Features | Written by Ed Fortune 24/11/2021

TJ Klune – UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR

TJ KLUNE is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author (Into This River I Drown). His novels include the Green Creek series, The House on the Cerulean Sea and The Exrtaordinaries. We caught up with him to talk about his latest book, Under the Whispering Door, which is out now.

How would you pitch Under the Whispering Door to a visitor from another world?

Under the Whispering Door is about what it means to be human, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. We are a messy species who sometimes needs direction in order for us to do the right thing.

And what’s the pitch for the rest of us?

Under the Whispering Door is a comedy about grief. It follows a not-so very nice man named Wallace, who is a high-powered attorney with everything at his fingertips. And then he dies. But it’s not the ending that he expects, but the beginning of something else entirely. At his poorly-attended funeral, he meets a woman who calls herself a Reaper. She takes him to a teashop run by a man named Hugo, who also happens to be a Ferryman, the man whose job it is to help souls cross over. But Wallace—being Wallace—decides he’s not ready to see what comes next, and decides to stay in the tea shop and learn how to become a better person.

How different is it from your other work?

While it does have my sense of humor and my love of the found family trope, this novel is different for me given how deeply personal it is. Grief is something everyone experiences at one point or another, but we all go through the process differently. I wanted to find a universal approach to talk about mortality and what awaits us all.

Why do we keep telling stories about the underworld and the passage to it?

I think it’s because of how unknown it is. No one—at least no one living—can say with any certainty what happens when we close our eyes for the last time. As long as there has been life, there has been death. Every culture on earth has their own beliefs and customs when it comes to death and dying, and I think we continue to tell stories about it because it gives us a sense of hope and calm that we might not otherwise feel. People tend to fear what they don’t understand, and death is the great unknown.

What character is the most fun to write?

Desdemona Tripplethorne. Though her page time is limited, having her interact with the main core characters was a delight. I love how full of herself she is, and how she thinks she understands the concept of death. She uses it to her advantage with her seances, and it was gratifying to see her get her comeuppance through Wallace and Nelson.

Then, toward the end of the novel, we get to see a different side of Desdemona, brief though it may be. Like with the other characters, there’s more to Desdemona than how she presents herself.

Which character seriously needs to have a word with themselves?

That’s easy—the main character, Wallace. He is an absolute jerk at the start of the novel, and there were a couple of times when even I wanted to reach into the pages and slap him upside the back of his head. Though he does go through a redemption arc, those first few chapters show what kind of an awful man he was.

What would you say the biggest influence on this book is?

Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Everyone knows Scrooge, and how he’s shown how terrible he is by the three spirits who visit him. At the end, a switch flips in him, and suddenly, he becomes a good person. While Dicken’s is a master for a reason, I still was struck by the thought that I wished we could see Scrooge putting in the work to becoming a better person, rather than just have an about-face at the end of the story. That was my jumping off point—to have a man like Scrooge die, and not have the power to change any part of the life he led.

Is the genre world more accessible these days?

I think so, but I believe we still have work ahead of us. More and more marginalized voices are being lifted up these days—and rightly so—but adult literature still has a ways to go before it matches the level of inclusivity and diversity found in Young Adult and Middle Grade. We need to give these creators the exact same chance that others have typically gotten in the past.

Why do we still tell ghost stories?

It goes back to the idea of the unknown, and what we don’t understand. I think we’re so hardwired to believe that this can’t be our only go around in this existence, so we try and find ways for humanity to continue on, even when our hearts stop. Ghost stories—both spooky and not—are tales for us to try and come to terms with mortality.

Which writers inspire you?

Diana Wynn Jones, particularly her novel Howl’s Moving Castle. Terry Pratchett. Stephen King. Neil Gaiman. Becky Chambers. Stephen Graham Jones. Jack Townsend. Robert McCammon. Wilson Rawls.

What tropes do you personally avoid the most?

Anything having to do with queer suffering, such as “bury your gays” or “fridging/hiding lesbians”. Though I think there is room for all kinds of stories, I also tend to avoid queer trauma as a plot point or story motivator. I also am of the mind that homophobia doesn’t need to play a part in every story involving queer characters. We get it—homophobic people exist. They don’t need to have a role in every book where queer people are present.

How would you describe your process?

Chaotic, but in such a way that I feel comfortable. I usually have outlines for every story I write that are thousands of words long in their own right. While outlines provide me with a roadmap to follow, I also go a bit overboard with them by including things that will never make it into the book.

For example, for most major characters, I write complete backgrounds on them, including little details such as what their favorite food is, or what kind of movies they like to watch or what kind of books they like to read. Stuff like this might not make it into the book, but I write it out anyway because it helps me to embody the characters better. If I know everything I can about them, it helps me to craft their arc in a way that feels organic. It might be a bit more work in the end, but it ensures I’m telling the story to the best of my ability.