Chatting with Author John Claude Bemis
Last year a few of the indie bookstores in my home state had the pleasure of hosting John Claude Bemis, author of The Clockwork Dark series as part of a regional book tour from North Carolina west to the Mississippi. Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi was one of those stores, and today the Children’s Buyer/Event’s Coordinator/Bookseller Extraordinaire/School Liaison, Emily, and I take turns asking John all about his writing, his inspirations, the publication of the final book, The White City (available tomorrow), and what he’s working on now.
Emily: Your Clockwork Dark trilogy is really based around American myth and folklore. How did you become interested in this topic?
John: As a musician and songwriter, I absolutely love old American music—blues, jazz, Country. These songs are full of rich and often wonderfully bizarre American folklore. I looked at the strange world laid out in these old songs and drew ideas for how to create a fantasy world not based on wizards and dragons but on hoodoo conjurers, backwoods outlaws, and folk magic seeped in a blended tradition from Africa, Native Americans, and European settlers. The Clockwork Dark trilogy became the sort of mythological epic adventure that I’d always loved in stories like King Arthur, the Odyssey, and Norse myths, except based on American folklore rather than European legends. The first book in the trilogy, The Nine Pound Hammer introduces readers to this magical America filled with cowboys and trains, mechanical monsters and shapeshifters, mermaids and pirates, and lots of white-knuckle adventure.
Sarah: What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?
John: I was obsessed with The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Those sorts of fantasy stories had a deep world that I could disappear into as a reader. I also remember when I discovered The Jack Tales by Richard Chase, which are folktales collected in Appalachian Mountains where the trickster Jack has bloody battles with giants and witches. The magical world of Jack was so different from the high fantasy of Narnia and Middle Earth, but it felt familiar to me as a young boy growing up in rural North Carolina. It began my thinking for how to create a fantasy adventure with the Clockwork Dark books that American kids could imagine taking place in their own backyards long, long ago.
Emily: How did you decide you wanted to write young adult literature?
John: These are the types of books that even as an adult I most love to read. They have strong plots, unforgettable characters, and wildly inventive worlds. Books for young people often have powerful things to say about growing up and becoming a person who tackles the world with cleverness, courage, and heart. I began writing after I became a teacher. I saw how much my students loved reading and was reminded how kids get so absorbed and engrossed in books in ways we rarely do as adults. I write with the goal of having that sort of impact on young readers.
Sarah: Can you tell us about your musical background and how it has influenced your writing?
John: I began playing violin at age eight and later picked up guitar, accordion, and any other instrument I could get my hands on. Performing and songwriting is a huge creative outlet for me. Writing novels is a very different process from songwriting. You take a different approach to make the most engaging story or song you can. Songwriting however requires you to be concise and focus on every single word. This has helped my fiction writing tremendously! As a fun joining of these two interests, I was able to compose and record the music for the Clockwork Dark audiobooks.
Emily: What made you stop the Clockwork Dark series at three?
John: I’m a sucker for the classic fantasy trilogy. Trilogies tend to tell one larger story with three books. Longer series sometimes get a little tiresome after a while. I feel I can tell a stronger story with a more satisfying ending if I stick with the trilogy. Readers get the narrative pay-off quicker while still having plenty of time to get close to the characters and their world.
Sarah: Where do you spend most of your writing? (any pictures?)
John: A friend of mine lets me to use an old cabin on his farm. There is no internet service, terrible cell reception, and, in the winter time, it’s freezing out there until the heater finally comes to life. This space allows me to be more productive. And I find the rustic environment tremendously inspiring, being surrounded by the woods and animals. I was even fortunate enough to be there this spring when a colt was born.
Emily: I know that at our store, your visit really sparked interest not just in your books, but in you as an author. Could you tell everyone about your author presentation and how you put it together? (any pictures that you can send us would be great)
John: Thank you! I loved my visit to Lemuria Books and to the schools around Jackson. As a musician and teacher, I’ve learned how to engage audiences of young people. I want my presentations to interactive, so I get kids up on stage to act out the legend of John Henry, a folktale that’s central to the Clockwork Dark. (There’s a fun video of my visit to Jackson Academy you might enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QI6WilgqNs) Whenever I do a book launch or an event, I want it to be something memorable for my audience and something that will get them excited to write their own stories.
Sarah: You have a new book coming out next spring. Can you give us the inside scoop?
John: Gladly! The Prince Who Fell from the Sky is quite different from the Clockwork Dark trilogy. It’s about a bear who lives in a future where humans are gone and the wilderness has grown over our ruins. She finds a boy in the forest beside a crashed spaceship and decides to raise him as her cub. Sort of a post-apocalyptic Jungle Book. But when the wolves who rule the forest discover a human has returned, they fear that their world is in danger and pursue the bear and her human cub. Part of the fun is that the story is told only from the animals’ perspectives, not the boy’s, so there’s a lot of mystery for readers surrounding the boy and where he came from. I’m very excited for this book to come out!
Sarah: The White City comes out this week, do you have any events scheduled for the final book that you’d like readers to know about?
John: I have a big launch party extravaganza on Saturday, August 27th at 3pm in downtown Hillsborough, NC which will be full of music, performances by readers, and other fun-filled medicine show-style madness. I’m also having a launch party at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC on Sunday, August 28th at 2pm. For adults who are aspiring children’s book authors, I’ll be teaching a writing intensive and providing a keynote on coming up with wildly creative ideas at the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – Carolinas Fall Conference in Charlotte, NC the weekend of September 23 – 25. Information about all these events and more can be found under the Events on my website at http://johnclaudebemis.com/category/events/
If you know someone that would love copies of the Clockwork Dark series make sure you leave a comment below! We will give one set away and will be selecting our winner through a random drawing. (U.S. residents only please.)