W itty, haunting, and kind, Under the Whispering Door is a gift for troubled times. A warm hug of a
story about a man who spent his life at the office – and his afterlife building a home. Here its author,
TJ Klune answers Sam Bennett’s questions.

Under the Whispering Door was hard for you to write because it’s so personal to you. Did you have to practice a lot of self-care during the process so it didn’t overwhelm you?

Yes, I did, and noticeably more than usual. I tend not to get emotional over what I’m writing, but this
book hit, and hit hard. I think there’s an honesty to the novel because of it, and by the time I finished, I felt some semblance of peace, but it was a long road to get there.

Presumably some bits were emotionally harder to write than others?

Absolutely. Avoiding spoilers, I will say there is a character named Cameron who was the hardest to
write, given how his arc plays out. At one point in my life, I was Cameron, so putting his story on the
page took a lot out of me because I had to remember how it’d been for me when I was in Cameron’s
position. It was a rough place, and for a while, I didn’t think I’d pull out of it. Thankfully, I did, but
some people don’t. Some people sink into it, and I wanted to explore what that would look like
within the themes of this book.

Credit: Natasha Michaels

You say, “If you live long enough to learn to love someone, you’ll know grief at one point or another.” What’s the significance of the words “learn to” here? I ask because the sentence would make sense to me without those words.

It could, but I think there’s an important distinction. As children, if we’re lucky, we accept the idea of
love because that’s what our parents show us. We might not understand what it is, exactly, or even
know what the feeling is, but it’s relayed through touch and words and affection. But then as we grow up, we learn that love isn’t something freely given. It takes time to grow, to mature, to blossom. That isn’t just romantic love: it’s platonic, it’s familial, it’s friendship. Hell, even the love of a pet. We choose to give our love to others when we’re older, and it’s not the same type of love we know as kids. We grow up and learn about the different kinds of love – some smaller, some bigger. And with that, comes the knowledge that while love is powerful, everything ends at some point or another.

Why have you set so much of Under the Whispering Door in a tea shop (namely Charon’s Crossing)?

Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world – after water and before beer. Almost every
culture on earth has their own versions of tea and what it means to them. And death has always
been part of life, from the very beginning. It felt apt, then, to combine these two things because
people have their own rituals when it comes to tea, and people have their own beliefs and rituals
when it comes to death. Tea is ubiquitous, and death affects everyone no matter where you come
from. It was one of those logic leaps my brain made, and I just ran with it.

At Charon’s Crossing, customers don’t do screen time – is this something you would like to see more of in real-life tea shops?

I would, and I say that fully aware I’m just as addicted to my phone as everyone else is. But there’s
something strangely freeing about putting your phone down and ignoring the notifications that pop
up for an hour or two. They are going to be there and waiting for me when I pick it back up, but
sometimes, I tell myself I need to go outside rather than looking at whoever is having a meltdown on
Twitter.

Where in your mind does the character of The Manager come from?

The universe, or something close to it. He is not God, and never claims to be. I think of him as a
spokesperson for the universe, while also playing the role of boss with a dash of Human Resources
mixed in for good measure. Is he good at what he does? I think so. But does he know what he’s
doing all the time? I don’t think he does. He reminds me of someone who got promoted due to
nepotism rather than actual experience, and is trying to act like he knows everything already.

Is it morose of me to think that, in certain ways, the protagonist Wallace’s death is perhaps more appealing than a lot of people’s lives?

It is, but that’s the beauty of fiction: I can tell a story of a jerk who has everything stripped from him,
only to find a place where he truly belongs while making strides at becoming a better person. It’s not
real, of course, but what if it could be? What if, when we close our eyes for the last time, we’re
taken to a tea shop filled with empathetic people who only want to help? I’ll never claim to know the
truth of what waits for all of us, but I hope if there’s anything, it would be appealing rather than
terrifying.

That said, the fact he can’t eat or sleep in death is very unappealing to me – but I suppose that’s because, unlike Wallace, I’m living and thus get hungry and tired?

Exactly. By stripping all that away, it leaves the spirit – in this case, Wallace – better able to focus on
themselves, whether they want to or not. It was also a matter of logistics – so, if ghosts eat, would
they need to use the bathroom? If ghosts sleep, would they still dream? What would those dreams
look like? It felt like getting into the weeds too much, so I decided to make it so they didn’t need to eat or sleep.

What are you reading, watching, and listening to at the moment?

Watching: What We Do in the Shadows Season 3 Listening: Woodkid’s new album, S16 Reading: My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones.

You include accurate, positive queer representation in your stories – what are your favourite examples of such representation in other writers’ stories?

Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is a transformative marvel, and I loved every second I spent
with her novel. Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light is a sexy adventure about a queer magician and
his new assistant. Next year, Anna-Marie McLemore releases a short novel called Lakelore that left
me speechless. I can’t wait for everyone to read it.

What other projects are you working on?

I’m always working on something. Right now, I’m in edits for the last book in my YA trilogy about
queer superheroes. It’s called Heat Wave, and releases next summer. Currently, I’m writing a darker
work that’s a queer take on the American true legend of Bonnie and Clyde. It’s early days yet, but
I’m having a blast spending time with bad people doing bad things simply because they can.

Do you have any holiday/spare time plans?

I’ll be with family after missing out last year due to the pandemic. Though I’m not looking forward to
flying across the country, it’ll be worth it to see my family again. And any spare time I have these
days is reserved for naps, because you know what? I’ve earned it.

Under the Whispering Door is out now…

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