TJ Klune may just be the busiest writer working today. Though he had been writing for years, he burst into the literary spotlight with 2020's The House in the Cerulean Sea. That book captivated readers with the warmth and humor and spirit of its characters and its perfectly complicated and fully alive setting. Klune's latest, Under the Whispering Door, does much of the same work, this time focusing on what happens when Wallace Price dies and finds himself at Charon's Crossing Tea and Treats, a teashop that is also a way station for the dead. There he meets Hugo who wants to help and does . . . though not in exactly the way anyone expects.
In addition to these titles, which are officially published for adult readers, Klune has a YA series (The Extraordinaries) with new titles this year and one in 2022. I was fortunate to be able to interview TJ for YALSA after The House on the Cerulean Sea was honored with an Alex Award, and now I'm returning to that well of gratitude as he has agreed to another conversation.
sbw: As I attempted to explain the plot of Under the Whispering Door to my avid-reader 16-year-old and got to the part about Hugo and his tea shop, she nodded sagely and said, “Tea shop. That makes sense.” I accepted her wisdom even as I laughed at her confidence, but I’m wondering if you would explain: why was a tea shop the right setting for this tale? Why not coffee? Why not a bookshop or a pet store or an auto parts distributor? What made tea the perfect fit?
tjk: It was always going to be about tea. One of the first things I thought of was the tea shop, knowing it was going to need to be a character unto itself, given that the majority of the novel takes place inside.
Tea is ancient, older than coffee and beer. It’s the second-most consumed drink in the world, after water. And it’s part of so many different cultures, just like the idea of death is. These two things felt like they belonged together—tea and death—and I wanted to tie them together.
As Hugo says, growing tea requires patience. It’s not about immediate gratification. Harvest the leaves too soon, and not only could the plant die, but the tea won’t taste very good. It’s an allusion to Wallace’s journey into becoming a better person. It can’t happen right away as there’s no switch to be flipped. Tea—like Wallace—needs care, cultivation, and above all else, patience. People are like tea plants in that way.
sbc: You’ve proven yourself unafraid of tackling difficult topics or including characters that teeter on the edge of acceptable (cough - the Antichrist - cough), and this book is no exception. What made you want to wrestle with such a loaded and potentially controversial topic as the afterlife?
tjk: I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the afterlife, per se. I was more about the idea of grief, and what it does to a person. Everyone has experienced grief in some way, shape, or form, but no two people grieve in the same way.
I know grief. I’ve felt it. I’ve seen it up close. I’ve felt it eat away at me, reminding me of what I’ve lost. And while people go through grief differently, there’s still something universal about it. We all know grief because that’s part of being alive. We don’t like to talk about it because of the way it makes us feel. And death is something most everyone fears because it’s something we don’t understand. No one living knows what happens next after we close our eyes for the last time.
And therein might lie the controversy: what does come next? Heaven? Hell? Nothing? Everything? I didn’t set out to answer that question because I don’t know. People’s beliefs about such things are personal, whether because of religion or something else entirely. I wanted to focus on the immediate effects of grief, and if it’s possible to grieve for yourself and the chances wasted. Whatever is on the other side of that door is up for the reader to decide.
sbc: Possibly related question (and possibly too aggressive question): does housing the most complicated or edgy characters in the bodies of young children somehow make them easier for readers to bear?
tjk: That’s an interesting question. I almost think it’s the opposite: that hearing hard truths from children—or those in the bodies of children—can make things more complicated. There is a child character in Under the Whispering Door, but he’s so much more than he appears. He’s other-worldly, and it knocks things off-kilter when he finally shows his face.
It’s about the duality of innocence and truth. Having a child be the voice of reason—or, at least, the appearance of reason—is something I think about a lot between this novel and The House in the Cerulean Sea. The child in Whispering Door is very different than those we met on the island, and his motivations are infinitely more complicated.
sbc: You have said this book is your comedy about grief. What is it about deep sadness and humor that seems to work together for you?
tjk: We cry when we’re sad. We cry when we’re happy. We cry when we’ve laughed too long and too hard. Hell, some of us cry over stupid animal videos on the internet (meaning me). Humor and sadness seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but I don’t know if they’re as far apart as we think they are.
And, like grief, we’ve all known moments of sadness and happiness, sometimes within the same breath. It’s part of being human. The idea of this novel being a comedy about grief was one I wanted to run with because it almost seems taboo: after all, what is there to laugh about in grief?
Life is funny and sad and wonderful and terrible. It can lift us up, it can knock us flat on our backs. And while I’d rather have only the good times, would I be able to appreciate them if I didn’t know the opposite? That’s what I wanted to explore with this novel, the spaces in between light and darkness.
sbc: Is there one moment of humor in Under the Whispering Door that stands out as particularly hilarious to you?
tjk: One of my absolute favorite scenes to write was the introduction of Desdemona Tripplethorne, a self-described medium who has a cult-following of rabid online fans. She attempts to communicate with the spirits using a Ouija board, and a couple of the ghosts in the tea shop can’t help but to mess with her. Ms. Tripplethorne—of Desdemona Tripplethorne’s Sexy Seances—isn’t prepared for ghostly contact. It’s also the first time the reader will get a sense of who Wallace could become rather than the dour man that he is.
sbc: What about that title? How did you come to land on this set of images?
tjk: I can’t take credit for the title. Originally, the book was called The Tremendous Death of Wallace Price, but it didn’t fit quite right as it made the book sound like it was centered around Wallace and Wallace alone. As readers will see, it’s much more than that, and we needed a title that fit the story better. The publisher came up with Under the Whispering Door, which is wonderful. It has a sense of mystery to it that I appreciate.
sbc: Do you think people like Wallace can really change? If so, what do you think it takes?
tjk: I do think people like Wallace can change. Perhaps that’s a bit naïve, especially since the last few years have provided significant evidence to the contrary. That being said, I firmly believe that people can change for the better, the caveat being that they have to want to change.
But it begs the question: how many chances should we give people to turn things around? Which leads to: when should we cut our losses and move on? I don’t have an answer to either of those questions. Part of me thinks we should continue to fight for what we believe in, even knowing that we won’t be able to change everyone’s minds. The other part of me grumbles that if people won’t put in the work, why is it up to us to try and help them see the light? It’s something I go back and forth on. I don’t know if there’s any real right answer.
Wallace is in a place where he’s literally stripped of everything that made him who he was. He’s been scooped out, made hollow, and it allows life to filter back in even though he’s dead. It’s an extreme, to be sure, but it’s what someone like him needs in order to realize that the life he’d led wasn’t a life at all.
People need love and caring and understanding, but not at the expense of others. Change has to come from within, a conscious decision to try and be a better person. Unfortunately, not everyone has the capacity to do that.
sbc: You’ve had a really busy and exciting couple of years. Are you ready for a break yet? Or do we have more TJ Klune to look forward to?
tjk: It has been exciting, hasn’t it? I’m so lucky to be able to do what I do. Not many people get to say they do what they love, and I don’t take that for granted. Maybe one day I’ll be ready for a break, but I’m not there quite yet. I have three books out in 2022, and I can’t wait for people to read them. Maybe 2023 will be the year of the daily naps. I’m not getting any younger, after all.
sbc: What have you read and loved lately? Or listened to? Or cooked/ate?
tjk: I’m currently reading Billy Summers by Stephen King and enjoying the hell out of it. The fact that he’s in his seventies and still has the output he does is remarkable. I hope I can still be as prolific as he is when I get to his age.
Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is another book I love. It’s such a remarkable piece of fiction, unlike anything I’ve ever read. There’s also A Marvellous Light from Freya Marske, a book about queer magicians that is delightful.
I’ve also been listening to old Florence + the Machine, and the new Woodkid album.
sbc: What does Fall feel like where you are?
tjk: It’s starting to cool down here, and the leaves are changing colors. I live in Northern Virginia, and fall here is a beautiful thing, especially when the leaves start turning red and gold. Something I love to do in the fall is drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway, a long stretch of road surrounded by forests. I am anti-summer. Give me cold and snow any day of the week. I was made for layers, not for sweating. Humidity sucks.
sbc: Where are you seeing hope these days?
tjk: In people. In flawed, wonderful, messy people. People who make mistakes and learn from them and try to be better because of it. Does everyone do this? No, of course not. And lately, all we seem to hear about are the people who don’t do that and are actively trying to make things worse.
But I believe in us, and will continue to do so. I have to. I have to believe there are more good people than bad because the alternative means we don’t have a chance, and that’s something I refuse to consider. We all have a real chance here to shape the world into one where everyone gets to know joy and peace and happiness, but it can’t be left up to one person, or even one group of people. Everyone has to do their part. Perhaps this is a pipe dream, but I’m going to continue to work toward that in hopes that it could become reality.