Steampunk Goggles and Talking Cats
The Big Thrill Interviews Jim Butcher
No one can build a world like Jim Butcher. His first Harry Dresden novel, Storm Front, hooked readers on a wizard detective in modern-day Chicago—a Chicago where vampires rub elbows with warlocks, and magic is real. To date, there are seventeen novels, or “case files,” in The Dresden Files series, all with the same meticulous attention to detail. For Butcher’s fans, Harry’s Windy City often seems as vivid as the one they see on the news.
Butcher brings that same immersive worldbuilding to his Cinder Spires series. Since The Aeronaut’s Windlass came out in 2015, readers have eagerly anticipated the next installment. THE OLYMPIAN AFFAIR is worth the wait.
The Cinder Spires world is an original and delicious blend of steampunk, adventure, sci-fi, and fantasy. And, oh yes, talking cats. So where did Butcher get the idea, and how did he go about bringing this complex and intricate world to life?
“I knew I wanted to write a steampunk novel,” Butcher says. “So, I tried to take all the things that steampunk fans love to death—airships, goggles, tea, cats, that sort of thing—and tried to come up with a world that evolved in a natural fashion to have all those things as integral parts of it. I mean, honestly, goggles, why? There has to be a good reason for them if you’re going to have them be part of the tapestry of your world. Honestly, maybe half the history of the story world I wrote exists purely to provide an excellent reason to wear goggles. By comparison, the talking cats were way easier to justify.”
The decision to set a steampunk novel in a futuristic or alternate world rather than in the typical Victorian setting was all part of what Butcher calls the generative creative process. He explains, “I didn’t want balloon-based airships, so that demanded a different kind of alternative physics so that they could fly around without them. ‘Crystals,’ I thought, ‘those would be cool, and very atmospheric, and they’d go well with copper, visually’ and here we are.”
THE OLYMPIAN AFFAIR sets the stakes early, with the unveiling of a terrifying living weapon. Its inspiration came from an unexpected source. “Honestly,” Butcher says, “it was an extension of my son’s observation about why the Ant-Man follow-up movies didn’t land as well as the original. He pointed out that half the fun of the first movie was all about perspective—what happens when big things get little and little things get big. There are lots of things in nature that would be absolutely terrifying if we were small enough to be potential prey for them—starting with my own sweet little cat. After that, a whole new vista of possible monsters opened up to me, and I figured the Cinder Spires were a great place to play with them.”
With so many intriguing elements, it’s difficult to choose a favorite. Butcher is partial to the duels. “I enjoyed the hell out of writing those, and I really enjoyed getting to know the new viewpoint character, Abigail. Also. the new cat character, who was tons of fun to play off of Rowl.”
A fan favorite, Rowl may or may not be based on Butcher’s cat, Fenris, but Fenris and Butcher’s dog, Bru, were critical to the book’s creation. So much so, that Butcher dedicated THE OLYMPIAN AFFAIR to them. “Oh, my boys are totally therapy animals,” he says. “They just happen to work freelance. I had a real bad patch of personal life I went through at the same time as we were all doing the pandemic, and I’m not at all certain I’d have come through it without my fuzzies’s love and affection. We took care of each other during a very difficult time.”
Asked what he hopes readers will take away from the book, he says, “The same thing I want from readers for any of my stories. I want them to get finished, put it down, and think to themselves, ‘I wish that had been a little bit longer.’ I want them to think, ‘Wow, that was worth the money I spent.’ I want them to say to themselves, ‘I have got to get so-and-so to read this so we can talk about it,’ or, ‘wow I want to cosplay this character here.’ I want to give people a break from reality. We all need that sometimes.”
For Butcher, that break can take the form of a mental change of scenery. One of the benefits of a new series is getting to hang out with people other than Dresden and his crew. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re able imaginary friends, but when you live with them day in and out for 20 years, occasionally tempers can fray. I really like the chance to stretch my storytelling legs, and working with third person storytelling provides me with a fresh set of challenges, advantages, and disadvantages that fundamentally change the way I approach my work. It helps keep the creative spark plugs flickering.”
With all that creative sparking, you might think a fantasy writer wouldn’t need to do much research. After all, he can just make it all up, right? Not so. “Any author’s Google search history is going to look awfully odd to law enforcement,” he says. “I mean, seriously, you look up the most suspicious things: how to dispose of bodies, the effects of poisons, what happens when an EMP goes off over a major American city, the sort of things intelligence personnel have nightmares about. Add them all together and you look like a certified lunatic—or a writer.”
But sometimes online searches aren’t enough. Some things simply have to be experienced. Butcher recalls, “I started doing whitewater rafting as general research for an eventual fantasy novel, and managed to fall into a 37-degree river without a dive suit on. I had, oh, tens of seconds before my body shut down into hypothermia, and I knew it at the time, and the current quickly carried me out of the reach of possible rescue, so I rescued myself. Didn’t even drop my paddle. It was exhilarating and very humbling, since if I’d taken another 30 seconds, I don’t think my legs would have been able to respond. As it was, I had to visually guide where I put my feet and how I climbed up out of the river, because I couldn’t actually feel them by the time I got out. Good times.”
Butcher likes pushing himself physically, he says, seeing what’s possible to learn and be good at. “Lately, it has been boxing training, learning the moves, the agility, the timing.” He also still loves LARPing and does it whenever he can. “I love building the costumes and props for it. There’s nothing like sword-fighting my fellow nerds in the dark of a Colorado summer night.”
With all his success, is there anything he’s still working toward that he hasn’t yet achieved?
“Abs,” he says. “I want abs. I’ve been working on my knowledge of exercise, broadening it a bit at a time, and now I’m really paying a lot more attention to my diet (which is the lion’s part of doing that) and as a result I’m still pretty much as spry as I was in my late 30s in my early 50s—which honestly, is worth the work all by itself. And to be honest, I’d just love to see some animated series made out of my work. I’ve loved cartoons since before I can remember things clearly, and I never really grew out of it. It might or might not ever happen, and it might not be very successful if it does, but I’d just love to be involved in it, and maybe create something that another kid or kid-at-heart would love too.”
Asked if he has any advice for aspiring writers, he says, “It’s like any kind of successful professional craftsman—you learn your trade, you learn which parts of it you have a talent for, and then you shore up the areas where you don’t with discipline and hard work. You have to be able to listen to criticism and judge where it’s accurate and where it isn’t, and you have to humble yourself to the point where you realize that you still have mountains of things to learn about your craft. And eventually, you get to the point where the best way for you to learn and further your own writing skill is to teach the basics to others. Also, repeat after me, aspiring writers: I DO NOT HAVE A MUSE. I HAVE A MORTGAGE.”
Of course, Butcher has something else in the works: the long-awaited next Dresden novel, currently titled Twelve Months. “Dresden’s world has been literally and metaphorically shaken to pieces. How do you put things back together when tremendous forces have shaken them all apart? How do you rebuild yourself from the foundation up? And how do you do it all while people who look up to you still need you to be there, to give them support, to help them in their own struggles, and still keep your sanity? Plus, you know, the usual ghouls and vampires and wicked fae and dark demigods and whatnot. There’s a lot going on.”
You can bet his readers will be there for it, and for that, Butcher is grateful. Asked if he has anything else he’d like to add, he says, “Just my thanks to my readers who have stuck with me for so long, and a welcome to the new readers who are just showing up. We’re all a bit odd around here, but we’re mostly harmless.”
You can learn more about Jim Butcher and his work here.
The Big Thrill Interviews Jim Butcher