A Man of Many Ways: The Jim Butcher Interview

Photo by Dave Nelson
Photo by Dave Nelson

Jim Butcher is the author of the Dresden Files, the Codex Alera, and his new steampunk series, the Cinder Spires. His resume includes a laundry list of skills that were useful a couple of centuries ago, and he plays guitar quite badly. An avid gamer, he plays tabletop games in varying systems, a variety of video games on PC and console, and LARPs whenever he can make time for it.

Daily Dragon (DD): Why did you choose to write about a wizard?

Jim Butcher (JB): For this book, I started off writing this to prove to my writing teacher about how wrong she was all the things she was trying to teach me about writing and she’d been suggesting that I try an urban fantasy-style novel for a while. I decided the way to impress upon her how wrong she was, considering I had a degree in English literature while she’d only published 40 novels, was do everything she told me to, and that would show her! I’d fill out all her little forms and do all her little work sheets and outlines, character summaries, and she’d see what sort of cookie-cutter crap came from that, and so I wrote the first Dresden Files book.

DD: Harry Dresden is a very human character. He is not a typical hero. He has many faults, and he accepts them as part of himself. What made you write him in this manner?

JB: Well, mainly I had put him together in a very wooden fashion and I assembled him in as sort of a combination Frankenstein, Merlin, Gandalf, Sherlock, and Spencer. As I established him as a character, I realized I didn’t really know a whole lot about people, so I was learning more about him and about myself as I was writing. I started to realize “Well, this was one of his shortcomings, and here’s another one over here, and he needs to embrace or at least acknowledge them, or he just looks like a big idiot.” I’d have him acknowledging “yeah, this is my deal—I do have an issue with temper. There are issues with the way I think about women, about how I treat them” that he had to confront and learn about himself as he went along his life. So, he was growing a lot, at the same pace I was. I was writing a character that was essentially my age, so as I started realizing “oh wait … I really need to pull my head out of my butt,” I’d look at the character and go “He really needs to do that as well.” He and I kinda grew up together.

DD: How did the Codex Alera come to be?

JB: I wanted to, well, okay, that started off as a bet online. I was in Del Rey Online Writers Workshop. We’d have long and involved conversations online about writing and the nature of writing and the nature of telling a story, and there were giant arguments and I would get in on them all the time. At one point, an argument came up that held that the Holy Idea—capital H and capital I—that if you have an idea that was good enough, no matter how you wrote it, your book would be successful. They held up Jurassic Park as an example. “Here’s an idea that’s so awesome that it can’t possibly miss, and that writers should strive for that.” I took an opposite standpoint that said that no matter how re-treaded and worn out the idea was, a writer with enough originality who put enough of his own mark and spin onto it, could tell a good story that people would like. I asked “How many versions of Romeo and Juliet have we seen?” That argument went back and forth and it was one of those arguments where you hit caps lock and then just start typing. Finally this guy on the other 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 let’s see you write it into a worthwhile story?” Being young and dumb and kinda mouthy, I wrote him back “I tell you what, why don’t you give me TWO bad ideas and I’ll use them both.”  The guy says “okay— the first bad idea I want you to use is the ‘Lost Roman Legion’—I am so sick of Lost Roman Legion stories—all lost roman legions should have been found by now. So that’s the first one, lost Roman legion.” I said “okay, what’s the second one?” He says “Pokémon.” And so I took Lost Roman Legion and Pokémon, and smashed them together. I took my lost Roman legion, and I went and researched them and found they were about half Roman citizens and half German mercenaries, with a following of about 10,000 to 11,000 people, camp followers, that would come along with them. It was a great colony force, so I had them march off to the Land of the Pokémon.

I went off and researched those. The Pokémon idea is developed from professional wrestling meets the Shinto religion. In Shinto, it is believed there are spirits that dwell in all natural things and these spirits have power, and need to be respected. These spirits are called kami. I took these kami and said “Okay, I need to use these kami in the Land of Pokémon.”

I came up with up with the name of “furies” because I was watching Big Trouble in Little China in the background and somebody said that “All movement in the universe is caused by the tension between positive and negative furies.” And I was like “ooh! Furies! It’s even Greco-Roman!” So I took that and I put it together, and gave them 1,000 years to ferment as a society, and I started to write a story.

I wanted a protagonist that was different from Harry Dresden as possible. So whereas Harry started off as a fully realized “I’m-ready-to-go-be-a-hero” protagonist, I wanted to start off this character who was the absolute opposite. In a land of magic, he was the only one without. Instead of being the big guy, he was the little guy. He was always the one who had to get along on his wits and courage. He would face a completely different array of challenges, so he would not come out reading like “Harry Dresden in the Land of Pokémon.” That was the challenge. That was where it came together. I wrote the first Furies book right after I wrong the second Dresden Files book.

DD: What inspired the Vord?

JB: Oh, I stole them straight from Starcraft. The Vord are the Zerg. I mean, even down to the Zerg’s creep that as they kind of take over areas, it grows all over everything. They need it to expand their civilizations. For the Vord, it was the croach. I wanted to take them and throw them out there. In Starcraft, you got to see them but you never got to see how they’d affect regular people. You could see how they’d affect troopers and everyone who went to fight them, but not the farmers who wound up with the homes covered in croach. I wanted to show how that would impact on a civilization, which was a whole lot of fun, as they’re just such a horrible enemy.

DD: Codex Alera has a very definite conclusion. Is Dresden planned in the same way?

JB: No, no. We’re going to have about 20 of the case books we’ve had so far, and then I’m going to capstone the series with a big ‘ole apocalyptic trilogy in the end. That’s been the plan for a long time. Harry’s definitely going somewhere, and he’ll get to somewhere that his story comes to an end. The world will still be there. We’ll still be able to tell stories there.

DD: How have the Dresden and Alera series influenced the Cinder Spires series?

JB: In the Cinder Spires I wanted to tell a multiple viewpoint story like in the Alera series, because that is so much easier. Well, not easier, but so different than writing a single-person viewpoint story. It gives you so many more options on where you can put your camera, and how you can view the different events in the story and it gives you really much more opportunity to tell things in new and interesting ways.

Another way to think about that though, is that it gives you much more rope to hang yourself with.

For the Cinder Spires, I wanted to take the multiple viewpoint characters of Alera and the varied story options that Alera had. From the Dresden Files, I learned that my readers really like the furious, fast pace of the Dresden Files. With the Cinder Spires I’ve compressed the story into a Dresden Files time framework where everything happens over the course of a couple days. That seems to have resulted in a fairly happy combination. As far as the Dresden Files and Codex Alera making a baby, the Cinder Spires seems to be a fairly healthy child. So far, the readers have really enjoyed it.

DD: We saw the Dresden TV series come out—would you like to see it redone as an episode per book or a mini-series? Are there any plans to make the Codex Alera into a series?

There’s always talk going on about various things going on. There’s nothing that makes me go “Ooooh! That definitely might happen!” for the Codex Alera, but there’s always talk and interest in it. That happens a lot. The Dresden Files—the rights are with someone right now who is trying to put it together into something. In my perfect world, it would be a feature production series done by someone like Netflix, and I would love to see it cover maybe a couple of novels per season, and kinda interweave those storylines. That would make for some crazy season finales. I think that would be amazing.

DD: What has been your best experience at Dragon Con?

JB: I met my fiancé at Dragon Con. I think that would probably qualify. That was two years ago. The first time I met her was in an autograph line. We met and talked for a few moments. We made contact after that, one thing led to another, and now we’re getting married.

DD: Is there any charity or cause you support that you’d like to mention?

JB: Pat Rothfuss’s Worldbuilders is always a worthy charity. I also back the Missouri Pit Bull Rescue, which is an organization which helps endangered pit bulls. There’s been an awful lot of breed-specific legislation that’s been passed in Missouri, and there are a lot of dogs that need help, and I’ve done what I can to support them.

Author of the article

After a lifetime of science fiction and fantasy influences, the last twenty of which have been spent in IT, Geoff Termorshuizen is applying for his Ph.D. in Strategic Security after finishing a B.A in Political Science and M.Sc.'s in Cyber Security and MIS. He currently works as a technical consultant for ACI Worldwide, supporting security and financial payment systems. You can find him at Con either at the the DailyDragon room, or via the EFF track where he has presented panels on digital forensics, privacy, cyberwar, surveillance and technology related politics.