John Claude Bemis is the author of The Clockwork Dark, a fantasy adventure trilogy that takes place in a mythical America. The first book, The Nine Pound Hammer, was described as “a steampunk collision of heroes, mermaids, pirates, and good old-fashioned Americana” by Booklist and was a New York Public Library Best Children’s Book 2009 for Reading and Sharing. The continuing trilogy in The Wolf Tree and The White City were called “original and fresh” and “a unique way of creating fantasy.” His newest book, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, was an Amazon Best Book of the Month. John lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his wife and daughter. For more info, check out his website.
Let the conversation begin!
How did you choose the genre you write in?
I find the world a wondrous place. Even difficulties have a way of illuminating the beauty of our lives. To me, fantasy literature best captures this lens for the world. Fantasy, myth, and legends are the original genres of storytelling. While some discredit fantasy as escapist, to me fantasy allows storytellers to explore the nature of life through metaphor. Who are we? Are we destined for something great? How do we decide our moral path? How do we confront adversity? I find all this endlessly fascinating as a fiction writer. I’m not looking for answers to offer. I simply enjoy puzzling over the questions and seeing how my characters handle their own lives.
How do you recharge your creative batteries?
Taking long walks in the woods. There’s an old NASCAR speedway near my house that was abandoned in the 1960s. Today the grandstands and track are completely overgrown by the forest. It’s an inspiring place. I often walk around there to think out story ideas or to clear my head. It’s where I first thought of the idea for my latest novel The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, an animal fantasy that takes place in a forest-covered post-apocalyptic world. Ideas often arise when I look at a place or object that I’ve seen every day and wonder something new about it. Walking and recharging my batteries helps me have these sorts of insights.
How did you celebrate your first book being published? Has the excitement worn off with each book you publish?
I don’t know if it’s the musician in me or the teacher, but I like to put on performances to launch a new book. When The Nine Pound Hammer came out in 2009, I held a 19th century-style medicine show in keeping with the book. I had an old-time band with a washtub bass. A friend dressed up as a snake-oil salesman and did a hilarious routine selling tonics. I organized some local kids to act out the legend of John Henry. All just tons of fun!
And to answer the second part of your question, I suppose the excitement has not worn off. I celebrated the release of The Prince Who Fell from the Sky with the fourth of these performances. No medicine show. More futuristic with giant puppet bears and rocket ships and a rock band. I love doing something that brings out hundreds of kids and hopefully provides a lasting memory.
Any advice to share with aspiring writers?
Write the book that nobody else possibly could, because they don’t have your unique perspective on the world. When Maurice Sendak lamented to his editor Ursula Nordstrom that he wasn’t Tolstoy, she replied “You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy was no Sendak either.” By bringing your quirky (and sometimes downright weird) interests, perspectives, and passions into your stories, you are creating something that is original and reflects your singular voice.
Are there certain characters you would like to return to?
I spent nearly four years writing The Nine Pound Hammer and developing the epic world of the Clockwork Dark. I’m very proud of how it came together. My goal was to bring to life a magical long-ago America that felt ripe with our country’s myths, history, and folklore. There was a lot of backstory that I developed that gets alluded to but never deeply explored in the trilogy. In particular, the relationship between the legendary John Henry (who is dead at the start of the first book) and many of the adult characters like Peg Leg Nel, Li’l Bill, the steamboat pirate Lorene, and the blind gunslinger Buck. They’re old (or have lost their way) in the Clockwork Dark trilogy, but I often imagine what they were like as youngsters. Maybe one day, I’ll get a chance to do a prequel and we’ll find out.
Who was the hardest character to develop?
Probably the unnamed boy who is the titular character of The Prince Who Fell from the Sky. Since this book takes place in a future where no humans on earth, I wanted the animals to be able to talk to each other, but not to understand human speech. When the bear Casseomae discovers the sole survivor of a crashed spaceship, she wants to protect this boy and to raise him as her cub. Her challenge and mine as the writer was that she has no easy way to communicate with him. The reader couldn’t know anything about the boy (what he thinks or says, where he comes from) that the animals didn’t know. But I needed readers to connect emotionally with him. It was sort of like narrative miming. I had to get the boy to express himself through his actions, not through his words. It was a fun and often frustrating puzzle to get this character to work.
Do you come up with your book titles?
Sometimes. In general, I’m terrible at coming up with titles. The Nine Pound Hammer was originally “The Medicine Show Train.” A horrible title! Three nouns together. “Medicine” has zero kid appeal. My editor at Random House, Jim Thomas, said we need a title that is visual, appealing, and evocative of action. He was the one who suggested naming the book after John Henry’s legendary weapon. I did come up with The Wolf Tree and The Prince Who Fell from the Sky (not too bad if I say so myself), but if I remember correctly, The White City was originally “The Pitch Dark Machine” until Jim came up with the better title.
Of all your books, what was your favorite chapter to write?
In The White City, one of the last chapters (Ch. 24 “The Crossroads”) was such an emotional chapter to write. It was a bit heartbreaking to put these characters I loved so much and had followed through the three books—Conker and Si—through such anguish. However they prove themselves not only as heroes but also as the most loyal of friends. All the work I had put into building their relationship across the trilogy came together in a big way in that chapter.
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
I love in-person events where I get to talk to actual readers. I do lots of school visits, as well as conferences where I can meet teachers and librarians. I’m a people-person, so I try to take advantage of this strength. And as a musician, I feel like I know how to entertain a crowd.
What is the easiest part of the writing process?
Sitting around waiting for a new book to come out.
What is the hardest part of the writing process?
Sitting around waiting for a new book to come out.