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How TJ Klune's 'Under the Whispering Door' became the perfect pandemic novel
Most stories end when a person dies. However, in TJ Klune’s latest novel, Under the Whispering Door, death is simply another chapter in a larger journey.
The novel tells the story of Wallace Price, a recently-deceased lawyer who finds himself transported to Charon's Crossing, a teahouse run by Hugo Freeman, a "ferryman" who works to help people cross over into the afterlife. As Wallace slowly comes to terms with his own passing — and his new status as a "ghost" — he gets to know Hugo, as well as Mei (the reaper who collected him and brought him there), Nelson (Hugo's ghostly grandfather), and Apollo (Hugo's now-ghostly dog). In the process, he starts becoming a better person.
"The biggest inspiration for the novel in its current form is Dickens' A Christmas Carol, because Wallace is my take on Ebeneezer Scrooge," Klune tells SYFY WIRE. "And don't get me wrong, Dickens is Dickens for a reason. He's one of the greats of humanity in terms of authorship... But it always bugged me a little bit that you never saw Scrooge doing the work of becoming a better person. So that's what I wanted to do with this."
Wallace's journey towards the best version of himself takes place slowly, unfolding in several stages. But none of this is fueled by thoughts of the afterlife — though it is there, ever-present, in the form of the titular "whispering door" on the top floor of the teashop that also doubles as Hugo, Mei, and Nelson's home. Instead, Wallace's journey is inspired in parts by the people he's encountering now, as well as his own reflections of when he was alive, and the kind of person he'd been then.
And just like in the case of his after-death, Wallace is not making this journey towards self-betterment on his own. Klune takes care to show that Hugo and Mei are each dealing with their own issues and are working towards personal improvement in their own ways, even if they're not always successful.
"The main focus of the book was about these people coming together to try to find out how to be a better person. Not a 'great' person, and definitely not a 'perfect' person," Klune explains. "I try to live my life by the philosophy where I try to be a little better each day than I was the day before. And if I can do that, then maybe I'm doing OK. Because I'll never be great or perfect. I don't even know if I know what it means to be a good person, but if I can try to just be a little bit better than I was the day before, then that's OK. I might not always succeed. In fact, I don't. But I'm still going to try because I have to. That's the point."
Seeing as Wallace himself is a ghost, the theme of "death" factors quite heavily within the novel, both in terms of Wallace having to process and grieve his own passing, but also the fact that not everyone's life ends the same way. Some deaths are violent and painful, and Klune says he didn't want to shy away from that — especially when it came to a person's choice to end their own life. (It's also why he chose to include an author's note at the beginning of the novel telling readers to 'read with care,' as he knows that some people have very real triggers when it comes to the idea of death by suicide or even death at all.)
"The idea of death by suicide is taboo. We don't like to talk about it because it makes us uncomfortable, and maybe we don't know how to react to something like that," Klune says. "So with this, I needed to show the different kinds of death because that's how the world is. We don't all get to grow old and pass away peacefully from natural causes in our beds surrounded by loved ones. Sometimes death is unexpected and violent and it's the only way that we can see out of this world."
He continues, "I don't judge any of those causes of death and that's what I wanted to show in this novel. That we can't judge people like that. The best we can do is try to help them, which is why in this book you see Hugo, Mei, and Nelson wanting to help anyone who comes through their doors regardless of how they came to be there."
But even as Under the Whispering Door revolves around the themes of death and loss, it's also a romance between Wallace and Hugo, as the dead man and the Ferryman find themselves falling in love. Unfortunately, there's an added complication — beyond Wallace's impending transition into the afterlife — in that they cannot touch each other at all. It's something Klune had to think about for a long time when it came to depicting the growing feelings between the characters.
"When we think of romance in books or movies or any other kind of media, there's a physicality to it," he says. "Even with friendship, platonic, and familial love, we shake hands, hug each other, kiss each other on the cheek, and have sex. We do all of this to show what we mean to each other... By removing that physicality, it made me think of the idea of romance from a different angle. Rather than falling in love with a person when you can touch their hand or feel them touch you, you have to fall in love through conversation. And that's it. It's just a different side of romance, where people still come together, but they have to do so without the advantages that living people can have."
What's interesting about Wallace's journey towards growing as a person and finding love is that he is actually quite confident in his sexuality and attraction to men, even stating that he's bisexual to Hugo. It's significant for a number of reasons, and not just because bisexual representation can be so rare, but also because it's explicitly stated on the page, something other forms of media still grapple with.
"I try to be as inclusive as possible. So if I'm going to have a character be bisexual, it's going to be damn well on-page that they're bisexual," says Klune. "It is going to be said out loud because that kind of representation it's still not where it needs to be. And it just feels like a lot of times when you read queer romance novels that instead of being on-page bisexual, [it's that] they're straight and now they're gay. Bisexual people exist. So why can't we have bisexual representation on the page?"
Of course, with the joy of representation also comes the fear that the character (or romance) might meet an untimely end. But even with Under the Whispering Door starting out with Wallace already on a path to the afterlife, and the clock counting down, Klune still finds a way to give readers a happily ever after. "If I'm writing a queer story that is a romance, there's always going to be a happy ending for me no matter what," he says. "There's going to be some readers who feel let down by the ending and that's OK. I knew that going into this."
When it comes to the subject of the afterlife and depicting it, Klune doesn't settle on any one kind of cultural or religious touchstone as his inspiration for what it might look like, choosing instead to focus on the fact that there is much we don't know about what comes next.
"Nobody can definitively answer what comes next. Nobody can say if there's a heaven or hell, or if there's limbo, or if there's just absolutely nothing... So I wanted to focus on the in-between moments where there's still a time left where you can reflect on the kind of person you were," says Klune of Hugo's teashop, which is meant to be a place of rest and healing, and acts as a way station to whatever comes next. "While I give hints about what comes next in the book. I never set out to answer that definitively because regardless of what I tried to say, most likely it would be wrong. And I wanted to try to keep the idea of religion out of it, because people's religious beliefs, especially when it comes to what happens after, are very personal. It's very... it's ingrained into them, what they believe. So I didn't want to try to take that away from people."
He continues, "It's kind of like grief, which is different for everyone. There is something universal about it because we all can experience it, but no two people experience grief the same way. Much like the idea that maybe no two people have the same idea of what comes next. So large swaths of the population have the idea of what heaven is and what awaits us, but that could differ from person to person."
As a result, Hugo's teashop has a few different influences that shaped it, such as being named for the Greek ferryman across the river Styx (Charon), and having four floors because the number 4 is very close to the Chinese symbol for "death" or "die." However, perhaps the biggest influences on how this aspect of the afterlife runs came from popular culture; Klune also cites other forms of media, like the cult classic film Beetlejuice, NBC's Emmy-nominated sitcom The Good Place, and a video game called Spiritfarer, which sees a young girl help dead spirits find their way.
One of the things Klune noted, especially with the game, is that there were still light and humorous moments despite subject matter that could be considered quite heavy. "Death is scary, because we fear the unknown. But when you can have these moments of happiness or joy, maybe it'll take away from that fear a little bit."
Under the Whispering Door is coming out one year after of Klune's most popular book, The House in the Cerulean Sea, which has earned rave reviews for being a heartwarming read, especially since it came out in the early stages of the global pandemic. Klune sees them as bookends for each other, having written both pre-pandemic. (He'd also played with the idea of having characters from Cerulean Sea and other novels of his make an appearance in the teashop, before deciding not to, as he wanted some distance between both worlds. Though he does note that both books could possibly exist in the same world and that there are a few Easter eggs for eagle-eyed fans.)
"The House in the Cerulean Sea came out and it was the hug that people needed at that time," Klune says. "And instead of being a hug, I think Under the Whispering Door gives you a shoulder to lean on if you need it. It holds your hand and tells you it's OK not to be OK.
"This book can be heavy at times, and it might not be for everyone in this exact moment," he adds. "If you don't think you can handle the topic of grief and death at this moment in your life, that's OK. The book will be there when and if you're ready to do that."