BROUGHT TO BOOK

Dres­den Files scribe Jim Butcher pays us a visit.

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - Words by jonat han wright Por­trait by Karen Ha cker

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”

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