Jim Butcher, New York Times-bestselling author of The Dresden Files, as well as the Codex Alera series, sat down with me for an interview in a cozy nook of the convention center—OK, it was a storage area.
I have to say, Butcher met a series of technical gaffes on my end with a degree of patience that would have filled his most famous creation, Chicago wizard detective Harry Dresden, with pride.
I asked Butcher about the origins of the Dresden Files: "I was in a writing class taught by Deborah Chester," he explained. "I had a degree in English literature, so I felt like I had to prove all her born-in-the-trenches theories of novel-writing wrong."
Butcher, who began the class set on writing a novel of sword-and-sorcery, struggled mightily until deciding (out of frustration) to reverse course and follow Chester's rigorous writing techniques to the letter, doing all the plot outlining and character background sheets and so on that the English literature folks often scoff at as the workmanlike tools of genre hacks. But in trying to prove Chester wrong, he ended up vindicating her theories.
"She looked at the first chapter and said, 'You did it. You're going to sell this.' " And Chester was right—Butcher had, out of sheer passive aggressiveness, given birth to the character that would make his name: Harry Dresden, a curmudgeonly professional wizard operating out of modern-day Chicago and listed in the Yellow Pages.
It took 5 years to go from that draft in the writing class to a finished book, but since then things have accelerated: the most recent novel in the series, Small Favor, debuted at #2 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, Butcher's highest spot yet.
"When a young writer comes up to me with an ambitious idea for a 20-book series," Butcher said, "I usually tell him to maybe try something smaller to start off with. But being ambitious worked for me because I didn't know how hard it is to get something like this published. That's why I celebrate ignorance—it's gotten me far."
I asked Butcher why his author bio identifies him first-off as a martial arts "enthusiast"—did he read books like The Complete Idiot's Guide to Karate like I do, or was he a trained killer being modest? The latter: "I've gotten into two fights since I've begun studying the martial arts, and each time I was worried I'd kill the guy. One of my teachers always told me I had good power, but bad control."
Sounds to me a lot like Butcher's hero Dresden, whose raw destructive power sometimes gets him into trouble (burning down a mansion filled with vampires, and maybe humans, at one point).
Butcher has studied several forms of Okinawan karate, judo, jujitsu, kempo, kung fu, and tae kwan do, among others. He actually used the martial arts as inspiration for the way magic works in the Dresden Files. (In fact, I recall that at one point in the books Dresden describes membership in the wizardly White Council as equivalent to a "black belt" for wizards.)
If you haven't read the books, or if last year's one-season television adaptation on SciFi turned you off, I urge you to give them a try. They're great reads. Butcher actually recommends beginning with book 7, Dead Beat—it's his favorite—but I've enjoyed them from the beginning.
Special Bonus Video:
For those who've read the books, here's a quick video of Butcher explaining the "soulgaze" from the Dresden Files:
(Butcher was doing the rounds at Comic-Con with his friend Cam Banks, author of The Sellsword, a new Dragonlance novel. If you're a Dragonlance fan, go check it out.)