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An Interview with Ellen Klages

Ellen Klages was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new short story collection, Wicked Wonders, out now from Tachyon Publication. As always, I’ll start things off making introductions by shamelessly stealing from Ellen’s author bio…

ELLEN KLAGES is the author of two acclaimed historical novels: The Green Glass Sea, which won the Scott O’Dell Award, and the New Mexico Book Award; and White Sands, Red Menace, which won the California and New Mexico Book awards. Her story, “Basement Magic,” won a Nebula Award and  “Wakulla Springs,” co-authored with Andy Duncan, was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. Her most recent books are Passing Strange (tor.com, 2017), a queer/noir/pulp novella set in San Francisco in 1940; and Wicked Wonders (Tachyon, 2017), her second collection of short fiction. Ellen lives in San Francisco, in a small house full of strange and wondrous things.

Wicked WondersCongratulations on the publication of Wicked Wonders! Can you give readers a taste of the type of stories they’ll find in its pages?

It’s a stew. The stories are a mixture of straight out science fiction, fantasy, some mainstream, and one non-fiction piece. Most of the stories in the collection have one foot in the fantastic, and one in the mainstream world.

What was your process like for putting the collection together? Were you going for a certain theme or tone with the stories you selected, or any overarching thesis?

Wicked Wonders contains every short story I’ve written from the last ten years, with the exception of Wakulla Springs, co-written with Andy Duncan. In speaking with my editor for the collection, we decided since it was a two-author story, and almost twice as long as anything already in the book, it would be best left out. The collection does include one new story, which is the longest and the last in the book.

You’ve written novels, but much of your writing seems focused on short fiction. Do you have a preference for one form over another? How does your writing process differ between the two lengths?

I love short fiction, but I also love the novels I’ve written. I’ve written two novellas as well, which is a lovely length. Short fiction is my first love however. There’s an essay in Wicked Wonders which explains my writing process, and my frustration before I’d written any novels with constantly being asked “when are you going to write a novel”, as if it’s a natural progression from short fiction. My process for the two lengths is roughly the same, though a novel takes longer, but I treat each novel chapter like a short story.

Everyone’s writing process is different, and I wouldn’t recommend mine to anyone else. It’s messy, but in the end, the important thing is whether it works for readers. On the other side of that, if I’m not happy with a story, I assume no one else will be. If I’m happy with the result, I figure at least half of the readers will like it. With Wicked Wonders, almost every reviewer differs on their favorite story in the collection, which is a good thing. It means I ended up with a balanced collection, and something to appeal to everyone.

I wanted to ask about your novella, Passing Strange, which I adored. I love the way your home city of San Francisco is another character in the novella. What kind of research did you do to capture the history of the city and the feel of the 1940s? What drew you to setting the story in that particular era?

I started writing Passing Strange in 1977. I was just out of college, and I’d just moved to San Francisco. I was completely and totally smitten with the city and all its layers. It’s a romantic city, not in the lovey-dovey sense, but in the sense of old film noir movies. I originally wrote four scenes with Emily and Haskel on a typewriter, and I kept adding more over the years. I also did a lot of research in 1977, which I kept it all in a file folder and added to over the years. Then I did an additional four to five months of research in 2015 before I started writing the novella.

In order to capture a sense of the historic setting, I used a combination of things, including View Master images and old photographs of the World’s Fair, Google Maps to show me what it would look like sitting on the Greenwich Steps and looking toward Treasure Island, and library books. I also walked around in the present day locales and took photographs and compared them to the old images. Google is immensely useful for visualizing a setting, and for little details like knowing what the top song was in a particular year. If you do your research well as an author, it’s like giving your readers a backstage tour of history. Of course, as with most research, I only ended up using about 2% of what I gathered for Passing Strange.

To me, research is the most fun part of the writing process, but also the trickiest. I want people to feel like they’ve been to San Francisco in the 1940s without overwhelming them with details. Having a hard upper word limit on the novella helped me strike that balance. The original draft was about 46,000 words, which I winnowed down. As a result, I think Passing Strange is the best thing I’ve ever written. Everything is distilled down to its essence, and there’s nothing extraneous.

However, if people do want to know more about the world of the novella, Wicked Wonders contains two stories featuring the characters and settings of Passing Strange.

On a related note, San Francisco strikes me as the ideal setting for speculative story telling. As a resident, are there any especially fantastical elements to the city that inspire you? Overall, do have favorite places to visit to recharge your writing batteries, or places you’d recommend to first time visitors?

I don’t think there’s anything that’s not fantastical about San Francisco! I love looking out my window at the old buildings and the landscape. I grew up in Ohio, which is very flat. In San Francisco, everywhere you go there’s a view of the water, or the sky, or colorful buildings. You don’t get views like that in flat cities. Also the food in San Francisco is really good. The first thing I like to do with visitors is find a good place to eat. Then I like to drive them around to things they wouldn’t see elsewhere, like a unique view of the ocean, or a little alleyway with one building that survived the great 1906 earthquake.

When my editor, Jonathan Strahan, visited San Francisco, I gave him the Passing Strange tour. Treasure Island is a naval base now, but I showed him where it was, and pointed out Haskel’s studio, and the house I based Franny’s house on. I even took him to the bakery to get raspberry rings. For those who can’t visit San Francisco in person, I put together a kind of virtual tour based on my research, which is available on YouTube.

A lot of my fiction, probably most of my fiction, involves real things and real places with my imaginary friends walking around in it.

One of my favorite questions to ask authors is about their non-writing related work. Authors are notorious for working strange jobs, for example J.D. Salinger’s stint as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I have a degree in Philosophy, so when I got out of college, I looked in the Want Ads under P, and there were no jobs in Philosophy. But I did manage a pinball arcade, worked as a proofreader, and as a painter. Most jobs I’ve had involved writing of some kind, including working for the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception. It was the best job I ever had, and it led to me writing three science books for kids. My boss at the Exploratorium also happened to be science fiction author Pat Murphy. When I was thirteen, I was certain I was going to be the youngest Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. That didn’t happen. In college, I wrote stories, sent them out, got rejected, and started to doubt myself, but Pat encouraged me to keep writing, and keep trying, and keep sending my stories out into the world.

Now that Wicked Wonders is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you want folks to know about?

I’m currently working on a middle grade novel called Out of Left Field, which is set in 1957 and is about a girl who wants to play Little League. It’s an examination of the history of women in baseball, which is largely unknown to most people, outside of A League of Their Own. It’s due out in summer 2018. A few characters from Passing Strange and from my first novel, Green Glass Sea, make an appearance. I think it’s nice when all my imaginary friends know each other.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

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Politics, Fungi, and Magic (aka Spring Book Love 2017)

In keeping with my effort to highlight books I’ve enjoyed in the year they’re published, and not leave it to the last-minute awards season to recommend them, here are a few recent reads I loved and I hope others might love, too.

First up, Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut novel, Amberlough. AmberloughFrom the first, I was absolutely captivated by the stunning cover art for this book, and found myself looking forward to it without knowing anything about it. After reading it, I was delighted to learn that two sequels have been announced, and I’m eagerly awaiting them. I’ll admit, on actually cracking the book open, the barrage of names, political affiliations, factions, and loyalties was a bit overwhelming, but a lot of that is down to my own reading preferences. The characters immediately won me over, and carried me past any initial difficulty in remembering who was loyal to who, and what each person had to gain by betraying/working with someone (or not). Cyril de Paul is a spy, who is vehemently in denial about his deep feelings for Aristide Makricosta, a flamboyant cabaret performer, and also a black market dealer in drugs, secret identities, information, stolen goods, and other things. Cordelia Lehane is one of Ari’s fellow performers at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, who agrees to run drugs for him and act as Cyril’s beard for her own ends. The relationships are complicated, but delicious. Every character has their own motivation, unfolded and explored more deeply as the novel progresses, and they are all fully realized, and beautifully drawn. The world is decadent and gorgeous, with settings, fashion, and meals described in loving detail. At the same time, the threat of political machinations, revolution, police crackdowns, and arrests, are never far from mind. The story is by turns heartbreaking, brutal, and tender. Watching Cyril and Ari deal with their feelings for each other, two characters who take great pride in their professions and never letting anything get past their armor, is wonderful and painful all at once. Similarly, witnessing Cordelia’s toughness and vulnerability as she deals with the changing reality of the world around her is incredible. She undergoes a harrowing journey, and emerges altered on the other side, but never betrays the core of who she is. Amberlough is a story of shifting identities and loyalties, with everyone living a double or triple life, but with each character staying true to themselves. At the heart of everything, it is a story about found family and profound devotion, with everyone doing the best the can to protect those who mean the most to them. It’s a slick and stylish book, and a fantastic read to boot.

Agents of DreamlandCaitlin R. Kiernan’s novella Agents of Dreamland is slick and stylish in a completely different way. Kiernan mashes-up Lovecraftian horror, suicide cults, off-the-books-men- in-black-style paranormal investigators, and real scientific phenomenon like Ophyiocordryceps unilateralis, the “zombie fungus”, which takes over ants and essentially forces them to do its bidding. An agent known as the Signalman is sent to investigate a suicide cult at a ranch house in the desert. What he and his fellow agents find there is horrifying – an unnatural scene of carnage with only one survivor. Following this harrowing discovery, the Signalman makes contact with Immacolata Sexton, a woman who also information about the cult to trade for what he knows. The narrative shifts between the points of the view of the Signalman, Immacolata, and Chloe, the sole surviving member of the suicide cult. The Lovecraftian touches are light, adding to the depth and richness of the story which feels like a small slice of a larger world. While the novella is completely self-contained, it does hint at a bigger story, with Immacolata seeming to be a semi-immortal being unstuck in time, and the Signalman being “a man with a past”. Chole’s viewpoint is particularly poignant, as a junkie caught up in the promise of a better world. The supernatural horror is grounded and lent extra weight with references to real life Heaven’s Gate cult, and the zombie fungus. As mentioned, the story feels like it takes place in a larger world, one that was unfolding before the reader arrived, and one that will continue after the reader leaves. At the same time, it’s a perfectly encapsulated bite of darkness, one with a strong and engaging voice. Lovecraft fans and non-Lovecraft fans should each find something to appreciate about this wonderful work.

Passing StrangeLast, but not least, another highly recommended work is Passing Strange, a novella by Ellen Klages. Like Agents of Dreamland, it’s a quick read, but one with a completely different tone. Set in San Francisco in the 1940s, the story focuses on a group of queer women who exist on the margins of society based on their sexuality, their ethnicity, and their relationship to their families. The story shifts between multiple points of view, which can be slightly jarring at times. While the information delivered in each section is crucial, and all the characters engaging, these shifts mean the story takes a while to hit its stride and find its heart. That heart is the romance between Haskell, a pulp artist, and Emily, a young woman who struck out on her own after being kicked out of boarding school for her relationship with a classmate, and disowned by her family for the same. Helen Young is also a central character, an American-born lawyer/dancer who plays up her Asian heritage for tourists at the Forbidden Palace supper club. The city of San Francisco is also a character in its own right, as is the World’s Fair, and Mona’s, a club primarily patronized by queer women. The story is a romance and a beautifully-told slice of life, and magic and the supernatural is woven in with a light touch. Helen can fold space and time through the art of origami, creating short cuts through the city, and Haskell has magic of her own, inherited from her grandmother. Art, queer life in 1940s San Francisco, and the wonder of the World’s Fair, all have integral roles to play in the story. As mentioned, the characters are all strong and engaging, even though the transition between their voices can lead to their stories feeling fragmentary at times. In the end, the shifting narrative isn’t truly a detriment. Dipping in and out of various characters’ lives gives a fuller picture of the city, making the world feel real, lived in, and well-populated. Haskell and Emily’s story is charming, and their relationship feels real. The first moments between them have genuine sparks, and that moment of passion only deepens as the story unfolds. Along with everything else, reading the story made me want to revisit San Francisco. It’s a magical city in multiple senses of the word, and Passing Strange accurately captures that.

Now that I’ve recommended several recent reads I loved, I’ll close out with some upcoming titles I’m highly anticipating.

Horizon by Fran Wilde, the final book in her excellent Bone Universe trilogy set in a world of man-made wings and cities of living bone.

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, a novella about feral hippos in the swamps of Louisiana and the people who wrangle them.

Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, the final book in the Broken Earth trilogy, a world populated by, among other things, powerful orogenes who can manipulate the earth itself.

Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older, the sequel to his excellent YA novel about graffiti and magic.

A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw, the follow up to her Lovecraftian novella, Hammers on Bone, this one centered on a Georgia bluesman on the run from trouble.

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a decadent historical romance.

Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus, a steampunk-flavored alt-history with a dash of espionage thrown in for good measure.

Mad Hatters and March Hares edited by Ellen Datlow, an anthology of stories inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, a series of inter-connected short stories taking on the friged woman trope.

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, a novel about magicians in New York City vying for control of a dwindling magic.

The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang, a pair of novellas about twins who may just be the key to the fate of their world.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, a short story collection from a brilliant author.

So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories by A. Merc Rustad, a story story collection from a wonderful author, exploring sexuality, humanity, gender, and much more.

That’s by no means a comprehensive list of the books I’m looking forward to, but it’s a good start. Of course it doesn’t even touch on all the books I still need to catch up on either. If y’all could slow down with the writing of fabulous things for a while, it would really help me out.

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