Interview with Jim Butcher
Best known for his best selling series, The Dresden Files, Butcher has become an icon in contemporary fantasy since he first published in 2000.
Jim Butcher was kind enough to take some time in his busy pre-publication rounds to give us a brief phone interview, even though he had just had his second root canal in a week. Below is the transcript, briefly edited for clarity. If you would like to see my review of his new Dresden novel, Skin Games, released on May 27th, you can see that here.
Form: Novel, Short Story, Graphic Novel
Genre: Fantasy and Steampunk
Why did you choose to be a writer over other careers and were their other careers that you considered?
Yes, there were several other careers that I considered. I started off trying to go through computer programming, and electrical engineering, and then I met engineers and that went out the window, so I decided to come at computers through managing information systems, and then I met accounting mathematics and so that went out the window. So then I thought it would be nice to be a teacher, since I always thought that would be something nice to do, but then I had to observe teachers in their natural environments for the courses, and I realized that teachers were some of the most miserable people I had seen in my life. So then I sort of bottomed out in English.
So I was getting my English degree and wondering what I was going to do with it, and realized that I was reading a book that I’d been looking forward to for some time and I was disappointed at the ending of it and I thought to myself, I could have written that better than that and then I thought to myself, well, its easy to say that. And then I decided to try and start writing, and started looking into what it might take to become an author, and how that might go, so eventually I decided that I wanted to do it, if for no other reason than I could work a job that I didn’t have to wear a tie. And that was really important to me. After that it was about 10 years of work and working other jobs and trying to work to break in. I ended up doing a whole lot of technical support first for the university and then for a local internet provider. I worked a lot of 10pm-6am shifts and that actually helped cause I got a considerable amount of writing done and eventually I put in enough time and I’d been studying the craft, and finally was able to break in. But it took me about 10 years from the first book I wrote.
Why did you choose to work in a speculative genre versus a realistic genre?
Because that’s where all the cool stories are. I mean, honestly, I like to pretend that I’m mercenary as a writer, but if I were a real mercenary writer, I would be writing mainstream adventure novels. And if I were really a mercenary, I would be using a pen name and writing romances because that’s where the money is. But, no, I write science fiction because I’ve always loved it. My first memory of going to a movie is going to see Star Wars with my sisters. My sisters took me to go see Star Wars when I was 6. I remember going to the driveway and seeing Dragon Slayer and Star Trek 2 the same night. I always loved fantasy stories. The first novels I remember reading were the Chronicles of Narnia. And when I was in first grade, I got sick with strep throat and I was out of school for more than a week, and my sisters went to the store and they brought me home, one sister had gotten the Han Solo trilogy in the box set that were written in the late 70’s and the other one had gotten me the primary color box of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. I blame my sisters for that. There was really never anything for me but Science Fiction and Fantasy.
What aspect do you find most challenging and how do you address that?
Always, in every kind of writing, is making your characters human. Even when your characters aren’t human. The most challenging aspect of the story is making them believable, making people care about them. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing, that’s the critical thing. If people care about your characters, then you can win the game. Other than that, the rest of it is just labor. World building can be hard, because when you go off to another world, you’ve got to figure out how to balance describing this new place with keeping your plot up and going. That makes it a little bit difficult when you’re doing a complete fantasy world. Its much easier with something that’s kinda set in our ish world. You can say, they were in a Walmart, and everyone goes, well, I know what a Walmart looks like. But when you start telling people, we’re going into the crystal battery and its like, okay, well, now I have to put half a page of description for what a crystal battery looks like, feels like, smells like in there. And that’s slowing down your pace and you’ve got to consider that as you’re writing the rest of it.
Your characters are very realistic, and actual evolve, unlike other characters in the genre. How do you manage that?
For me, its a fairly organic process, but that’s because…well, ok…The Dresden Files are being written as a complete arc with a beginning, a middle and an end, so I know where these characters start and I know where they’re going to finish up and I kinda know where they go along the way, so its not hard for me to imagine, well, we’re at this point in the story and the characters are going this way, and they had a direction from the beginning that I knew they were going to be going in, so its not hard to say here’s the next step, and here’s what’s going to happen to them and here’s how they handle that on an emotional level and a mental level, and so this is just the next step of them going in the direction they were going from the beginning. Now if you didn’t have that plan from the beginning, then that would be a much different story. It would make it considerably harder.
What motivates you to keep writing?
I like the money. If I don’t keep writing, they will take my house away. And that’s the first one, and, to a degree, you gotta have that attitude because sometimes you don’t feel like writing and there’s just nothing in you that says writing today will be a good idea and at times, you know, I love my job, but there are days where I just have to go to work. And it sucks. But that doesn’t happen very often, but you have to have that ability to fall back on that. You’ve got to think of it as something that you do professionally. So there’s a certain amount of professionalism. That said, what really motivates me is, is imagining people’s reactions to things that I write. I love writing the book and knowing that I’m going to be throwing a sucker punch at the end of the book and just imaging the people’s reaction to that as they read it. Probably the most gratifying thing I’ve ever seen in my career, was at the end of Changes, somebody did an online cartoon, and the cartoon just sort of showed a guy reading Changes, and reading the middle of Changes, and the ending with his eye really big and wide on the last page, and then it cuts another scene of a couple girls talking with each other and one of them says, “I sense a disturbance in the force, as if thousands of nerds suddenly screamed.” And her friend says, “And were suddenly silenced?” and the next page is, “No, no, they’re still screaming.” And I read that and I was like, oh, I win. It was so awesome. One of my favorite things I’ve been asked in an interview is, last year somebody asked me, “Why do you love to torture your characters so much?” and I said, “No, you don’t understand, I don’t love to torture my characters, I love to torture my readers. My characters just happen to be the ones that are there.” They’re the only means for me to do that. There’s a certain amount of sadism that drives me as an artist.
When you were a young writer, how did you deal with rejection?
Poorly. I had a big red file folder that I called the Rose File. It said the Rose File on the front and I put all my rejection letters, from everybody in it. And these were the people, that one day, when I had my first giant check, I was going to send them a photocopy of my first giant check that they could have had a percentage of, and a dead flower. And one day, while I was imaging all the vengeance I would have for these people who blew me off, And so, what I finally did, i got accepted into an agent, and I finally did get a sale, and I went back to the rose file, and it became less important at that point, but a few years later, the books were going well and I just got my second series sold, and I found the Rose File in the drawer and I started looking through it and in the Rose File of people who rejected me included, like, my initial editor and her boss, my current editor, and her boss, the agent I’m working with now, her boss, all these different agents in all these different places, and if I thought, you know, I won’t send a dead flower out to everybody. But when you’re getting started, whatever you can do to motivate yourself, is what you gotta do. I had my little writing cubby which was basically covered in world war II style propaganda which was “Do Not Stop Writing”, and the other thing that I found useful was to just sort of get into a rhythm, at this time of night, you sit down, and you get some writing done. You gotta make the time for that.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
Oh, uh, um, I was terribly pleased with my Spiderman novel that I wrote for Marvel. I don’t know if its my favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I was terribly pleased with it. I had all kinds of fun cause I’ve been a Spiderman fan since I was a wee child. So that was a lot of fun. Changes was all kinds of fun, writing the last chapter of changes because when I’m writing, a lot of times, depending on the novel, I can be kind of moody and sobbing towards the end of the book, but at the end of changes, I just sounded like Reinfield in the original Dracula, “Mwahahahahahaha…”
What is the one thing you regret in your career?
Oh, the one thing I regret, I think I would be spitting in the faces of the gods to say I regretted anything, I mean, so far, things have gone so well, I don’t feel I have much room for regret. Let me think…really is there anything? Maybe the Spiderman novel. Even though it was so much fun, it threw off my work schedule so badly that its still off to this day. Because I tried to take on three books in one year. Other than that, career wise, no, I’ve got no complaints. I’d be ashamed to complain.
What does your writing process look like?
It starts off with me sitting down to play some video games. Now, I know that doesn’t sound professional, but I actually did a writing speed study over two months, and found out that the nights that I play myself out on videogames and then sit down and start writing, that I actually get so much more writing done. I was actually hitting speeds of up to 2800 words an hour while I was doing that. When I didn’t do that, and I just sat down to grind out words, it was worse, and I would keep track of that, and I would average between 400 and 800 words an hour. So, two hours of video games plus one hour of writing was doing much better for me than anything else. So I like to think of it as writing smarter. But I will sit down and blow up people on first person shooter video games for a while cause I love those. I’m not as good at them as I used to be, so I just have to play cheap wiley old man tactics, But I’ll do that for a while and if I’ve blown up enough people and run over enough people with tanks and so on, and then I’m happy and I’ll sit down and start writing and I’ll write frantically for a couple of hours, and sort look up and I’ll have a chapter finished, and then I’ll stop and once the chapter’s done, I’ll get that sent off to my beta reader list, and I’ll usually do that and it’ll be five or six in the morning and then I’ll go to sleep and get up sometime early afternoon, and by then, the betas who got their email when they got up at normal human times will have sent me some feedback on that chapter and that gives me energy for the next chapter. So I sort of write to a live audience as I go. And I think it gives me a lot of really valuable feedback in terms of am I getting the things right that I want to get across to my readers. Am I creating all the stuff I want to create.
When you are setting up new rules for the magic and supernatural interactions in the Dresden universe, do you do research into existing mythology?
Well, when I was starting Dresden, I did a ton of research. I was real serious about that. I went to the local, I think it was a Borders at the time, and raided their metaphysical section, and came out with half a dozen different books about wicca and fairy wicca and various beliefs and practises of magic. And shamanism, and all this other stuff. I read through them all, and thought about it, and cherry picked my favorite that would be cool for stories and then thought about what would give me the dramatic effects I would be looking for in my stories, and then just started. And then I’ve continued to develop the concepts as I’ve gone along. And it created a pretty good whole I think, probably by book 2 or 3, I felt I had a pretty good handle on this is how magic in the Dresden Files works. Since then, I have had all kinds of help from my Beta readers in developing it and keeping it straight. I’ll write something and think this is cool and I’ll have a beta reader who says, no, magic doesn’t work like that, because of this, you established this rule back in this book, in this chapter, on this page, and I’ll be like, oh god, i did? Oh, okay now I’ve got to figure out why this works, and how it can work within the story world. Its incredibly valuable having the beta readers because they are so good at keeping those facts straight. They keep me honest.
If you were only able to give one piece of advice to young writers, what would it be?
Write every day. I’m stealing this from another author who said this when I asked him the same question. And it was write every day. Even if you only get a sentence finished, you’re one sentence closer to the end of your book than you were at the beginning of your day. So, that’s it. I mean, if you’re going to be a writer, you’ve got to write. So do it every day.