A little over a month ago Disney-Hyperion Books released John Claude Bemis’s 5th book for middle grade readers. It’s called The Wooden Prince, first book in a series called Out of Abaton. (Read the first chapter here.) John, whom I first met when I took his week-long session at Table Rock Writers Workshop in 2014, stopped by The Writer’s Desk to talk about his latest book.
Kindred Spirit Author: Thanks for stopping by The Writer’s Desk, John. Tell us about your new book.
John Claude Bemis: The Wooden Prince is a re-imagining of the Pinocchio story set in an alternate history Venetian Empire where alchemists have taken the designs of Leonardo Da Vinci to create extraordinary machines, including wooden robots called automa that are used as servants and soldiers throughout the Empire. Pinocchio is one of them. After Pinocchio is delivered to a new master—a wanted criminal and alchemist named Geppetto—Pinocchio discovers he’s coming to life. What I think readers will have fun with is figuring out why he’s changing into a living boy. And I think readers will have fun discovering the world of this book. The Venetian Empire I’ve created is a fantastical place where soldiers with mechanical wings patrol the skies. Half-beast outlaws roam the countryside. Theaters pit automa against one another in gladiator battle. So lots of exciting fantasy adventure.
KSA: Why did you decide to retell the Pinocchio story?
JCB: I’ve always been fascinated by Pinocchio as this wooden puppet who comes to life. The whole world is so new to him. Everything around Pinocchio ignites him with curiosity and wonder. For someone made of wood, he’s vibrantly alive. He wrestles with important questions like: Who am I? What does it mean to be a friend? Or a son? Or a hero? At first I was playing with a story about Pinocchio as a robot, something more science fiction. But then after a trip to Italy, I began to imagine a story where Pinocchio is still essentially a robot, but a robot who might have been built in Renaissance Italy in a world that is both old and futuristic.
KSA: What do you enjoy about writing for this age group?
JCB: Kids don’t just love great stories; they love great storytelling. You have to captivate them with exciting plots and with characters who are full of courage, cleverness, and heart. I love how kids have no tolerance for boring stuff. It keeps me having to work all the harder. Young readers get immersed in the world of a book much more deeply than we do as adults. They get engrossed, absorbed, and down-right obsessed with stories they love. I love the passion they bring for reading. They’re the best fans to have.
KSA: I’m sure you get fan mail from young readers. What are they telling you?
JCB: Nothing thrills me more than when a young reader tells me they weren’t a big reader until they read my books. I was a voracious reader as a kid, but not all kids are. My mission is to get them excited about books. And about writing. It’s wonderful when young fans share stories they’re working on, sometimes using my characters and story worlds even. I’m honored when young fans tell me they want to be a writer one day.
KSA: What’s been the most rewarding thing that’s happened to you since your first books came out?
JCB: So many things, especially getting to meet young readers who have enjoyed my books. Nothing beats that. Also I was honored with the Excellence in Teaching Award from UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education for my work as an author-educator in the schools around the state. It wasn’t so much the award or the recognition as knowing that my presentations have made a difference to the students I visit. In my heart, I’m first and foremost an educator. I feel passionately about the tremendous work teachers are doing for our kids and our communities. So I’m thrilled that educators feel my role in the schools has made a difference.
KSA: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
JCB: I didn’t grow up imagining I’d be a writer one day. As a kid, I devoured books and enjoyed using my imagination to make up stories. But I went to college to become a teacher—in large part, because of how much I wanted to get kids excited about stories and reading. I taught for 13 years. It was during this time in the classroom that I first got serious about writing stories that I hoped one day my students would read. I’m lucky enough now that I’m able to do it as my full time job. I do miss teaching, but getting to visit schools and work with young people has helped. So if you’d have asked me twenty years ago if I’d be writing as a career, I’d have thought you were crazy.
KSA: What is your writing process? Do you have a particular time and place to write?
JCB: I work at home and commit myself to writing every day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. (while my daughter is at school). Unless, of course, I’m visiting a school or have other promotional work to do. I try not to check email or get caught up doing anything else distracting during this work time. However, I’ll often take long hikes during the work day. That’s part of my writing process: simply having time to think and dream and work out story ideas. It all depends on where I am in the process of creating a story, whether I’m planning a new story, getting down a first draft, revising, etc. But my writing process might be devoting many hours at the laptop or spending time walking and working things out in my imagination. Both take a lot of discipline.
KSA: Do you ever sit down to write, but you just don’t have any ideas or you are stuck on what to write next? How do get over that feeling? That’s where the walking is important. I’ve found that doing a mindless and even boring activity (it could also be washing dishes, folding clothes, doing exercise) is a great way to get my thoughts deep in the world of my story. There’s something about movement that activates creativity for me. So if I ever feel writer’s block, my go-to solution is taking a long hike in the woods. I always keep a little notebook in my back pocket. You wouldn’t believe how many of these notebooks I’ve filled up.
KSA: Before The Wooden Prince, you’ve had four middle-grade novels published—a trilogy and a stand-alone. Can you tell us a little about them?
JCB: The Clockwork Dark trilogy is an epic fantasy built on American legend and history. The books, which begin with The Nine Pound Hammer, follow a group of performers in a traveling show who must pit their various talents and magical powers against a being of ancient evil who has risen up in 1890s America. My novel The Prince Who Fell from the Sky takes place in a future Earth where humans seem gone, until a bear discovers a human boy whose spacecraft has crashed in her forest. It becomes a bit of a post-apocalyptic Jungle Book with the bear trying to protect the boy from the wolves who rule the forest, wolves who aren’t happy that humans might be returning.
KSA: What have you been reading lately?
JCB: The Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde. All amazing! I read a lot of Middle Grade and YA fantasy adventure. Some writers don’t like to read in the genre they write, but those are the books I adore the most. They remind me of why I’m passionate about creating the types of stories I do. I also read other genres, and often have a nonfiction book going while I’m reading a fiction title. Lately I’ve been reading some historical nonfiction like David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers and Joseph J. Ellis’s Quartet.
KSA: What advice do you have for young people who want to be writers?
JCB: Take the things you are passionate about and find ways to work them into your stories. So you’re fascinated by Ancient Egypt and space travel? How can you put those two things (that don’t seem like they go together) into an interesting story idea we’ve never seen before? Each of us has a unique combination of interests. When we bring our unique combination of passions into our stories, we can write the book that nobody else would possible write. Like with all dreams, if you want to be a published author one day, it takes putting in lots of practice. Malcolm Gladwell found in his book Outliers that people master a field when they devote ten-thousand hours to doing it. So get writing. And make sure you have fun in the process.
KSA: Do you ever give talks or presentations to the public? Do you have anything coming up soon?
JCB: I was a touring musician for many years. So I have fun getting up on stage. I’ve tried to work that performance aspect into my book presentations. I’ll be doing lots of readings at book stores and festivals when The Wooden Prince comes out. Check out my website or follow me on Facebook to find out where I’ll be. In particular, I’m excited for the big launch party I’ll put on for The Wooden Prince on Saturday April 9th in my hometown of Hillsborough, NC. I involve a lot of local kids to help me with music and skits. Come if you can. It’ll be loads of fun! [Note: My sincere apologies to JCB for not writing this blog post before his book launch party; life just got in the way.]
KSA: Finally, I wonder if you'd share a writing prompt for aspiring young writers?
JCB: “One day, you wake up and the house is empty. Everyone else’s bed is made, but there is no sign of where they’ve gone. . .”
An inspiring speaker and entertaining performer, John Claude Bemis brings his passions for music, folklore, and spinning exciting tales to his novels and presentations. The first novel in his Clockwork Dark trilogy, The Nine Pound Hammer, was nominated for the North Carolina Children’s Book Award and was selected as a New York Public Library Best Children’s Book for Reading and Sharing. The trilogy continues with The Wolf Tree and The White City and has been described as “original and fresh” and “a unique way of creating fantasy.” A musician and educator, John lives with his wife and daughter in Hillsborough, NC. The Wooden Prince and John’s other books are available in bookstores everywhere or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.