A few weeks ago, I contacted Jim Butcher’s assistant in the hopes of getting to interview Jim ahead of the release of his latest book, The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass. Much to my surprise, his assistant got back to me and we scheduled the interview. He’s one of my favorite authors, so I was incredibly excited to have a chance to interview him.
Sadly, the day before the interview was scheduled to happen Jim’s dog, Frostbite Doomreaver McBane Butcher, passed away after a long battle with cancer. As you might expect, the interview was canceled.
But since I live one town over from where Jim lives, it’s a pretty safe bet that whenever he has a new book coming out that there will be some kind of book signing event somewhere in the area. Sure enough there was. And for an hour ahead of actually signing the books, Jim answered all kinds of questions that we in the audience threw at him.
Here is my transcript of the Q&A session from that event:
Q: When you are writing books, do you keep character bibles for yourself or for the publisher?
A: I do keep them for myself every time I’m making up new characters and so on. I make up a little dossier entry on the character, of who they are, Sometimes I draw a picture of them, but because I can’t draw…they don’t look like that. I’m not sure where the Dresden Files one is right now. Probably in a box somewhere. Mostly I use the Dresden File wikipedia these days, because the fans, you guys, are so much more on the ball than I am with this stuff. Now, bear in mind that I’ve seen so many slightly different versions of the Dresden Files over the course of writing the books, whereas you’ve only seen the final version. So it’s much easier for you to remember, “Oh yeah, that character had purple eyes”, even though in my head they had been yellow. I’ll look at the book and think, “Oh, I must have changed the eye color and didn’t really think about that. Well, it was 4:30 in the morning when I was doing those edits.”
So now mostly I just go to the fan wiki. Fans are so much better at keeping track of that than I am, and the fans are the ones that want to say, “Look, you missed this detail, you got it wrong.” I guess you’re right, I did. But now people like that build wikis, so “No I didn’t, because I cheated.”
Q: Harry Dresden started out as a really humdrum, normal, not big danger character, and now he’s a much bigger threat. Is he going to continue to progress on to confronting bigger entities?
A: My intention with Harry Dresden was never to make him the big fish in the small pond. He was always the medium sized fish that had to be smart and fast if he wanted to come out on top. So everything that I’ve given him that makes him cooler, only serves that purpose. Because he’s going to be continually going up against things that he has no business going up against. Storm Front Harry Dresden would never have survived Skin Game. I mean, he just wouldn’t come out of it in one pieces.
I’m kind of reminded about at the end of Changes, when I killed him…ahem spoilers…and my publisher called and was freaking out on me, going, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you killed him, you killed him!” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, I know! Now we get to do the cool stuff!!” So look for the series to go increasingly off the rails in terms of how bombastic some of the bad guys are going to be. We’re going to have a lot of fun from here on out. Especially since my special effects budget has gone up a lot. Which is cool because it doesn’t cost me anything to do that. It costs me just as much to burn down Chicago as it does to not burn down Chicago.
Q: Why Chicago?
A: Because my writing teacher wouldn’t let me set it in Kansas City, which is where it was originally set. She said, “You’re walking close enough to Laurel Hamilton’s toes that you can’t set your books in the same state. Just pick a different city. Not Kansas City.” And…ok, Chicago.
Q: You swore to never to two series at the same time again. Why are you doing it again?
A: The answer is alimony.
Q: Is there ever going to be a Dresden movie or a (no offense) better TV series than the last one?
A: What I’m hoping for is that we get a Netflix series. It is being shopped around in Hollywood, so we’ll have to see what winds up happening. It’s Hollywood. Hollywood is all talk, man. Nothing is real until the check has cleared. Just to give you the check, that’s not reality yet. Once the check clears, now it’s real. So we’ll see if anything happens.
Q: When are we going to see Ramirez again? And will he ever get his own short story?
A: In the Shadowed Souls anthology that I just got done editing. I’ve been an editor this year. Which was a really interesting experience. I’ve never edited anything before. At one point I read a story and fired off a critique to the author, and then I stopped and realized, “I just told Nora Roberts to cut 10 pages from her short story…She’s like the pro-est pro that ever pro’d a pro and I just said ‘drop 10 pages’.”
In that anthology there’s a short story called Cold Case. It’s Molly’s first job as the Winter Lady, and Mab sends her off on her first mission, and you get to see what her job is. And Ramirez teams up with her against a Cult of the Sleeper in a town in Alaska. There’s a town called Unalaska, Alaska. Really. There’s really a town called Unalaska, Alaska. It’s where Deadliest Catch is based out of. So they go find a bunch of Deadliest Catch fisherman who have started worshipping Cthulu basically. But that’s a fun story, and that’s where you’ll next see Ramirez pop up again, and he’ll show up in Peace Talks.
Peace Talks, I really should have subtitled that one ‘Blue on Blue’ or something like that, because basically I’ve set up a situation where I can do all these theoretical fights. “Who would win if these two went at each other? Let’s see!” We’ll see what happens.
Q: One of the forum posts I really enjoyed on your website was the one where you answered a question about The Archive and said “I’m going to tell you this because it’s never going to show up in the books. How much of that kinds of material do you have, and are you interested, or would you be interested in maybe putting together some kind of Legendarium for the world of Harry Dresden?
A: There is a TON of that material. There is so much of it. Because I’m constantly thinking of stories that could happen in the Dresden Files universe. “Oh yeah, that could happen. This is totally happening…how am I ever going to connect Harry Dresden to that. There’s no way in hell he’s ever going to be in the Grand Canyon doing something.” So as far as a Legendarium goes, I don’t think I will, because I want to have the option to do spinoffs. And if there’s no mystery, there’s no spinoffs, for when I’m done with Harry’s story. I’ve got a couple of different characters that it would be really cool to do spinoffs of. I don’t want to end my options on that.
Q: Question about Lord Raith. In Blood Rites, Lara bests him in the fight, but in the White Knight he’s still up, walking and talking, with her controlling him. How does that work? Is he a ventriloquist dummy?
A: He appears to be in charge, but he isn’t, because Lara can do terrible things to him if he doesn’t play along, and that’s his option now. So he has to play along with Lara and wear the target on his chest while she runs things from behind the scenes. Everyone else in the White Court, it doesn’t take them very long to figure out this is what’s going on. But that’s the play that they have going on, everyone has to pretend that Lord Raith is the one in charge even though they know better. Until it comes time to unseat Lara, and they’ll have to take Raith out of his position in order to get Lara out of hers. Lara, at the same time, she’s got to ferociously protect his position. It gets very byzantine in the White Court. They’ve basically got a figurehead emperor, and a pile of ministers with the real power. Lara happens to be on top of that pile of ministers at the moment.
Q: At a Con you attended recently, you mentioned that the reason Mab owes favors to some unsavory characters is due to debts she accrued when the Winter Fey first assumed the duty of manning the Wall. Can you tell us who was manning the Wall before?
A: I can. And I won’t.
Regarding that favor, it was a situation where Mab needed to be in two places at once and couldn’t. So Anduriel loaned her Nicodemus to step into one of the places she couldn’t be. Man has since learned better than that and now she has somebody that will step in for her when she needs to be in two places at once. Which is why the Leanansidhe has got so much power and generally shows up whenever Mab isn’t there. If you’ll notice in the books, the Leanansidhe and Mab very rarely show up in the same place at the same time. That’s because Leanansidhe is covering things that Mab should be doing, while Mab is wasting her time on Harry Dresden. And vice versa.
Q: At the beginning of the series, there’s only a very vague, amorphous big bad. As the series has progressed it’s gotten more complicated and more convoluted. How much of this were you planning all the way back when you started writing?
A: All of it. I kind of had a good idea of what the big bad was, and what it looked like, and where it all lined up. We’ve still go the really excited things in front of us. We’ve got giants and apocalii (which I judge to be the plural of apocalypse). Kaiju and gods. Plus we’re going to have a dragon vs. wizard fight. Because…you knew that was coming.
Q: The Gate seems like something that, if it didn’t start with a consciousness, would develop it over time. Is that the case?
A: It probably is, but the consciousness of an inanimate object like that is mostly like that of a mountain. “I AM HERE.” And it’s just increasingly aware of its here-ness. The Gate actually exists very differently than what Harry saw, but that’s how Harry has to interpret it because it’s far out in the Nevernever. Your mind has to put things into terms it can understand or you go squirrely. Harry’s got a very good mind for reducing things to simple ideas. Which most of the Senior Council would say with a roll of their eyes.
Q: Even though you write all these characters, have you ever had one that refused to do what you wanted it to?
A: No, because those people work for me. There are times when the characters don’t seem to be going as easily in a direction I want them to go. Often I will have to stop and take a look at what I’m doing since maybe the story has squirreled off in the wrong direction. Which is sometimes the case and I’ll have to rewrite. Often what I will do is I’ll go back and I’ll play Time Lord and go back and retool the character’s past to give them a good motivation to do what I want them to do.
Murphy was continually too much in the way in Fool Moon, for example. She kept trying to participate in what was going on and not in the adversarial way I needed her to, because she was essentially a minor villain in Fool Moon. It was not working out at all until I went back and tinkered with her backstory and Murphy has a paralyzing fear of big dogs. That was changing her opinions and put enough brakes on her that I could get her to slow down enough to let other people get killed instead of her.
But it also means that she wasn’t too sure about Mouse the first time she met him. She’s OK with him later on, because he’s a big dog that she doesn’t have to be afraid of, she trusts him despite that fear. But that’s all under-the-table stuff that I can’t write about because Murphy is not going to go up to Dresden and say, “I’m terrified of big dogs.” Because Dresden would make fun of her for being short and it’s not going to happen.
Q: Who is your favorite character in The Last Airbender series?
A: I think Zuko was the most convincing in showing a character turn 180 degrees. The personal redemption arc for Zuko was pretty cool. When he got to the point that he realized, “oh wait a minute, I’ve been struggling all along for my honor. I thought that having my father’s respect would give it to me, but no, I need to have my respect for it to work. And that means I need to do the right thing and I’m going to turn against my father, the most powerful man in the world, and help the Avatar fight him.” And that was kind of the turn of the tide of the series in many ways. So Zuko was kind of my favorite.
Although my favorite characters are almost always villains. So Azula was really my favorite character of the entire thing. Because Azula was just crazy. She was such a good example of a psychopathic villain that was still human. You could tell there was something broken about her, right from the very beginning. And yet she kind of carried on and you almost feel for her, every once in a while. At some point she’s standing there saying, “My mother called me a monster…he was right of course. But it still hurt to hear her say it.”
There was some really brilliant writing in Avatar.
Sokka was a lot of fun, and at the end of the day, Sokka took out Sparky-Sparky Boom-Man, who was one of the scariest guys in the series to show up. Which I thought was just awesome. I am a fan of Avatar, I like Avatar a bit.
Next time I have a dog, I’m going to have a little white dog and name him Appa. I’m going to train him with hand signals so whenever I want him to do something I’ll say, “Appa, yip yip.” And whatever the hand signal is will be what he does, but all I’ll ever say is “Appa, yip yip”. And then I could do a cosplay where I could be grown up Aang, and shave all of the hair off of the dog’s head except for a big arrow on the little dog’s head. And dye that blue. Cause that would be awesome.
I’m a nerd.
Q: You’ve written ancient Rome and urban fantasy. What was the motivation for the Cinder Spires?
A: I was sounding out several different ideas. I wrote out the first 20%-25% of four different novels and showed them to my beta readers and said, “which one strikes you?” And as I showed them to them one at a time it was pretty clear that the steampunk idea was really hitting bells with the readers. So I thought, ok, I’m gonna work with the steampunk. It really all started as an exercise in trying to figure out why they needed to wear goggles. Someone was always like, “just write a steampunk story,” and I’m like, “I can’t, because there has to be a real reason to wear goggles all the time.” So, ok, stop and figure out why they need to wear goggles.
By the time I was done answering that question, I had a universe.
So I know why they have to wear goggles all the time, but they don’t necessarily know all the reasons it’s necessary. They know the consequences if they don’t, but they don’t understand why those consequences exist yet. And it’s all coming, later in the series.
Q: Will you ever visit Alera again?
A: I don’t have any definite plans to go back yet because I have so many stories that I want to tell, and I’m going to have to live to 128 to get them all written. And I keep coming up with new ones, which doesn’t help. So come on, all you bio-med people out there, biological immortality, get working on it.
I could at some point, there are a couple of places I could go back to if I wanted to. But nothing on the drawing board right now.
Q: Did I create the spiritual daughter as a companion to Bob, and Is Dresden going to have to have a father-with-a-shotgun talk with Bob?
A: That’s a fair question. The answer to that is no, I wanted to show what Bob was like when he got started before he had generations and generations to figure out how things work. But yeah, the shotgun talk is inevitable at some point. Dresden is definitely keeping Bonnie away from Bob, because he fears Bob will be a terrible influence. And he’s right.
Q: Will Dresden be featured in any of the spinoff stories?
A: Very possibly. I like the character a lot. Although I think he will be very different in the spinoff stories, because when you’re not seated inside his point of view you don’t see how scary he is to everyone around him. He is creepy. For one thing, he’s huge and dark and scarred, and never makes eye contact with anybody. He doesn’t talk a lot, but when he does he usually says something that is reasonably incisive or makes fun of someone. It would be a little eerie hanging around him if you weren’t close enough to see behind the mask that he wears. He would be a totally different person showing up in a place like that. Although it would be fun to do a series of short stories showing people seeing Dresden from the outside. Maybe I’ll do that in the future sometime.
Q: What are your steampunk influences?
A: Probably Rudyard Kipling and Jules Verne. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Horatio Hornblower. I don’t really think this book is steampunk at all. I think it is Steam Opera. But my editor says I’m not allowed to create a new genre whenever I want. So, ok, it’s steampunk…*sigh*…but I think it’s Steam Opera myself. Because it has that kind of Space Opera scale to it in many ways.
Q: Will we get more history of Harry’s mom and grandfather?
A: Yes, in the next book.
Q: Why does Harry keep wearing a hat on the book covers, when in the text of the book Harry keeps talking about how he hates hats?
A: That didn’t really start until Book 8 or 9 or something like that, is when I started making that comment. It was because on Book 7 the Art Department decided that the perfect way to say “Wizard P.I.” was to have the guy with a wizard staff and a P.I. fedora. That it would be the perfect psychological shorthand for “Wizard P.I.” So they directed Chris McGrath to “make it like this.” And Chris, who is a professional artist said, “I will make it like that,” and did so, and fulfilled his commission.
And I didn’t like it. So I got all passive aggressive about it, and started making fun of hats in the books.
So when the new book came out, the steampunk book, Grimm is one of those characters that would never be caught dead without his hat. So of course they draw him with no hat.
Q: How many books have you planned for this new series?
A: I’ve planned 3 books to start it out with. I planned a 9 book arc, with cutouts at 3 and 6 in case it didn’t sell. If you guys don’t like it, you don’t buy it, that’s how it works. Hopefully we’ll do 9, hopefully people will enjoy it enough that it’ll go to 9 books. I want it to go that far. Because it’ll take that long to do the whole story and explore the back history of this world and show you all these different things i have in mind for this place that came from “why do we wear goggles?”
It’s sometimes frustrating because, as a writer, you build all this stuff and you don’t get to use it all. It’s so frustrating. Which is why sometimes I blow a gasket and mention something on the forums about The Archive or something like that. Or Murphy’s dog fear.
Q: Would you ever consider doing a collaborative effort with another author?
A: No. Because I would not wish to inflict myself upon anyone that I respect as a professional. I am high strung and way too controlling. It works well for me when I’m sitting along in a room, because no one else has to put up with it. But if I’m sitting there working with somebody else I’m pretty sure we’re going to start throwing our phones at each other. I am doing a couple of things, I’m doing a short story in Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International anthology, because I want to know about the janitor at MHI. If you’re the janitor at a company that professionally hunts down monsters that routinely chew up cities and stuff like that, I figure you’ve got a job. So I wanted to write a story about that.
Other than that, if other authors wanted to do a Dresden Files thing, I could maybe do something like that at some point.
My stomach hurts just thinking about it.
Q: Will you ever do a crossover between your universes?
A: It would be kind of cool. I’m not sure if it sounds cool or cheesy. Harry’s the wizard, Tavi is the thief…I’m not sure if that would be cool or cheesy. Though really that’s been my entire career.
Q: Are there limitations to how magic works in the Dresden Files?
A: Yes, there’s always limitations. But the people in that world don’t necessarily know where those limitations are. And as you get closer and closer to them, the likelihood of bad things happening gets worse and worse. It’s why you don’t see a lot of wizards flying around on brooms, in the Harry Dresden universe. If you’re experimenting with a flying broom, you get to make one mistake. And then you don’t have a flying broom or a living wizard anymore, due to the high speed crash. But you can get other things that are slightly safer than a flying broom. A flying carpet does make a little bit more sense than a flying broom, because at least you don’t fall off it quite as easy.
There are always limits to things that can happen, but you have to find someone that’s willing to test those limits. Without getting killed. You can always test the limits, it’s the ‘not get killed’ part that’s difficult. You can ask Marie Curie about that one.
Q: Whenever Harry’s had a relationship it hasn’t worked out. Is there something big coming?
A: When you say ‘something big’, do you mean that in a positive sense, or…? Yeah there’s something big coming….poor Murphy…
Q: James Marsters does a wonderful job as the reader for the audiobooks for the Dresden Files. Is he going to continue as the reader until the end of the series?
A: I do not want the publisher to change the reader from Marsters, because he is great. The problem is that he is the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Literally. He makes more money than anyone else in Hollywood. James has a very savvy business manager. The point is, James is only doing the series out of a love for the series and his fans at this point. Because we can’t possibly pay him what his time is worth. So it’s up to him.
Q: As a very successful author, why do you still live in Independence, Missouri?
A: I asked the very same question of a martial arts instructor when I was a teenager. This was the kind of guy that could catch arrows out of the air, the CIA had asked him to come train them and he told them to go fly a kite, just a world class martial artist. I asked my teacher, who worked for him, “why does he live in Independence, of all places?” The guy looked back at me and said, “because he wants to.” And that’s kind of my answer as well.
Q: How much input do I have in the Harry Dresden RPG?
A: I gave them a series of notes on things they could not have known because they weren’t in the books, but are features of the story world. Then I told them, “but you can’t reveal any of that, but you need to know it in order to build the world correctly.”
Then I went through and I nixed a bunch of things that they had put together, that they had effectively added up 2 and 2, and came up with 4, and I erased the 4 and said, “no no no, because this 4 is going to be a story later. So you can’t lay this out here for everybody.” I believe very strongly in building a story world where you could predict what was coming next if you had 1 more fact. And a lot of times people have made the intuitive leap and predicted what I’m going to be doing with something anyways. Somebody who is a reader has come up and told me essentially everything that’s going to happen, every major event, that’s going to happen for the rest of the story. It’s all scattered out amongst the collective, but the collective knows what’s going to happen. I feel that’s a very good level to be at, as far as writing the story goes. That people can look at this imaginary place, and the rules works well enough that you can say “Oh, this is coming!” Which is really rewarding for me.
Q: Do you get ideas that change your story? When someone asks you a question or something like that?
A: Oh yeah, that’s happened. Somebody else will come up and say, “Is this going to happen?” And I’ll be like, “No, that’s not going to happen…but…that’s better than what I had…that’s a really cool idea. Can I make that work?” That’s happened a couple of times for smaller things on the side.
Q: Have you been approached to do anything more with comics or Marvel?
A: No, which is good. Comics/Marvel doesn’t pay very much. I don’t get a royalty, I get a flat fee and then I go away. And everything has to be approved by a committee, and then if you want to change anything, it all has to be approved by a committee again.
I have been approached by others. At one point Wizards of the Coast wanted me to do the Dragonlance reboot. This was when 4E was just coming out. And I thought this was a really cool idea. So I re-read the first 3 books in Dragonlance, and came up with a plan for a story, of how the entire story universe would change if Flint had caught Hasselhoff trying to steal his dagger in the very first chapter. Because then, Tanis gets wounded by an goblin so they’ve got to take an extra 45 minutes taking care of Tanis before they can go into town and help Goldmoon. And that changes the entire story, everything, based on the fact that Flint goes, “Ah hah! You weasel, you can’t take my knife!”
I took Raistline, and it was going to be Raistline as portrayed by Dr. House. And it was going to start there, because really, that’s how Raistline should have been portrayed. As Dr. House.
So I was very excited, and I had all the plans together, and then I went to Wizards of the Coast and I said, “Tracy and Margaret know about this and are cool about it, right?” Wizards of the Coast started giving me these weasel answers and I was like, “Oh, ok. They don’t know, and you haven’t run this by them, and the only reason I’m a writer is because Margaret Weis came in to my high school and gave a talk about writing. And that’s the only reason I thought “well maybe I should write a novel” when I was 19. So I kind of went, no I don’t want to do this.
And then they had the disaster that was 4th Edition come crashing down on them and I think everyone behind the idea lost their jobs anyhow. Really, 4th Edition was a disaster for those guys. I’m sorry, it’s much nerdier than I really should be going on at this point.
Q: Of all of your published works, are there any that stand out to you as the best or worst?
A: To me, Storm Front is the one I wrote when I knew the least about how to tell a good story. And really that’s just a fact. Ghost Story was a book that I was trying to do something very different for Harry Dresden, because Harry is the guy who kicks down the door and saves the day. When he can’t kick down the door and save the day, who is he? That was sort of what Ghost Story was about, and I’m not sure I pulled it off as well as I wanted to. But I knew it was going to be a very very difficult book to write, and it was.
As far as the best work I’ve done, was probably Changes, because everyone wanted to kill me. And I’m happy with that. And then Dead Beat, because undead T-Rex. I don’t know how I’m going to top an undead T-Rex, maybe I should have saved that for later on.
Q: How did you originally build Harry’s world? Did you start with the magic system or the world around him?
A: I started with the premise that I needed to prove to my writing teacher that she was wrong about what she was trying to teach me. That was where I started. I decided to prove it to her by doing everything she told me to do, and put my characters together in this exaggerated way, and using story outlines and chapter outlines, and to do all these little worksheets that she had, and character sketches and profiles. After I did all of that she was going to see exactly what horrible cookie-cutter pack of crap emerged from that artificial stilted process.
So I wrote Storm Front.
After that, I started with Harry. I put him together as a frankenstein of Merlin and Sherlock Holmes and Spencer and Gandalf. Just borrowing traits, basically ripping off their arms and sewing it onto another body. And after that, well he’s a wizard, the next thing to figure out about the world was the magic. Because that’s how he’s going to relate to the world. So I went out and raided the local bookstore, it was a Border’s at the time, raided their metaphysics section. It was all books about people that incorporate magic into their religious practices. I took everything that I thought would have a good effect or would be fun to work with later and left a bunch of the rest of it behind.
So first it was Harry, then it was the magic, and then everything else.
Q: Your costumes were great at DragonCon. How long did it take anyone to figure out who you as a group were cosplaying as?
A: Well, nobody could figure out who we were cosplaying at DragonCon because we were cosplaying people from Cinder Spires. Which nobody had read. It was the most hipster cosplay ever. “I’m dressed as Captain Grimm from Cinder Spires. You’ve probably never read it…” Although, to be fair, I cheated on that costume, because I wrote Captain Grimm’s costume as a costume that I already owned. It was in my closet. I wanted to cosplay convincingly as somebody from one of my books, and I didn’t have anyone else that I could do that with. So it was Grimm.
Q: What authors do you look forward to reading, when they release a new book?
A: Brandon Sanderson, he’s like the Terminator or something. I don’t know what it is. I’m going to get on a plane tomorrow, get to the airport, new Brandon Sanderson book. Take off, land in Cincinnati, and there’s another book! That’s what I feel like he does.
Brian McClellan is probably getting added to the list really soon, since I’m really enjoying is Powdermage books.
Larry Correia, John Ringo, I always pick up those guys. David Weber.
Naomi Novik, I love the Temeraire novels. Give me those, give them to me faster. What do you mean this is the last one?
This completes the Q&A transcript with Jim Butcher. What did you think? Are you looking forward to the The Cinder Spiders: The Aeronautics’s Windlass? Comment below with your thoughts.