James J. Butcher, son of famous New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher has entered the urban fantasy world with his exciting new novel Dead Man’s Hand. Dead Man’s Hand is the story of Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby, flunked auditor and mediocre witch. When a murder takes place down the road from him that puts his freedom in jeopardy, he needs to use his wits, a strange and unlikely alliance and not a small amount of luck.
James was kind enough to sit down with me for a little chat about writing, fantasy, and his unlikely hero Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby.
[GdM] Is there a story that was very influential for you? If so, how?
[JJB] It’s been repeated a lot, but of course it’s Tolkien: “All that is gold does not glitter, Not all who wander are lost.”
More than one, certainly. Growing up, I was rarely without a book in hand, especially during school. I was thoroughly entrenched in the Harry Potter generation, but I also enjoyed Eragon, and a good deal of Garth Nix stories. As far as television goes, Avatar the Last Airbender is one of the finest stories I’ve ever consumed in any medium.
[GdM] Along the same lines, it is safe to say that you come from a household steeped in books. Is there a passage or quote from a novel that you found particularly powerful?
[JJB] I’ve been wandering through stories my whole life, and stories are where I feel the least lost.
[GdM] What attracts you to urban fantasy as a genre?
[JJB] Urban fantasy is quite unique amongst fantasies, as it allows for incredibly dense stories. Most fantasy requires a great deal of explanation and translation for readers. After all, they’re learning an entirely new world. But urban fantasy is just our world… but more interesting. You can safely gloss over boring topics and trust the reader will simply assume it’s something they’re familiar with, leaving the writer with more time to focus on the fun stuff.
[GdM] Can you tell us a bit about Dead Man’s Hand?
[JJB] Dead Man’s Hand is the first in the series of stories about Griswald Grimshaw Grimsby, a witch of mild disposition and milder talent in a world that is somewhat darker than he realizes. Magic not being his strongest weapon, he instead has to weaponize wit, snark, and stubbornness in order to survive.
[GdM] Dead Man’s Hand has a strong horror element. Are you attracted to darker stories? Do you have a favorite?
[JJB] I like dark stories and bright characters. Without that contrast, too dark or too light, the story feels muddled and static or the characters feel bland and boring. An optimist in a utopic cityscape of peace and prosperity doesn’t stand out like they would in a dystopic wasteland full of monsters and villainy. The first character is a product of their environment, while the second is something more intriguing. So, consequently, I often find in my stories that I am putting good people in pretty awful situations.
[GdM] Authors use the expression “kill your darlings” to describe cutting an unnecessary storyline, dialog, or character. Did you have anything in Dead Man’s Hand that you had to cut? Or that we may see in future books you can tell us about?
[JJB] I did indeed. The initial draft of the story had two back-to-back chapters for the secondary character of the story, Leslie Mayflower. Unfortunately, these chapters were also the very first two in the story, leading readers to believe that Mayflower was the protagonist, not Grimsby. It led to a surprising shift when the tone went from hard-bitten veteran to naïve novice and stayed that way for quite a while. Fortunately, I simply trimmed those chapters down into a single section, relabeled it as a prologue, and the issues were largely resolved. Unfortunately, I had to delete a scene I quite enjoyed, but I’m sure it will find its way into the next book instead.
[GdM] All authors work differently. What was your process when you began to craft Dead Man’s Hand? Did the magic system come first, or was it the protagonist, Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby.
[JJB] The relationship between Grimsby and Mayflower is actually what came first. The characters changed several times in the earliest versions of the stories, one of which was set in the 1930’s, but who they were to each other never changed.
The relationship was a hybrid of buddy-cop-duo and mentor-mentee that is no doubt drawn from the most important relationships in my own life. For a long time, I wrote stories with loner characters which, as an only child and somewhat isolated individual, I was more comfortable with. But I found the stories dull and droning. It was until I started focusing on the ties, and the wedges, between different characters that I really felt like my stories started becoming engaging.
[GdM] Could you tell us about the characters Grimsby, and The Huntsman and their relationship? They both seem like they are at their lowest coming into the story.
[JJB] Their relationship is basically the story, or at least the central part of it. They are both broken, but in very different ways. Mayflower for the things he has lost, and Grimsby for the things he never had. But while they are both missing important pieces of themselves, they have surpluses in other areas that they begin to use to support each other, giving one another the solid footing they both need to start putting themselves back together.
Oh, and they aren’t at their lowest. Not yet, and not by a long shot.
[GdM] Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby is an unusual name for a character. How did you come up with it?
[JJB] Indecision, mostly. Grimsby in particular was a name I knew I wanted to use, ever since I first heard it on a history podcast about World War I. However, Grimshaw and Griswald were both first names that I agonized over for a long time before deciding that I really liked them both. I then realized the only rule saying I had to pick one was one of my own design, so I scrapped the rule instead of a name. But, to make up for the absurd name, I decided I would need an equally absurd character, just in the opposite direction. Grimsby needed to be the total and utter opposite of badass and work his way to earning his name. I used the same rule for Leslie Mayflower, but inverted. He couldn’t be as competent as he is and still have a cool name.
[GdM] I am fascinated by the concept of Elsewhere and masks that witches wear to protect themselves from seeing it. How did you come up with that idea? Will we get to read more about Elsewhere and masks protecting witches in future books?
[JJB] The initial concept came from Superman. Clark Kent isn’t much to write home about, but he takes his glasses off and becomes something else entirely. I wanted witches to have that same feeling, but with the risks and dangers that are implicit in modern magic settings.
That eventually mixed with another problem I had: over-description. I love to wax over irrelevant things like architecture and scenery and epic, absurd settings, but there simply isn’t space in an urban fantasy story for all that. That’s where I came up with the Elsewhere: a place where I could go crazy, putting in whatever cool nonsense I could imagine, and still keep it confined to smaller portions of the story and not bloat my wordcount and eat up my readers’ time unnecessarily.
Then, to mix them, all I had to do was fill the Elsewhere with monsters and have masks be the only thing between them and witches, and then have witches be the only thing between the monsters and the Usuals.
[GdM] The magic system for The Unorthodox Chronicles is unique. You have the ordinary Usuals and the paranormal Unorthodox. The Unorthodox are witches that use magic, sometimes powerful, and sometimes just useful. Did you research different magic systems? Was there anything that you read that inspired the Unorthodox magic system?
[JJB] This one’s a bit involved.
One of the classic elements of urban fantasy is the liminal aspect of the paranormal world. The idea that all these fantastic and wondrous things are real, but most folks don’t have any clue about them. Frankly, I got bored of that. It felt like an excuse to not deal with the overarching impact that freakin’ magic being real would have on practically everything. So, I decided I was going to write a story where everyone knew magic was real.
And boy, was it hard.
I realized that the liminal fantasy element was as much practical as traditional. It saves so, so much time for the same reason that urban fantasies can be so compact: the reader can assume a lot about the parts of the world the writer leaves blank, because they already know about them. Without this, things got more complicated very quickly, and I found that I had to narrow the scope of my stories quite a bit from my initial plans to still keep the stories fast-paced and immersive without feeling like I gloss over important world details.
This concept ended up influencing how my magic system developed. I couldn’t have it be so powerful and omnipresent that it would supplant technology, because then it’s just fantasy without the urban. But I also couldn’t have it be so small-scale that technology totally outclassed it, because then it’s urban without the fantasy. So, I needed to strike a balance. With that in mind, magic became something that was the only way to solve certain problems, but they weren’t really problems most people had, and, importantly, they needed to be problems that most people would prefer not to think about.
[GdM] What is next for you?
[JJB] That’s tough to say. I can say that there will be another Grimsby book, the first draft of which is already being churned up in the editing process. In the meantime, I’m working on another project which may or may not see completion in the future. It depends on how well I can reconcile demons and cowboys.