FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
John often gets emails and letters from fans who want to know more about him and his books. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions and his answers. The questions are grouped in Personal, Books, and Writing. Have a question you don't see answered here, visit his Author Page on Facebook and ask him. He'll be glad to write back!
Where do you live?
Hillsborough, North Carolina
Where did you grow up?
I grew up outside the town of Oriental in eastern North Carolina. I was born in Connecticut, but my parents moved back to North Carolina when I was four.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Arapahoe Elementary School, which was a K-8 school that only had one class per grade. Very tiny! I then went to Pamlico County High School and attended UNC-Chapel Hill for college.
Did you read a lot as a kid? Did you always want to be a writer?
Oh yes, I read tons and tons of books. However I didn’t imagine I’d be a writer one day. I loved making up stories. My best friend Mike and I would work together on stories, each of us taking turns writing a chapter and passing the notebook to the other on the school bus. When I went to college, I studied education to become a teacher. It was only after I began reading all these amazing books with my students that I got excited to write a books of my own.
Are you married? Do you have any kids?
Yes to both. When I’m working on a new story, I always read it to my wife and daughter first. They give lots of good feedback. If they laugh at the funny parts, I know I got the joke right. If they don’t, I know I need to keep trying.
What are your favorite hobbies?
I love getting back in the woods to hike. I also love traveling. My biggest hobby however is playing music. I started on violin when I was eight, guitar when I was twelve, and over time also learned to play the button accordion and ukulele (which isn’t that hard if you play guitar). I play in a band called Hooverville. We even recorded some CDs and toured around. If you listen to the audiobooks for The Nine Pound Hammer and the rest of the Clockwork Dark trilogy, I played the background music along with some other musician friends of mine.
Will you visit my school?
I love visiting schools. It really is one my favorite parts of my job. Ask your teacher or media specialist to contact me to set up a school visit. You’d be my best friend forever.
How can I get you to sign a book for me?
Contact Purple Crow Books, a wonderful bookstore in my hometown of Hillsborough, NC, at 919-732-1711. They will make arrangements with me to autograph or personalize a book for you and then ship it out. I’m happy to do it! They make great gifts.
Who helps you with your books?
I have an editor at my publishing house who works with me to revise and improve my stories. But before I share a book with her, I share early drafts with my friends and fellow writers Jennifer Harrod, J.J. Johnson, and Stephen Messer. They’re wonderful and have helped with all my books. We first started critiquing each other’s stories before any of us were published. Now between the four of us we have over 10 books out.
What is your writing process? Do you have a particular time and place to write?
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.
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.
What advice do you have for young people who want to be writers?
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.
Why did you decide to write about Pinocchio in the Out of Abaton books?
The character of Pinocchio has always fascinated me. Not because he’s such a terrible liar or a naughty son to poor Geppetto. In fact, those are some of the things I’ve never particularly liked about the original story. They always felt too preachy. What fascinates me about Pinocchio is that being alive in the world is so new to him. Everything around him ignites him with curiosity and wonder.
Is this the same Pinocchio as in the Disney movie?
Yes and no. While the character Pinocchio comes from the book by Carlo Collodi that inspired the Disney movie, my Pinocchio and his story are quite different from Collodi’s book and Disney’s cartoon. The Wooden Prince is a re-imagining of the Pinocchio story set in an alternate history Venetian Empire. In this world, Venice’s famed explorer Marco Polo has discovered an enchanted kingdom called Abaton that’s ruled by the ancient and powerful Prester John. Magic from Abaton is introduced into the Venetian Empire leading to an intense rivalry between the empires and changing the course of history. Using the designs of Leonardo Da Vinci, Venice’s alchemists have created all sorts of enchanted machines: Imperial Airmen wear mechanical wings to patrol the skies. Citizens get around the Empire on mechanapillars, “insect-like” carriages with numerous legs. And the alchemists have built automa – wooden robots that are used as servants and soldiers throughout the Empire. Pinocchio is one of these automa. So, as you can see, this is quite a different Pinocchio from what came before.
Did you make up the character Prester John in the Out of Abaton books?
No, Prester John is a figure from European legend. Prester John is largely forgotten today, but in medieval times, he was the original viral sensation. Letters circulated all over Europe telling of a magical king who lived in the Far East, or was it Africa, or a remote island somewhere? No one knew. But everyone wanted to find Prester John. Everyone wanted to see his enchanted kingdom. Many of the great explorers in the age of Columbus were hoping to be the one to find Prester John. Of course, no one ever did. But for hundreds of years, he was all the rage in Europe.
Did you make up the enchanted kingdom of Abaton?
Yes. While Prester John was based on a real legend, Prester John’s mysterious island of Abaton in my books is purely from my imagination. I got the name Abaton from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (every writer should have a copy of this book!). It says that “Abaton” is an ancient Greek phrase that means a place that’s difficult to reach. Since the Abaton of my books is guarded by an enormous sea monster called The Deep One and is nearly impossible to reach, this seemed like the right name.
What sparked the idea for The Nine Pound Hammer?
Several years ago, I was writing these very traditional, European-style fantasy stories, which didn’t feel very satisfying. I love fantasy, but wizards, knights, and dragons have been done to death. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction growing up, but I always really liked American tales, too, in particular “The Jack Tales” and “The Tales of Brer Rabbit.” I’m a musician, and vintage country, blues, and roots music is my thing. I remember picking some song on my guitar and thinking, “What would make a fantasy story distinctly American, with the themes and archetypes that are in the folksongs I love?” I began playing around with ideas that blended Southern folklore and American legends into a fantasy epic framework. Music and folklore have been a huge inspiration for the book.
What folklore and American legends did you draw on for inspiration?
There’s a lot of distinctly American folklore in The Clockwork Dark trilogy. Hoodoo magic, bottletrees, toby bags, root doctors. But I was especially drawn to the legend of John Henry. That story always loomed as something powerful and epic in my mind. To me, John Henry is our national folk hero.
What’s the story of John Henry?
Sadly, he seems largely forgotten now. In the early twentieth century, everyone knew about John Henry. He’s in all sorts of songs, from blues to jazz to country and even rock. As the story generally goes, John Henry was an ex-slave who worked on the railroad, laying tracks and building tunnels through the mountains. A man invented a steam drill that could dig the tunnels faster than workers could, so John Henry had a competition to see who was faster: man or machine? With Li’l Bill, his shaker (the man who held the drill bit for the steel driver to hit with his hammer), John Henry carved out fourteen feet of rock, while the steam drill only dug nine feet. But as the competition finished, John Henry fell dead. Part of the tragedy is that he supposedly knew he would one day die in this way. “This hammer will be the death of me,” as the song goes. He’s our American Achilles or King Arthur, full of tragic glory. And his instrument, the Nine Pound Hammer, is our Excalibur, a symbol of his enduring heroism.
How does the legend of John Henry fit into The Nine Pound Hammer?
My story takes place after John Henry’s death, which is not quite like legend would have it. It was not a competition, but a battle between good and evil: John Henry and his followers, the Ramblers, facing the terrible Machine and its maker. Otherwise, I’d spoil the good fun of the book to tell it.
Much of the story of The Nine Pound Hammer takes place with a medicine show. What is a medicine show?
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, medicine shows were the entertainment for the rural masses. They were traveling shows with musicians and performers who made money by selling tonics and cure-alls. These “medicines” were usually little more than alcohol. However in The Nine Pound Hammer, Peg Leg Nel, the root doctor in charge of the medicine show, makes extraordinary tonics… magical, even. And the medicine show performers are children with strange and mysterious powers: an escape artist with a tattoo of the cosmos on her hand, a snake charmer who speaks to her snakes, a Kwakiutl Indian “fire eater” who can never be burned, as well as others. Also, unlike the way traditional medicine shows traveled by wagon, the medicine show here lives and travels aboard a steam train.
What makes The Clockwork Dark trilogy an American fantasy?
The usual archetypes of European fantasy are wizards and knights and dragons. Here I have hoodoo conjurers, cowboys, and steamboat pirates. There’s magic, but it’s much more folksy. I drew on the beliefs about magic of American Indians, African Americans, and Appalachian root workers. If medieval times were the golden age for European fantasy, I see the late 19th century as the golden age for America’s myths. It’s then we had cowboys, swamp mermaids, trains, and Native Americans still living much more traditionally. It’s an age when great technological advances were butting up against the “old ways.”
Are there other books planned?
Yes, I’m currently working on the next book in the Out of Abaton series, the sequel to The Wooden Prince which will be called Lord of Monsters. It takes place in Abaton, as Pinocchio and Lazuli face the threat of ancient monsters that are threatening their beloved kingdom.