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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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