A Pint with… JIM BUTCHER! Our inaugural interview with the Master of Urban Fantasy…

CA - Jim Butcher
I’d had a number of publishers ask if I was looking to do author interviews; it was certainly ‘on the list’ though I’d a mind to do something a little different – a casual pint or coffee with… But where to begin or, rather, who?
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Sometimes the world does actually work a little magic and JIM BUTCHER – over on his first ever UK tour with the paperback release of Skin Game, the latest in his fantastic Dresden Files series – was good enough to be our inaugural interviewee. I caught up with Jim & co on his last day in the UK, after his talk and signing at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, up in the shop’s 5th floor bar…

 

IN THE BEGINNING…

The first thing I learned of Jim Butcher was from his book jacket bio: “A martial arts enthusiast whose resume includes a long list of skills rendered obsolete at least two hundred years ago.” It seemed a good place to start, especially as I had some interest in the same. So what particular skills were these?

‘Leather-making. Saddle-making. Blacksmithing…’ More making and smithing. On the martial arts side? Aside from eastern forms (and I’m already scrawling as fast as I can to keep up) fencing, kendo, archery… I ask, having discovered schools in London, if he’d touched base with the growing scene of medieval swordfighting. Not yet, but he’s moving state and hopes to when he has.

So – quite aside from wanting a top storyteller in your party – Jim’s likely to be your practical choice in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

RUMOURS OF THE CODEX ALERA…

CBP - The Furies of Calderon We move on to a wonderful anecdote I’d heard as I really wanted to know if there was (hoping there would be) at least some truth in it. The Dresden Files, not simply because of their first world setting, establish themselves so easily and naturally that, while entirely well written, the Romanesque world of his Codex Alera series had me going wait, what? But then you hear a version of how it came about, after which… well you’ve seriously got to respect the writer who did that. The reality is not even one world away…
Back in 98-99, and before the first Dresden novel was signed / published, Jim had been an active correspondent on Del Rey’s online writers workshop. Amongst other engagements a ‘flame war’ had begun between two factions: one holding to the principle of the Holy Idea, that if the idea / concept is solid you’ve got a winning story, the other – of which Jim was a member – championed the originality and skill of the writer above the ideas themselves.

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Well, says Jim’s antagonist, put your money where your mouth is: I’ll give you a hackneyed idea and let’s see you turn it into something worthwhile.

Jim’s response was, for the writer and creatives generally, perfection itself:

‘Give me two.’

And they did. Two proven but worn ideas to test the writer and the principle:

‘Forgotten Roman legion (I’m sick of all these books on that)

‘…

‘And Pokemon.’

Oh yes. Yes yes yes. This part is exactly what I’d heard; and it takes the Codex Alera from being a good read with a rather bizarre premise to the fabulous result of a persistent, original and skilled author.

But there’s more to hear. Because for all the world of the Furies of Calderon had given me pause for thought it nevertheless breathes fully-formed from the printed page. It’s the writer’s magic, the casting of the illusion that their world is not the product of a fevered magpie-mind’s efforts, of painstaking research for shiny things, scavenging ideas from history and culture to knit together. So how did it come about?

CA - 220px-Big_Trouble_in_Little_China_Film_Poster Pokemon, as Jim relates from his investigations, is a combination of the Kami (local spirits) of Shinto (Japanese folk religion) and pro-wrestling. Jim accompanied these researches and those into Roman history Jim with the brilliant Big Trouble in Little China playing in the background; from this he heard the words “All movement in the universe is caused by tension between positive and negative furies. So when the furies are out of balance…”
And from a national folkloric skip within the orient – Japanese Kami to (Hollywood) Chinese furies – it was only a short leap to the furies of Graeco-Roman mythology and the fantastical basis for The Furies of Calderon and it’s sequels in the Codex Alera.

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It seems the denouement of Jim’s challenge was to be in the Del Rey court of writers opinion but he was ‘having fun with this’ and his gut told him not to make it public just then.

Ultimately ‘he kind of proved his point,’ Jim concedes: ‘and I got a book deal out of it.’ Mind it would have been Jim’s ‘originality and skill’ that made the book sellable, quite apart from the requisite bloody-mindedness that would lead a writer to take on such a challenge and then succeed in it – but it’s his story and a damn good one.

ON URBAN FANTASY, PREDECESSORS, CONTEMPORARIES AND MORE ON ORIGINAL THOUGHT…

When I first read The Dresden Files as a reader I was over the moon to discover a favourite new series. Meanwhile the aspiring writer in me was exclaiming ‘Damn-you-Jim-Butcher!’ and ‘why didn’t I think of doing that?

CBP V - Hellblazer V10 Actually it was because, years before, I’d discovered John Constantine in DC / Vertigo comics HELLBLAZER: The wise-cracking contemporary urban magician wasn’t new to me. Yet there are few if any completely original concepts. It’s all about making characters and content fresh and unique in their own way – besides which it hadn’t been done in novel form, at least not like this. But had Jim read Hellblazer himself?
‘No,’ and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was ‘probably a good thing. He’s heard of Constantine now mind and, though still to read any of the volumes, has watched NBC’s mostly faithful television adaptation and certainly appreciates the character if not the rest of it. ‘He’s like a magical Batman,’ Jim enthuses, ‘Nothing rattles him.’

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How about his contemporaries then? ‘I don’t actually read much urban fantasy,’ he tells me.

This is less surprising – writers have other things to read up on than similar fictional subject matter – next to the fact that he’d yet to hear of UK super-seller Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. On the other hand, as I already knew, he’d certainly read fellow Orbit author Benedict Jacka’s London-set UF novels, giving his debut Fated with a deservedly glowing endorsement. CBP - Fated - Benedict Jacka
‘He’s simultaneously the weakest and strongest character in the books,’ he says of Jacka’s Alex Verus, and is vocal in his appreciation as this is a far from easy thing for a writer to achieve. He adds, having met him at Dysprosium / EasterCon, ‘Benedict’s a really nice guy.’
(While not the subject of this interview, I’ll second that and affirm the endorsement of his writing. Check out his excellent Alex Verus series ASAP – they really are superb!)

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So, researches aside, if he’s not reading UF what is he reading? The great and much missed Terry Pratchett.

‘I only got into Pratchett over the last three years,’ Jim explains, and then of course we’re into what his (our) favourite Discworld characters are. ‘Sam Vimes.’ One of mine as well, then ‘Death – he’s the champion of humankind. He defends humanity over and over again.’ Another of mine and he’s absolutely right – it hadn’t exactly passed me by but neither had I quite articulated this. ‘He’s a sympathetic character.’

DRESDEN, DRINKS, POWER, RESPONSIBILITY, AND NICE PROBLEMS

We’re over halfway through the hour we have. Time for another bottled lager for me, a full titular pint now being had. Jim’s UK Editor and Publicist are enjoying a red. Jim and partner are exploring the beverage list, sharing a Dark Stormy Mojito and a dry cider, less the ale man that Dresden is. The all-too believable scenario of Harry Dresden drinking his takeouts of Mac’s ale chilled – which, Dresden tells us, the publican would in no respect approve of – comes from yet more research and the consultation of ale-aficionado friends.

And yes, Jim confirms, there’s always been a story with (the laconic) “Mac” McAnally. But not one we’re likely to hear just yet I would imagine. Mac’s has been the most patiently lingering untold story in this – and frankly any – series. I can’t be the only one speculating and more than a little keen to hear it…

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Now we’re onto message. Because Harry Dresden is undoubtedly a hero and a strong socially-minded conscience runs throughout the books.

‘Stan Lee said it best,’ Jim says, and two syllables in I’m already nodding in vehement agreement knowing exactly what’s coming next: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ CA - Stan Lee Spider-Man
For Jim it’s about ‘questions of morality and ethics’ and the ‘abuse of power’ in the world, and he certainly expresses these issues in his writing. I note (in part inquiry) that none of us are likely to get bitten by radioactive spiders, that we can only empower ourselves and take responsibility. Jim doesn’t disagree but emphasises that as a writer ‘I’m an entertainer first and foremost’: the message comes as part of that, but if he’s not focused on doing his job right it’s not as if whatever his or any other authors message is will be of any benefit.

He clearly does take stock and responsibility of where he is now. As a comparatively infrequent tweeter he has 43.5 thousand followers and plenty more outside of twitter. When you have that number of followers, he’s more than aware, you’ll have a good number of people who don’t like you and crazies besides but also supporters who’ll take your side. He does involve himself in online discussion but he gives consideration to and takes responsibility for what he says and the subjects he’s drawn into – it’s a good thing and certainly wise when you have that many followers.

‘It’s a nice problem to have,’ Jim says having, not so long ago in the conversation, said the same while rubbing an aching hand after a long period of signing.

WRITING, RULES AND LEARNING THE CRAFT (IN THE END)

But that’s where he is now; we move onto – or back to – how Jim started out.

He’d completed a 4-year Batchelor’s degree in English Literature at University which, he believes, set his writing back at least two years. Professors of English Lit are far more keen to get you to take apart someone else’s text rather than putting together your own.

As a postgrad Jim took a conference course in Creative Writing under author-professor Deborah Chester. He was likewise dissatisfied with the curriculum, being around story structure, character studies and the like. Chester’s approach didn’t chime with his creative spirit. As Jim wryly puts it he’d got a batchelors in English Lit; she’d only written 39 novels.

Never one for false praise – more one for rolling up a student’s ‘effort’ and banging them on the head with it – she didn’t express any particular regard for his work either.

CBP - Changes - Jim Butcher Perhaps it’s an inherent aspect of the creative mind to imagine that the rules of the craft don’t apply to you. But as Jim points out you at least have to learn the rules in order to break them usefully. ‘It’s about human psychology,’ he goes on. ‘Debbie said the writer’s job is manipulate the reader.’ He didn’t like that any more than her earlier teachings of story-craft. However… ‘At the end of Changes…’
‘Yes!’ I reply, ‘I couldn’t believe what you did…’ Jim’s grinning all the more now, knowing I didn’t literally hate this piece of his writing so much as – no spoilers – what he’d had happen to his character.
‘He loves hearing that,’ his Publicist chimes in, but of course he does. And on the subject of readers love-hate relationship with authors who do… unwelcome things to their characters, we’re of course firmly George R. R. Martin territory where we share our favourite memes before moving on before GRRM can do anything particularly nasty to us.

CA - GRRM JB

JIMS

CA - GRRM - TB

TIMS (Mine)

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Anyway determined to prove his professor wrong Jim decided he’d do exactly what she’d told him: fill out the forms, do the exercises, be one of her writing zombies

CBP - The Fantasy Fiction Formula - Jan 16 - Deborah Chester - Manchester Uni Press “Well you did it,” she told him on receiving his next submission: “You will be able to sell this.” CPP - Jim Butcher
The text in question was the beginning of what became Storm Front, the first book in the Dresden Files.
Jim has more than enough praise now for his former tutor who, for the writers out there, has her book on fantastical story-craft ‘The Fantasy Fiction Formula’ coming at the beginning of 2016. Jim’s writing the foreword.

And, more or less, the beginning of Jim’s career takes us, with time for a few photos, to closing at Waterstone’s Piccadilly and the end of the interview.

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Jim Butcher & Co A adj

Gemma Conley-Smith & Jenni Hill (Orbit Publicity and Editor) left, Jim and partner right

It was an absolute pleasure to meet Jim not to mention to interview him for our very first ‘A Pint with…’ article. Many, many thanks to Gemma and Orbit Books and Jim Butcher himself for affording me the time and opportunity to do so.
More on Jim Butcher’s Skin Game and further awesome  titles on our:
URBAN FANTASY (and choice associated fictions) publishing Jan-Jun 15 page…
URBAN FANTASY (and choice associated fictions) publishing Jan-Jun 15 page…
March New Book Recommends page…

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