Writing the StoryYou Want to Read: An Interview with Author TJ Klune.
By Viviana Bustamante
For a very long time, fiction literature has featured mainly represented the heterosexual-cis population, while representations of minorities have remained static. But TJ Klune, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author breaks down conventions to create space for people who feel there is an “otherness” about them. "As a kid, growing up queer — having ADHD, but it was undiagnosed — there was just an otherness about me, an otherness that I know so many kids in my position would've felt at the time, and that otherness,” Klune said in a recent interview. “It speaks to you. It separates you. It doesn't allow you to think that you can relate to your peers in any way, shape, or form."
Klune was raised in a household where he couldn’t be himself. He was mocked for reading, writing, and acting too feminine. When he couldn’t sit still, his parents refused to take him to seek the care he needed for his undiagnosed ADHD. For a long time, he felt confined to a box that his environment trapped him in, and it wasn’t until he was an adult that he had the power to break free.
He can empathize with children and adults who feel invisible in a world where differences are portrayed as something to be feared or repressed. Now that he is an adult, he wants to show the world how he has grown in his “otherness” by writing stories in which queer characters are the heroes of their own stories. TJ’s works highlight the concept of bigotry in the world, calling out those who have caused others suffering because they are afraid of others who are different.
The Meaning behind The House in the Cerulean Sea
The Alex Award-winning book The House in the Cerulean Sea follows Linus Baker, a chubby, fussy, queer man in his 40s who is a by-the-book case worker in the Department of Charge of Magical Youth tasked with evaluating whether six dangerous magical children will bring the end of the world. This story addresses themes of family, hatred, and fear of the unknown, and while
the characters are clearly portrayed as magical beings, they represent a greater community of
The House in the Cerulean Sea illustrates the experience of being queer, demonstrating, through the magical, how people are often terrified of what they don’t understand. An aspect of Linus’ character is his struggle to overcome feelings of worthlessness and alienation from the world. He leans on his government job to give his life meaning. But as he spends time with these six "dangerous" magical children, he sees how despite experiencing the evil and the hubris of the world, they can still think freely. These magical children carry trauma that stems far before the start of the novel, having been called monsters and ostracized by their communities because they are different. These children gave Linus strength simply because they can smile in the face of threats and slurs from the prejudiced locals, helping Linus find the strength to change from a by-the-book case worker to a man who rallies against organizations condoning prejudiced law.
Fear is often the root cause of intolerance, but ignorance is intolerance by association. Linus learned who the real monsters in the world are, and it is not children; in fact, it is children who will show the world that our differences can and should be celebrated. "Children, young people, they are the future. One day and one day, very soon, all these boomer politicians will be gone, and it's going to be left to the younger generations to make the world how it should have been and not how it's been for very long,” Klune said.
Despite his good intentions, this book sparked considerable controversy, as part of the larger
public discussion on cultural appropriation in literature.
TJ Klune noted on an interview that the story was inspired by the Sixties Scoop, which describes the nearly 20-year era in which Canadian social workers forcibly removed indigenous children from their homes and placed them with white families or in residential schools. When the Canadian government paid reparations for this in 2017, Klune wanted to tell a story that revealed the ugly realities of institutional racism. But some said Klune should not have told this story because he is not indigenous and had no right to turn an actual tragedy into a fantasy novel with a happy ending — since there was no happy ending in the story he was inspired by. Others supported Klune, believing he was depicting the struggle of a marginalized group, particularly children, who overcome challenges with the help and compassion of others.
The House of the Cerulean Sea does not actually depict the Sixties Scoop, but citing it on
social media as his inspiration prompted criticism of the text. In the end, Klune's readers will need to consider his history of supporting marginalized voices on giving queer children a voice when judging this episode.
Illustrated by kidovna
The Power of a Teen’s Voice in The Extraordinaries
TJ Klune's Young Adult debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about Nick Bell, a 16-year-old fanboy obsessed with Extraordinaries, a group of people with abilities beyond human capabilities. Although Nick does not have a superpower, he is the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom, writing steamy stories about himself and his crush, the local hero Shadow Star. As Shadow Star saves Nick from a mugging, he realizes that the best love interest for a superhero is another superhero. By becoming extraordinary, he will not only be capable of fighting crime alongside his crush but will also be someone else—someone who will not disappoint. He'll be a hero and save those he cares about.
TJ Klune writes a happy queer story where boys with ADHD can get the big superhero epic that the hereto-cis world is too afraid to share. His own experiences as a teenager with ADHD inspired the details of Nick's personal experience with ADHD and how it affects his life, from his medicine to his interactions with family, friends, and school. TJ wanted to communicate through Nick how he discovered that his ADHD, like his queerness, is a part of him that he has grown to accept, and he wants to share that message with people who may not have been told these things."A lot of times, we see ADHD written as something to be cured, and I would not want to be cured,” Klune said. “If I was a kid again like Nick is at the beginning of the first book, he doesn't like his ADHD. I didn't either, but I learned to accept it. I learned to have it be part of myself because it is part of me, like my queerness."
When Nick learns to accept himself, he also learns to acknowledge and grow from his faults. Nick is the son of a police officer who has lived his entire life blindly behind his white privilege, unable to recognize police corruption. Yet as the story goes on, Nick begins to question the authority of these agencies and begins to think more critically about the world he lives in.
TJ Klune writes about children in these real-world situations because he believes the world underestimates what young people are capable of accomplishing. They may be writing smutty fanfiction about their favorite superheroes or jumping into a river of raw sewage, hoping to gain magical powers. They may act like a mess, but they can break down the mold society has built for themselves and create a world that is more than the heterosexual-cis perspective.
So many untold stories get buried under the voices of the majority. It's rare when forty-year-old chubby queer men or queer teens with ADHD are the main characters of their story, and it's creators like TJ Klune who make it their mission to write these stories.
UK Edition of The Extraordinaries. Cover art by Chris King. Design by Natalie Chen.
He has written almost two dozen novels and has no plans to stop. He is also a big supporter of fan culture and a member of the Star Wars Fandom, being a big Poe and Finn shipper himself. In fact, as part of his research for his character Nick, a prolific fanfiction writer, TJ wrote a one-shot fanfiction of Poe and Finn under a pen name on the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own. To this day, no one knows which of the thousands of Poe and Finn stories was written by this New York Times Bestseller author.
In his interview, he talks about his experience, the message he hopes The House in the Cerulean Sea and The Extraordinaries series would convey, and his experience with seeing fan art of his work.