W&A Team member Clare Povey spoke with award-winning Sam Sedgman ahead of the release of his fiction debut, The Clockwork Conspiracy, to discuss craft and his career so far.
“It’s so rare to be interviewed like adults as a kid’s author,” says Sam Sedgman as we near the end of our Friday afternoon Zoom chat. “We don’t often get asked about our craft so it’s nice to go deep.”
Originally pencilled in for half an hour, Sam and I end the call almost ninety minutes later. Our conversation on the writing craft ranges from idea genesis through to research, writing as reclamation, and creating in uncertain times. I spend the rest of my weekend feeling renewed about life and all the joy and curiosity it contains. Such is the power of speaking to Sam Sedgman, best-selling co-author of the Adventure of Trains series and now preparing for his solo fiction debut: The Clockwork Conspiracy, the first book in the Isaac Turner Investigates series. He encourages you to be curious about the world, from the clock in your living room to the train you catch every morning on the way to work.
The initial spark for The Clockwork Conspiracy came from a father-son day out. “My dad is an architect and loves old buildings,” he says. “I grew up with a grandfather clock in our house. My dad would wind it every week and so I always associated my dad with time and clocks. Naturally I thought it would be great fun to organise a tour of Big Ben for him for his birthday.” Sam visibly lights up as he recounts the experience. For readers interested in seeing this famous London landmark up close and personal, tours can be booked through the Parliament website.
Sam speaks with such passion as he describes the experience of seeing the clock jump into life to strike the three-quarter hour. “It was such an incredible moment. Me and my dad turned to each other with this childlike joy and wonder. And I thought: there’s something to the magic of this clock and this building.’”
This magic moment happened back in 2016, so The Clockwork Conspiracy had been brewing in Sam’s mind for quite some time before he began writing the story in earnest. The setting came first, Big Ben’s location at the heart of Parliament subsequently inspiring the plot. “London is so old and so much cool, weird stuff has happened, has been made and remade, or demolished and forgotten and built on top of,” he says. “It has more interesting things to say than I could make up.”
The Clockwork Conspiracy introduces us to Isaac Turner, an inspiring inventor living in East London with his dad, who is the chief horologist in charge of Big Ben. But on the night that the clocks go back, Isaac’s dad vanishes from the belfry. Left with only a smashed pocket watch and a cryptic message, Isaac, along with new friend Hattie, sets out to find his father. At the same time, Parliament is debating the New Time Law, which, if passed, will switch the UK to a ten-hour day. Sam manages to weave different shades of villainy throughout the story, (“I wanted there to be redeemable and irredeemable villains, each with different motivations”), and these add to greater depth to the twists and turns of a complex and entertaining plot that will have readers – children and adults alike – invested from the opening sentence. So how did Sam develop the idea that he thought “would make a lot of people’s heads explode (in a good way!)”?
“I’ve always been obsessed with the weird systems that govern our lives,” he admits. “Time is such a fundamental constant in so many different areas of science, but it’s very unexamined. I was looking into the history of time and read a lot of stuff.”
Another magic moment came when Sam read up on The French Revolution. “They invented the metric system and invented metric time. For three- or four-years, they had ten-hour days! I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And if I couldn't stop thinking about it, I thought that other people would be interested as well.”
And looking for your own magic moments is Sam’s number one writing tip. “If you like sports cars, write about F1 racing,” he explains, “because then it’ll be interesting to you. Part of the wonder and joy of being a writer is you get to explore the world and explore your interests. But sometimes it’s discovering a whole world you knew nothing about and finding joy, excitement and wonder. That’s what I found with clocks, and science more broadly, with where I’m going with the rest of the Isaac Turner Investigates series.”
It’s of no surprise, then, that Sam has no desire to write to trends, and recommends that writers revel in the joy of unapologetically leaning into what you love. His writing career kicked off when he co-wrote the Adventures on Trains series with best-selling author, and friend, M.G. Leonard. She thought someone should write a book about trains for kids and she knew that Sam was an enthusiastic ferroequinologist (someone who is recreationally interested in trains and rail transport systems.) But surprisingly, Sam didn’t then consider himself to be a train ‘nerd.’
“If you’d asked me what I liked as a hobby, I wouldn’t have said trains as it was a ‘childish’ thing I had buried and put away. Even though I was doing a MA about abandoned stations on the London underground,” he laughs, poking fun at his past self. “I was too embarrassed about it to bring it to the forefront of my sense of identity. Writing was a wonderful reclamation of the stuff I loved as a child. I think the secret to adulthood is that you still love the things you loved when you were ten years old. But we often get in our own way.”
So how can writers be sure to get out of their own way? “Use your sense of nerdy interest about something as a compass to draw you to where the secret treasure is buried,” says Sam; a simple but revelatory piece of advice for all writers to print out and hang above their desks.
With so many well-developed strands to The Clockwork Conspiracy, structuring the story must’ve felt like a huge task. Sam explains that he is a structure-first author and although this approach isn’t without its hardships — “there was a lot of trial and error and moving things around” — it’s one that he relishes.
“I like structure a great deal,” he says. “I like to get that all locked down before I have the conversation about whether the motivations make sense. Some people are vibes first or character first. I’m very much: What is the shape of the story? What are we telling? What are we doing here?”
Sam then goes on to tell me how he decided on the shape of The Clockwork Conspiracy. “The moment that locked the structure into place for me was when I discovered that the pieces around the clock face are called chapters. A clock face has sixty chapters, so I knew I had to have sixty chapters.” It’s clear how pleasing this discovery was to Sam. It’s this attention to detail that makes him such an incredible storyteller.
Mystery stories often lend themselves to an organised structure — “they’re all about what information is revealed and when” — and the comparison to doing a jigsaw puzzle is one that most mystery writers will have heard but Sam relates to math and music when he’s working on this particular aspect of his writing. “I’m making it sound like all math,” he explains “But there’s a lot of math in music, to do with what notes go together. And that math is an expression of how we feel. When I talk about a story structure — so Act One, Act Two, Midpoint, Denouement etc. — that’s me putting into words on a piece of paper how I feel that the story needs to punch and hit to strike the best note.”
The worldwide success of the Adventure on Trains series saw Sam quit his job to become a full-time writer. It’s a privilege, he says, and that he feels “incredibly lucky” about, but the author is always thinking about what comes next. So much so that he pre-empts my final question about how to navigate the often-uncertain nature of the publishing industry. “I’m quite commercially forward thinking and I’m not pursuing a project because the muse tells me to. I stay rooted by thinking about it in those terms. Where can I find a successful project? Will someone love it? Will someone buy it? Like everything in life, anything can happen. It’s a tough old world and you need to be honest about that and do what you can to give yourselves other planks or pillars to support you.”
What isn’t uncertain, however, is Sam’s love of writing. “Joy is one of the most important assets in our society and it’s in such short supply. What a wonderful gift and opportunity it is to do this,” he concludes, speaking of his writing career so far. I couldn't agree more.
What a wonderful gift it is to read Sam Sedgman’s stories — long may the joy continue.