well. If it does change any of my internal imagery of Dresden, I imagine it will be a two-way synergistic kind of thing.
SFRevu: I read that you are a martial arts enthusiast and that you've done some performance riding. How does your experience in these fields where you can 'actually' get hurt effect your writing of fight scenes and their aftermath? I feel when reading your work that your characters act as I would expect many people would if placed in that kind of actions. Do you feel showing the aftermath on the character helps to build the character?
Jim Butcher: Oh God, of course it does! How we choose to react to a given situation is what makes us human and defines the kind of person we are. While Dresden is a heroic character, in many ways, I am not trying to write a superhuman champion. Harry may be a wizard, sure, but he still has to pay his bills, cook his dinner, get his car fixed, and clean his bathroom from time to time. I think Paul Blackthorne said it very eloquently in his interview with SciFi Magazine, where he stated that Dresden is just a regular guy who would far rather spend a quiet evening with a movie or a good book than go out for some derring-do and wizardry. He doesn't want to spend his time running around saving the world. He just has to.
SFRevu: I read an interview where you expressed admiration for Peter Parker and his humanity. Do you feel that that admiration has had an effect on your own writing. How? And how did it feel to be able to write "Darkest Hours"?
Jim Butcher: Of course it's affected my writing! The core of PP's whole heroic attitude (with great power comes great responsibility) is what I purposefully used when I was thinking the story up in the very beginning. It was (and is) my opinion that PP's essential nobility and selfless dedication were what made him truly heroic and set him apart from the vast majority of other superheroes--the spider powers were just the catalyst that enabled that heroism to emerge. Beneath the suit, he's a regular guy--actually, a really likable guy who you'd enjoy having over for a barbecue. I wanted to create much of that same vibe for Dresden.
And it felt GREAT to get to write "Darkest Hours!" I was a hardcore Spidey-phile for years and years, and there is a Spider-Man toothbrush sitting on the bathroom sink right now. Getting to actually WRITE Spidey was just about the grooviest thing I've done as a writer. I pitched in a ton of in-jokes that I hope the other Spidey fans enjoy as much as I did coming up with them. :)
SFRevu: Okay, I have to ask. I love 'bad' SF movies and wonder what are your all time favorite 'bad' movies?
Jim Butcher: In no particular order:
Jim Butcher: Lessee:
SFRevu: Do you still get to play in role playing games? What type of characters do you play? Why? Do you think this experience helps you in developing full formed characters that have depth?
Jim Butcher: I do! I run an irregular campaign myself, and play in an ongoing weekly campaign with a bunch of my friends. I generally tend to play characters who can shoot and/or mangle things really well, and who are at least mildly paranoid. I haven't really examined any reasons as to why. Hmmm, maybe I need some more introspection before I answer a question this deep. :)
I don't know if this helps me develop better characters, but the writing has been very good for my gaming! I mean, before I started writing, I hardly ever played characters who went out and actively did things like blow up people's cars or sneak into their tent and steal their shoes before running away from them. My own campaign gets run in a fantasy world I'm still building for a nice big epic fantasy epic I want to write eventually, and my poor players suffer terribly, because I try to end every single session on a cliffhanger or plot twist--a habit I got into while writing Dresden.
I've also run games in Harry Dresden's Chicago, where the players were members of the Chicago supernatural community, dealing with a gang war where a Latino gang had smuggled a Chupacabra into town, and their Haitian rivals had gotten a boccor to start producing zombies. Oh, and a race of giant sentient cockroaches was trying to sink Chicago into Lake Michigan. Good times.
SFRevu: The usual question is what advice do you have for new writers, but I'd like to ask, what advice did you get that you found not to be helpful when you started out? Now, what do you wish someone had told you about the writing life?
Jim Butcher: Oh, man. Well, I got a lot of good advice and managed to identify most of the bad, when I was starting out. I mean, if I'd had all that much bad advice, I doubt I would have made it at all. It took me eight years, from the time I finished my first novel, to get a sale. I was basically told that breaking in was a whole lot of hard work, and could take years and years, but that if I was smart and persistent I would make it. And that's more or less what happened. :)
As far as what I wish someone had told me? I wish I'd heard "get out and meet people in the business face-to-face" about three years sooner than I did. It makes a big difference in how they respond to your work. I'd been rejected steadily for six or seven years by editors and agents alike. I got out to actually *meet* them, at conventions and so forth, and within a year and a half or so, I had two agents offer to represent me, and my first contract six months after that.
Also, the net has been a huge benefit for me. By appearing on the McAnally's mailing list, regularly posting and interacting with fans, I think I've gotten a whole lot more attention than other authors who got started at the same time I did, but who didn't make the same kind of effort to reach out to the fan community. Aspiring writers, make all the use of the net that you possibly can! It is, in my experience, a GREAT way to promote yourself, meet new fans, and to generally further your career while getting to chat with nice people who often give you compliments which you may or may not deserve, but enjoy anyway. :)
SFRevu: How do you write? Do you sit down for x hours every day or do you write when the mood hits? How do you structure your working day?
Jim Butcher: Well, I wait until I start having college flashback nightmares about term papers being due the next day, and that's when I realize that deadline is looming. :)
Oh, wait, you wanted a serious answer.
Well, when I get rolling on a book and I'm trying to keep up the momentum, I'll usually make myself sit down to write in several sessions through the day. A session tends to be about two or three hours long (depending on the movie playing in the background). Then I'll take a break, play with the dog, play some guitar, blow up some virtual bad guys online. Sometimes I even eat a meal. Repeat until too tired to sit upright. I get most of my writing done between 9 pm and 5 am, when it's really quiet and there are no phone calls or distractions. I'll occasionally take a day "off" when there are errands to run, conventions to go to, that kind of thing. Then it's back to the salt mines, such as they are.
SFRevu: What question do you wish people would ask in an interview? And if asked what would you say?
Jim Butcher: The one I keep hearing is: "How do you plead?" And I respond with: "On my knees, with a lot of groveling."
But seriously, I haven't ever really considered this question. I suppose I wish they would ask me things like "How did it feel to have your series of books become a ten-season weekly series that went into syndication and generated more revenue than all the Star Wars films combined?" Because that would mean that they had. :)
And I would say what I always say when people ask me how my success feels: Sort of surreal, like when someone makes one of those fake newspaper headlines with your picture on it at amusement parks. I mean, there's the headline, there's the picture of your face, but even if it looks real, you know better.
I've enjoyed so much enthusiasm and warmth from the fan community, from agents and editors and reviewers--and now from producers and directors and actors. And still, it doesn't feel quite real. Don't get me wrong, I'm deliriously happy about it, but there's some part of me that keeps on wondering when they'll reveal that I'm on Candid Camera, or when I will notice the glitch in the Matrix.
Or I could give the short answer: It feels GREAT! :) I hope that my work continues to bring as much enjoyment and fun to readers as its creation does to me.
SFRevu: Thanks Jim for taking the time for our interview