I was so lucky to interview author John Claude Bemis about his life as a teacher and writer and his newest book that releases on Tuesday! He’s kind and interesting and awesome–so here we go! John Claude Bemis and his book, Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince (Book One).
The automa Pinocchio has always been duty-bound to serve in the floating palace of Venice’s emperor. So when Pinocchio finds himself locked in a trunk and delivered to a new master—a wanted criminal and alchemist named Geppetto—he is curious about everything around him. But most curious is the way Pinocchio seems to be changing from a wooden servant into a living, human boy. Before Geppetto and Pinocchio can uncover the mystery surrounding the automa’s transformation, Pinocchio is stolen away. Determined to find Geppetto again, Pinocchio begins a harrowing journey across the Empire, where danger in the form of half-beast outlaws and winged airmen abounds for a lost automa.
“An exhilarating and insightful journey.” –Kirkus Reviews*
Meanwhile, Princess Lazuli, the daughter of the ruler of a magical kingdom called Abaton, is also on a quest through the emperor’s territory. Her father, Prester John, has been captured by the Venetian Empire, and Lazuli is desperate to rescue him. With the emperor’s airmen closing in fast, Lazuli learns the only hope for saving her father–and her beloved home–lies in Pinocchio and Geppetto. Find the book here:
Thanks for talking with us, John! Can you tell us a little about yourself and what made you decide to become a writer?
I wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed of becoming a writer one day. It’s been a happy accident in many ways. I’ve always been a ravenous book reader and enjoyed using my imagination to make up stories. But it was only after I was an elementary school teacher, surrounded by students who were excited about books, that I wanted to create stories for young people. I was reminded of how important books were to me as a kid – how engrossed, absorbed, and downright obsessed I could get over the characters and worlds. This dream took hold: to create stories for young readers that would captivate them as much as the books I’d love at their age had captivated me.
You were previously a teacher—how has that influenced your writing?
Teaching elementary school for 13 years was a master class in understanding children’s literature. My students and I had such rich conversations about the stories we were reading. I got a deeper sense for what spoke to them in the stories, what they enjoyed, what they didn’t enjoy. Whenever I’m writing, I think of my former students and what they might want from an interesting story.
What made you decide to do a retelling of Pinocchio, and how did you get the idea for The Wooden Prince?
I’ve always been fascinated with Pinocchio – this wooden puppet who turns into a living boy. The whole world is so new to him. Everything around Pinocchio ignites him with such curiosity and wonder. For someone made of wood, he’s vibrantly alive. He wrestles with important questions, that I remember wondering when I was young, questions like: Who am I becoming? What is my place in the world? What does it mean to be a friend or a son or even a hero?
What makes your version of Pinocchio unique?
He’s more of a robot than a puppet, but a robot that Leonardo Da Vinci might have designed. In the Venetian Empire of my story, magic and science are being combined to create extraordinary machines, including wooden robots called automa, who are used as servants and soldiers through the Empire. Pinocchio is one of these automa. But he is little-by-little transforming from wood and gears into a living human boy. Part of the mystery of the story—for the reader and for Pinocchio—is to figure out why this is happening to him. I think readers will love discovering the answer.
Which actor could you see playing your Pinocchio? Geppetto? The bad guy?
Dean-Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones would make a great Pinocchio (if he’s not too old at this point). Robert Downey Jr. would bring interesting humor and pathos to Geppetto. And Richard Griffiths (who played Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter movies) would be wonderfully nasty as the Imperial Doge who is hunting for Pinocchio and Geppetto.
You have a lot of great books that are speculative fiction, legends, and fairy-tale type stories. What draws you to those genres?
I find the process of reinterpreting an existing story so creatively challenging. Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Limitations are an artist’s best friend.” This is so true. When you have the limitation presented by the original story, it forces you to have to decide what to keep, what to reimagine, what to discard. With The Wooden Prince, I had an enormous amount of fun taking the original cast of characters—the talking cricket, the adoptive father Geppetto, the wily fox and cat, the Blue Fairy, the whale—and finding new roles for them, giving them new personalities and qualities, discovering interesting ways to fit them into my vision for the story and the world I had created. I did similar things in my Clockwork Dark trilogy, playing with the legend of John Henry and American folklore.
Do you see yourself writing anything else?
Sure. I wrote a picture book for Heifer International called Flora and the Runaway Rooster that isn’t fantasy at all. It tells about the daily life of school children in the African country of Rwanda. I’m working on a middle-grade novel now that is closer to realistic fiction than anything else I’ve done, although it does have many fantastical and semi-magical elements. But I don’t find myself called to writing for adults. I love reading those sorts of books, but my imagination is geared towards stories for young readers.
You have an awesome and extensive reading list on your website. If you had to choose one favorite book and a different favorite author, which would they be?
Oh, you know that’s a hard one. I suppose the one book that made the biggest impact on me was Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (and the rest of His Dark Materials). It’s just so inventive and smart and emotionally rich. I admire Neil Gaiman enormously as a writer. He’s been my favorite author for many years now. But ask me again a couple of years down the road and I might have a different answer for both.
What books are you currently reading?
Lately, I’ve been enamored with Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series. He’s up to book three now, and each one seems to get better and better. I also adored Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I haven’t read her Grisha Trilogy, but I plan to now.
What are your writing routines?
I have a home office and write every weekday from 8 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. (except for days when I’m visiting a school or have other promotional work to do). I try not to check email or get caught up doing anything distracting during this work time. However, I will often take long hikes and call it “work.” That’s part of my writing process: making time to think and dream and work out story ideas. But depending on whether I need to write, revise, research, develop story ideas, etc., I’m either at my desk or taking a thinking-walk. Both require a fair amount of discipline.
What is the hardest thing about writing?
The first round of revisions. That’s when I discover plot holes or story-lines that didn’t pan out as well as I’d hoped. It can be incredibly frustrating trying to figure out how to fix those macro-story problems.
What is the easiest thing about writing?
Um. . .nothing. It’s all so incredibly hard. I wish it wasn’t! There are things that I particularly love—doing the final rounds of revisions where you really clean up every line, developing the initial ideas before starting the first draft, writing that first draft—but every aspect is hard, even if it’s fun hard.
Do you work on multiple projects at once or focus on one at a time?
I never work on two first drafts at the same time. When I’m revising a book, I might also be in the early stages of starting the next book, but never hopping back and forth in the same day. In general, I try to stay focused on one story at a time, keeping my head deeply immersed in the characters and their situation.
What’s next for you, now that The Wooden Prince is out?
In March 2017, the sequel, called Lord of Monsters, comes out. I’m incredibly excited about this story and having readers continue following Pinocchio and Lazuli’s adventures.
We’re fans of Adams Literary! Can you tell us a bit about what the querying/agent hunting process was like for you? Any tips for writers at that stage of the journey?
I’m a huge fan of Adams Literary as well. Josh and Tracey are amazing! When I was looking for agents after I wrote The Nine Pound Hammer, I did extensive research to see which agents seemed like the best fit for the types of story I was writing. I loved the books and authors they were representing. It seemed they might like what I was doing as well. I think it helps the whole process if you do your homework on an agent’s likes and dislikes to see if you’ll be a good match. Then you just have to show the agent in your query why you think you’d be a good fit.
I met Josh and Tracey at a SCBWI conference in North Carolina and had the chance to briefly talk with them. We hit it off, which I think is important. You’re going to be working closely with your agent, so you want to not only get along but also enjoy working together. If possible, having the opportunity to speak and get a feel for one another’s personalities helps. So much of the querying process can be impersonal, so if there’s a way to humanize things, that’s always a good thing.
My other tips for the agent hunt are to keep your query as short as possible. And try to show how your story is different from what else is out there. I didn’t even describe The Nine Pound Hammer’s plot or characters in my query. I simply said it was “fantasy adventure based on American folklore and legend.” That was different enough from what most agents and editors are seeing, it made them want to read more. That’s the goal of a query: Get them to want to read your manuscript.
Best piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Write the story nobody else except you would ever write. Discover what you uniquely bring to the table as a writer. Do that. And write about awesome stuff.
Best piece of advice for life?
Breathe. Get a good night’s sleep. Appreciate the daily joys of having the life you have. Don’t waste time wishing you had anybody else’s life.
That’s an incredible note to end on. Thank you for your time! It was really an honor to get to know you, and I can’t wait to get my hands on Out of Abaton!
John Claude Bemis is the author of Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince, the Clockwork Dark trilogy, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, and the picture book Flora and the Runaway Rooster. He received the Excellence in Teaching Award from UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Education for his work in the schools as an author-educator and served as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate in 2013. John lives with his wife and daughter in Hillsborough, NC.
Take a minute to find John Claude Bemis online:
Order Your Copy of Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince Here:
Reviews and quotes:
“Dangerous magic, strange machines, talking beasts. . .Bemis hasn’t just rewritten Pinocchio, he’s rewritten Pinocchio’s world!” –Tom Angleberger, New York Times best-selling author of the Origami Yoda series
“Pinocchio gets a new look in this curious, complex novel of betrayal, rebellion, and loyalty.” –The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
*Entire Kirkus Review:
“Pinocchio embarks on a journey to protect the magical island Abaton in Bemis’ reimagining of this classic tale. The automata Pinocchio arrives at San Baldovino in a wooden box, weary from the journey and excited to meet his new master, Geppetto. Geppetto and the magical cricket Maestro notice that the new servant behaves differently. He thinks independently, makes facial expressions, and asks a lot of questions. Who is the mysterious stranger that sent him to Geppetto? Why is Geppetto on the run from the authorities? How will they save Abaton from the magic-hungry Venetian doge? As they journey to the near-mythical island of Abaton, Pinocchio discovers the hidden secrets within Abaton and himself. Bemis successfully renovates Pinocchio’s story with layered worldbuilding. Venice’s inhabitants, politics, and history with the island of Abaton form a solid foundation. The various fantastical creatures are explained and revealed at a steady pace, without overwhelming readers. The main characters develop with the story, each propelling the other forward in a natural rhythm. The last few chapters unfurl to a surprising yet satisfying finish, giving readers a real ending but leaving a taste of the adventures to come. Young readers will find this reimagined adventure an exhilarating and insightful journey, fresh despite its familiar bones.”
John invites you to come to a book release celebration for The Wooden Prince on Saturday, April 9th at 3 pm at the Eno River Farmer’s Market pavilion (144 East Margaret Ln. Hillsborough, NC) where he’ll have performances, live music, a reading, refreshments, and giveaways. Fun for the whole family! Get your signed copy at the celebration or bring one you already ordered. Check his website for other upcoming events and readings.