John Claude Bemis is the award-winning author of the trilogy “The Clockwork Dark,” which takes place 19th-century South and is filled with American folklore and epic adventure. Bemis will be hosting a talk at Ackland Museum Store Thursday about Southern folklore and how the steampunk genre contributed to his books as a part of the exhibit “Steamworks: Art, Stories, & Adornments.”
Staff writer Charlie Shelton talked to Bemis about the inspiration behind his books and what Steampunk means to him.
Daily Tar Heel: Your steampunk trilogy, “The Clockwork Dark,” is centered in American folklore. What inspires you about folklore in the American South?
John Claude Bemis: I was always a fan of these kind of fantasy and adventure epics like Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” But growing up in North Carolina, I also heard these other stories too — the southern folk tales that were more based in superstition and real myth. So I thought it would be fun to take our American folklore and superstition and try to elevate it to that level of what it would feel like if it was being portrayed as one of these big, epic legends almost like the way the King Arthur stories are or the Trojan War.
DTH: So you think the epic characters are not typically in folklore?
JCB: I think the way a lot of it works is that more typically the folktales center around people who are not to be heroic characters, instead they often serve other purposes. That’s why I felt like John Henry, who The Clockwork Dark centers on, is a little more of the exception. In the big body of American folk tales and folk heroes, to me he is the one who felt big and heroic. To me it felt he could be an American King Arthur or something like that, or at least that is what I was hoping to do with him in these stories.
DTH: Would you say folklore was your biggest inspiration for The Clockwork Dark, or did you have other inspirations?
JCB: Folklore was definitely a big inspiration but on the steampunk side of things. When I first started writing them, I didn’t really intend the books to be in that genre. I was familiar with steampunk and was a fan of the genre, but my goal at the time was to write a fantasy and adventure epic that centered on American folklore and legend. I needed to set it in what felt like our American legendary past.
For a lot of fantasy stories, we look towards the medieval times for that Golden Age of legend, but in the United States we don’t have that kind of history so I think the late 19th century was that Golden Age of myth, cowboys, the Wild West, the Frontier, all of that. And this happens to the time which steampunk looks towards. It is this time with this big transition into the modern world with all this new technology. Because the books were distinctly American, that historical time period that ties into steampunk was a good fit.
DTH: So Steampunk blossomed in the series as you wrote it?
JCB: Exactly. And certainly at some point you realize, “Oh yeah, this is actually turning into a steampunk story.” Sometimes a part of steampunk is keeping a lot of the devices that are often a part of that world, things like airships, zeppelins and mad scientists. So there are these certain archetypes that are often in there that didn’t quite fit as well with what I was doing, I was hoping it would be something different. I wanted readers to come into the story feel like they hadn’t seen a fantasy story quite like this with all of this folklore history and such.
DTH: How would you define steampunk?
JCB: To me, steampunk is typically science fiction that is re-imaging what the future will be, what sort of technology and so forth, will come. And so steampunk is the science fiction that looks back and imagines what, at least in that one moment in the late 19th century, could have been if technology had gone in a slightly different direction.
Steampunk has kind of come about in part because that’s the era when science fiction as a genre first started with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Those were the early days of science fiction and now when we read those books, they feel a little old fashioned because that’s not the way the future turned out to be. But there is something charming about that time, the way they looked at the world and thought it was going to go a certain direction.
DTH: How does steampunk allow a writer’s imagination to go wild compared to other genres?
JCB: If somebody is a fan of fantasy and has read these stories that have used these typical tropes of medieval times of knights, dragons and wizards and all these European sort of things. Steampunk allows the reader to get away from that medieval world and start to play around with things that are a little closer to our time period. You get to play around with technology and machinery, there is something fun about playing around with the thought of “what if flight had gone in this direction?”
DTH: Is romanticism a crucial element to steampunk?
JCB: A lot of literature does like to harken to a past as this romantic age. Even when Homer was writing about the Trojan War, he was looking to the past in terms of his time period. I think in this modern world of iPhones, Facebook and the internet, there is something romantic about looking back to the past and looking at the 19th century when you could actually see how machines work. It give a romantic lens for the way steampunk looks at the past and also at the way the world is today.
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