Friday, April 27, 2012

"Each One Teach One" Author Interview: John Claude Bemis

This Spring on Writermorphosis I’m interviewing great Children’s/YA authors and author/illustrators about tips they were given by more experienced authors/illustrators when they first started in the business, and how those tips have helped them and can help us today.

Our first victim (AKA author) is my friend John Claude Bemis. 

John 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 (Random House, 2009), 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. That was followed by the rest of the trilogy, The Wolf Tree and The White City.  His newest book, described as a "futuristic Jungle Book,” is The Prince Who Fell from the Sky.  John is a songwriter and musician who found inspiration for his fiction in old-time country and blues music and the Southern folklore at its heart. A former elementary school teacher, he lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

So John, tell us.  Which more experienced author gave you good advice that’s helped you in the profession?  And what was that advice?
I’m fortunate to live in Hillsborough, a little historic town in North Carolina that has a disproportionate number of writers.  Walk to the coffee shop or local bookstore, and you’ll likely cross paths with Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, or Michael Malone.  Not long after I got my first book contract, I ran into literary icon Allan Gurganus (Last Confederate Widow Tells All) at a gallery opening.  After talking a bit, I asked him what advice he had for a new author.  He advised me to buy a ticket to New York and meet my editor face-to-face.  (It’s surprising how rarely authors wind up meeting their agents or editors in-person.)

The heart of his advice was that in our increasingly on-line world, the personal touch makes a huge difference.  Whether that is sending a hand-written thank you note or going to a conference to meet editors, agents, and other authors, this has made an enormous difference to my career.  The relationships I’ve formed with others have furthered my professional life more than anything I could ever do on Facebook.  I treasure my time at SCBWI conferences and Schmoozes, literary festivals, and book readings as opportunities to meet and get to know fellow writers, both published and to-be published.

Thanks John! That does sound like great advice from Allan Gurganus. Building relationships is so important in the publishing industry – and in life. 
Can you say more about how this tip from Allan has affected your work as a writer?
Certainly. The wisdom Allan Gurganus offered me has had an impact on my approach to my creative life.  Writers often work in isolation.  However, we gain innumerable insights to our craft and stories through those serendipitous encounters and casual conversations.  It’s led me to actively get out to schools to meet kids, teachers, and librarians or to get to as many conferences as I can.  From a marketing perspective, face-to-face encounters with readers are vastly more important than anything I can do on-line… and more meaningful.

Well said, John.  I’ve been to a few events where you’ve been sharing your stories and signing books, and I’ve always enjoyed the way you get everyone involved by bringing your guitar and getting us all singing the song you sing about your first book, the Nine Pound Hammer.  Having fun with you seems to make your books “personal” to your readers.  I’ve also been impressed by how you try to spend time with new authors, helping to mentor them.  I know you’ll be on the first pages critique panel at the Raleigh SCBWI/Goalies Author Illustrator Schmooze in Raleigh, NC, on May 20th at 3pm at Quail Ridge Books. 
So, what do you think is great about more experienced authors/illustrators teaching and mentoring those who are newer to the profession?  Why is this important?

I believe one of the biggest mistakes published writers make is spending too much time isolated with others in the industry.  This has the potential to stifle creativity.  When you start thinking too much about sales and what the industry does or doesn’t want, you lose what’s unique and true to your writing.  I look for as many opportunities as I can to be around authors who are newer to the profession and to be around a variety of artists.  It’s the cross-pollination of ideas and the willingness to challenge our assumptions that keeps our imaginations strong.   So, I try to be around aspiring authors as much as I can.  They are a wealth of creative insights!  I relish opportunities such as SCBWI conferences and events, doing manuscript critiques, and teaching writing workshops where I get to meet writers working to be published.  That exchange of ideas and variety of perspectives informs my craft enormously.
I love that perspective, John, that while you’re “reaching back” to help new authors learn the things you know now, that being around their new ideas and enthusiasm also strengthens your own creative process!
Also you mentioned SCBWI conferences.  How have writing conferences, your critique group, SCBWI Schmoozes, or other chances to network and discuss the craft with other writers helped you in your career as a writer.  Is there one particular experience you’ve had that you’d like to highlight?
I have an amazing critique group with Stephen Messer, J.J. Johnson, and Jennifer Harrod.  We began back around 2005, all hungry, aspiring authors.  Now between the four of us, we have six novels published and three more soon to be published.  The fact that we became friends has had the biggest impact on our ability to support one another.  A good critique group requires honest criticism, but it also requires lots of love and encouragement.
Also, I can’t emphasize enough how important SCBWI is to children’s book writers and illustrators.  It’s a wonderful community.  I wouldn’t have my rock-star agent, Josh Adams, if I hadn’t met him and his wife Tracey at an SCBWI conference in Durham back in 2006.  That was another situation where meeting someone in-person made a huge difference.  I knew that Tracey was presenting at that conference, and I sent her a short email saying how much I was looking forward to her talk and meeting her.  I wasn’t pushy.  I kept it professional and friendly.  (I think agents encounter too many people who forget they are people too.)  The rest, as they say, is history…
Your critique group really seems to be a great team!  I know I’ve seen you all sitting together at conferences.  It’s wonderful to have a strong group working together toward the same goal. And what a great story about connecting with Josh and Tracey Adams!
So, now that you have almost 4 books out, would you say that the biggest writing challenge you have now is the same one you struggled with when you first started in this profession? : )
Yes. The greatest challenge I face is having the time to devote to actually writing.  I thought once I was published I would be able to have more time to write, but publicity and marketing takes both time and creative energy.  I still struggle to carve out time in my busy life to simply imagine and work on my stories.

I’m sure that a lot of authors are nodding their heads with you on that one! Time is hard to capture. :)

So tell me, in the time that you have been able to dedicate to your writing, what has been one of your favorite recent projects?
Developing the trilogy the Clockwork Dark was a dream-come-true.  These were the books I always wanted to read but had never been able to find in any bookstore.  I combined epic fantasy with America’s rich folklore and history to create an adventure that captured our country’s diverse and often complicated mythology.  I feel very fortunate every time I meet readers who want to talk to me about their favorite characters and the different story lines.  It often feels like I created something that is no longer mine, but something I share with so many others.
I’m sure that’s true!  I remember when I first read the initial few pages of the Nine Pound Hammer – the scene in the swamp – I was hooked!

Ok, before we wrap up, tell us, what are you working on now?
I’m very excited for the release of my upcoming novel "The Prince Who Fell from the Sky."  It’s akin to a post-apocalyptic Jungle Book, set in a future where humans are gone and animals live among our ruins.  Casseomae is an outcast bear who longs to have cubs of her own.  When a starship crashes in the forest and she encounters the lone survivor –a “Skinless One” as the animals call the legendary humans of old—she decides to protect the child against the ruling wolves who fear the boy as threat to their world.  Along with a street-wise rat and a dreamer dog, they set off to find a safe haven for the boy and try to discover where he came from.

That sounds intriguing, John. I look forward to reading it!  And what a great 1-paragraph synopsis!  We can all learn from that one!

Thanks so much for starting this interview series off with such great tips and thoughts.  We look forward to seeing you at the SCBWI Goalies Schmooze at Quail Ridge Books on May 20th, and likely at the SCBWI Fall Conference after that! I'm thinking these are great opportunities for all of us to implement Allan Gurganus’ great advice. We’ll spend time together improving our craft “face to face!” 

The next "Each One Teach One" Author Interview will be posted  Friday night, May 4th, here on Writermorphosis.


Kate Reilly said...

Great interview! I especially like the "cross-pollination" idea. Lately, I've been trying to branch out past the writing community, too, to connect with people in different fields like science, photography, technology, and others. You never know where you're going to find that little burst of inspiration that grows into part of your writing.

Karen said...

In a few years, when you ask newly published authors about who helped guide them and gave great advice, I bet a lot of people will answer John Beamis. His talks and critiques at SCBWI, his children's book writing classes, and his encouragement in general has meant a lot to a ton of people, including me.

Janelle said...

Good point, Kate. I loved that idea too.

And you're so right, Karen! I think a lot of people are learning a lot from you, John!

Jenny said...

Great words of advice for all writers! Thanks, Janelle and John!

CL said...

I've been fortunate to both hear John present and to meet him personally at a conference. I definitely got that he likes to reach out to people (even those of us who are pre-published) and I appreciate his open, friendly ways!
Thanks to both of you for this great interview.

Janelle said...

Thanks CL! And thanks John - for being a good example of an author reaching out to the new folks!

John Claude Bemis said...

Thank you for all the kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. Janelle, thank you for a fun discussion!

Crafterdays said...

Great advice, especially the note about networking. My experience with the Goalies has kept me writing for years now, as have the SCBWI conferences. John is a very gracious person who always has a smile and words of encouragement for other writers. It is writers like him who inspire the rest of us to become better at what we love.

Janelle said...

Thanks, John, for popping back up on here!

Janelle said...

I think you're absolutely right, Kathy, about John, the conference, and the crit groups. I too love the Goalies.

Carol Baldwin said...

Janelle & JOhn,
I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation...felt like I was evesdropping on the two of you! Thanks John for sharing what has helped you a long the way; it makes me treasure my critique group even more.
Great interview idea, Janelle. Look forward to your next one!