Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Author Interview: John Claude Bemis

I first met John Claude Bemis at his excellent presentation on developing worlds at the SCBWI-C conference this fall. After forgiving me for misspelling his name (sorry!), John very kindly agreed to do an interview for this humble blog.

John's novel, The Nine Pound Hammer, is due out in August of 2009 from Random House. The first in The Clockwork Dark series, this novel asks the question: What if the legend of John Henry were more than just a story? Building on American legends, a bit of magic, and a new spin on folklore, John's middle grade novel promises to be an exciting read.

We can all read about your bio from your FAQ online. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?

I sold a song for a Val Kilmer action movie called Conspiracy. It was a straight-to-DVD release, and I won’t comment further on the movie’s quality since I’d love to sell more songs to Hollywood. But it was really exciting to hear my band Hooverville and my song playing in a movie.

As a child, what was your favorite book? Has your tastes changed since growing up?

Probably The Hobbit was my favorite as a kid since I read it at least on an annual basis from 5th grade on. It’s still one of my favorites, but I think as Tolkein’s fantasy world became the template for so many other authors, his vision for Middle Earth has suffered some in my mind. I feel bad, because it’s not his fault, but what can you do? The books I tend to like today are ones I would have enjoyed as a kid if they’d been around: Rowling, Pullman, Gaiman, the usual suspects. My very favorite series of late is Philip Reeve’s Hungry Cities Chronicles. What an imagination and what a fully (and bizarrely) realized world!

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

An artist. I love drawing. I’m not great, but not so bad at it either. As I began to prepare to apply to colleges, my interests began to diversify into music, songwriting, and fiction writing. I decided a broad liberal arts education would be more interesting than going to an art school. I did wind up with an Art History degree, but what good that’s done me remains to be seen.

How much of you is in your book? Is there a character like you? Is a situation in the book derived from real life?

I think all the characters are a little like me in their own ways. My protagonist, Ray, grows to love being in wild places. The pitchman Peg Leg Nel is very nurturing and compassionate and worries about the children in his care, which is not so different than the way I felt especially when I taught elementary school or I feel now as a parent. Conker feels unsure at times about what path he should follow, which I grapple with from time to time. Even some of the villains have aspects I can relate to, although I’ll add as a disclaimer, nothing outright wicked. I’d feel a little too self-conscious to reveal any specifics on this point. I try to give all my characters strengths and flaws, and I often look inward to draw these out. While the situations are purely fictitious, the idea of characters living on a train has always appealed to me. My grandfather wandered around the country on trains during the Depression and his stories were an impetus in many ways for The Nine Pound Hammer.

What was your timeline for the book? How long did it take to write, revise, submit, and finally, get published? How did you feel at these stages?

The Nine Pound Hammer began around 2002-2003 as a very different story. I wrote two complete versions and a couple of partial versions, until I abandoned the idea in frustration around 2005. That spring I met the other writers in my critique group and decided to give the story another chance. With their help, I came upon a satisfying structure for the story and finished it in 2006 (about a year of writing and revising that new and improved version). I feel the false starts and missteps of the earlier versions were enormously helpful in learning my chops as a writer and clarifying the strange world of The Nine Pound Hammer.

In the summer of 2006, I turned my attention to finding an agent. After extensive research, I decided on my top five dream agents. With her interest in Southern voices, Tracey Adams at Adams Literary was at the top of my list. I was fortunate to meet her and her husband Josh at the fall SCBWI-Carolinas conference in Durham, NC. They agreed to represent me in early 2007, and within a month, Josh had secured my book deal with Random House.

It was all enormously exciting, especially as it happened relatively quickly. But at the same time, I had been working very hard for at least five years to get to that point. The revision process with Random House has been extensive and at times exhausting, but my editor, Jim Thomas, is fantastic. He shares my vision for the series, and together we have whipped the story into shape.

I’m excited for next summer when the book will finally come out, but in the meantime, I’m trying to focus on finishing the last two books in The Clockwork Dark series.

If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from the book, what would you want that to be?

Our world is an enormously complicated place. Not all that we believe to be good is always good, and not all we assume to be bad is always bad. The villains in The Clockwork Dark series embrace technology, but at the same time, the heroes depend on it as well, to lesser degrees. The heroes revere the wild, but the wild is not always portrayed in the book as a safe and perfect haven from the modern world. My most admirable characters are ones who strike a balance between opposing beliefs and stances, while the characters that are most flawed are obsessively fixated on particular notions.

What are your goals as an author? Where do you want to see yourself as a writer in 5, 10, 15 years?

I have notebooks and Word documents filled with other story ideas. I see myself continuing writing for children and teens for a long time. The beauty of this career path is that there’s no retirement age. I hope to become a better and more creative, polished writer as I grow older.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?

There is no one goal that will satisfy you and bring you happiness. Once you finish writing a book, then you need to revise. Once you get an agent, then you hope to have it published. Once it’s published, you still have more work to do regardless of whether the book is received positively or negatively. I think you have to be happy in the moment and find enjoyment at whatever stage you’ve reached. If you’re hoping you’ll be happy once you reach a particular goal, you’re doomed already. Happiness is appreciating what you’ve done and where you are, not looking at the future.

Beyond the typical—never give up, believe in yourself—what would be the single best advice you'd like to give to an aspiring author?

Write something you’ve never read before. Don’t look at other writers and books as a blueprint for you to follow. Do something different and creative and groundbreaking and hope the world shares your vision. If they don’t, they’re idiots anyway, right? Go write the book you’ve always wanted to read but nobody else has written.

What do you consider to be your strongest talent in writing? Your weakest?

My strongest talent is pairing unusual ideas—a dandelion hat that turns its wearer into little seed pods that drift away, a tall tale story like John Henry presented as epic fantasy, etc. My weakest talents are far more apparent. I err on the side of too many adjectives and adverbs, for example. Also I use far too many tags, such as “…he said with a scowl.” Ugg! Thank goodness I have a great critique group and editor to watch out for me.

What's a writing pet peeve that you have?

This is not so much a pet peeve about what other authors do in their fiction, as what they say about “how to write.” Hard and fast rules are often presented to aspiring writers as unbreakable. For example, “show don’t tell.” This often backfires so that some writers show every twitch, cough, and chuckle their characters make. I’ve read many great writers (Ursula Le Guin comes to mind) who can have passages of outright telling that are masterful. Some of the best writing is not showing or telling, but suggesting. Not every rule should be followed all the time. It’s good to learn the rules, but better to understand how to break them. Don’t believe everything you read in those “how to write” books.
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