Interview with Jim Butcher

„I was just writing dopey little wizard books.“

Phantastik-Couch.de: I’d like to start by asking you a little bit about yourself. Could you tell us a bit about you? Have you any profession besides writing? I heard something about you working formerly as a door-to-door salesman to pay the rent and a degree in English Literature?

Jim Butcher: I can’t think of any writers who begin their careers as a full-time author. Everyone has to work a day job before they can really get going on their own. Jumping from part-time writing to full-time writing is a major leap in an author’s career.

I started writing in 1991, didn’t make a sale until 1999, and didn’t actually have a book in print until 2000. I couldn’t support myself as a full-time writer until almost 2003. Between 1991 and 2003 I worked as a vacuum cleaner salesman, a clerk in a yogurt store, a secretary at my university, a librarian, a phone center operator, a freelance web designer, and a computer support technician. I was also writing books, going to school for my English degree, and being the main parent at home for my son while my wife worked as an engineer.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Does it help studying literature when you decide to become an author?

Jim Butcher: That depends entirely upon what you want to write, what your writing skillset is like, and who is teaching you. A good teacher can certainly help you tremendously: a poor teacher can point you down the wrong road, and before you know it you’re completely lost.

My own English Literature teachers were perhaps not the best folks to help me prepare to be a genre fiction writer. They were very focused upon elements of literature which generally don’t fly in today's fiction market, and had a natural abhorrence of the actual craft of telling a story.

But the writing teachers in Journalism were very focused on teaching skills and techniques that are applicable to the actual fiction world. Everything I really needed to know about writing, I learned at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Professional Writing, from an excellent teacher named Debbie Chester, herself an author of more than forty published novels.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Lets get down to the nitty-gritty, your books about and with „Harry Dresden“ and the „Codex Alera“ novels. What does it mean to you that you are published not only in the US but outside in different languages too?

Jim Butcher: To be honest with you, I’m still a little mystified that they got into print in English, much less any other language. I mean, as far as I was concerned, I was just writing dopey little wizard books. When they took off I was baffled. So when offers started coming in for other languages and my agent said, „Do you want to do that?“ I was still a little stunned, and said, „Uh, sure. Why not?“

I think I have the secret fear of all authors in this situation-that books being translated into someone else’s tongue are losing something in the translation. But mostly, I feel exactly the same way about the non-English editions as I do about the English version: the books exist to provide fun for the reader. If readers are having a good time reading my work, that’s all that really matters.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Meanwhile more than a dozen „Dresden“ novels have been published in the US. Is there a difference in the way you approach the novel writing now with all the experience you gained throughout the previous work and the time you sat down in front of the keyboard for the first time trying to put your story to paper?

Jim Butcher: Oh, everything changes. When I got started, I had to be very careful about planning out plots and how to make them work with subplots, and how to introduce characters and so on. But as you keep on practicing these skills, they become unconscious, something you do by reflex. Now when I write, I’m much more focused upon the characters and how they think and feel, because I’m very comfortable building a story, keeping the pace up, and maintaining tension throughout the story.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Did you start the series with the option of writing sequels, and how many novels about Harry have you planned – I read something about 20 planned novels?

Jim Butcher: 20-ish, depending on if my son wants to go to graduate school.

Originally, I had planned for a 20 book series, with a giant epic trilogy to finish it off-because who doesn’t love apocalyptic trilogies! I’m not sure if it'll be 19 books or 21 or 22 which are „case“ books like the ones I’ve written so far, but the capstone trilogy is going to be one big story released in three volumes.

Phantastik-Couch.de: How did you come up with the name Dresden – any reference to the city Dresden in East Germany?

Jim Butcher: Indirectly, yes. When I was deciding on the name for my PI character, I had the TV on in the background. An episode of Babylon 5 was playing, and it’s the one where Boxleitner's character is talking about the psychological impact of particularly savage attacks in wartime. The character lists several such incidents in this growling, gravelly voice, and one of those he mentions is „Dresden.“ I’d already decided on Harry for a first name, after Houdini and the Blackstones, and when I heard the character say „Dresden“ my head snapped up like a dog that’s just heard a new noise. I sat there and said, „Harry Dresden“ about twenty times, decided that it was great, and wrote it down.

Phantastik-Couch.de: After all Bob, the skull, the talking head is one of the most interesting side-characters in the books. Where did he (is it „he“?) came from? Is he really some sort of magical advisor for Harry, or more an annoyance?

Jim Butcher: He’s an inside joke between me and my writing teacher.

When I informed her that I was planning an assistant-type character to help Harry with the more esoteric aspects of magic, she thought it was a fine idea, „But,“ she said, „Be careful that you don’t make him a Talking Head.“

A „Talking Head“ is story parlance for a character who shows up in the story to spout a stream of information and then go away. Talking Heads never really have any personality, tend to be bland and a little boring, and just deliver important information and then leave.

So just to be annoying, I decided to make my magical lab assistant into a literal talking head-Bob the Skull. When my teacher read that, she looked up at me and said, „You think you’re smart, don’t you.“

Phantastik-Couch.de: As far as I know SciFi-channel has produced one season of the Dresden files, that hasn’t been aired over here so far. Were you involved in the making, will there be sequels?

Jim Butcher: I had very little input in the Dresden Files as a television show, although I do appear in the background in one of the episodes, as one of Butters’ lab assistants, and I got to visit the set on several occasions. They were a good bunch of people. Unfortunately, several unfavorable circumstances combined to make the show’s backers decide to spend their money elsewhere, and it will not be making a return to television in that particular form.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Lets switch over to the „Codex Alera“ novels. Could you tell us a bit about it? Why did you switch genres in the first place?

Jim Butcher: Writing the Dresden Files is a very brain-consuming sort of activity. It’s very important, for me, to get my head into different worlds now and then, so I don’t get sick of hanging out with Harry Dresden and kill him horribly.

Oh, wait …

Anyway. It’s a great relief to me to be able to work in other story worlds, using different methods and techniques to try to tell good stories. Of course, by the time I get to the end of one of those stories, I’m just about sick of the new story too, so once it’s finished I find it very, very enjoyable to get back in the saddle on the Dresden Files. It’s a good balance for me, and one I intend to continue.

Phantastik-Couch.de: The world of the „Codex Alera“ reminds me of the Roman Empire. Was that something you had in mind, when you started the series? Where did you research the facts of the legions, the way the Romans fought their wars etc.?

Jim Butcher: Oh, absolutely. The Codex Alera is predicated on the idea of the IX Hibernia Legion marching into a storm and vanishing-and winding up in a different world altogether, Alera. I went and researched the composition of Roman Legions at that time period and found out that they were generally composed of about half Roman citizens and half German mercenaries and auxiliaries, plus a large contingent of camp followers and unofficial families.

So I dropped them into a magical world and started writing their history. Being Romans, they started conquering everyone they could find, and eventually, over a millennium, carved out a large empire of their own. When their society settled down, I went back to that original half-Roman, half-German notion, and established the Alerans as a very bifurcated society, with power being administered from large civic centers, Roman-style, but with the countryside populated with homesteads and freeholds somewhat similar to historic Germany.

I read a lot of books about the Roman Legions and warfare in the ancient world, but I found most of the best information in books in the children’s section of the library. Academic texts aimed at adults and scholars are full to bursting with all sorts of theories, philosophies, and extrapolations which may or may not be well-founded. But kids’ books about Romans show you how a scorpion works, how their armor was put together-all the fun stuff!

I’m not in the writing business to educate. I’m not a great deal smarter than any other given person, and my education has been sound but modest. I doubt I have anything truly profound to say to anyone which hasn’t occurred to them already. I’ll leave that kind of literature to other writers to pursue.

I want to capture that feeling of excitement and interest that we all had when we were kids. I want to make the reader wonder what’s going to happen, and make their fingers itch to turn the next page. I want them to laugh out loud at my jokes, to cry at my tragedies, and to think of my characters as people who they know. I want to make people care about the characters in my stories. At the end of the day, that’s what I am as a writer.

I want the readers to have fun.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Thank you very much for spending your time with us, and letting us get to know you a little bit. We wish you the best and look forward to your new books!

Jim Butcher: You’re very welcome. I apologize at the delay in getting back to you.

Das Interview führte Carsten Kuhr im April 2012.