The Big Idea: Matthew J. Kirby

When in doubt, simplify. This is a piece of advice that has general application but particularly works for writers, who can get lost in the thickets of their own words and ideas. Just ask Matthew J. Kirby, whose middle-grade novel The Clockwork Three (which just received a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly) has it roots in a series of ideas, but which came to life when Kirby realized that the gears of his story meshed together on a more fundamental level. Kirby puts it all together below.


Before I began writing The Clockwork Three, I thought I had three big ideas.  I thought I had three separate books for young readers, stories that had nothing at all to do with each other.

First, there was the story of an Italian street musician.  His name was Giuseppe, and he was inspired by a real boy the New York Times of 1873 named “Joseph.”  During the 19th century it was a fairly common practice to buy or kidnap children from Italy and ship them off to Paris, London, or New York City, where they were forced to play music and beg on the streets for money.  Many of these children endured years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their padroni, or masters.  According to his later testimony, Joseph was regularly beaten, bound, starved, and he had a scar on his ear where his padrone, a man named Vincenzo Motto, had bitten him.  Motto threatened to kill Joseph if the boy ever tried to escape, but one night Joseph did just that.  He fled into Central Park, where he was eventually found by a park-keeper and taken to a woman who ran one of the cottages in the park (a building now known as the Dairy).  This woman looked after Joseph, and he eventually took the stand to testify against the man who had held him captive.  After reading this story, I knew I wanted to tell it in some way.

For my second big idea, I wanted to tell a mystery story, a secret history for young readers.  I knew it would involve a colorful Madame Blavatsky type figure, and Spiritualism, and something hidden.  I had an idea of the setting in which the story would take place, a grand 19th century hotel, and I knew the main character would be a young maid working in that hotel.

My third idea was for a science-fantasy in which an apprentice mechanician violates the edicts of his guild and attempts to create an artificial man.  Looking back, I know I was overly ambitious, but in my hubris, I wanted to write a Viriconium for middle grade readers, something that would cause them to wonder and think about the technology they are growing up with and taking for granted.  It’s an idea I may still return to if I ever feel able to take on something so large, which won’t be anytime soon.

So I had these three big ideas, and I was pursuing them all as independent stories.  But at some point, I realized I didn’t have three big ideas.  I had one big idea for a story that would bring all three characters and stories together.  The stories of Giuseppe and the maid in the hotel fit naturally in terms of setting.  The story of the ambitious mechanician went through the greatest changes, but he soon became an apprentice clockmaker, and the automaton he creates, with the help of the other two characters, became the central metaphor of the novel.

I know it was the right choice to bring them together.  As soon as I began writing, it was as if the characters had wanted to meet and help each other all along.  And as complicated as the plot is, I was able to write the majority of the book without an outline.  Everything simply fit, page after page, scene after scene.  The stories of Giuseppe, Frederick, and Hannah interlocked, like the turning gears of a clock, and they became The Clockwork Three.


The Clockwork Three: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the book site, with a trailer and an interview. Visit the author’s blog.

13 Comments on “The Big Idea: Matthew J. Kirby”

  1. Horatio Alger must have gotten his idea for Phil the Fiddler from the same source.

    Sounds like a great read!

  2. That was a fascinating opening chapter. Beautifully written… I loved it.

    I’m going to see if it can be found down here in Australia….

  3. Vic K:
    Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. As for whether it’ll be published in Australia, I’m not sure. Scholastic UK is also publishing it, and we’ve sold 5 or 6 additional foreign rights, but I’m not certain whether any of them will include you. I hope you’re able to find it.

    I hope you enjoy reading the rest of it, too.

  4. My mom bought this for me from the book fair at the elementary school where she works. I haven’t started it yet, but it looks pretty cool.

  5. Hello Mr. Kirby,
    I am currently writing a book in my English Class. It is about 16 year old Jesuit Missionary that goes with Francisco Coronado in search of the Seven Cities of Gold. I have not come up with a name for the boy and was wondering if you could give me some ideas. And like you said in your interview above, you had three stories you wanted to write but was able to put them all together. I also have two other stories that I want to write about. One is about an early Mayan city that was magnificent but later that Aztecs declare war and destroy the city. The story is about a young Mayan boy who used to live in that city and is now enslaved for the Aztecs caring the gold up to a mine. Then the final book is about a young Viking boy who is marooned with his father in present day Minnesota and journey down south in search of these mines in hope of someday returning to Scandinavia to report their findings. After months of travelling they find a long train of the Mayans caring gold and decide to follow. They find the mines and secretly help the Mayans form a city in the mines. (Inside the Grand Canyon) Later there are 6 other cities added but the only way you could enter was if you were able to find a carved arch in Canyon and figure out the riddle inscribed in Anglo Saxon Runes. Then after traveling through the cave you would come upon a cross. Once you came upon the cross you would have to kneel down and make the sign of the cross. And once you did that the wall behind the door would move. I was just wondering if you could give me a few tips on writing a book, a list of your favorite descriptive words you would use in your writing, and some names I could use for my Characters. Thank You so much. I hope you continue to write more stories I enjoyed the Clockwork Three. It was if I could not set the book down.

    From Your Reader,

    PS. If I was to give a name to the title of the book If I combined them all it would be “The Journals of Cibola”. Thank You, and I hope you have a wonderful day!

  6. Dear Mr. Kirby,
    Two more things and I am terribly sorry if I am bothering you but I was also wondering if you could give me ideas on what I should do in the situation that I am in. (Some examples of what I should write about.) And the second thing is do you have any ideas for a good pen name. Thank You so much and I am sorry if I bothered you.

  7. dear mr. kirby im in middle school i live in new york. i just finished reading the clockwork three. the ending was very sad it wanted to make me cry. i just was wondering if you are going to make a sequal to the clockwork three. it would be cool if you did.

  8. so if you do make a sequal can you tell me when it is going to come out. because i think that the three kids should meet up again somehow and go on another adventure together. reply as soon as you can.

  9. Olivia @ #8
    Thanks! I hope you enjoy it.

    Anonymous @ #9,10
    I think I replied to your comments on my blog. Hope it helped!

    Cailin @ #11,12
    I’m so happy you enjoyed the book. There may be a sequel one day, but not for a while. I have two other books coming out first that are separate from the world of THE CLOCKWORK THREE. The first comes out this October, and I’ll announce more about that on my blog soon.

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