Today I’m excited to share with you an interview with JS Emery, the authors behind the epic hydropunk fantasy A Clockwork River. I’ve already reviewed the book and absolutely loved it! You can see my review by clicking here, it’s one of my favourite books of the year and I’ll be recommending it for Christmas and beyond. But today I have been lucky enough to interview the two authors who wrote the book, Sara and Jacob Emery. I hope you enjoy this interview, and there are more details about the book and the authors below so continue to scroll down after the interview….
1 .Can you tell us a bit about A Clockwork River and what inspired it?
A Clockwork River is a big, lavish novel set in an imaginary city of ancient hydraulic marvels. Its main characters are Sam and Briony Locke, a pair of impoverished aristocratic siblings with eccentric hobbies. Briony amuses herself mixing up combustibles and love potions in her walk-in closet, while Sam, who has let lapse a promising thesis project in civil engineering, is devoted to an extensive collection of antique locks. To make a very long story very short, the survival of the empire turns out to depend upon one of these locks, which is a shame, because very early in the book Sam is conked on the head and thrown in the river and that lock has disappeared. While Sam is press-ganged into the army, inducted into a traveling theatrical troupe, and kidnapped by tunnel-dwellers, Briony must deploy her alchemy and her wits to contend with a bevy of domestic problems including unwanted house guests, ill-behaved experimental subjects, and the unwelcome prospect of an arranged marriage.
This is the scaffolding on which a great deal of arabesque and ornament are hung, with as many minor characters and outrageous events as we could manage. The whole thing is a love letter to some of our favorite books, which tend also to be excessive–Alfred Bester’s seedy cyberpunk novels, eighteenth century picaresque adventures, comedies of manners by P. G. Wodehouse, historical dramas like Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, and gothic fantasies by most but not all of the Brontë clan, to name a few.
2. I love the writing style, the way the narrator tells us the story, and the beautiful use of the English language, what made you choose to write the story in this way?
When we were little, all seven of the Emery children and some number of our goats would live out of a van for months at a time, driving from one town to another so that our mother could teach the hosts of local television shows how to milk the aforementioned goats on live camera. (She was the author of a reference book on self-sufficiency and a great popularizer of life off the grid.) During long drives through unpeopled regions of the United States we retained our sanity by telling the kind of story that eats up as much time as possible and holds attention through the power of meandering invention.
We don’t know how the goats felt about it, but we came to like this style of narration so much that we wrote our book the same way.
3. The book is quite an epic adventure at over 700 pages, how long did it take to write?
We started making notes in 2010, finished the first draft in 2017, and sent it to publishers in 2020. So ten years exactly.
4. Were there any difficulties in writing this book especially as co-authors?
Writing the book was fun and seemed easy even when it wasn’t. The fact that we lived somewhere between 2,400 and 4,400 miles apart during the whole process scarcely registered as an obstacle, thanks to miracles of digital communication. We passed characters back and forth, always enmiring them in new difficulties and layering in unexpected backstory. Like a pair of reckless badminton players with a poorly balanced birdie in a lawn overgrown with vines, we hit out of bounds perpetually and often fell down, but we always returned the volley.
The hard part came when it occurred to us that someone else might want to read A Clockwork River (or Maxwell’s Demon, as we called it at the time). If the final published novel is self-indulgent, the early private drafts reached Neronian depths of decadence–all the Roman emperors put together, actually, with Oscar Wilde thrown in for good measure. Since the two of us know mostly the same things and have many of the same memories, the book we wrote for our own amusement was one big shaggy in-joke. It was also twice as long again as it is now, if you can believe it. It cost us a great deal of trouble to unwrite chapters that were funny only to us. We lost some beloved minor characters and plot twists along the way. But we hope that our readers now feel welcome to share in our love of language and madcap adventure, which is and always has been the heart of the book.
5.Did you do any research for this novel?
We read up especially on water-powered infrastructure. The timber and flour mills at St. Anthony’s Falls in Minnesota and the textile industry that grew up around Peter’s Falls on the Merrimack were both inspirations, along with the more ancient Indus Valley Civilization. And we did a good deal of incidental research into other matters, for example Maori tattooing technologies and poisonous plants that begin with the letter D.
6. Samuel and Briony are brother and sister, you are co-authors and also brother and sister; are there any similarities between you and the characters?
Indeed! Just like Briony, Sara loves to read, appreciates a daring hat but can seldom afford one, and puts too much sugar in her tea. Sadly, she is not as razor-tongued or courageous, and not nearly as good at brewing love potions as the formidable Miss Locke, but she is equally loyal and would also gladly undertake any adventure on behalf of her beloved brother. And Jacob, like Sam, is well-meaning but prone to act without thinking things through.
The differences are also plain. The Emery compound, with its seven untiring children, was more crowded and rambunctious than the Locke mansion. Sara dances much better than Briony and is older than Jacob; Sam takes longer to write his dissertation than Jacob did, and he is older than Briony.
7. Have you always enjoyed writing since you were very young?
Oh yes! Sara wrote a fine story about a heroic lemming attempting to dissuade its fellow rodents from jumping off of a cliff when she was just a tot. Pertinent plot points are lost to history, but we do recall its name–“Sparky Goes Surfing”–so it must have ended tragically. Jacob’s earliest surviving work is a parasite-themed spoof on the Argonauts entitled “Jason and the Golden Fleas,” which reaches its climax in a hard-to-visualize boxing match between the protagonist and a leech, an animal that lacks arms.
Our first piece of collaborative writing belongs to the same period and was inspired by the smutty historical romances of which there was an abundance in our household. (The Constant Harlot was a favorite; we were quite taken with the mysterious ellipses that followed hard on the heels of burning kisses.) We called this work The Dishy Duchess or The Coy Countess or The Busty Baroness–some passionate peeress, anyway, even if the exact rank escapes us.
8. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Sara likes to read, write songs, play guitar, raise kids, drink coffee and bake pies. She is fond of vintage fashions and searching for beautiful old things of all kinds in junk shops and antique stores. Jacob once played a great deal of guitar himself, but these days his musical career has been reduced to extemporizing songs about root vegetables for his three-year-old son. He enjoys writing about other people’s fiction as much as he enjoys writing fiction himself and he works by day as a professor of literature, largely but not exclusively the Russian kind. He is a martial arts enthusiast, has a superb tuxedo cat named Vespers who gets very cuddly in cold weather, and once a week plays Dungeons and Dragons online with Sara’s children.
9. Are you working on anything new?
Oh boy, are we! We are about halfway across the metaphorical ocean with no land in sight. The new book is a distant prequel to A Clockwork River, set a thousand years before in an era with fewer debutante balls and more falconry. There will be swordfighting! There will be time travel! There will be a general strike and dental surgery, circus performances and barbarian hordes and cruel religious rites!
10. If you could live in any book, which would it be and why?
Sara would honestly choose A Clockwork River. After spending a decade in Lower Rhumbsford she has become terribly fond of all its characters (except for Starklime, she hates that guy) and she can imagine happily staying on, perhaps in a cooperative living situation with the members of The Lock Key & Fob Club. As a child she wanted to jump into Wuthering Heights and be passionate and petted and run away with Heathcliff onto the moors to a place where destiny could not find them, but as the years pass she becomes more doubtful of the weather and the cuisine. As for Jacob, he lives mostly in books as it is.
Thank you so much Jacob and Sara for taking the time to answer my questions today, and the new future novel sounds brilliant: swordfighting, time travel, barbarian hordes and…dental surgery? It’s everything I love (except the dental surgery😅)! 😀 A Clockwork River is available to buy now, please scroll down for more about the book and the authors.
About the Book
A sister searches for her missing brother as a new power rises amid the splendour and the squalor of a once great city in this thrilling hydropunk debut from J.S. Emery.
Lower Rhumbsford is a city far removed from its glory days. On the banks of the great river Rhumb, its founding fathers channelled the river’s mighty flow into a subterranean labyrinth of pipes, valves and sluices, a feat of hydraulic prowess that would come to power an empire. But a thousand years have passed since then, and something is wrong. The pipes are leaking, the valves stuck, the sluices silted. The erstwhile mighty Rhumb is sluggish and about to freeze over for the first time in memory.
In a once fashionable quarter of the once great city, in the once grand ancestral home of a family once wealthy and well-known, live the last descendants of the city’s most distinguished engineer, siblings Samuel and Briony Locke.
Having abandoned his programme in hydraulic engineering, Samuel Locke tends to his vast lock collection, while his sister Briony distracts herself from the prospect of marriage to a rich old man with her alchemical experiments. One night Sam leaves the house carrying five of his most precious locks and doesn’t come back…
As she searches for her brother, Briony will be drawn into a web of ancestral secrets and imperial intrigues as a ruthless new power arises. If brother and sister are to be reunited, they will need the help of a tight-lipped house spirit, a convict gang, a club of antiques enthusiasts, a tribe of troglodytes, the Ladies Whist Club, the deep state, a traveling theatrical troupe and a lovesick mouse.
Epic, rollicking and in love with language, Jacob and Sara Emery’s sprawling debut novel of humble kitchen magics and awe-inspiring civil engineering is a rare and delicious commodity –the world’s first hydropunk novel.
About the Authors
J. S. Emery is a brother-sister writing team, born in North Idaho into a homeschooling family of seven children, each of whom received an air rifle and a copy of The Odyssey by way of a fifth birthday present. This background prepared them wonderfully for writing fantasy novels but very poorly for formal education. After dropping out of secondary school, they worked jobs including ballet dancer, emergency room janitor, and map librarian in various parts of Europe and North America. They now live in the United States, where they are godparents (and, increasingly, dungeon masters) to one another’s children.
Did you enjoy this interview? Have you read A Clockwork River yet? Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂