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The Gencon Files: Interview with Jim Butcher, Author of ‘The Dresden Files’

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Jim Butcher, the New York Times bestselling author of the Dresden Files and Codex Alera book series, will be attending this weekend’s Gencon in Indianapolis. Gencon is largest gathering of tabletop and roleplaying game players and companies in the world, with over 40,000 attendees.

Not only will Jim be at home among the many fantasy enthusiasts, but many will be playing in the world he created thanks to his collaborators at Evil Hat Productions, makers of the Dresden Files roleplaying game. If that were not enough, fans can meet Jim as well as find real-life versions of some of the magical items used in his series at the Badali Jewelry booth.

Jim Was kind enough to give me some of his time before heading to Indy earlier this week. You can find his full schedule of signings and events at this weekend’s event on his website.

Good and evil versions of Dresden't spiritual adviser and sideckick. Bob the Skull.

Good and evil versions of Dresden’s spiritual adviser and sidekick Bob the Skull.

Is Gencon the type of event you are familiar with? Have you been to Gencon before?

This will be my first Gencon. Actually that’s pretty exciting. I have wanted to go for a while but something always came up. So when they called up last year and were like, hey you want to come as a guest? I said yeah!

I think part of what is great about you coming to Gencon is that not only are you a fantasy author but you will have people who are now able to experience your books as a role-playing game. Was that something that you wanted from the series? How did that come about?

I think it’s really cool. The way it came about was my college buddy with whom I played the Birthright campaign in D & D, he was a gaming buddy. A few years into the series he says, hey I think I want to create a Dresden Files RPG and I said OK. Thats pretty much how it worked out. From there he realized he needed to build a company that was good enough to do it. So he ended up producing three other games to get his company to the point where he thought he could put out a Dresden Files game.

I think it turned out amazing. I spent a lot of time talking to the guys not so much about the game itself but about the story world. I mean it was something where they spent hours and hours asking questions, writing answers and talking over the phone. It was a little disconcerting actually because they were starting to make predictions, and then they were putting things in their books that had not happened yet. I was like, don’t do that, I still have to write that!

It was nice though because it meant that the story was consistent enough that they could then draw the logical inference that if this is true then these other things must also be true then also this – and [sometimes] I would say “Yes but you cannot put that in the books because I haven’t gotten there in the books and I have to save it for that.”

Image from the Dresden Files RPG by Evil Hat Games

Image from the Dresden Files RPG by Evil Hat Games

Then when I heard they were going to write all these comments in the margins, that was the only time I thought about getting a bit Nazi-esque (as an editor) because they were writing these comments in the voices of the characters in the series that were put in the game. As I started reading them and got out my red pen I found myself laughing reading these comments because these were people who were obviously so into the series that they had a really good handle on these characters and how they would behave. I wound up approving the whole thing without a single edit. That was surprising and very pleasing. At the end of the day these guys just worked their asses off and it shows in the end product.

You’ve just shared some of what it was like collaborating on the role-playing games and you have dealt with collaboration in other media as well as being a creator in the realms of comics and television. How difficult is it as a creator to have to relinquish a little bit of control when you are dealing with a property that has grown into other realms beyond the books?

It is a weird mix of being very difficult and not difficult at all. When we were dealing with comics that was really the first time we were dealing with going into another medium. With the graphic novels, for the first one I wrote the entire graphic novel and at the time did not realize that I was writing a very heavy-handed, this is what each frame will look like, graphic novel. Which artists do not particularly love.

Also I was a novice at writing graphic novels so I was running into all sorts of problems. “Well, you can’t have these characters say all this.” Why not? “Well, because then we have to write it and when we write it we won’t have any room to put pictures on the page. You are writing a novel.” Oh, I guess you are probably right.

There were a lot of other people involved who wanted to express their creativity too so that was an adjustment at first, hitting that. Working as a writer writing a novel you get to be a complete auteur I suppose. You get to decide on absolutely everything. When these other people become involved you say ooh – they are real people too, I guess I should take them into account.

These days I am getting a bit better about giving more general direction and saying this is essentially what I want to create. Letting the artist decide how to present that. That has turned out results that I am very pleased with but it is always a challenge.

Going to TV was much easier because I had no contractual authority whatsoever! On the other hand, though, the guy who was actually on the set doing all the work, Robert Wolf, was a great guy. I kinda tracked him down based on some things I saw floating around the internet. I approached him and said, so aren’t you the guy who is putting together the Dresden Files for TV? He was really surprised. He was like, Wait, are you some kind of detective? I said no but a lot of my fans are.

Cover of the Dresden FIles prequel graphic novel: Welcome to the Jungle.

Cover of the Dresden Files prequel graphic novel ‘Welcome to the Jungle’

We were kind of able to nail things down and so I ended up spending a lot of time with Robert. He was a gamer. It turned out he played a lot of D & D and he DM’s a lot and was also a Roman history buff so we had several things in common that we could settle down on. I wound up being on very good terms with Robert and that gave me more influence than the paperwork might otherwise kind of imply over the course of the show.

All and all the experience with the show could have been a whole lot worse. I tend to be a glass half full kind of guy. Even though it did get cancelled it also got cancelled before they could do anything really horrible to it. It had some really good and positive results for me. In the end I am an entertainer, I am trying to make things happen, so that if a show got created that a lot of people still liked than I think that’s great.

So with all your allusions to the “Blue Beetle” in your books, now that you have experience writing comics could you see yourself getting solicited or soliciting DC to write a Blue Beetle comic?

I don’t know. Write a Blue Beetle comic? I am more a Marvel guy. I had been offered a chance from DC. They offered me a chance to write for Batman and Superman. I actually turned it down because I know what Batman and Superman fandom is like. I also knew that I did not have enough knowledge about those characters to write a story that would work for them. It isn’t like Spidey. I was just not in the right shape to do the cowl or the cape.

Are you pursuing or being pursued for adaptations of your other books in the Codex Alera?

The cover of the first book in the Codex Alera

Cover of the first book in the Codex Alera series

There has been some but not a whole lot. In my dream world I would want it to be an Anime-style cartoon. I would want the guys who did Avatar to come and make feature-length animated films set in the world of the Codex Alera. So far there has not been much action on that front.

Alera was one of those things that I wrote primarily so that I did not get fed up with Dresden. People read a Dresden Files book and they love it and then they put it away. I have to kind of live with the guy for eight months. It is sort of like having a college roommate who is busy and funny and always into things and it is fun to tell stories about later but while you are in the midst of having that roommate you just want to strangle him in his sleep.

I am kind of like that with Dresden sometimes. I am like, I am so sick of this guy, let me go write for all these other characters. They have all these other storytelling options and there is so much you can then do. Then after a while with these characters I say, oh this is so much more complicated! I just want something simpler, oh where is Dresden! Now it’s back in the saddle, and then I am happy to be back writing the Dresden Files again.

So it keeps you from jumping the shark? “I’m really bored, he’s been in Chicago for all the books. Maybe we go to Hawaii?” Dresden on vacation? And then there is murder?!

Ha ha! Yeah, that’s right.

Is that what motivated you to write the novellas then as well, because you were able to have a character with a different point of view in that same universe? Is that something that we might see again?

Oh yeah, I actually love doing those. I have to write a few more short stories this summer. Right now I am writing Molly’s version of the Winter Lady because she is not going to tell Harry. I think there is one other side character I am going to do, I swear there are notes somewhere!

Jim's Gentelman Johnny Marcone short story is featured in this anthology.

Jim’s Gentelman Johnny Marcone short story is featured in this anthology.

I love getting into the point of view of the other characters. It sort of shows you what an entirely different perspective on the story world they have. Harry is by no means a non-biased perspective. With them you get another look at the story world. You get a deeply different picture from Harry’s point of view than you do from Thomas or Molly or Marcone’s point of view.

I can imagine have a Skull Bob story, just to find out what that day at the sorority house was actually like!

Jim Butcher: We will see. Maybe I will be doing Fifty Shades of Dresden, the Bob the Skull Story.

That seems like that might be a bartering chip. He might say nope nope, never helping you again Harry for bringing me that book.

I am working on a new steampunk book series called the Cinder Spired. The first book will be coming out and it is called The Aeronaut’s Windlass. And that is how you can tell it is a steampunk book. It contains words such as aeronaut and windlass. I am finishing that up over the summer here. That will probably be coming out sometime next year.

When I am done writing that I get back to writing the next Dresden Files book which is called Peace Talks. The various supernatural powers are gathering together in Chicago to kind of hash things out in the wake of the Red Court’s destruction and all the chaos in the world. So basically they will all sit around a campfire and tell stories and sing kumbayah and everything will be fine.

But those sound like a whole bunch of spoilers right there!

I think I will change up the pace in this one so that it all goes smoothly for once. We are going to have a great time on the next book. I am also having a great time writing the new series. It has been a very difficult book for me to write. It is really stretching my abilities a bit. I think you should always try and write a book that is slightly beyond what you think you can pull off. While that sounds like a great philosophy in practice it is a huge headache. Hopefully I will learn a lot by writing this book and continue to grow as a writer.

Is this contemporary steampunk or is it in a historical setting?

It is basically its own world. I think this is one of those books that is actually science fiction by most technical definitions, but people are going to read and say its steampunk or steam opera. But it’s more like Horatio Hornblower meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I mean we have airships and it centers around a particular group of people who have gathered for this specific mission. That is where the story starts at least.

I want to tell you that people are going to love the characters and the plotting and the whole story world but really what they are going to love is the cats. They are little monsters and they steal the show.

Well there goes all the merchandise. I can tell what the cover is already.

Yeah. The cats are going to run this world. The cats in this world are intelligent. They can understand human speech in the way that humans understand it. You kind of have to take them seriously as a part of society because they have opposable thumbs – and matches.

Oh god!

Exactly. “So, uh, perhaps you could leave out another bowl of cream, and you house will continue to be rodent-free. And also not on fire. If this continues to be the case there will be another bowl of cream waiting for us every Friday afternoon.”

If my cat had opposable thumbs and matches my house would already have burned down.

Oh for sure! Everyone is writing to me assuming that I must have at least a dozen cats. I don’t have any. What I do know is people who love cats. And I know how to make a good cat based on those people.

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About Gabe_Canada

Gabrial is a native Hoosier. He is a blogger for the grassroots media literacy organization Racebending.com and a member of the team at Kind of Epic Show. A weekly pop culture news podcast http://www.podomatic.com/kindofepicshow whose hosts may or may not form a giant fighting robot.