Author TJ Klune has written about a lot of things: teenage superheroes, a ragtag found family of magical orphans, werewolves finding love, and now... a ghost slowly coming to terms with his death.
His latest novel, Under the Whispering Door, revolves around Wallace Price, a man who has recently died and thus has been "collected" by a reaper. However, instead of traveling straight to the afterlife, he's taken to a tea shop known as "Charon's Crossing," where he meets its owner, Hugo, who is also a ferryman for souls who need to cross over. But with Wallace still unable to abandon his former life, which he barely lived, he'll need Hugo's help to not just let go, but also to learn about all the things he missed out on.
Ahead of the novel's Sept. 21 release, SYFY WIRE caught up with Klune to discuss his inspirations for the story, the importance of romance, and of course, what fic tags he'd assign it.
You’ve mentioned that this is one of your most personal novels yet. Could you possibly touch on some of your inspirations for it and some of the themes at play?
TJ Klune: Death isn’t something people like to think about, much less focus on. The idea of our own mortality is frightening because no one knows for sure what happens after we close our eyes for the last time. If you live long enough to learn what love is, you will also end up knowing loss at some point or another. It’s inevitable.
While researching the idea of death — along with the philosophical ideas of what it all means — I came across something I’d never heard of before: death doulas. They are often volunteers and while they aren’t always medical professionals, their job is to — according to the organization known as the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) — "provide emotional, spiritual, and physical support at an intensely personal and crucial time. They assist people in finding meaning, creating a legacy project, and planning for how the last days will unfold. Doulas also guide and support loved ones through the last days of life and ease the suffering of grief in its early stages."
The idea of a "death doula" helped inform the character of Hugo, who is a ferryman, the person whose job it is to help spirits make sense of their death and cross over to whatever comes next. He is, in a way, a death doula, because as a ferryman, he offers kindness and guidance without taking away from the very real reason these spirits have come to him. His job, however, isn’t focused on the physical side of things because by the time people come to him, they’re no longer alive. He’s solely focused on the mind, and what he can do to help the spirits find their way to what comes next. I am in awe of the people who choose to work in the end of life care field, because I know they have to be some of the most empathetic people in the world.
Under the Whispering Door is also a queer romantic comedy! How would you describe the romance in this book compared to your other novels?
That’s right! Even though the topic of death can be a heavy one, I didn’t want to let it become the focus of the entire novel. I pitched the book as a "comedy about grief" which can be a tricky line to walk. Grief affects everyone differently and I think it’s important that we remember that. The comedic aspects aren’t meant to take away from the idea of grief and dying, but more to add some levity about the ridiculousness of it all.
With that said, Wallace and Hugo find themselves growing closer the more time they spend together. Their romance is a bit different than what I’ve written before. Touch is such an important thing when it comes to relationships, both platonic and romantic. We shake hands, we hug, we kiss, we have sex. It’s part of how we show affection. But what if two people couldn’t touch? What would that look like? Hugo is alive; Wallace is not, and therefore, they can’t touch each other. By removing that seemingly necessary component, it allowed me to explore other ways to show two people developing feelings for each other, growing from strangers to friends to something more.
You often blend the supernatural with romance in your work. What is it about the supernatural that speaks to you and lends itself to romance?
I started out writing contemporary fiction, and though I love those books, science fiction and fantasy is where I feel most at home. There’s something about creating worlds not so different from our own that calls to me, like seeing a reflection through a fractured mirror.
And because I always want to celebrate queer characters finding love and family, the romance aspect is something I continue to explore. I’m fascinated by the idea of two people coming together and finding common ground — even when they think there might not be any — and cultivating that until it develops into something more. It’s not necessarily the main focus, but it adds to the layers of the novel. Their romance — much like the book itself — is a slow burn.
You've written about fanfic in one of your other books, The Extraordinaries, if you had to break down Under the Whispering Door into fanfic tags, what tags would you assign it?
- Major Character Death (The dreaded tag that I tend to avoid, but here, Wallace dies in the first chapter, so it fits)
- Slow Burn (So slooooow)
- Found Family (Because of course I’d write that — it’s my jam)
- Ghost Dog (Maybe not a typical tag, but Apollo deserves his own mention)
We also have an exclusive excerpt. Would you possibly be able to give some context to what readers are about to read?
The scene below is between Wallace and Hugo, on one of Wallace’s first nights in the tea shop that Hugo owns — Charon’s Crossing — where he was taken after he died. Wallace absolutely does not want to be dead and is trying to find any loophole he can. This scene — which happens shortly after Hugo and Wallace meet for the first time — is important, because it shows the beginning of Wallace’s journey into trying to become a better person than he ever was in life. One of the goals of this story was to explore the idea of what it means to be a good person, and if it’s possible to change after living a selfish life.
Below, check out the cover, by Red Nose Studio, and read SYFY WIRE's exclusive excerpt from Under the Whispering Door.
“Why do you care if I feel trapped?”
Hugo glanced at him. “Why wouldn’t I?”
He was so goddamn frustrating. “I don’t get you.”
“You don’t know me.” It wasn’t mean, just a statement of fact. Hugo held up his hands before Wallace could retort. “I know how that sounds. I’m not trying to be flippant, I promise.” He lowered his hands, looking down at the tray. The tea had cooled, the liquid dark. “It’s easy to let yourself spiral and fall. And I was falling for a long time. I tried not to, but I did. Things weren’t always like this. There wasn’t always a Charon’s Crossing. I wasn’t always a ferryman. I made mistakes.”
“You did?” Wallace didn’t know why he sounded so incredulous.
Hugo blinked slowly. “Of course I did. Regardless of what else I am or what I do, I’m still human. I make mistakes all the time.” He shook his head. “I try to be the best ferryman I can be because I know people are counting on me. I think that’s all anyone can ask for. I’ve learned from my mistakes, even as I continue to make new ones.”
“I don’t know if that makes me feel any better,” Wallace said.
Hugo laughed. “I can’t promise I won’t screw up somehow, but I want to make sure your time here is restful and calm. You deserve it, after everything.”
Wallace looked away. “You don’t know me.”
“I don’t,” Hugo said. “But that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing now. I’m learning about you so I know how best to help you.”
“I don’t want your help.”
“I know you think that,” Hugo said. “But I hope you realize that you don’t have to go through this alone. Can I ask you a question?”
“If I say no?”
“Then you say no. I’m not going to pressure you into something you’re not ready for.”
He didn’t know what else he had to lose. “Fine. Ask your question.”
“Did you have a good life?”
Wallace jerked his head up. “What?”
“Your life,” Hugo said. “Was it good?”
He was, and he hated how easily Hugo saw that. It made his skin itch. He felt on display, showing things he didn’t think he’d ever be ready to show. He wasn’t obfuscating; he genuinely had never thought about it that way. He woke up. He went to work. He stayed at work. He did his job, and he did his job well. Sometimes he lost. Most times he didn’t. There was a reason the firm had been as successful as it was. What else was there to life aside from success?
Sure, he’d had no friends. No family. He had no partner, no one to grieve over him as he’d lain in an expensive coffin in the front of a ridiculous church, but that shouldn’t be the only measure of a life well-lived.
It was all about perspective. He’d done important things, and in the end, no one could have asked any more of him.
He said, “I lived.”
“You did,” Hugo said, still holding onto the teacup. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
Wallace scowled. “You’re not my therapist.”
“So you’ve said.” He lifted the cup and poured the tea out into the sink. It looked as if it pained him to do so. The dark liquid splattered against the sink before Hugo turned on the faucet and washed away the dregs.
“Is this… is this how you are with the others?”
Hugo switched off the faucet and set the teacup gently in the sink. “Everyone’s different, Wallace. There’s no one way to go about this, no uniform set of rules in place that can be applied to every single person like you who comes through my doors. That wouldn’t make sense because you’re not like everyone else, much like they’re not you.” He looked out the window about the sink. “I don’t know who or what you are yet. But I’m learning. I know you’re scared, and you have every right to be.”
“Damn right I am,” Wallace said. “How could I not be?”
Hugo smiled quietly as he turned toward Wallace. “That might be the most honest thing you’ve said since you got here. Would you look at that? You’re making progress.”
(Used with permission from Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates; a trade division of Macmillan Publishers. Copyright © 2021 TJ Klune.)
Under the Whispering Door will float into bookshops on Sept 21. You can preorder it here.