PCL Reads: The House in the Cerulean Sea with TJ Klune

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Book cover of "THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA" by TJ Klune, featuring an illustration of a brick building at the top of a steep cliff. Next to this is a photo of author TJ Klune (a white man with glasses and a close beard, wearing a baseball cap). Rhode Radio logo banner along the bottom of the image, featuring the text "Rhody Radio" next to an illustration of the state of Rhode Island wearing headphones.

Aimee: You're listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.


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Hello, everyone, I'm Aimee Fontaine, Library Supervisor at Rochambeau Library, one of the nine neighborhood libraries in the Providence Community Library System. I'm really excited to share with you the 2022 PCL Reads kickoff event with author TJ Klune. PCL Reads is our virtual citywide One Book One Community initiative, that began in 2020 and is hosted by one of the PCL libraries each month. I was lucky enough to be invited to host this year's kickoff and was thrilled when my favorite author, TJ Klune agreed to participate.

Klune is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, The Extraordinaries, and most recently, Under the Whispering Door. Being queer himself, Klune believes it's important, now more than ever, to have accurate positive queer representation in stories. We couldn't agree more. I give you TJ Klune.

Klune: Hi, I am TJ Klune, and I am so grateful to be here. This is actually my first event back after having like a six-week holiday, and being able to have some downtime. I'm very excited to be here. Before I talk about the reason we're here, which is books, obviously, I want to tell you a little story, which does a few things. It explains why I became a writer, why I love libraries, librarians, and teachers, and the power that some people have to change lives even if they don't realize they're doing just that.

I grew up in Oregon, outside of a town called Roseburg in a tiny little community by the name of Melrose. We were poor, but then many of the people in this community were. [00:02:00] Imagine, if you will, a kid like me in a rural, poor setting. Undiagnosed ADHD, always moving, never shutting up, and even more scandalous. I was effeminate, which when you're growing up where I did, paints a pretty clear target on your back. I found the escape through books and writing.

One of the greatest things I've ever owned in my life was my library card. Books were considered a luxury that we couldn't really afford, and if we did get books, they were usually from garage sales with torn pages and ripped covers featuring Fabio. Had delightful titles like The Pirates King's Concubine, or The Dupe's Unplanned Pregnancy. Please don't think that I'm making fun of '80s romance novels because like most things out of the '80s, myself included, were kitschy, and a little bit ridiculous, but the library.

The library, I used to ride my bike in Newtown almost every day during the summers just so I could spend hours in the Douglas County Library. I read everything I could get my hands on, fiction, nonfiction, books that were far above my reading level. I still read them even if I didn't understand three-quarters of the book, and the librarians never once made me feel like I was the weird kid who liked to read rather than spend summers outside. Instead, they were the best enablers.

They saw how hungry I was for books and fed my addiction with relish. Reading is so fundamental in becoming a writer. I've talked with writers before who say they don't read much anymore and to be honest, that absolutely blows my mind. Do all readers need to write? No, of course not, but I'm a firm believer that all writers need to read because in addition to writing, reading help expands our minds, helps us figure out what kind of voice we will have as writers.

I read every single day because like the rest of my body, my brain needs exercise and books play a large part of that. Reading paved the way for me wanting to become a writer. Around the same time I started [00:04:00] going to the library on my own, I began to carry around a notebook. I would fill it with all the stories I could think of. Mundane things like what I had for lunch, or imaginary things like where I enjoy my favorite video game character at the time.

Samus Aran from the game Metroid, and together we'd fight evil space aliens bent on the destruction of the galaxy, but I never shared those stories with anyone. My home life wasn't exactly a place that encouraged or fostered creativity. It wasn't until seventh grade that I met two women who would change everything for me. Mrs. Bence and Mrs. Pfeiffer, my English teachers. During the school year, they gave us an assignment. We were to take a good or a funny memory we had and turn it into a fictional short story.

For the life of me, I can't remember what I wrote about. The biggest thing I remember is turning in our stories after we completed them, and having the horrifying realization that instead of being delightful. All the women my teachers turned out to be demons bent on my devastation. There are reasons for that. Why? You might be asking? Because instead of waiting to grade the stories after we'd already left for the day, the teachers gave us busy work and then divided all the stories and started to read and grade them right in front of us.

Now, imagine, if you will, the absolute terror I felt in that moment. I'd never really shared a story with anyone before, and here I was now drenched in sweat, watching my very obvious new kids on the block, Trapper Keeper get closer and closer to the top of the pile. By the time Mrs. Bence opened my folder, I was an absolute mess. I sunk down, lowered my seat, pretending to work, but really, I was watching her reaction as she read.

A strange thing happened. Mrs. Bence chuckled, and then again and again, and then she began to laugh loudly. A minute later, she called for Mrs. Pfeiffer, and she read over Mrs. Bence's shoulder. By the time [00:06:00] they'd finished, they were laughing so hard, they were crying. It was then I realized the absolute power of the written word, that certain words placed in a particular order could bring joy to people.

I think some part of me knew that, after all, I've read many, many books by that point, but I'd never had anyone be happy because of something I've written. It was transformative in ways that even though I'm an author with over 20 books under my belt, I still have a hard time explaining. In my last class with them, Mrs. Bence, and Mrs. Pfeiffer told me they couldn't wait for the day they would walk into a bookstore and see my name on a book on a shelf. I am proof positive of the effect good librarians and good teachers have on kids. Without them, I don't know that I'd be here today.

As I've always tried to say when I give these talks, if you haven't done so recently, thank a librarian, thank a teacher, the good ones, and it's my belief that most are good. See potential in their students and do whatever they can to cultivate that. Now that you know a little bit of my background, I hope that can help explain why I write the things I do. I am a product of my youth, both the good and the not-so-good. I don't know where I'd be without having people who encouraged me, people who said they believed in me, especially when I didn't get such things at home.

Let's skip ahead a few decades to the fantastical year of 2017. Toward the end of that year, I felt like I was in a bit of a rut. I was with an indie publisher and had been since 2011. I was getting the feeling that I needed to see what else was out there in the publishing world. 2017 was a very strange time in this country. Not to get too political, though sometimes people need to be reminded that as a queer person, my life is inherently political, as people feel the need to pass laws about my existence.

Keep in mind, it was only two years ago, [00:08:00] or two years before that, in 2015, that queer people got the right to legally marry countrywide. There was a president in the White House in 2017, who seemed bent on tearing beyond marginalized communities. Anytime I turned on the news, there was another terrible story about politicians on both sides of the aisle, or cruelty of the common man, or just something as equally as awful. I've been playing around with writing a book about kindness for a long while.

The premise would be about magical children in an orphanage guided by an enigmatic man. All of them had to do with the social worker who came to investigate them to ensure they were bringing about the end of the world. It wasn't going to be some big adventure with Hugh Jackson set pieces of battles for people dressing up in costumes to save the world. I didn't want it to be that, I wanted it to be something much smaller, a character-driven novel about carving out a place in the world that relish division.

The book became The House in the Cerulean Sea. For a slight refresher, the book follows one Linus Baker, an employee in the department in charge of magical youth. His job is to inspect orphanages to make sure that children are being treated well. He was like I had been, at one point, stuck in a rut. The only color in his life being his cat, his records, the sunflowers in front of his house, and a little mousepad at his work with the legend, "Don't you wish you were here?"

On a day that appears it'll be like all the ones before, Linus was summoned by extremely upper management and given a top-secret assignment, to investigate the inhabitants of the Marcius Island Orphanage. While there, and because of Arthur, and Zoe, and Sal, and Phee, and Lucy, and Tally, and Talia, and Theodore, and Chauncey, Linus begins to realize that the world isn't as he thought, and he has a chance for a different sort of life if only he could be brave enough to fight for it. Not only that, he understands the part he played, becoming an unwitting cognitive [00:10:00] bureaucratic machine that did not care for the people they claimed to represent.

There are bigger elements at play in The House in the Cerulean Sea, but there are a backdrop to most of the story. To me, Cerulean Sea is about joyful discovery, about setting aside preconceived notions and realizing that mistakes were made, enormous mistakes that had repercussions the world over. Can Linus change everything? No, of course not. He is only one person, but as it says in the novel, change starts with the voices of the few.

Writing this book was honestly some of the best months I've ever spent authoring the book. Not only could I be weird, where Pomeranian or whatever Chauncey is, but I could be weird in ways that made me happy, and that happiness spread throughout the book. Does anything monumental happen in the story? Is there an earth-shattering moment that changes everything? No, not exactly, but then it's not that kind of a book. Instead, I wanted to focus on the idea of otherness, things that set us apart from one another, that some people feel the need to weaponize. How does that affect children?

How would it be if instead of being studied in catalog and regulated, children are given the space to grow and learn and be whoever they wanted to be, regardless of where they came from? What would it look like for a group of dangerous children who had known only bigotry their entire lives to find a place where they were celebrated rather than denigrated. I finished the book. I can be extraordinarily critical of my own work, but it felt a little different with Cerulean Sea for reasons I still don't fully quite get. Since I had already set out to change my own future, I decided to take another step. I sent the novel to an agent.

She read it, signed me, and then changed my entire life by selling Cerulean Sea and a bunch of other books to McMillan and Tor. There I was on top of the world. As the release date of March 2020 got [00:12:00] closer, I began to get more and more excited. As we hit 2020, I knew it was going to be my year and I couldn't wait to see what happened next. I'm pretty sure you all know what happened next. In March of 2020, the world, the place I had been uncomfortable back in 2017 and 2018, had written an entire story in response to that world descended into absolute chaos with a stupid thing, known as COVID-19.

Here I was asking people to read a book about kindness and the antichrist, all while everybody we were losing their absolute minds and buying like 30,000 rolls of toilet paper. Washing every inch of their skin as if that wasn't something they probably should have been doing already. Then a weird thing happened. The book came out and people began to read it. More and more people picked up the book over the year until 10 months later in January of 2021, it landed on the New York Times best-seller list for eight weeks. That was my dog, agreeing with what I just said.

Why did that happen? That's what I ask myself. My dog is asking that question too, why? Why over and over? I don't know if there's one correct answer. Maybe people wanted an escape from reality. Maybe they wanted to feel something other than encroaching dread. Maybe I'd written a good book. Maybe it was all of this. Maybe it was none of it. I like to think that people were remembering the same thing I'd learned back in seventh grade, that there is power in the written word. I don't consider myself a children's author. I never have. If you've read any of my other books before Cerulean, you'll know that to be true as they are considerably more adult.

Then I started to hear from families, from parents and guardians, from aunts and uncles, from brothers and sisters, all telling me that they had read the book together with kids. I didn't know what to do with that. I didn't know if I wanted that label because it might set expectations for [00:14:00] future books that I couldn't meet. Then something happened that made me reevaluate. I do not look at my social media direct messages. I used to until the message started getting, let's just say that I have some idea how it feels to be a woman online and getting unsolicited pictures that I did not want to see.

One day, I accidentally clicked on Facebook messenger and saw a few words that caught my attention. I opened up the message and saw a huge block of texts. At the top in brackets was a message from a father. He said the message that followed was from his young son and that he was going to be typing exactly what his kid said. What followed was a stream-of-consciousness breakdown of all this boy's favorite parts of Cerulean, that he loved how they were gay people in the book like his two dads.

The part that both wounded and healed my soul came toward the end. This boy said that he hadn't been able to go to school because of the pandemic, and that he was feeling lonely since he couldn't see his friends. But then he read Cerulean and he didn't feel as lonely anymore because he had friends in Chauncey, and Sal, and Talia and Lucy, and Theodore and Phee. At the end, he asked if I wanted to see a picture of his Chauncey Halloween costume. In my excitement, I immediately replied, "Hell yes, I do." Then immediately panicked because I had just told a minor, hell yes, I wanted to see his costume.

I apologize said, "Oh my God, please ignore that first part, and please, please show me the costume, I needed it like air." He did. His dad sent the picture. In it, there was this gap-tooth green boy weighing a bright green full-body spandex suit. On his arms, he detected suction cups for Chauncey's tentacles. On his head, he attached two painted paper towel rolls. On top of the rolls, two little golf balls with eyes drawn on them. That's it folks. [00:16:00] That's the power of the written word. Not because of what I'd written, but because of what he'd written to me.

If you are thinking, I might have been a blubbery mess after reading all of that, you'd be right. I was. I've heard from countless people since releasing my first books, messages of gratitude, of anger, of happiness, of sadness. I even remember almost verbatim, the very first email I got from a reader shortly after my first book came out. This message, seeing this kid in his costume and hearing that something I'd written didn't make him feel as lonely. I knew then that if I'd never wrote another book, I'd have done at least one good thing with this awesome responsibility placed upon me. Luckily for me though, it wasn't my last book.

Last September, I released Under the Whispering Door, a book with similar themes of kindness and found family. However, that's where the comparisons stop. Under the Whispering Door, is a book about grief, of righting the wrongs of the past even if the future is unknowable. Though not related to Cerulean in terms of the world they take place in, Whispering Door was the nexus step in my ideas of kindness, so much so that I labeled these books as part of the unofficial kindness trilogy. The first being The House in the Cerulean Sea, the second Under the Whispering Door, and a third novel that comes out in 2023.

Whispering Door follows a scrooge-like man named Wallace Price. In the opening chapter, he's callously firing one of his long-term employees. Wallace is a lawyer with his name on the mask head, and he wants things done his way or no way at all. Wallace is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good person, and then he dies. That is not a spoiler, by the way, it happens in the very first chapter. The next thing Wallace realizes that he's at his own funeral and only five people have come. His three law partners, his ex-wife, and a mysterious woman he's never seen before.

Outraged that no one is mourning him in a way he expected, he startled when the strange woman says she can see him when [00:18:00] no one else can. She tells him her name is Mae, and that she is a reaper. "Wallace," she explains, "Is dead, and it's time to prepare him for what's next," but instead of heaven or hell or somewhere in between, Mae takes Wallace to a tee shop in the middle of a forest. In this tee shop is the owner, a man named Hugo, but that's not all Hugo is. Hugo is also a fairy man, person whose job it is to help the recently dead accept their new reality and to help them get ready to cross through the ever-autonomous door.

Grief is a tricky animal to write about, no two people experience grief in the same way, and yet there is still something universal about it. If you live long enough to learn what love is, you'll know loss, and with that loss comes the destructive and potentially cathartic power of grief. I know grief. I've lost my father, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, my partner, to whom Whispering Door is dedicated to. The first funeral I ever attended was for my father when I was five years old, and it would not be the last. Chances are you know grief too. We don't just grieve when we lose someone, we grieve over big things, over little things. There are big death and little deaths. We grieve over time lost, opportunities lost.

One of my favorite TV shows of all time, The Good Place, put it best so much so that I used a variation of the line in Whispering Door, everyone is a little bit sad all the time. I wrote Cerulean and Whispering Door before the pandemic. Though I wish the world was in a much different place, I think these two books came out exactly when they were supposed to. Cerulean gave people an escape to an island where kindness was the lesson of the day. Then, in September of 2021 came Whispering Door, a bookend to where we were then and where we are now.

Because I don't know that we've allowed ourselves to grieve over the past two years, over the people we've lost the time, the opportunities. The change that everyone [00:20:00] single one of us has had to make in this new normal, we find ourselves in. I wrote Whispering Door to try and grapple my own grief of losing a man I loved. I wrote Whispering Door because I wanted to remind people that sometimes it's okay not to be okay. I don't know what will happen tomorrow or the day after or the day after that. If you had told me in March of 2020, that we'd be here now almost two years in the future, and still in the middle of the pandemic, I wouldn't have believed you.

I believe in us as a people, as a world. Perhaps that is a bit naive, especially when people seem to constantly provide evidence as to why humanity is all but lost. Even knowing how cruel and vindictive can be power-hungry, unafraid to step on others to get what they want, I still believe we have the power to change things for the better. I still believe that words have power. I still believe because I had librarians and teachers who believed in me. That it takes only one person to make a difference, and if that person can do it, then the rest of us can too.

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Aimee: Thank you so much for listening and thank you, T.J. Klune for taking off the 2022 PCL read series. Be sure to check out the Providence Community Library website for future PCL reads events at provcomlive.org. The best way to step to date on any of our programming is to sign up for our e-news at the bottom right-hand corner of the main page.

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