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A Conversation With Jim Butcher
An interview with Alisa McCune
July 2004

© Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher lives in Oklahoma with his wife and son and a houseful of computers. He's also the author of Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, all part of The Dresden Files

The Jim Butcher Fan Attic
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Blood Rites
SF Site Review: Death Masks
SF Site Review: Grave Peril
SF Site Review: Fool Moon
SF Site Review: Storm Front
Excerpt from Grave Peril
The Dresden Files

Blood Rites
Death Masks
Summer Knight
Grave Peril

Lee Macleod
Fool Moon

Lee Macleod
Storm Front

Jim Butcher is the author of five books in the Dresden Files series; Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, and Death Masks. The sixth in the series, Blood Rites will be published in August 2004. A high-fantasy series, Furies of Calderon will be published October 31, 2004.

Harry Dresden is our erstwhile wizard in the Dresden Files series. Do not confuse him with that other Harry as he would not appreciate the comparison. Our Harry is just a nice guy trying to make a living as a wizard. Unfortunately, Harry has some bad luck and seems to find himself frequently in over his head. Harry's world is full of magic -- but lacking in electricity. He meets up with vampires, demons, priests, werewolves, Faeries, ghosts, knights, Chicago police, Tibetan guard dogs, and so on. Nothing is ever simple in Harry's life, but that is what makes him so appealing.

Storm Front, the first in the Dresden Files series was Jim Butcher's first published work after years of struggling. He kindly submitted to my questions below.

What is your background? How does it impact on your writing?

I am a science fiction and fantasy nerd, and proud of it. I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia, The Prydain Chronicles, The Lord of the Rings, and every other similar book I could get my hands on. I practically lived in the Star Wars universe -- in my head, anyway, and always on recess. I eventually started down the dark path to true geekdom (role-playing games) and have never recovered.

As a longtime member of the fan geek community, I'm familiar with much of the same material as... well; probably anyone interested enough to read this article. I can drop jokes and references to episodes of Star Trek, Shakespeare, movies, and classic SF&F books -- you name it. I would like to think that as a member of the fan community, generally speaking, I have a certain amount of insight into what will appeal to folks with similar interest. Hopefully, that makes my own work more enjoyable and accessible to everyone.

What drove you to become a writer?
Obsession. After I had written that first horrible novel, I was determined that I was not going to let that effort go to waste. Of course, if I'd known I was going to have to spend about eight times that much effort to finally break in, I might not have continued.

Or maybe I would have. Sometimes I can be somewhat stubborn.

What are you currently working on?
Right now, on the second book of the Codex Alera, titled Academ's Fury. It's due in... ugh. Very soon.

On your webpage, you have a fantastic tale of how the Dresden Files series got published. Please share your experience.
Well, drop by for that original distillation of the story. Long story short? I fought my writing teacher tooth and nail for the longest time, flatly rejecting a lot of very good advice she was giving me. When I finally got tired of arguing with her and decided to write a novel as if I was some kind of formulaic, genre writing drone, just to prove to her how awful it would be, I wrote the first book of the Dresden Files.

After it was written, the question was how to get it to an agent and/or editor. I set out to find an agent or editor who would look at it. It took me more than two years. I went to several conventions where I wanted to get the chance to meet editors, even slipping around the con's guidelines and security personnel in one instance, when I felt that the rules regarding the signup of people for the meet-the-editor breakfast was totally unfair.

Finally, I got smart and started looking for agents and editors who were already working with someone writing something similar to my own stuff. Since the Dresden Files had been strongly inspired by the Anita Blake books, I started looking at the people working with Laurell Hamilton. I was on one of her fan-discussion lists online, so I got a bunch of questions from list folks and went to a convention where she and her agent would be, hoping to meet them and make a good impression. At the convention, Laurell must have thought that I looked fairly clueless and/or amusing, because she wound up (for no good reason at all) asking me to go out to dinner with her and some folks after I had done some chatting with her at the convention's reception. So I wound up having lunch with three authors, an editor and two agents, both of whom asked me to send them material before the end of the convention with the notion of representing it if it didn't wholly suck.

One of those agents, my current agent, Jennifer Jackson, had rejected the exact same material not six months before. When I pointed this out to her, she snorted at me and said, "Yeah, but now I've met you." So wannabe writers like I was, take note: meeting people makes a big difference.

In any case, I wound up working with Ricia Mainhardt, the other agent there (who had asked me about twenty minutes before Jennifer did), and she had sold the first three books of the Dresden Files within six months, to Jennifer Heddle at Roc!

Please tell us more about the Codex Alera series to be published in the fall of 2004.
Much more in the way of standard horse-and-sword fantasy. Put simply, a young man growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere makes a foolish promise to a pretty girl in a moment of gland-inspired weakness, and nearly destroys his homeland and way of life as a result.

Well. Maybe it isn't THAT simple. But that isn't entirely inaccurate, either. There's a lot more in the way of magic and duels and barbarians and spies and traitors and monsters and lords and kings and mass battles and bloodshed and realms teetering on the edge of utter disaster. But basically, it's a young man caught up in vast events, and finding the will and the courage to face them.

Will there be anymore books in the Dresden Files series after Blood Rites?
Absolutely. If I get to do things like I want to, I'll get to write somewhere around 20 "case" books, and then cap off the series with a big 'ole apocalyptic trilogy. I mean come on, who doesn't love apocalyptic trilogies!

Any hints of what Harry will face next?
Blood Rites brings Harry afoul of the business of the White Court, a race of psychic-empath vampires who drain the life force off of their victims through physical contact and emotions. He also enters the fray in a battle against vampires of the Black Court -- Stoker standard vampires with oodles of superpowers and all the usual weaknesses to balance them.

Book seven is currently titled Dead Beat, and it's a tale of cowardice, courage, and necromancy. Look for Harry's first conflicts with some truly world-class dangerous bad guys, for the Wizard-Vampire war to expand significantly, and for Harry to be forced to rethink all the moral lines he's drawn for himself and resolved never to cross.

Did something specific inspire the Dresden Files series?
Definitely. I was very strongly inspired by the Anita Blake novels by Laurell Hamilton -- not so much for specifics of the story world as by how the author had grabbed onto her story world and done exactly what she wanted to with it -- and quite obviously had a bunch of fun while doing so. Other influences on the Dresden Files include films like Fright Night and Pumpkinhead and The Frighteners, as well as Tremors and Cast a Deadly Spell, and books like The Lord of the Rings, The Sword of Shannara, The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, and Darkfall.

The Dresden Files series takes place in the Chicago. Why did you pick this location? How did you get so much information about actual spots in Chicago and do not live there?
I wish there was some big dramatic reason. But the real one is that I had originally set the books in my hometown of Kansas City, and my writing teacher thought that setting books so similar to the Anita Blake books in tone in Kansas City (where AB is in St. Louis) was just a little too similar. So I looked at a map and picked the nearest big city. Chicago.

It wasn't until after I started researching Chicago that I realized what a fortunate choice it was. There is such a rich tapestry of history and culture that blends together in that area that you can't help but start thinking of stories to bring out of it. In addition to maybe a dozen books on the town, I have met several residents of the city online, who I have occasionally dragooned into helping me get descriptions of specific locations in the city, such as what one particular bridge looks like, or the structure of one wall of Graceland Cemetery, or the general appearance of Chicago PD headquarters. Between my local accomplices, my books and the information I can draw from the Internet, I try to do my best to create a very real and believable version of Chicago for use in my story world.

What kind of research did you do for the series?
Um. Well, lots. I had some experience in terms of knowledge of the martial arts, for example. I did a ton of reading of hardboiled detective novels, and then went out and read books on police procedure, criminal investigation, private investigators, missing persons, legal prosecution, forensic investigations, criminal psychology and goodness knows what else. I also read a lot of books on parapsychology, mythology, several books on the theory and beliefs associated with magic-based belief systems such as Native American beliefs, Wiccan religions, Voodoo, old Egyptian and Norse religions and so on. I threw in a bunch of books on parapsychological subjects such as UFO abductions, Bigfoot, various Weird Encounters, and started mushing all together into the Dresden story world.

Why a wizard?
Why NOT a wizard! Though seriously, I chose to work with a wizard character because I have had a long and abiding admiration for the figure of the wizard in fantasy storytelling -- from Gandalf to Obi Wan to Allanon, Belgarath, Merlin, and a dozen others. There are plenty of fellows who function precisely as wizards do in several other genres as well -- no magic, but with the same access to hidden knowledge, intensity of character and dedication to their personal beliefs. Sherlock Holmes, for example is, in my mind, a very wizardly character, and he was one strong influence on creating my own wizard sleuth.

Harry Dresden is such a fantastic anti-hero in the series. He is both humorous and has a certain charming nature that endears him to readers. What inspired you to make him this way?
A deep and abiding admiration for the character of Peter Parker, by and large. Petey has always been a complex and admirable hero-character -- and is somewhat unique among comic book characters in that he has a very real, complex, and believable personality which exists wholly within the character of Peter Parker and is not at all dependent upon his sideline as the Amazing Spider Man. The things that make Peter a hero are not his superpowers or his combat record with the Hulk -- what makes SpiderMan a hero is that Peter Parker is dedicated to what he believes and refuses to abandon his fellow human beings when they are in danger or need. Peter exemplifies the very best kind of hero -- the man of conscience who would rather be at home eating pizza, but who cannot make the moral sacrifice of ignoring the need of his fellow human beings.

Poor Peter, he gets beat to crap all the time, too -- not just physically, but in mental and emotional senses as well. If all the heroes in NYC get together and fight some bad guy, when the fight is over you're bound to see Peter Parker walking up to Reed Richards and saying, "Hey, um. My costume got torn to shreds, pretty much, and my wallet is gone. Can I borrow cab fare?" "No need!" booms some other enthusiastic hero. "I'll drop you at your place. Where to?" "Uh, yeah," Peter will be forced to say. "Thanks there, Iron Man, but see, I sort of have this thing about my secret identity, where IT'S A SECRET. So I really can't take you up on that offer." The poor guy is far more than human, is an admirable hero, but he still gets to suffer the little indignities and pains that life has to offer. He's as human as the rest of us, as vulnerable as the rest of us in many ways, and because he is he becomes a person who you can identify with and like.

It's hardly a new device, the working-man hero. Bruce Willis did it as John McClane in the movie Die Hard, for instance. While he was a heroic character setting out to accomplish heroic deeds, he still started off the night with bare feet. He still got covered in cuts and bruises. He was terrified when his life was in danger and was not afraid to acknowledge it -- and that vulnerability is what made the character appeal to so many viewers. A hero, sure. But he's also a human being.

I wanted to use that same basic theme for my wizard protagonist, and so I designed Harry to be someone who is basically your average urbanite male. He has to pay his bills, feed his cat, go to work, worry about taxes, take showers and cook meals without the benefit of electricity and so on. Sure, he has access to Phenomenal Cosmic Powers, but his powers don't define who and what he is. First and foremost, I wanted Harry to be a human being -- to make mistakes, to regret bad choices, to struggle to set things right where they need righting and to learn from his disasters and grow as a person. I wanted Harry to be the sort of person who, even if he didn't HAVE any powers, would still be right there in the midst of things regardless, because he's doing what he believes is right. I want the reader to get the sense that Harry is a guy who could live a couple of doors down in their neighborhood, and who would probably be a polite and amusing guest if you had him over to dinner.

Of course, he does have a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth. And his ankle. And calf. And knee. But hey, nobody's perfect.

What in the world possessed you to create Bob?
Bob started off as an inside joke between my writing teacher, Debbie Chester, and myself. I needed a device to get the rules of magic across to my readers, so that they would have a point of reference for the laws of my story world. I talked with Debbie about maybe designing a character whose fundamental function was to have conversations with Harry about the nature of magic, so that the readers could all understand what was going on. "Sounds fine," says Debbie. "But whatever you do, don't create some kind of talking head."

In story craft terms, a talking head refers to a character whose purpose in life is to dispense information. Talking heads will wander onto the page, blurt out exposition without bothering to display much in the way of character or motivation, and promptly exit. So when I designed Bob, complete with his little obsessions and quirks, I decided to make him a literal talking head, while avoiding the traits that add up to a story-craft talking head.

Trust me, it was a lot funnier at the time.

Do you use any of your friends and family in your books?
Oh good lord no. They'd kill me, I'm sure. But I have borrowed bits and pieces from folks I know. Mac, who runs McAnally's tavern, got his name from a friend of mine. I occasionally grab one trait or another and flick it onto a character, but I haven't consciously designed any character to actually BE someone in my personal life.

I'm saving THAT for when I need to get some kind of hideous revenge.

What are you currently reading and why?
As I type this, I'm reading about half a dozen different books in shifts. I've always been able to keep track of multiple storylines pretty well, so I tend to be juggling several different novels in case one of them doesn't strike that day's particular fancy. Let's see here: Honor of the Queen, by David Weber (again), because it's a great book to read and in my opinion is one of the better-crafted SF books you can find. Really gorgeous balance between intellectual and emotional conflicts and one of my favorite reads. Hush Money by Robert B. Parker, because it's Spenser, who is probably the all-around strongest gumshoe character in an ongoing series. I'm reading Return of the King, as it is an old favorite. Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey, because it has been recommended to me over and over again by various people, and I want to see what the fuss is about. Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison, because I haven't read it since it was a rough manuscript and I want to see it all polished and pretty (and because it's a fun read and a good story world).

What inspires you to write?
These days, mostly my mortgage. But there are times when a particularly good movie, book, or song makes my fingers itch to get to the keyboard. The Lord of the Rings was a big inspiration -- but then so was the movie Pumpkinhead. Different strokes, I guess.

Do you attend any writing groups? If so, how did your participation enhance your writing?
No writing groups for me right now. I'm not certain I'd be able to respect any group that would tolerate me.

What made you a science fiction, fantasy, and horror fan? What are your favorites and why?
I blame it on my sisters. As an impressionable first grader, I got strep throat and was out of school for several days. They went and bought me the boxed set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, AND the boxed set of the old Han Solo novels by Brian Daley. They were also responsible for taking me out to see Star Wars when I was too young to know any better, and continued it through The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. I continued my own exposure with The Chronicles of Narnia, The Prydain Chronicles, a hatful of Pern books, every Xanth novel I could beg, borrow or steal, and anything else that looked vaguely like it might have swords and horses. All of those books have a special place in my heart (and bookshelf) still.

My very favorite books, in no particular order:
Watchers, by Dean Koontz
Cetaganda, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
Honor of the Queen, by David Weber
Guilty Pleasures, by Laurell Hamilton
MacBeth, by Shakespeare (this one is cheating a little, but the witches technically make it a fantasy)
Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

Are you planning on attending any Cons in the near future?
I love going to conventions. Everyone laughs at my jokes there. This year, I'm going to be at the Writer's Weekend in Seattle the last weekend in July, and at Worldcon. You can take a look at my con and appearances calendar at

What do you enjoy doing when not writing?
Sleeping. At least lately. I'm coming up on a tight deadline. When I'm not writing or sleeping though, I relax by wrestling with my ferocious killer guard dog, teaching myself to play acoustic guitar, and playing mindlessly violent shooter games and/or City of Heroes, my latest game obsession. It's cool, cause I get to name my character Harry Dresden, and if they ask me to change it so that I'm not violating copyright I can tell them, "I OWN the copyright!"

Clearly I have gone mad with power.

Any movies you particularly enjoyed?
The Lord of the Rings (of course). Both Spider-Man movies. I've watched The Matrix about a zillion times (the other two do not exist, say it with me), and of course I continue to brainwash myself by watching Star Wars (no episode number, dammit, this is the One True Star Wars we're talking here, the original) at least once a week, usually when I'm writing.

Oh, and I really like the movie version of Clue, the one with Tim Curry.

Please tell us about the television series based on the Dresden Files series.
For the time being, at least, they aren't planning to do a series. Morgan Gendel is the driver behind the project, and he's working with several other talents and companies to put together a backdoor pilot episode for the SciFi channel. That means they'll shoot a two hour movie, probably one that is going to show up on SciFi's Saturday night movie slot. The theory goes that if the pilot does well, SciFi can greenlight an actual, weekly series.

It's still too early to tell what's going to happen. Though things are proceeding smoothly enough that I am cautiously optimistic, SciFi still has not given the project the official thumbs-up -- i.e., they haven't actually spent any money on it yet. With a little luck, the project might be approved before summer is out, but it might as easily be discarded, too.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Details can be found at See, that's three plugs, the magic number, where I share whatever it is I know as soon as I am able to do it.

Copyright © 2004 Alisa McCune

Alisa discovered science fiction at the tender age of eight. She devoured The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and never looked back. She lives in Chicago with her husband, cat, and 5000 books. For more information please visit her web site at

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