BROUGHT TO BOOK
Dresden Files scribe Jim Butcher pays us a visit.
When Jim Butcher crosses the Atlantic this spring to attend Eastercon as a guest of honour, it will be his first visit to the UK. While Butcher says he’s not a great traveller, he’s clearly looking forward to visiting the country “where all my favourite fantasy worlds came from”. We can but hope the Park Inn Hotel, Heathrow, venue for Dysprosium 2015, doesn’t come as too much of a disappointment to a man steeped in Rudyard Kipling, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. “I’m in awe of what the huge fantasy authors of the UK have done,” Butcher says. “I took their stuff, and the stuff that I loved as a kid, and I’ve tried to take those same elements and add my own insanity to them.”
It’s insanity that’s connected with audiences around the world, principally via Storm Front ( 2000) and its sequels in The Dresden Files sequence, urban fantasies starring PI wizard Harry Dresden, who tackles paranormal crimes in Chicago. The books have sold in their millions, somewhat to the bemusement of their creator.
“It’s weird being famous cos it just sort of happened and I wasn’t planning on it,” he says. “I just wanted to write books to provide for my family and make a living at a job where I didn’t have to wear a tie. And when the books actually took off and I started getting attention, it was very strange. I’m not quite sure how to deal with that because I’m really not a terribly interesting person but people seem to think I am at conventions.”
His answer has been to create “Famous Author Guy”. It’s this character who appears on stage at conventions and chats amiably down a phone line from Butcher’s home in Independence, Missouri. In his day- to- day life, things are a little different. Butcher is an introvert whose dog, a little white Bichon Frisé who’s convinced he’s a “fearsome warrior”, is “much more of a people person” than its owner.
“I’m the guy who can’t quite get his cheque book balanced, ever, who cooks completely with the microwave,” he says. “I hardly use my stove at all because, when I use the stove, bad things happen. I’m a horrible cook, I can burn soup, it’s amazing.”
Which might in part explain why Harry Dresden is so popular with fans, because Harry isn’t a conventional hero. Like his creator, Harry is more than a little geeky. “He’s a computer nerd except he works with magic instead of computers,” says Butcher. “And he gets to be the hero that many people would like to be, and that, god, I hope nobody ever has to be. But at the same time, he’s kind of the Charlie Brown of urban fantasy because he can’t get a break.”
That said, while Butcher is clearly grateful to his most successful creation, he acknowledges there are difficulties with keeping such a long- running series – 15 novels and counting including The Skin Game, recently published in paperback – fresh. Readers, he points out, “hang out with Harry Dresden for an afternoon or a couple of days”. In contrast, says Butcher, “When you’re writing [ the books] you have to hang out with Harry Dresden every day, and I get sick of that guy.”
Time for a break, and Butcher’s next book, The Aeronaut’s Windlass, due this autumn, will be the first in a new steampunk sequence, The Cinder Spires. Its genesis says much about Butcher’s pragmatic attitude towards his craft. “I started writing several different novels, and sharing them with beta- readers and seeing which one I got the strongest response on,” he says. Because he likes to end chapters with cliffhangers, Butcher says he thinks of those who read for him as residing in a “Beta Asylum” because they have to wait so long to find out what happens next. “They do complain about this a lot and I know I’m doing my job well when I get lots of complaints.”
For a sequence where much of the action is set aboard airships, Butcher has taken inspiration from naval fiction written by the likes of CS Forester ( the Hornblower books) and Patrick O’Brian ( Master And Commander). When SFX jokes about his appropriating British cultural heroes and archetypes, Butcher counters that American culture is all about appropriation. “For me, when I see something that is worthy and neat in a story, it’s like, ‘ That’s what I want, something awesome,’” he says, “and there is an undue amount of awesome in the figure of Hornblower.”
But in the end, Butcher suggests, it won’t be down to his ability to twist the tropes of naval fiction if the books are a success, it will be because the books will feature talking cats. He’s resigned to this. “They’re sort of like a little fuzzy Mafia,” he explains. “‘ I notice your warehouse is rodent free, perhaps you would like it to continue to be rodent free and perhaps there will be cream waiting for us every Thursday at 5pm?’”
As to what steampunks might make of the books, Butcher is a little nervous. “I’m actually intimidated by the prospect of meeting steampunk fans because I don’t know if I’m sufficiently read in steampunk to hold a worthy conversation with them,” he says. “The steam-punkiest thing I’ve read that I can think of is John Carter Of Mars.”
So long as he remembers to call on Famous Author Guy, we’re sure it’ll all work out fine.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass is published in September.
“I just wanted to make a living at a job where I didn’t have to wear a tie”