Friday, July 31, 2020

TJ Klune

TJ Klune is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author (Into This River I Drown) and an ex-claims examiner for an insurance company. His novels include the Green Creek series, The House on the Cerulean Sea and The Exraordinaries. Being queer himself, Klune believes it's important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive, queer representation in stories.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Titles can be tough; there have been stories I’ve written where the title was one of the first things I thought of, and stories where even after I’ve finished, I have no idea what to call the book I’ve just spent months writing. I have a book right now that I finished recently. It’s the fifth book in a series that I’ve spent years writing, and for the life of me, I have no idea what to call it, even though the four previous titles were incredibly obvious.

I didn’t have that problem with The Extraordinaries. The title is what the book is about. In this world, Extraordinaries are the superheroes that exist alongside regular people. Some are good, some are evil, but they are all extraordinary because of what they’re capable of.

It also works twofold: while describing the supers, it also works as a twist for the main character, Nick. Nick thinks he’s anything but extraordinary. In fact, he thinks he’s quite ordinary, and to him, that’s not the best thing to be. The novel follows Nick’s journey—one he thinks he needs—to change from ordinary into extraordinary. To him, the worst thing a person can be is normal, and he tries his damndest to change that. Of course, he will come to the realization that there’s honestly no such thing as “normal.” We’re all different, and those differences are something to be celebrated, even if we can’t fly or shoot lasers from our eyes.

What's in a name?

The Extraordinaries deals with superheroes, and the fanboy who loves them to the point of obsession. Even though the story deals with superpowers and seemingly impossible feats, I needed the story to be as grounded as possible. Nick thinks he is—in every meaning of the word—ordinary. Sure, he has his quirks—some of which he doesn’t quite like—but he dreams big, and his actions in the novel follow this. But his name—Nicholas Bell—is a perfectly ordinary name. Nick is, in his own way, a sort of everyman. While not exactly humble, he thinks there’s nothing that special about him, and a simple name like Nick adds to that. But, as he learns, he’s more than the sum of his parts, and there’s nothing ordinary about him, which is such a wonderful revelation for him to have.

When I first sat down to plot out The Extraordinaries, I already knew Nick’s name. It was one of the first things I decided. Four letters, one syllable, simple and to the point. It can be a little disarming for the reader, especially with all that follows in the narrative. I’m of the mind that complicated names that serve no purpose to the narrative aside from being unique can lead to being a distraction for the reader. Something common like Nick can have the reader focus on who he is as a character rather than trying to figure out what the hell his name is supposed to mean.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self would be stunned to read a book like The Extraordinaries. Back when I was a kid, we didn’t have positive queer representation in books. If queer characters were included in stories, we were there for one of three reasons: A) to play the over-the-top flamboyant sidekicks who were borderline offensive; B) to impart lessons onto the main characters by way of queer suffering in the form of homophobia or illness; and C) to act as a catch-all for bigotry.

We are so much more than the sum of our parts, and though it’s gotten much better in that regard, it’s still very easy to find stories where queer suffering is the point.

I didn’t want that for The Extraordinaries. I wanted to show queer kids whose queerness is part of them, but it isn’t all that they are. They are wonderfully human—some might say to a fault—and even though they are dealing with extraordinarily fantastical things, they’re true to themselves and what they’re capable of. I wanted to give a voice to people like I was at sixteen, and to make sure it was as open and honest as possible. It’s important to show the queer identity in every day life, and not have it be the only catalyst for a plot.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

For me, endings are the easiest part. Sure, it can sometimes change on me over the course of writing a story, but I typically know the destination I’m sending my characters on, and while the ending isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to plotting, having an ending in mind always helps me tell the story I want to tell.

It’s starting that can sometimes be a problem. Even now, after having published over twenty novels, I still get nervous when I open up a new word doc, seeing that blinking cursor on a blank page. An opening helps to set the tone for what will follow, and if you don’t grab the reader in those first few pages, chances are, you might lose them before the end. Beginnings, to me, are the most important parts of a story. I’ve been fortunate enough that I rarely change endings, but I’ve rewritten the beginnings of a story for almost every book I’ve written, usually after I’ve finished the first draft. By the end, I know the voice I’m searching for, and rewriting the beginning helps me to cement that voice.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Every character I write as at least a small piece of me in them, but perhaps none more so than Nick in The Extraordinaries. He is a queer kid who also happens to be neurodiverse, in that he has ADHD. I have ADHD too, and it was important to me to have positive representation about neurodiversity. There’s still—even in 2020—such a harsh stigma when it comes to mental health issues. I wanted to do my part to help normalize such things, because they need to be normalized. We need to continue to have open and honest discussions about mental health, even if it’s just to shatter the stereotypes that continue to permeate our society. ADHD—or any facet of neurodiversity—isn’t a death sentence. It doesn’t even have to define who we are as people. It’s only a small part of us, and does not make up a whole of who we are. We are more than our struggles, and the sooner others realize that, the better off we’ll all be. Mental health isn’t something to be spoken about in uncomfortable whispers. I think we’d all do well to remember that.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I think it’s a little bit of everything thrown in. Even if an author is writing science fiction and fantasy, real world issues always tend to seep in, whether one planned for it or not. The world of the last few years has been one filled with anger and strife, and that can’t not become part of a narrative, especially when writing about issues such as the queer experience. That being said, I’m always of the mind that those who are screaming their hate as loudly as they can do so because they want to drown out the voices of reason. It doesn’t work. That kind of angry fire always has a way of burning itself out, no matter how bright it can appear at first.

Some people might consider this a bit political, but as a queer man in this day and age, my existence is political, and something I believe is worth fighting for. This influences my writing, wanting to normalize the queer experience. Will I change minds? I don’t know. I don’t even know if that’s the point. All I can do is be truthful to myself and extend that truth in my works.
Visit TJ Klune's website.

--Marshal Zeringue