This month we selected Jim Butcher's newest fantasy release, The Aeronaut's Windlass, as a Best Book in Science Fiction and Fantasy. When Butcher was in town, he told us about his childhood as a reader and the excitement of LARPing, and why he likes to alternate between his high fantasy books and his Harry Dresden urban fantasy series.
Amazon: When you were a kid, did you like to read?
Jim Butcher: Oh, voraciously. Before I went to school, there were kids in the neighborhood whose moms were paying me a quarter for a half hour of tutoring and reading because I picked it up by the time I was three and a half or four. When you're in class, and you're starting reading, and they have a big piece of poster board with a list of your names, and they put a gold star next to your name for every book you finish"¦ well, my name on that list had gold stars that went off the end of the paper, and then they had to get a piece of notebook paper and put gold stars on that, and then a second piece of notebook paper, and they put gold stars on that. I preferred reading to anything. I would get bored in class and start reading. In fourth grade I had one teacher who decided that she would take my books away whenever I was reading at an inappropriate time during the lesson, and after the first two weeks she went out and bought a bookcase and assembled it in her office because she was taking so many books from me. At the end of the year we had to have a bunch of boxes and a handcart to take all the books home that she had confiscated from me.
Amazon: Did you go through the books in the library very quickly?
Jim Butcher: Oh, yeah. I started off with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, and it was just everything I could grab after that. My sisters bought me The Lord of the Rings and The Han Solo Adventures by Brian Daley, and I read everything in fantasy, and then everything in science fiction"¦and then once I was done with that I went over to the mythology section, and I read everything I could find about mythology and then UFOs and Bigfoot and anything that was vaguely weird. And then I read historical novels after that, like The Last of the Mohicans and The Call of the Wild. I got a bit into mysteries later on, and that was fun."¦ [Laughs.] I just never broke the habit. It's still a problem. I'm Jim Butcher, and I'm addicted to reading.
Amazon: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Jim Butcher: When I was eighteen"”and this will tell you how cool I was"”I was skipping class to go to the library to read books. We were about to graduate, and it was the only room in the building that was air-conditioned. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, who wrote the Dragonlance Chronicles, were coming into the library to give a talk. But before they came in, the vice principle, who did the discipline stuff, came in and found me there and said, "Jim, what are you doing in here? Oh! You must be here for the authors." And I said, "That's right! I'm here for the authors." And then Weis came in and gave a talk about being a writer, and I thought, "That sounds cool." And it was about a year after that that I started writing my own novel. And after writing tons of really horrible novels and going nine years of not being able to get anything sold, I finally did.
Amazon: You write two different kinds of series now: urban fantasy and high fantasy. As a writer, what do you get out of each type of subgenre?
Jim Butcher: When I'm writing the Dresden Files, one of the great advantages I have in writing it is that I'm setting it in more or less the real world with these added magical elements, so I've already got this basic structure that's already been built for me. And then all I have to do is add the grace notes and the atmosphere. When you're writing a fantasy novel that's not set in our world, you have to build the whole world from scratch. And that offers you advantages and disadvantages.
The advantage of working in the real world is that I can spend more of my energy on the characters and things that are going on, and the dynamics between characters. When I'm working with a fantasy world, the advantage is that I can build that world and shape exactly the kind of conflict that I want to have happen from the ground up. If wanted to write a book about airships, I would have a tough time putting it on modern-day earth. But I wanted to write about airships and steampunk type stuff, so I built this world that is specifically designed so that airships are one of the central components of it. Of course, the downside is that you have to build everything after that. That takes a lot more effort, but I think it lets you create a more immersive experience for the reader.
So [world building] is one [difference]. The other thing is that with the fantasy series, I am writing from multiple characters' viewpoints, and that means that I can tell stories much more flexibly because I can show some characters some things that the other characters don't know, so that the reader can be dreading what's going to happen even though the character doesn't know what he's walking into. I have so much more flexibility in terms of how I can present my story. Another way to say that is that I have so much more rope with which to hang myself. [Laughs.] But I do think that it offers you the greatest potential for drama when you are writing in the third person with multiple viewpoints.
Of course, by the time I get done writing a book like The Aeronaut's Windlass and get back to writing the Dresden Files, I'm thinking to myself, "Oh, thank God I no longer have to decide between all these viewpoints and worry about which is going to present the things most effectively." I'm just with Harry, and Harry gets to see and experience everything. And then by the time I'm done with Harry, I'm thinking, "Oh, I'm just so sick of this guy. Please give me some more characters and give me some more options in how I can tell this story." So each of the different series of books can feed my enthusiasm for the next one.
Amazon: A cat, Rowl, is a significant character in The Aeronaut's Windlass. Do you have a cat?
Jim Butcher: I do now. I didn't when I was writing the book, but I got some kittens for my fiancÃ©e, so now whenever I'm over there, I have kittens all over me.
Amazon: I understand you're a LARPing enthusiast. Can you tell me about that?
Jim Butcher: Basically, LARPers are the kids who used to go and pretend to be Star Wars characters on the playground, only we're grown up and all sophisticated now, so we have a rulebook to go along with it. You'll go out on the weekend, and you'll dress up in costume, and you'll assume the role of a character. Then you run around with a Nerf sword and sword-fight each other in the woods all weekend. So we'll go out to a Boy Scout camp or YMCA camp, and there will be some people who will be in charge of running the game, and they play bad guys and the monsters and so on. And the rest of us are the Fellowship of the Ring-like people and go out and do battle with evil or wreak whatever havoc happens to be the plan for the weekend. And there's a storyline that you participate in, and there are battles and adventures and missions that you go on, and things like that.
Amazon: How many people participate in each event?
Jim Butcher: A small event will have about 20 people. I've been to events that have had as many as 300 people. And sometimes they run over the weekend, but I went to one in Tennessee a few years ago that was 12 days long. That was pretty cool"”that was a lot of fun. There are all kinds of flavors of games to play. You might like playing a high fantasy game, which is pretty standard. But one of the very popular new ones is called Dystopia Rising, and it's a zombie apocalypse scenario. That one is getting all kinds of people to join.
Amazon: Your characters often try to do the right things even when the odds are against them. Why do you keep coming back to that theme over and over again?
Jim Butcher: I think because one of the main things in all my writing is how do you handle the power that you've been given. How do you use it responsibly? Possibly because I was introduced to Spider-Man at a very formative age: "With great power comes great responsibility." This is something that has been central to how I look at life. So it's inevitable that it's going to come through in the books.
I think that we all want in our heroic characters someone we can trust to do the right thing and be in the right place at the right time to make the right decision. Because we live in a world where there are so many people who abuse their power. Hopefully there are kids who will read these books and who take away from it lessons like "With great power comes great responsibility" and incorporate it into how they live their lives, and do that more effectively and more responsibly as they become adults.
Amazon: Sometimes your characters don't have all that much power, but with the power they do have, they still try to do the right thing.
Jim Butcher: I think everybody has more power than they realize they do. That's one of those things that you realize more as you grow up, and you think, "Oh, wait. I can actually do things that make a difference."
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