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Chatting with Author John Claude Bemis

August 22, 2011

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. 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

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.)

19 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2011 8:44 pm

    What a great interview! I love to learn more about the authors that I read. And I love the writing cabin. What a great place to be inspired! Eagerly awaiting my copy of The White City this week…trying to reread the others so the story will be fresh in my mind!

  2. Lynne Hamlet permalink
    August 22, 2011 9:08 pm

    Enjoyed reading the interview. My daughter is looking forward to the Hillsborough book launch on Saturday. We had a great time at the other two launches – he really puts on a show for everyone.

    • August 22, 2011 9:17 pm

      I appreciate that, Lynne! So glad you came to the others and look forward to seeing you and your daughter on Saturday.

  3. Diane Alderson permalink
    August 22, 2011 9:12 pm

    My son Lawson can’t wait to read the new book. And he really enjoyed having you come to his class at Hills Elem last week. We are looking forward to the book launch on Saturday!

    • August 22, 2011 9:21 pm

      I’m glad Lawson is excited for The White City! I hope he enjoys it. I loved my visit to Mrs. Pipkin’s class last week. Look forward to seeing you all this Saturday! Thank you!

  4. Sarah Brooks permalink
    August 22, 2011 9:35 pm

    It’s awesome how music influenced your writing….. and how you used American folklore in the Clockwork Dark Series! I can’t wait to read the White City… and more of your books to come! 🙂

    • August 23, 2011 8:43 pm

      Thanks so much, Sarah! I think all writers (and creative people of any sort) need to tap into their personal passions to make their art uniquely their own. For me, music and American folklore have been a huge source of inspiration. For others it might be sports or travel or cooking or who knows what! I appreciate your comments and support. I’d love to know what interests inspire you!

      • Sarah Brooks permalink
        August 25, 2011 7:41 pm

        I think what inspires me would be family, friends, music, art (I love taking photographs), and history… I also like to write short stories and poetry occasionally using those things, and my imagination. 😉 Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Liz permalink
    August 23, 2011 9:41 pm

    Best wishes for success of The White City.

    Nice of your friend to lend you the cabin. It looks great.

  6. Loryn Payne permalink
    August 27, 2011 1:27 pm

    I enjoyed the interview very much. I especially liked seeing where you do most of your writing. Our older son has really appreciated your visits to his class at Burlington Day School the last two years. He and his younger brother attended your launch party last summer for The Wolf Tree and had a great time and are eagerly looking forward to attending the launch party for The White City.

  7. March 5, 2013 4:18 pm

    This was a great interview. your details of your writing process is inspiring to beginning writers. I was wondering if you can go into detail of your research process on the 1893 worlds fair? Compared to what I have studied on the event you seem to be very historically accurate.

    • March 10, 2013 7:19 pm

      Thanks, Greg! I’m particularly fascinated with history from the late 19th century. It’s America’s golden age of myth. Having being introduced to the 1893 World’s Fair in Eric Larson’s Devil in the White City and how this moment in American history was our great step into the technological age, I knew it had to be the location for the Clockwork Dark’s epic finale. I wrote the first draft of the story with only a quick glance at research on Chicago and the 1893 World’s Fair. Just enough to help me visualize the setting. I didn’t want too much research to bog down the story.

      After I finished the first draft, I then dove into research to get the facts straight. My favorite resource was the book The World’s Columbian Exposition by Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing. This book provided the historical details. Larson’s book gave me the feel of 1893 Chicago. There were lots of other books and internet resources that helped tremendously, but I feel the key was not doing too much initial research. Too tempting to create an info dump. While my books have a historical fiction angle, they are at their heart fantasy adventure. Can’t let research get in the way of telling a gripping story.

      I’ll admit I took some liberties with the setting. Of course, there was no Hall of Progress in the real Columbian Expo. I had to fit Grevol’s building into the existing map of the White City. Shift locations to make it fit. I’ve wanted all the Clockwork Books to feel believable. Historical details along side fantastical creatures and magic, for me, create the most appealing stories. I wanted readers to be uncertain where the line fell between what was real and what was fantasy. That creates a powerful sense of wonder.

      I hope this answered your question. I appreciate your interest. Best wishes to you on all your writing, Greg.

      • March 26, 2013 2:28 pm


        Did you replace a building with the Hall of Progress or did you squeeze it in between two buildings? Near the Machinery Building?

      • March 26, 2013 5:41 pm

        I don’t think the location of the Hall of Progress is specifically spelled out in the book, but I was imagining it as a third building between the Electricity building and the Mines & Mining building (across the plaza from the Machinery Building). Clearly I got creative with the spatial relationships.

        Thanks for your questions, Greg! Glad to know all my historical research was appreciated by someone.

  8. Greg Schroeder permalink
    April 8, 2013 10:19 pm

    Racking my head trying to figure the story behind the Snap Dragon. There are many famous pirate ships but was there actually one at the white city in 1893?

    • April 10, 2013 9:14 pm

      Greg, the pirates’ paddle-wheel steamer the Snapdragon was completely from my imagination. No historical reference there. Thanks so much!


  1. Editor’s Corner: Jim Thomas on Working with Author John Claude Bemis « Random Acts of Reading

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