TJ Klune is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling, Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, The Extraordinaries, and more. Being queer himself, Klune believes it's important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive queer representation in stories. His latest novel is Under the Whispering Door and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Under the Whispering Door?
To make a long story short, grief was the inspiration for this book. My own that I’ve lived through, that damnable feeling that never really seems to go away, even if it does lessen with time. Though there are other inspirations—specifically Dicken’s A Christmas Carol—I wrote this story because I wanted to explore the depths of my own grief, and face it head on. I felt trapped by it for the longest time, and so I did what I do best: I wrote through it. I found some semblance of peace by the time I finished.
Are Wallace, Hugo, Mei, Nelson, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Wallace is my take on a Scrooge-type character, a selfish man living a selfish life in which he only thinks of himself.
While the others aren’t based on specific individuals, I took what I learned from researching end-of-life care, which helped to inform the characters. Hugo and Mei’s job is to help those who have died to find some sort of peace and to prepare them for what comes next. Those who work in end-of-life care—from doctors to nurses to support staff to social workers and even death doulas—are some of the most empathetic people in the world. They have to be, given they are constantly surrounded by death. I admire them, knowing I couldn’t do what they do. I think it takes a special kind of person to be in that line of work, and all the stories I read about the work itself was not only humbling, but profound. Patients in the end stages are often scared, as most anyone would be. They are also angry and sad and a thousand other emotions, all at the same time. People who work in end-of-life care are there not only to provide medical care but also to be a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on, an ear to listen with. And that extends to the family and friends of the patient too.
I’m guessing there may be a story behind Desdemona Tripplethorne. Can you share it?
There is! For those not in the know, Desdemona Tripplethorne considers herself to be a medium of sorts, who “communes” with the dead for her paying customers (and for her YouTube Channel, aptly titled Desdemona Tripplethorne’s Sexy Seances). Whether or not she actually can is up for the reader to interpret, but it’s just another side of the economy of death. People spend quite a bit of money to speak with their loved ones who have departed, and while some may scoff at that, I think it’s just another layer of the grieving process. I read so many stories about grifters posing as mediums to swindle people. Hell, there was even a man named John Edward who had an entire talk show built around it here in the States.
However, something stuck out to me in one such story: a woman wanted to speak with her deceased husband, and she said that deep down, she knew he was gone, and that no one could “talk” to him. But that didn’t stop her from paying mediums and/or psychics because she didn’t want to miss the chance it could be real. There is something so sadly sweet about that, which is why when Desdemona first makes an appearance, she seems to be one way—a grifter of sorts—but by the end, she shows there is more to her than initially seen.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
The novel—as most novels do—did change through edits. Fortunately, I have an editor who understands me and my work, and what point I’m trying to get across.
If anything, I didn’t “lose” parts of the book that I wished had made it. Instead, with help from my editor, I found parts of the book I hadn’t considered before, and those changes made the novel that much stronger.
For example, in the initial draft, Wallace—even as the main character—always participated in events that didn’t necessarily include him. Events that weren’t about him always seemed to have his input in one way or another. My editor made a wonderful point that for Wallace to see true growth, he needed to step back, and let others do things that don’t involve him. After all, the tea shop had been running smoothly before his arrival, and would continue to do so after him, so why did he always seem to try and fix something that didn’t need to be fixed? “Decentralize” is how my editor put it, and it’s the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten. Through that, I was able to take a step back—and in turn, have Wallace take a step back—and see that everything wasn’t about him. Others had their own stories to tell in this book, and having him witness, or letting the other characters take the lead, makes his growth from a jerk to someone who knows empathy and compassion that much more believable.
Both the growing and the drinking of tea play an integral role in Under the Whispering Door. Do you have a tea garden similar to Hugo’s? Do you have a favorite tea? Or, if not a favorite, maybe a top five?
I don’t have a tea garden, but I love tea to an unhealthy degree. Strangely, only hot tea, though; iced tea does nothing for me.
I went to the UK a few years ago, and every single hotel room we stayed in had a tea kettle, and because I’m easily impressed, I was smitten with that little detail. When I got back home, I purchased my own tea kettle so I wouldn’t continue to heat the tea water in the microwave like a heathen.
Speaking of the UK, it was there I found my great love: TWG Black Tea, which is a little pricy but I haven’t found a better flavor. I also love English Breakfast tea, orange spiced rind tea, and matcha.
I also tried every single flavor of tea that the characters drink in Under the Whispering Door, because describing flavors can be difficult if you’ve never had it yourself.
Given how you write about tea, and the ritual of sharing tea, it seems clear that you may prefer tea to coffee (which I definitely do). Why do you think coffee is so much more prevalent in our culture?
I definitely prefer tea to coffee. Coffee is only good to me if it’s filled with so much cream and sugar, it’s the color of a mudpuddle.
And I’m sure much smarter people than I could explain why coffee is so ingrained in American society—it was, after all, unpatriotic to drink tea during the Revolutionary war because the British drank tea and they were the enemy—but I think it more has to do with a caffeine addiction. Yes, tea is also caffeinated, but as someone with ADHD, the caffeine hit when I drink tea in no way compares to what happens when I drink coffee. I’m pretty sure I can taste colors when that happens.
Also, Starbucks. There are four within two miles of my house.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
An ever-growing stack of books I want to read. Chapstick, earplugs, a sleep mask, and a bottle of water that I should really recycle, but the recycle bin is so far away and I can’t be bothered.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Lately, I’ve been drawn to happier things. I usually like action or horror or comic adaptations, and while that’s still all well and good, I’ve been rewatching favorites that never fail to put a smile on my face. Schitt’s Creek is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen every episode at least four times. Moira Rose is who I want to be when I grow up. And speaking of death and dying, The Good Place is a marvel of a show that manages to be hysterical and deep, often in the same breath. It has one of the best endings of any show I’ve watched, and I still cry no matter how many times I’ve seen it. I also reread my favorite book of all time recently, Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. And every time I read it, it’s like the first time all over again. There have only been a few books that have made me feel such a way—Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, IT by Stephen King, The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren—and I will never get tired of that book, no matter how many times I read it.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working on a book that I’ve always wanted to write. For years, I’ve had this idea for a long novel about the perils and wonders of youth, and the mysteries (both normal and fantastical) of a small Oregon town. I’ve started and stopped different variations perhaps a dozen times over the years, each time thinking I wasn’t quite ready to tell it yet. But this summer, something clicked into place, and I think I’ve finally figured out how I want to tell it. I’m really excited to see what comes of it!