Support Big Gay Fiction Podcast on PatreonAuthor TJ Klune joins us to talk about Flash Fire, the sequel to his YA superhero story The Extraordinaries. TJ discusses the new characters, how Nick has to deal with changing perceptions about his father, and the importance of queer history and sex positivity within the book. He also talks about Under the Whispering Door, the second book in what he calls his Unofficial Kindness Trilogy. Here the conversation shifts to look at writing a book about grief that is also infused with kindness and humor.

TJ also provides some hints about next year’s Tales from Verania sequel and book three of Extraordinaries. Plus he recommends some books that he thinks everyone should have on their reading list.

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Show Notes

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Will: Coming up on this episode, we talk about superheroes and kindness with author TJ Klune

Jeff: Welcome to episode 328 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of gay romance fiction. I’m Jeff, and with me as always is my co-host and husband, Will.

Will: Hello, rainbow romance readers, welcome back. Now, before we get to our conversation with TJ, we’ve got some news about an upcoming event.

Jeff: Yes, we do. This Saturday, August 21st is bookstore romance day. I’m excited that I’m going to help Carina Adores celebrate the day along with Buffalo Street Books located up in Ithaca, New York. I’m going to be talking with authors, Penny Aimes and Verity Lowell.

Penny’s book “For the love of April French” is an “Entertainment Weekly” pick for best summer romance of 2021. It’s an m/f book with a trans woman lead and features a fake relationship and a workplace drama. Now that book comes out a little later this month on August 31st. Verity’s “Meet Me in Madrid” comes out on October 26th and is an f/f romcom about two women juggling romance and careers across continents.

I hope you’ll join Penny, Verity and me as we celebrate bookstore romance day, you’ll find a link to register for the free event in the show notes.

Now for this episode, we’ve got an extended interview with author TJ Klune. TJ is one of the most popular guests that we’ve had on the podcast and he also happens to be the guest that we’ve had on the most times over the years. This time out we’re going to be talking to him about his latest releases “Flash Fire,” and this fall’s “Under the Whispering Door.” And along the way, he drops a few details on forthcoming books, like “Extraordinaries” three and next year’s “Tales of Verania ” sequel.

TJ Klune Interview

Jeff: TJ welcome back to the podcast. It is so wonderful to have you here for the eighth time.

TJ: Yeah, right? Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be back here for the eighth time.

Jeff: We got a lot to talk about. Cause we’re going to talk about both “Flash Fire” and “Under The Whispering Door”. It’s another two-fer year.

TJ: Sweet.

Jeff: So we’ll start with “Flash Fire.” it came out back in July for those who actually have not picked it up yet. Tell us what you can about this installment of “The Extraordinaries”.

TJ: Yeah, it is the sequel to last year’s, “The Extraordinaries,” and it follows the continuing adventures of Nick and Seth and Jazz and Gibby after the fallout of book one where many, many things happened and it was revealed that certain people in Nick’s life are keeping secrets that extend far bigger than he thought.

So “Flash Fire” is an exploration of those secrets and what it means to lie to protect those you love or to shelter them from a truth. And it’s also, of course, Nick being Nick, he is chaos personified. So while there does have some very serious moments in it, I don’t let that become all the book knows cause of course Nick would not allow that. So it is a mad cap, crazy comedy where things blow up quite often. And I’m very, very thrilled to be able to write stuff that blows up.

Jeff: And not always literal blowing up either. There are just life things that kind of blow up for Nick. as well.

TJ: It’s important for me to have that balance because yes, these books are about superheroes and Nick’s obsession with them, but they are also, pointedly grounded in reality, too. Given the certain events and given Nick as a person, it felt right to have real-world issues lean into his story of the superheros that protect his city because I think that Nick and those characters have a lot to say about the real world.

Jeff: It really intersects here because where that first book was really kind of Nick and Seth. This book’s almost more about Nick and his dad because I feel like Nick’s whole world kind of shifts around his dad because you’ve got only not secrets that dad’s keeping for, what I’m sure he thinks are really good reasons, but also this whole perception of dad as police officer and the impact of that with his friends.

TJ: So going into book two, I knew that Seth and Nick were going to be strong. You’ll see it often in YA or in romance, where if a book, a series follows along the same romantic couple, there tends to be in a book two, or a book three, there might be an introduction of another character that’s meant to make one of the main couple jealous. There’s issues with the relationship because of that, and it feels like you’re retreading ground from the first book, and I didn’t want to do that with them. I wanted Nick and Seth to be strong, to be supportive of each other because that’s how I think that their relationship is.

Do they have issues? Of course everybody has issues. But Nick is maturing at this point and he realizes that there are some things that, can’t just be blown over that need to be talked about. So is Nick going to steam roll still? Yeah, he does. He tends to steamroll over people, but I think he’s reached a point where he realizes he does that and he would be one of the first to apologize for doing that.

And I knew that this book, this sequel was going to deal a lot with Nick and his father, and I wanted Nick to have a relationship with Seth that was grounded in safety. That was grounded in comfort. That he would know that Seth would always have his back no matter what because he’s going to go through a lot of shit with his dad.

Writing the book, I liked that Nick had not only a safety net in Seth, but he also had that in Jazz and Gibby and a few other people that show up in the story because stuff does get very real between him and his dad. There’s a lot of stuff that comes up, secrets, as we mentioned before. But not only that Nick is in a position where he has to acknowledge his privilege too with how he saw police and what he thinks are the good guys versus the bad guys.

it sounds like it’s a much more serious book. And I guess it’s really not, it’s still a ridiculous screwball comedy, but I think it’s important to show the growth in Nick and the issues that he has to deal with, particularly when it comes to his dad. It’s his only parent. That’s the only person he has left in his family.

But when Nick and his dad have it out, because they will have it out, it’s a very hard, uncomfortable conversation to have to witness because… I don’t know. I just think it was time. I knew that their relationship was going to go through the ringer. And even though they may come out all right in the end, there’s still that time where you have to write these very serious conversations and they can be hard to write.

Jeff: And it had to keep coming back a few times too. Cause I mean, there’s this not like here’s an issue and then boom, we got to talk about all of it. It really rolled through the entire book in such a great way. And as you often do you balance that comedic and the drama and the sweetness and the darkness.

TJ: Well, thank you.

Jeff: I don’t know you do it. I admire you do it.

TJ: To me, it has to be organic because you can’t just flip flop between, oh, this is the serious conversation. Now everything is going to be fun. Now it needs to be serious. Now it needs to be fun. It has to run through the threads. And, and especially when you’re speaking about, about serious issues that get brought up in “Flash Fire,” you don’t want it be like lip service. You don’t want it to be… to sound like I’m trying to appease a certain segment of the population. I want it to feel organic to the story. I want it to feel that this is a part of the narrative because you could see that happening from book one, you can see it continuing on into book three.

But while there are some very great moments of levity that can help lighten the mood or lighten the situation, it still comes back to the fact that these are two very flawed people. Nick and his father are absolutely imperfect people, it just so happens that their imperfections compliment each other. So that way they can learn from each other and grow. And while Nick may not be happy with how his father went about things, I think that by the end, he’ll appreciate why his father did what he did to versus the how of what he did.

Jeff: And this is not your first complicated father, son relationship. As I was reading it, I kept drawing comparisons to the Bennetts in “Green Creek,” and what Thomas Bennett did there? What draws you into these really exploring the father son dynamic so much?

TJ: Yeah, well, I think obviously it’s, I mean, we can get all psychological, I’d say it probably stems from the fact that I didn’t really have a father figure myself given the fact that my father passed away when I was really young and then my mom remarried, let’s just say not a good person to put it mildly.

So I never really got to see what it means to have a good dad. And speaking of Thomas Bennett and speaking of Aaron Bell, they are good men. I believe that. But they are fallible men who make mistakes, not because they’re malicious or not because they have ill intent, but they think that they’re making it in the best interest of those that they love and those that they want to protect.

Does that mean it’s the right decision? No, not always. Absolutely not. But they did it with the best interests of those they love it. And I hope that that can come through because you don’t want to see a person who is complicated and they don’t have any, chance of redemption. They don’t have any kind of arc where they could learn from what they did learn from their mistakes to become better.

But I’m always fascinated by imperfect people because let’s be frank, if everyone was perfect all the time, that’d be absolutely super boring. And I would get bored writing and reading about that. It’s why I’m always as a writer interested in the flaws that people have.

I think that with, with “Wolfsong” where Thomas Bennett is first introduced, and “The Extraordinaries” where Aaron Bell is first introduced, they seem to be these towering figures. These people who are all-knowing and supportive and powerful.

But then I want to deconstruct that. I want to chip away at that to show that these men in these stories that I’m writing are flawed individuals and they do make mistakes. Some are more forgivable than others, but I’m always more interested in the messy side of emotions and feelings and motivations versus everything being hunkydory and rosy all the time.

Jeff: And it’s to designate that these are complicated relationships, but I think you’re right too these are good men in both cases and not parents that I look at in some of the books I read going, these people are just horrible and get away from them as fast as you can.

TJ: And you can still feel that maybe in a certain light and maybe in a certain action that that person did a horrible thing. But I think there’s a difference between doing a horrible something and being a horrible person.

A horrible person would get off on the messiness and the chaos that they cause. Whereas people like Aaron Bell and Thomas Bennet, they’re the type who they apologize. They have to. Maybe it takes some time. Maybe it takes someone like Elizabeth Bennett or Nick Bell saying, you’re wrong. This is what you did to me. How dare you do this kind of stuff. But once they hear that, I like to think that they listened. They may not always agree, but they will always attempt to understand where someone else is coming from.

Those kinds of relationships interest me a whole hell of lot more than ones where there is no arc. Doesn’t even need to be drama. It just needs to be an arc showing something where they’re learning from each other. To me a character should not be the same character they were from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. Even if they’re minor character.

Jeff: Yeah, and boy, you put everybody in this book through some stuff.

TJ: Yeah. Yes. I’m very, very excited about that. I love that immensely.

Jeff: You got to bring in some new Extraordinaries in this book and we don’t have to delve too much into them unless you want to. But it seems like it would be insanely fun to come up with these new super powered people. First of all, is it, and then what kind of goes into that for you, as you’re figuring out what you need for the book?

TJ: There is, yes. And I will speak specifically on a drag queen who makes her first introduction in “Flash Fire.” and I’m not going to say her name because I want people to be able to discover that for themselves suffice to say it is a double entendre as all great drag queen named should.

I knew going into “Flash Fire”, I knew even before I finished “The Extraordinaries” is that when I was going to be writing more superheroes, one of them had to be a drag queen. It was, all but written in stone for me, because as many people probably know I adore drag queens. I think that they are some of the most powerful and awesome creators in the world. And I love the art of drag. I can never do it myself because. I do not make a very good looking woman. I’ve tried before in drag. Let’s just say that I have to know my strengths and my strengths are not in drag. But I love drag. I love everything about it.

So, being able to bring in a very fierce, very independent drag queen as a new superhero was a goal of mine. I think that her introduction and her inclusion in the story brings it to a different level. And we’ll continue to see that on into book three. Even when I was creating the character, giving her a backstory and how she looked and what her costume would be like, I always knew she was going to have the powers that she has in that book, because without getting too much into spoilers, it just fits with the character that she is. She is for lack of a better word electric. So we’ll just leave it at that.

There are some other Extraordinaries introduced in “Flash Fire” too, and basically, it was me just wanting to pull from comic book lore, comic book tropes, and having the idea of the specific type of powers. And each person has a very specific type of power, and, what do they use that for and what kind of stuff can they do with it?

So with the new Extraordinaries it probably took me not very long at all to come up with them because this story for all the stuff that happens, it came out very, very quickly for me to write it. It flew by really, really fast. So I think I was just in a groove and knowing that these new Extraordinaries are going to have the powers that they did just made that all that much easier.

Jeff: I am eager to see when it comes out and when you start sharing it, the fan art that is going to come from the drag queen Extraordinary.

TJ: It’s going to be delightful. I know that there’s already one in the works. I’ve seen a sketch of it and it’s going to be wonderful. And I can’t wait for everybody to see it. But yes, I hope that people get to enjoy the wonder that is this queen, and I adore her character very, very much.

Jeff: Yeah, spinoff please! In the future, somewhere. Perhaps.

TJ: She… I will, as a teaser for those who have read “Flash Fire,” I will say that in the next book she plays a bigger role and she may get a love interest. So we’ll have to wait and see how that works out.

Jeff: Yay! Breaking news right there.

Or at least potential breaking news right there.

TJ: Potential breaking news.

Jeff: You’ve made people with magic before, in both “Green Creek” and “Tales From Verania.” Is it different creating people who use magic versus superheroes?

TJ: Yeah, because with magic I’m firmly planted in my head, in the idea of fantasy with like Gordo and the witches in “Green Creek” and Sam of Wilds and all the wizards in Tales From Verania.” it’s firmly lodged in the fantasy side of my brain. I don’t think of it any other way.

But with “Extraordinaries,” I don’t think of it as fantasy. I think of them as comic books, because that’s essentially what these are. These are comic books, except there are no pictures and it’s a novel,. So, you know how it goes.

There’s two different sides. Like I can’t ever go into Sam of Wilds or writing in that world or writing in the “Green Creek” world and think of it as comic booky. And it’s just, it’s very clear division in my brain that these are two very separate entities that can coexist. But I tend to have more fun in the comic book area just because I adore comics in all their forms. And so being able to write about that love and write about the love of fandom, I think it just makes it more fun for me.

Jeff: And of course, Nova City is not real. And the universe of “Flash Fire” isn’t real, but you do bring in gay history from our reality. The drag queen references, Marsha P Johnson, and the Stonewall riots a little bit within this book. How do you decide what gets brought in from our reality?

TJ: I want to focus… and it always comes back to what feels organic, because I want to make sure that it’s not going to be something that’s out of left field. But here’s the thing, these books are very queer positive to put it mildly. But not only are they queer positive, since they are geared towards younger readers, even though YA is for anybody who wants to read it, I write with the idea of younger readers in mind. And I think that a lot of younger readers, not all obviously, but a lot, I don’t know if they know the history of the generations that came before. I don’t know if they know what it meant to be queer in the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, the eighties. And before, I don’t know if they know.

They need to know these names. They need to know the names of people like Marsha P Johnson. They need to know the names of people like Matthew Shepard. They need to know the names of our forebears who fought and suffered so we can live the life that we do.

And not only that, these books are very sex positive and there’s frank discussions of consent and best practices when it comes to sex. And I do that, not for any sort of titillation because I’m not writing sex in YA for titillation. I’m writing it to be not necessarily an instruction manual, but I’m writing it for people to learn because queer sex is not taught in schools.

In sex education, it’s geared towards hetero students. So I want to make sure that while I am meant to be entertaining, I’m also having teachable moments in these books and making sure people know our history and people know what it means to be safe because those things are important.

I wish that when I had been 15, 16 years old, I could have picked up a book that not only had queer characters as the main characters who got to live and be happy, but that they also talk about what it means to be queer. What goes into our lives. Where we came from. How we protect ourselves. What do we do when we have a crush on someone? What are the steps that we need to take to engage in sex? What do we need to do in terms of protection and all of that?

If it helps even one kid who might not necessarily think about that kind of thing, or if it causes one person to learn more about queer history, then I’ll have done what I set out to do, because I think that this kind of knowledge is powerful and that the more we continue to talk about our history or continue to talk about what it means to be sexually active it’s all the better for those who come after us, especially young queer kids who might not get any kind of role model that they can, or, or might not be in a place where they can ask those questions.

Jeff: And I really like what you did with Seth and Nick here, because it wasn’t like, Hey, let’s have sex. Let’s go do this thing.

There was a lot of discussion about what they were comfortable with. When they wanted to do it. How it might want to go down a lot of trepidation on Nick’s part. To me, gives kids the permission to say, you know what? We need to have a conversation rather than just trying to dive right in, and the conversation is good.

TJ: Right! Talking about it sets expectations. It can show what you are and are not comfortable with. And by, Nick being able to have that conversation where it says is he uncomfortable? Of course he is. He’s absolutely uncomfortable having these conversations, but he knows how important it is.

For a character like Nick, it would have been very easy to write him and Seth having sex or a sex scene into “Flash Fire.” Knowing that I was going to be able to tell Nick and Seth’s story over three books. It did give me a little bit more wiggle room. I’ll give you that.

But I like the continuing conversations and how they evolve. What were the conversations that they have in “The Extraordinaries” is about sex, are still evident in “Flash Fire”, but they’re building upon it because they’re gaining more knowledge as they’re learning more about themselves, they’re learning more about each other.

And that continues on into the last book too, where they make a decision on what they want to do in terms of their sex and sexuality. It reaches a point where it felt, again, I’m going to be harping on this, but it felt organic. It felt like I had given them the time and the space to breathe and find their way.

And when, and if they’re finally ready for it, that’s going to be something that they both decide on together. And I mean, how often do we get to read about stuff like that, especially for queer kids. How often do we get to read about safety and consent and boundaries and that consent can be given, but it can also be taken away at any point.

If you say no, no matter what position you’re in, that should be the end of it. That should be the end. And I love how Nick maybe, let’s be frank, he’s a bit of an idiot at times, but he knows that these things are important and no matter how many embarrassing conversations he’s had with his dad about safe sex, but he knows that those kinds of things are important and it shows his respect, and his love for his boyfriend, that he wants to talk about those things with him, because he knows if that is important. And, in the end, extremely healthy to do.

Jeff: Nick and his dad. Wow. So hilarious, great conversations to see them happen on the book, but oh, they cracked me up so hard.

TJ: Just you wait. I think that I talked myself in the very last book because in the first book you had bananas that were the topic of sexual conversation. In the second book, not to get into any spoilers, but let’s just say dental dams were a big part of the conversation. In the third book, we, we move on to enemas and that’s all I’ll say with that.

Jeff: Oh, wow.

TJ: Because yes. So.

Jeff: Hmm. I don’t even know how to process that one.

TJ: I think my editor will be saying the same thing and that’s super exciting.

Jeff: For that one, I wish you would actually give me Aaron’s point of view at the same time he feels having to say these words.

TJ: You will find out very, very clearly in the third book. I am very proud of this, of this scene in the book between Aaron and Nick.

Jeff: There are some very powerful words at the end of “Flash Fire,” and really without getting into too much spoilerly materially here, there’s an amazing valedictorian speech. And there’s also a letter that Nick gets in a package.

And the passages are so powerful. Honestly, I want the valedictorian speech just on my wall somewhere to just refer back to it. I kind of want to dig into your creative process here a little bit, because I know a lot can go on between the idea of writing a speech or writing the letter and then honing it to hit the right notes. How did you approach these two messages that are both messages of hope, but yet very different messages also.

TJ: Right. They’re a message of hope, but they’re also a call to arms, I think for both of them.

And look, I’m going to take credit on one and give credit on another. On the letter, that’s in the package that remained unchanged completely from the first draft all the way until the final book through edits and everything like that. That letter that Nick receives from a character in the story. Wasn’t tweaked? It wasn’t altered in any way, shape or form. And it was probably one of the easiest things I’ve ever had to write, because I know what I was going for at that moment in time and not to get into any spoilers, it just needed to feel final, but it also needed to feel empowering. And I think that it couldn’t have come from a better person to do just that for Nick.

The graduation speech that is given, the credit for that goes to, well, I wrote it, but the credit for, large parts of it go to my editor Ali. And the reason I want to say that is because the speech that I wrote initially, didn’t feel like Gibby. It felt like a graduation speech. It felt like a hopeful kind of thing. But when my editor got to it and she highlighted the whole thing, she says this needs to sound like Gibby. This needs to have her personality come in and it feels like that’s missing.

She didn’t say this part, but this is what I felt like it too, from her perspective, it felt very canned, not necessarily phoned in, but it felt like a graduation speech that you could read from any graduate across the entire country. So I went back and I sat down to think, what is the core of Lola Gibson? What is the core of her character? What does she bring to this team? What type of person is she and how does she talk?

How would she talk to these people? Because the speeches and given as, as people want it to be given, I’ll just say that. And so she gives it to a few other people. I wanted her to feel strong, but I also wanted her to feel a little bit bitter given that this moment wasn’t what she expected it would be.

And I think that even though Nick and Seth and Jazz were the only ones that heard it, that Gibby got the last word regarding the entire situation, why she was giving the speech the way that she was. Again, I have to give credit to my editor for calling me out on that and saying, this needs to sound more like Gibby, because she was absolutely correct.

So I was able to go back and think about who Gibby is as a character, what makes her tick and how would she really sound if she was angry, but also proud of who she was as a person and angry at those who had tried to take away from that and from her.

Jeff: Hooray for editors. I think, I think often…

TJ: Hooray for editors. Absolutely. I’ve told her this and she deserves to hear she is the best editor I’ve ever worked with. And it’s because of her that I think that my books truly sing now. I think she is the editing voice that I wanted, that I needed.

She is gift, to my writing, and I am so proud to be able to work with her.

Jeff: Yeah, boy when you find those editors it’s like, you just want to hold onto them for all your work.

TJ: You do!

Let’s be honest. My sense of humor isn’t for everyone, and if you don’t get my sense of humor, then you really don’t get me as a person and that’s totally okay.

Absolutely fine. I’m lucky that Allie gets my sense of humor because she has my same sense of humor. And that just makes us a dynamite team.

Jeff: Does she only do your YA at TOR or does she also do “Cerulean” and “Whispering Door” and such also?

TJ: Yep. She does those too. She edits all of my books. I know, I know. It’s probably not the norm, but I would not want to work with anyone else. I hope that I get to work with her for the rest of my career.

Jeff: So if you could share, as we work to dodge away from spoilers, what’s your favorite scene in “Flash Fire?”

TJ: The graduation speech I love, but we’ve talked about that ad nauseum. I’ll give you two words, Bluetooth. Oh no. It’s more than two words. Bluetooth and dental dams. Let’s just say the first few chapters of “Flash Fire” were very joyful for me to write because there’s a scene involving Bluetooth speakers that don’t work as people have planned.

Before I plotted out any of the rest of the book. Before I even got to what the point of the book was going to be about, I had that seed in mind and I knew that that’s how it was going to start the book. And I even told Ali before I started writing it, there’s going to be this and this and this and this happens with Bluetooth.

And I’m sure she just kind of wrote it off at the time going, oh yeah, here’s a writer talking about, you know, something that’s probably not going to happen and then I made it happen because the idea just made me happy. So you’ll know it when you get to it.

Jeff: Oh yeah, for sure. Yep. You said it enough that everybody reading it will go hmm-mmm this thing.

TJ: Yeah. I just love the cut between the Bluetooth and the very next chapter being dental dams. I just, you know, I’m proud of how this book turned out. I’m proud of all the serious topics that it covers, but, man, I love that the best of all.

Jeff: You leave us on what I called in the review a Marvel sized cliffhanger. In fact, I feel like it’s a bigger, cliff than where we left “The Extraordinaries.”

TJ: oh, it’s much bigger than that. That was a little hop, skip, and a jump. This is a, an entire fall off a mountain, yeah.

Jeff: What, if anything, can you share about the next part?

TJ: It is the last book in the trilogy. Beyond that, I will say that there are going to be things coming that no one will see. Things that I plotted and teased out in the very first book and contunued teasing through this book are going to come to fruition and it is going to be a crazy, crazy ride that I think is going to have a couple of twists that nobody’s going to see coming.

So I’m very, very, very excited about this last book. It comes out next summer at some point. But I think it’s a perfect way to end this series and I’m so, so honored that I got to tell a trilogy, following these ridiculous characters,

Jeff: It’s not really a surprise for you to say that there’s going to be a twist you never saw coming cause I think that’s par for the course in your series.

TJ: I do things that I could not believe I did and could get away with. Let’s just say that I’m obviously very excited about this last book. And I think that the readers fans of this series are going to be too.

Jeff: Fantastic. Summer 2022.

So moving on to “Under the Whispering Door,” which comes out in a little over a month, September 21st. Tell us about Wallace’s story.

TJ: Okay, so this is completely switching gears from the crazy world that is “Flash Fire.”

Jeff: Taking a 180 now.

TJ: Right. “Under The Whispering Door” is a book about a not so very nice man named Wallace. And Wallace is an attorney and he is a partner in his law firm. His name is on the masthead. He helped create the firm with a few of his college bros. And, he is living a life where everything has a bottom line. He doesn’t have friends. He does not have family and he does not need them. He does not want them because he is very good at what he does and all the rest of what normal people might find loving and cozy and happiness is just not for him.

So he is a cold, calculating man who at the beginning of the book is firing one of his long-term employees for a very Simple mistake. And he’s the type of person who believes that when a part in a machine breaks down, it’s easier to replace the entire part rather than it is to fix the part that’s already there, which is why he decides to fire the woman that works for him.

And then he dies. And that happens in the very first chapter. And what follows. Is an exploration, not only of the power of grief and the catharsis that could be behind it, but also what it means to be a good person. But, even further what it means to be a better person because I don’t know exactly what it means to be a good person. But, that doesn’t mean I stopped trying from being a better person every single day.

That is what I wanted to explore with Wallace, who, after he dies, he is taken to a tea shop in the middle of nowhere where he is brought to the owner of the tea shop, a man called Hugo, who is actually a ferryman, the man whose job it is to help souls cross over to whatever comes next. Wallace decides that he does not want to go. So he stays in the tea shop and the novel is the journey he goes through in learning that the life he lived was not a good life and not a life lived at all, and what he could do to try to become a better person than he ever was in life.

This book is happy and it is sad and it is all about… Well, as I pitch it to the publisher, it’s a comedy about grief. And, grief is a very, very tricky thing to write about because no two people experienced grief the site. But we all know what grief is because if you live long enough to know what love is, you’ll know what loss is at some point.

So I wanted to explore what grief does to a person and taking the themes that I explored in “The House in the Cerulean Sea” of being kind to others. Instead of that, or I should say, in addition to that, I wanted to explore the idea of what it would mean to be kind to yourself, because that is much, much harder than people think it is.

And especially when you’ve lived a life like Wallace, where he wasn’t kind to anyone much less himself because being kind to anyone or to himself meant letting people see behind the facade of the armor that he wore. I think about that a lot, what it means to be kind to yourself and kind to others in addition. And, that’s what I wanted to explore with this book.

Jeff: And kindness to yourself. I mean, that’s, I think we’ve all seen in the last year, how important it is to cut yourself a break.

TJ: Right, and it is. I’m not even talking, you know, I’m talking about big things. I’m talking about small things. I’m talking about mental health, your mental wellbeing. And I’m talking about the days that you have, when you feel like a piece of shit. When you don’t think that you deserve happiness. Where you don’t think that you deserve to feel good. And those are the days when it is the hardest to be kind to yourself because you don’t want to be because you don’t feel like it.

And I wanted to know because I know what that feels like. I’ve been there. And, chances are, maybe I’ll be there one day again, but as long as I remember that thing that I’m trying to do with my life, where I’m not trying to be a good person, because again, I don’t know what that means exactly, but I’m trying to be a better person. Every day I’m trying to be a little bit better than the day before. Do I always succeed? No, absolutely not. Do I keep on trying? Hell yes I do. And on the days where I feel like an asshole. On the days where I feel like crap, I remind myself, you know what, If you didn’t do it today, do it tomorrow. And then I’ll try again.

Jeff: How did you prepare to write something with this heavy subject matter and subject matter that’s can be both very personal, but then also have to spread it in a way that everybody gets it and can resonate with it.

TJ: Right. So this book, I try to be clear, this book is about comedy, but it doesn’t shy away from the idea of mortality and all that comes along with it, and various forms of mortality too.

There are discussions of death by illness or discussions of death by violence. There’s discussions of death by suicide. And, while I don’t necessarily go whole hog into it and show these acts as they occur, because that’s not what the point of the story is. But I do talk about them because, like death, topics of illness, topics of death by suicide are so taboo in our culture. We don’t like talking about them cause we don’t like thinking about them. That makes sense. That’s totally understandable. But, I think it creates this aura of fear around them that does a disservice to us as human beings from trying to demystify what it means to die.

No matter who you are. No matter what you do. No matter if you’re the best person that has ever lived, or if you are the world’s biggest asshole, you will die. Everyone dies. There is no getting out of that. So, it puts us all on an even playing field in the end. It doesn’t matter how high we soar or how hard we crash. We all go the same way in the end.

I want to explore what happens after that. Not necessarily answer what comes next, because that’s not what I set out to do. There’s a reason we don’t know because nobody alive will be able to tell you what happens next. So I didn’t set out necessary really to answer that because I think, a, I would be doing a disservice, not only to my own beliefs, which are pretty much me being a lazy agnostic, but I think I would also be doing a disservice to people who do hold religious beliefs and want to believe in a higher power.

So I don’t try and take away from anyone’s belief. I just try to put everyone on equal footing on equal ground and say, hey, this is what might happen to us. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. I don’t know. For all I know when we die, nothing happens and this is it. This is the only chance we have. But a little part, you know, not even a little part, a huge part of me hopes when I go a very, very long time from now that when I open my eyes, I may be in a tea shop and there may be someone like Hugo who is there to help me understand what I did in my life to get me to this point and to help me accept what comes next, because no matter what it is inevitable. We are all going to find out one day.

Jeff: I like how the promotional materials and I think maybe even part of the blurb itself ties this back to “The Good Place” because I think that show for a lot of people started these kinds of conversations about what the afterlife might be.

TJ: So in its early gestation, many, many years ago, “Under the Whispering Door” was going to be about the bureaucracy of the afterlife. I was inspired by a scene from one of the best eighties movies in one of the best movies period, “Beetlejuice,” where after Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin’s characters die, they go to this version of limbo, I guess. And it’s all paperwork. It’s all pencil pushers and everybody’s in the office. And I would love, I wanted to write about something like that.

And then “The Good Place” came out and they did it infinitely better than I ever would have. So it’s one of those times where you have an idea, somebody does it better, so you shelve it and you move on. It’s happened before. Undoubtedly, it will happen again. But I needed it to write a story about grief. So I went at it from a different angle. “The Good Place” is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen. I loved every single second of it from the very first episode to the very last episode, which I was bawling the entire way through.

I think that they had one of the best answers of what happens when we go. And I’m not talking about the entirety of “The Good Place.” I’m talking about the last 10 minutes of that TV show. And I won’t spoil that here. It was so profoundly moving to me. That was the idea of the afterlife for them. So I wanted to think about, okay, what happens before that point? What happens when you’re still here and you haven’t quite moved on yet. And then that became the genesis of the story.

Also I discovered something that I’d never heard before, which happens every now and then, that there are doulas who help through the birthing process. But there are also people who act as death doulas, who come in and help families, the people who are about to pass and also the families who are with them. They help to ease the process, to answer questions, to set up legacy projects, to help the families at the beginning stages of their grief.

And that helped to inform the character of Hugo, because even though he is a ferryman whose job it is to help souls who have already passed over, I like to think of him as a sort of death doula. And I’m just fascinated by people who work in end of life care. I cannot imagine, only because I know I don’t have it, the level of empathy needed to work in such a field. The people who work in end of life care have to be some of the most empathetic people on the planet to do what they do.

Jeff: You’ve always been really awesome at descriptions and really immersing your readers in the worlds that you’re putting them in. But I feel like you’ve amped up your powers in this book because everything from the tea shop to Wallace’s journey from his death to get to the shop, I mean, it’s all so vivid.

How much of that made it through from the first draft and then how much did Ali come in and say, maybe do this.

TJ: She didn’t necessarily take anything away in terms of the senses of the book. She made me amp them up more than what I had. And there’s a very big reason for that. Ninety-five percent of this book takes place in one location. It takes place in a tea shop. When you have 95%, which is pretty much the entirety of a book take place in one location, it can be very claustrophobic for a reader unless you’re careful, which is why the tea shop itself needed to become a sort of main character in its own right.

So, in addition to that, the character of Wallace has a very sensitive nose. There’s little hints of that throughout the entirety of the book. And it was just another layer, added upon just the idea of senses, because I wanted this tea shop to feel real. I wanted it to feel lived in because the reader is going to be spending nearly 400 pages in this tea shop. And if it didn’t feel like a real place, if you couldn’t smell the tea or smell the baked confections. If you couldn’t hear the wood floors, creaking or hear the plants swinging on the hooks, people muttering, the backgrounders are talking to each other because there’s no wifi and no internet allowed in this cafe, then it wouldn’t feel like a real place. And if it doesn’t feel like a real place, then you are going to want to get out of that sooner rather than later, not spending an entire book there.

So it was all about senses: taste, touch, hearing, smell, sight, all of that. It was how I wanted this world to feel alive, because it was going to be the only world that the reader and these characters would know.

Jeff: And of course, like with “Flash Fire,” I have to ask you, what was your favorite scene in Whispering Door?

TJ: I’m going to completely avoid spoilers here. I will say that it involves a character named Cameron. And you will know when you get to it.

Jeff: I thought you might just say it happened in the tea shop.

TJ: I know I’m a dick, but I’m not that big of a dick. Cameron is a very special character to me and that’s all I’ll say.

Jeff: Okay. Maybe when we revisit next year, we could talk about why Cameron is important. So we’re totally away from spoiler material at that point.

TJ: Exactly.

Jeff: Everybody gets a year to figure that out.

We should mention too that you brought your narrator all-stars into these books. Bringing Kirt Graves in for “Whispering Door” and Michael Lesley makes a return to “The Extraordinaries” universe, which is totally exciting.

TJ: I am so, so happy. Like look, Michael and Kirt and they’ve worked with me over multiple books for years now. And the narrator for the “The House in the Cerulean Sea,” I’ll be working with him again. Absolutely. I’m very lucky. I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating. I’m very lucky when it comes to the narrators I’ve gotten to work with, and I think that specifically, you know, singling out all of them, but if you’re talking about the ones I’m currently working with Michael and Kirt and Daniel Henning are three of the very, very best.

And Tor and TorTeen have been completely receptive in me bringing on Michael for “The Extraordinaries” series and me bringing on Kirt for this book, because they know that not only do I trust them implicitly, but I think that their work speaks for them. I think their work speaks to volume. Michael is a very theatrical performer. And I think that Kirt gets nuances that a lot of people might miss in the text. And I think they’re both stunning and I’m very, very excited for everyone to hear. You can get “Flash Fire” now with Michael’s narration. It’s an absolute treasure. And, Kirt will be doing the audio for “Under the Whispering Door.” and that comes out September 21st.

Jeff: Yeah. Good stuff with Michael. I just loved it. it’s why I had to wait for him to do it because I knew he’d bring that extra magic.

TJ: That man. He has more talent in just his voice than I have in my entire body. And it’s just, it’s insane. He is a force unto himself.

Jeff: And especially in that book, it really just let him fly free so much.

TJ: And while I love him to death, what sucks is that when I’m writing further books in a series, all I can hear is his voice for the characters. When I’m writing Nick, or I’m writing Sam of Wilds and Prince Justin, all I can hear is Michael talking as these characters.

So yeah. Michael Lesley spends a lot of time in my head.

Jeff: So we talked a little bit about book three of “The Extraordinaries” ever such a teeny tiny bit. Is there anything else you could share about what’s coming next? Like past “Under The Whispering Door?”

TJ: Yeah, so “Under The Whispering Door” is my last book of the year. Next year I have three releases. The first will be “The Damning Stone,” which is book six in Tales From Verenia. That’ll be out spring of 2022.

After that will be the third and final book in “The Extraordinaries” trilogy. That’ll be out summer 2022. And then fall of 2022 is a book I am so, so excited about. It is the third and final in my Unofficial Kindness Trilogy. Unofficial because “The House in the Cerulean Sea”, “Under the Whispering , ” and this last book are not related in any way, shape or form, but they share the similar themes.

“Cerulean Sea” was about showing kindness to others. “Under the Whispering Door” is about being kind to yourself. The very last book is being kind to people who may or may not deserve it. Or I should say and, or who actively might not deserve kindness. And it is a queer retelling of Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio.”

And I am so, so excited about this because with “Cerulean” you had an island, with “Under the Whispering Door,” you had a tea shop, so it was getting smaller and smaller. This book is a huge adventure that stretched the limits of my imagination, and it is something so completely different than what people have read from me before.

It is still a queer romance at its heart, between an inventor and a very interesting character. And the main character is asexual and they are a person with autism. And I am so excited for this story to come out because I think it’s going to. I think it’s going to show people a different side of my writing. Comes out fall of next year.

Jeff: Can’t wait.

Is there anything you can kind of tease people a little more on book six of “Verania.”

TJ: Yes. It is a book where I write the biggest himbo character I’ve ever written. And that himbo character is Justin’s love interest. He is a big, ditzy jock king, who I just, I had adore this character. His name is Dylan, and he gives Prince Justin a run for his money. Cause Prince Justin is a bit of a dick, as my readers know, and I give him a character who is completely unfazed by his dickishness, and refuses to let Prince Justin walk all over him.

I think that people are going to be surprised by him, and I’m so excited about that. If you read “The Tales from Verania” series, you’ll know that in “Wish upon the Stars” I hinted at the very end that this would be a character where it would be involving an arranged marriage between Justin and the king of a far away land. And I stick to that and it is wild.

You know, I love of writing books like “The House in the Cerulean Sea” and “Whispering Door” and “Extraordinaries,” but “The Tales from Verania” books I get to let my freak flag fly and I adore being able to still have that side of myself where I don’t have to worry about oh no, you know, a 15 is going to read this book because no, a 15 year olds should not be reading this book because I don’t write this book for anyone under the age of 18. And there’s going to be people who just like my happy, soft fantasy side, and then there’s going to be people who want my murderous, gay unicorn side. And I’m totally fine with that.

Jeff: You realize now that you’ve said that Dylan is a big jock king that everybody’s going to try to now draw comparisons between your other jock King that exists.

TJ: Yeah. He is nothing like Darren and this… He’s just so stupid and I love him so much. Okay, look, I’m not bagging on my own character because he is dumb. That’s the joy of being able to write a himbo character, but he is not as dumb as he appears and trust me, he will be able to hold his own, especially in the face of Sam and Gary and Ryan and Kevin and Tiggy and Justin. King Dylan will hold his own. So don’t you worry about him.

Jeff: What have you been reading lately that you might be wanting to recommend to our listeners?

Oh man. I haven’t started yet, but I’m very excited about this. This is called “Forestborn” by Elayne Audrey Becker. It comes out at the end of this month and I get to host a panel for her launch party. So I’m very excited about diving into this one.

I have read three books that I feel deserves mentioning right now. “A Light From Uncommon Stars” by Ryka Aoki. It comes out September 28th from Tor. It is one of the best fantasies that I’ve ever read. Period, bar none. It is a mishmash of science fiction, fantasy, queer characters. Literally almost every single character in this book is on the queer spectrum. And I cannot give it higher praise in saying that I wish I could read it again for the first time, because it is a transformative work. And I have a feeling that this is Ms. Aoki first book with a bigger publisher. Like me before she was with an indie publisher. I hope that this book puts her name on the map because she deserves it. This book is wonderful.

In November. Comes out a book I got to read early to and blurb for called “A Marvelous Light” by Freya Marske. And it is a queer book about a magician and the man he works with who discovers he’s a magician and it’s very cute and sexy, and thrilling. But what I want to laud at the moment is the magic system in this book is one of the most creative that I’ve ever read and I adored it and that comes out again in November, “A Marvelous Light.”

I just finished, a book that’s not due to come out until next year, but it deserves to be mentioned. It is by Anna-Marie McLemore. The book is called “Lakelore” and it is about two trans boys. One with dyslexia, one with ADHD, and I’ve never felt more seen in a book when it comes to being neurodiverse, when it comes to the ADHD representation. They nailed it. They knocked it out of the park. It is an absolute knockout of a book. And it’s something that I’m going to be recommending for years to come. And that’s Anna-Marie McLemore’s “Lakelore”, and that comes out at some point next year I think.

Fantastic. Things to add to my TBR, for like right now!

TJ: Yes, everybody read those books. You will not be disappointed because they are three tremendous authors who I cannot wait for people to read their stories. “Forestborn,” I know I’m gonna love this book too when I get to it this week.

Jeff: Fantastic.

Now for those out there who don’t know, and there shouldn’t be that many at this point, how could people keep up with you online to get all the latest news as you’re ready to release it?

TJ: I’m most active on Twitter and I’m @TJKlune there, and on Instagram, @TJKlunebooks, those are the best places to follow me because that’s where I usually am.

Jeff: And of course we have to shut out the Klunatics group on Facebook.

TJ: On Facebook, yes. Moderated by some very amazing women. And it is a delightful group where there is no drama. There is only good times and people sharing a sense of community and it is delightful. And one of the happiest place on the internet, which is weird when I have to say it’s on Facebook.

Jeff: Well, TJ, thank you so much for coming to talk to us. Best of success with “Under The Whispering Door” this fall. I can’t wait to see all this stuff in 2022.

TJ: Yeah, we’ve got big, big plans ahead. But thank you again for having me back on here for the eighth time. And I can’t wait until we make it nine and ten.


Will: This episode’s transcript has been brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, simply head on over to the show notes page for this episode at And don’t forget the show notes also has links to everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.

Jeff: That’s right. And in those show notes, you also have links over to Many of TJ’s books are on And so it is a perfect place to pick those up because when you do that, you’ll be helping out a local bookstore of your choice. In addition, listeners to the Big Gay Fiction Podcast have the opportunity to get a two month audio book membership for the price of one. To take advantage of that deal simply go to and you’ll find all the details right there.

And thanks again to TJ for spending so much time with us for this discussion. I love how TJ is teaching some queer history and sex positivity inside “Flash Fire.” Not only is keeping history alive important, but those frank discussions about sex are also wonderful as they happen between not only Nick’s dad, but between Nick and his boyfriend.

Sex positivity, of course, is something we talked about earlier this year with Jason June and Emery Lee when we talked to them back in the summer. Hopefully, this trend continues in queer YA because it’s so very important. Although I kind of death that many authors would write a scene quite like TJ did with those dental dams. It was hilarious and absolutely perfect.

Will: All right. I think that’ll do it for now. On behalf of Jeff and myself we want to thank you for joining us for our chat with TJ. I hope that you enjoyed it as much as did.

Now, coming up next on Monday in episode 329, we head off to the hockey rink as we talk with author Rachel Reid about “Role Model,” the latest book in her “Game Changers” series.

Jeff: I had a great conversation with Rachel about these incredible books and I can’t wait to share that with all of you.

Will: Thank you again for listening. And, we hope that you’ll return for more discussions about the kind of stories that we all love, the big gay fiction kind. Until then keep turning those pages and keep reading.

Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at Production assistance by Tyson Greenan. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.