Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 19b - Interview with Ellen Klages - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/02/10 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: Today, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is delighted to have Ellen Klages as a guest. Ellen’s fiction has included multiple finalists for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, and has had wins in the Nebula and World Fantasy. Welcome to the show, Ellen!
Ellen Klages: Thank you.
H: So, one of the reasons I hoped to get you on the podcast is to talk about your novella, Passing Strange, which is something of a love-letter to mid-20th century lesbian culture in San Francisco, as well as being steeped in the geeky world of pulp sci-fi, with something of a magical twist. It also has an incredibly gorgeous cover. What inspired you to write Passing Strange?
E: I started writing what eventually become Passing Strange in 1977, so 40 years ago. I was just out of college, I had just moved to San Francisco and I fell completely in love with the city. I started looking into its history and I discovered the, sort of, nascent gay bar scene, which was Mona’s, which was, I think, the first lesbian bar on the west coast. Fortunately, my past self actually saved the files and I had written four scenes of a story whose working title was The ’39 Fair. And every time, they were typed, and when I got a computer, I entered them into a file, and every time I got a new computer, I would switch it over, and switch it over, and switch it over. So, for 40 years this story has been following me around with these four, unrelated scenes and these two characters of Emily Netterfield and Loretta Haskel, and that was kind of all I had. But I would find it every once in a while, when I was gutting a new computer and I would go through files and I would go, “You know, one of these days, I’m actually gonna write that story.” And then Jonathan Strahan emailed me and said, I’m an acquiring editor for Tor.com, they’re doing a novella line, would you like to write a novella. And I thought, “Sure! Don’t know what… Wait! I could write the San Francisco story!” And so, I pulled out these 40-year-old files and did a whole lot more research and fell in love with it again.
H: And I think I saw somewhere that you have a short story with the same character who does the map folding magic, which we’ll have to explain in a second.
E: There’s a character named Franny, whose last name is actually Travers, but you don’t know that in any of the stories. And, yeah, there’s a story called “Caligo Lane” that came out on Subterranean Online in 2014, that is a sequel to Passing Strange even though I hadn’t written Passing Strange yet, that explains in great deal just exactly how Franny’s magic works. And because it came out first, in the novella I don’t explain how Franny’s magic works, because I already did that. There’s six characters in the novella, three of them are from other stories, three of them are brand new.
H: So, why don’t we give a little synopsis of the story.
E: It takes place in 1940 in San Francisco. There are six characters, they’re all women, which people have remarked upon as if its extraordinary, which I suppose it kind of is…
H: Well, it won’t be extraordinary to my audience.
E: If it had been military SF and it was all guys, nobody would have blinked, but it’s six women. There’s Franny and Babs, who are a couple. Franny is something along the lines of a witch and Babs is a math professor at the University of California. There’s Emily Netterfield, who is the black sheep of a fairly wealthy family on the east coast, who is working as a night club singer in drag. There’s Loretta Haskel, who is an artist who draws covers for Weird Tales, or the Weird Tales equivalent, draws covers for the pulps. There’s Helen Young, who is an Asian-American, although at that time she was just an Oriental, who is a lawyer, and because she can’t any jobs as a lawyer because she’s Asian and she’s a woman, dances in a night club called Forbidden City. And then there’s Polly Wardlow, who is a British refugee, because it’s 1940, so there’s a war in the rest of the world, but not in the US. And Polly actually also appears in a story called “Hey Presto” that came out in, it’s in a couple of ‘year’s bests’ from 2014, but that’s Polly’s origin story. So, those are my main characters.
H: And one of them the magical elements in this story is this map folding magic that enables people to essentially teleport. It’s sort of an in passing “this thing just happens.”
E: It lets them teleport, but only within the city, because it doesn’t work… Franny hasn’t figured out how to make it work farther than about a mile, so what she does is she draws maps and then she folds them into origami. And imagine taking a map of the US and if you folded it one way, New York would be on top of San Francisco and you could just walk from one city to the other. And in essence, that’s how Franny’s magic works, although it’s a lot more complex than that is and involves… yeah, it’s more complicated.
H: Then another element… magical element in the story is the artwork, which…
E: And, well Haskel has, from the beginning of the story, and I’m just going to do an aside here that I’ve had a lot of people complain that there’s magic at the beginning and there’s magic at the end and it seems tacked on. And my view of magic is that, if you actually had magic, it would be like that platter that you keep in the cupboard over the stove that you only get down at Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve. You know, it’s not everyday china, you don’t use it every day, so it’s special. So, they don’t talk about it through the entire novella, although people that are expecting high fantasy are disappointed by the fact that it’s mainstream in the middle. It’s a mash-up story. It is about the pulps, it is noire, it is historical, it is queer, it is fantastic, it was magic realism, but it isn’t all of those at the same time. So, the other element of magic is that Haskel’s grandmother comes from, we will call it “The Old Country” and has given Haskel a necklace as a high school graduation present. And Haskel’s necklace actually appears in every single chapter and at the end you find out that Haskel’s necklace is more than a necklace and that it will, because she’s an artist, it becomes pigment that becomes a painting that gets them out of a gnarly situation. And I won’t say anymore than that because that would be a spoiler. But there are several different kinds of magic.
H: I want to talk about the historical aspects of the story, and I know that a lot of what you write is historical in some fashion, you have a wonderful set of, I don’t know if they’re YA or Middle Grade, The Green Glass Sea.
E: They’re 9 and up and “up” that I know of is 96, so yeah, they’re published as children’s books.
H: That are set around a young girl whose parents are working on the Manhattan Project during WWII.
E: Yes, and she actually shows up in Passing Strange. She does a cameo and Babs, Franny’s lover, is her aunt. So, somebody pointed out to me, after the fact, something that I hadn’t quite put together, which is that this now means that Green Glass Sea, which is a completely different mainstream historical fiction, now exists in a world where magic is real.
E: So, these things are all interconnected, but yeah… Yeah, I love, I love the past. A lot of people thing that science fiction is always set in the future or on another planet and, for me, the future… I have no interest in the future because I don’t know what it’s going to be. It’s many forking paths. It could be anything. And I’m not particularly interested in speculating on one of the ways it could be, but I love going back and looking at the past and looking at what we know about the past and then trying to look around the corner at the stuff that didn’t get talked about, or didn’t get written down, or that was taken for granted at the time, or that we now take for granted, and trying to bring the readers who live in the present face to face with the realities of the past in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s really educational.
H: Yeah. Is there anything other than a general love of history that got you started writing historical stories?
E: I just love the past. I mean, I’ve always, ever since I was a kid, I would go to used bookstores and I would be drawn to the books, not the new books, but the older books. Flea markets, garage sales, I am drawn to things that existed before I was born and they just… you know, there’s something right about the colors of an old magazine or an old View Master reel or even old maps. So, since I was old enough to have an allowance, I have collected old stuff and everything from the past has a story. And I’m fascinated by the stories that didn’t get told.
H: So, I know that you’ve been very involved in lesbian culture yourself, but was there any particular challenge in writing lesbian characters in a historical era that you weren’t around for?
E: Yeah. 1940 is way before I was born. Most of the challenge… Well, there’s two challenges. One of them is not making their lives be extraordinary, because they aren’t. They are living ordinary lives but in a period in which their ordinary lives were illegal. Literally illegal. It was against the law to be gay. And trying to get that across to modern day readers, especially younger modern-day readers, who grew up in an era that is post-that, or at least in San Francisco, which is where I live. And the other challenge is trying to make the past come alive so that you feel like you’re getting the back-stage tour, like you’re not reading about history, you’re actually slipping through a little bit of time travel and going back and walking the streets and seeing what used to be there and what would have been. And a book part of the book is… There’s three settings, there’s Mona’s, which was a lesbian nightclub that was primarily for tourists? Which is why the police let it go, but it was also the only place in town where gay women could hang out and be themselves. And then there is the Chinese nightclub, the Forbidden City, where most of the performers were not actually Chinese. They were Japanese, they were Korean, they were Filipino, they were… one of them was Spanish. And then there’s the World’s Fair and a lot of people don’t know that San Francisco had a World’s Fair in 1939, they know about the New York World’s Fair. San Francisco actually built Treasure Island to have a World’s Fair in ’39 and ’40 to celebrate the opening the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge and then they were going to turn it into San Francisco International Airport. And then a war happened the Navy took it over. So, Treasure Island is still out there, but there’s no trace of the fair. And I have always found that particular fair just to be like, the most romantic thing…
H: I thought some of the buildings were still there.
E: No, there’s nothing. There’s one hangar and there’s a part of one fountain. And there used to be a Treasure Island museum, but they didn’t have any funding, so everything is boxed up in a warehouse someplace. But I have always, since I moved to San Francisco, found the idea that this really uninteresting island that’s two miles out in the bay, that the Bay Bridge goes through, that you pass through, had this fantasy land in it. And one of the things that I wanted to do was work as many fantasy elements and some science fiction elements into a mainstream story. So, it really was called “The Magic City,” Treasure Island was, the Fair was, and it was full of things that looked like they came out of something Arthur Rankin would have illustrated, or the cover of a science fiction pulp. You know, these buildings that would never exist in real life and larger than life stuff. And so I wanted to try to bring that to life, mostly for myself, because boy I really have always wanted to go there and, of course, it was gone 15 years before I was born, but also so the readers could go to this magical place that no longer exists.
H: Yeah, on the theme of time-travel as it were, I think you said this was your first story that was published, “Time Gypsy”? Which has an actual over time-travel element and is, again, connecting the modern lesbian experience with the 50s.
E: Yeah, that one is set in ’57 and it was my first story. And it got nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo, so apparently, I knew what I was doing. And again, the science fiction element is very slight. I have enough time-travel, I mean I read Stephen Hawking, figured out a way that there could possibly be time-travel.
H: And, as I understand it, it’s a modern physicist, I think?
E: Yeah, it’s a PhD in physics at Cal.
H: Who travels back in time to meet her hero or something and, why don’t you give a brief synopsis.
E: It’s a woman named Carol McCullough who has a PhD in the history of science, and she’s called into the dean’s office and said, “You know about this crackpot scientist from the 50s, Sara Baxter Clarke.” And she’s like, “Yeah, I did my PhD thesis on her…” And she’s worried that she’s like, going to lose her job because crackpot physicist. And he basically says, “Well, she was right. There is time-travel. We figured out most of what she was doing, but her last paper was lost when she died in this tragic accident the day, she was supposed to present this paper. We figured out enough that we can get you back there, but we can only do it once because the energy requirement is… and we think her paper can solve that. So, we want you to go back, make friends with her, get the paper and bring it back to us.” So, she goes back, meets Sara Baxter Clarke, they fall in love because it turns out that Sara Baxter Clarke was gay and had a beard as a boyfriend. Then they decide not to send the paper back and it gets very convoluted as they plan the accident that everybody knows is what killed her, but it doesn’t and it is, yeah. It was so much fun to write, and it was my first story. So, it’s really exciting. And it does harken back to a lot of the themes of Passing Strange. Of, really it was not ok to get caught being gay in the 40s, or the 50s, or the 60s, or, depending on where you lived, the 70s, 80s, or 90s.
H: Uh huh. Yeah. So, I know that a lot of your books recently have been more aimed at the YA audience. Have you ever done queer characters for YA or are the two streams not really meeting?
E: I’ve got two novels that came out ten years ago that are middle grade and I just finished one… Some of the characters overlap, so if you want to find gay themes in the middle grade books, they’re there. If you don’t, they don’t jump out at you. The only novels I have ever written are middle grade novels for kids. They’re also historical fiction. Other than time… well, there’s usually women characters… Ok, there’s women characters in all of my short fiction. There are a lot of gay characters, but I don’t make a big deal out of it because I don’t feel that’s my job. It’s like, there are two women, they’re lovers, and this is what happens. So, Passing Strange was the first time since “Time Gypsy” that I think I’ve written a long piece that was overtly, overtly queer. And it’s not… I mean, eventually some grad student is going to put everything I’ve written together and find themes and that will amuse me, but they’re not separate, I don’t write under a different name, they’re just sort of out in the suburbs versus the stories that take place in the city.
H: Uh huh. So, would you like to let our listeners know where they could find information about your books online or do you have social media they could follow if they wanted?
E: If you’re on Twitter, I am @eklages, on Facebook, I think I’m just Ellen Klages. Passing Strange came out from Tor.com in January of 2017, you know, this is December, it’s the end of the year and a lot of very, very good things have come out this year. But you can go to Tor.com, your local, any bookstore that carries a decent collection of science fiction and fantasy, would either have it or be able to order it. You can go to the usual online places and, if you want a signed copy, contact Borderlands books in San Francisco, because they’re 10 minutes from my house and they will call me, and I will drive down and sign copies and then they will mail them off to you.
H: Yeah, I’ll put all these details in the show notes to make it easy for people. So, thank you so much for sharing your time with us here at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project.
E: Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you so much for having me.
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Ellen Klages Online