TJ Klune is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling, Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, The Extraordinaries, and more.
In Flash Fire, the explosive sequel to The Extraordinaries, Nick Bell has landed himself the superhero boyfriend of his dreams, but having a superhero boyfriend isn’t everything Nick thought it would be. Nick is still struggling to make peace with his own lack of extraordinary powers. Meanwhile, new Extraordinaries begin arriving in Nova City, and long-held secrets are surfacing, secrets that challenge everything Nick knows about justice, family, and being extraordinary. Will it all come together in the end, or will it all go down in flames?
I spoke with TJ about Flash Fire, his journey as a writer, and how important positive Queer representation is in literature today.
I’m excited to discuss your new book. But before we get there, I want to ask you something that is important to Queerist. What does being Queer mean to you?
Being Queer means to live with Pride. Pride started as a riot. I think for too long, our voices have been silenced, neglected, or shoved aside, and it’s high time that we start shouting at the top of our lungs to make sure that we’re heard because if we don’t do it, nobody else will. Being Queer means being proud of who I am and making sure everyone damn well knows it.
Tell me about your path to becoming an author. Did you write when you were young?
Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in a very poor, rural area of Oregon, and I was the loud-mouth, effeminate kid with ADHD who, you could probably guess, does not do well in places like that. I didn’t know how to connect to my peers. I always felt like I had this otherness about me that made me different from everybody. When you’re a kid, being different might as well be a death sentence, especially in the 90s when I was growing up. I always carried a notebook around with me that I would fill with stories.
I started when I was 6 or 7 years old, and I just wrote story after story after story. Some were things I thought off the top of my head; other times, they were a form of fan fiction, where I would write myself into video games that I was playing. From there, I knew I wanted to do something with writing, but I didn’t think I was very good at the time. That’s a big thing when you’re a kid. Not having any support network in place can be very lonely. It can be very hard to cultivate yourself and your interests.
It wasn’t until I got into 7th grade that I met two teachers who would absolutely change my life, Mrs. Bentz and Mrs. Pfeiffer. They were my English teachers, and they were the first people to tell me that I was good at writing, that I was talented, and that I needed to continue with it. That was life-changing because it wasn’t something I’d ever heard before. Then, on our last day of classes, they told me they would see my name on a book in a bookstore one day. Because of them, I was able to continue writing and eventually publish my first novel in 2011.
I love that your Queerness, something that was a burden for you when you were younger, has become a strength for you in your work.
I was a kid twenty years ago—god, even longer than that now—but it’s crazy to think how much things have changed in the last twenty years, even the last decade. Ten years ago, Queer people couldn’t get married in the United States, and the fact that we are where we are now is amazing, but we still have quite a ways to go, as evidenced by the anti-trans laws that are popping up around the country right now. But yes, my Queerness is something that I weaponized in my 20s, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve softened and realized it’s something to be celebrated more than anything else.
So let’s talk about Flash Fire. You probably know more about this than I do, but there is a history of superheroes being coded as Queer (X-Men comes to mind). One of the things I loved about both The Extraordinaries and Flash Fire is how you not only honor that tradition, but you also allow the protagonists to be openly Queer, and that’s not an obstacle for them.
When I was writing The Extraordinaries, it was important for me not to make it a coming-out story. While coming-out narratives are wonderful—and far greater authors than I have written some great coming-out stories—these books were never going to be about coming out in terms of Queerness.
The reason for this is life doesn’t stop once you come out. Yes, we all love the books where a person struggles with their sexuality, and at the very end, they come out, and they’re happy, and life is wonderful again, but that’s not where it stops. Life goes on and on and on after that. If you think about it, Queer people come out for the rest of their lives; that’s just how it is because anyone we meet that’s new in our lives is potentially someone we have to come out to again. So I wanted to write about a group of teenagers who were already out and already over that side of things. They’re Queer, they’re proud, and nobody in their lives gives a shit about that in any way, shape, or form. Their parents know who their kids are, and they love their kids for that, and it was important for me to show that the coming-out trope, while valid, isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all.
I think that’s so important because there are so many books about coming out and the trauma around that. Obviously, these stories are important because these are issues Queer people still face, but these aren’t the only stories Queer people have to tell.
Exactly! It’s so much more than that, especially these days. It makes me sound like such an old man when I say this [laughs], but the kids these days are much savvier than I ever was at that age, and they’re coming into a world that’s more inclusive and more diverse. Is it perfect? Absolutely not; there’s still a bunch of crap that gets flung their way and our way and across all marginalized communities, but they are smart. They know when they’re being pandered to, and I just want to make sure that when we tell these types of stories, especially ones with Queer kids who are already out, it’s authentic to what a sixteen-year-old might be going through right now. That’s not to say that there isn’t still angst with coming out, because it will not be the same for everybody, unfortunately.
It feels like “capital-L Literary Fiction” seems to be behind that, that those stories tend to be the stories where Queerness is an issue. It’s all about coming out, abuse, trauma, etc., whereas you get more positive, different sides of being Queer in YA, sci-fi/fantasy, and other types of genre fiction. Has working in those spaces helped you to tell those types of different stories?
Absolutely. You have a book like Less, which won the Pulitzer Prize, that was about a Queer man going through his life, and it wasn’t about the trauma or anything. But you still have so much fiction where Queer characters are thoroughly trashed and thrashed and hurt and get sick and get killed and all that, and I’m so sick of that type of trauma porn. I’m so sick of seeing my community have to go through something like that. YA has always been at the forefront of diversity, and there are people in the “Literati” community that will scoff at YA, even still to this day, but it is a more inclusive space.
Sci-fi/fantasy has taken a little longer because it used to be a [cishet] white man’s game. But now, you have amazing authors of color, amazing Queer authors making their own mark and not even asking permission for space at the table, we’re shoving everybody out of the way so we can get our own spot, and that’s how it has to be and how it’s gonna be. But we need to remember that while we can respect all those who came before us, we aren’t beholden to the rules they created for the genre. The whole idea of sci-fi/fantasy is that it can be anything we want it to be, and it doesn’t have to look like a cishet, white male gaze.
I read a New York Times opinion piece on Queer coming-of-age stories, and there was a quote from that I wanted to share with you. “Y.A. writers today know that they’re writing not just for those who are the same age as their characters but also for those who long ago left high school behind.” In other words, Queer adults who didn’t get to live as openly and have those kinds of experiences in their youth get to live them vicariously through YA stories. Do you find that’s true?
Absolutely. I read something, maybe a viral tweet, that talked about how there’s a reason many Queer people go all-out when they enter their 20s and become very sexually active because we never got the chance to do that when we were in our teens. We never got to go hog-wild because we were so worried about what other people would think, we were looking over our shoulders and trying to do everything in secret. It basically made the point that many of us didn’t get the chance to live a youthful life like our peers did. Many of us had to hide who we were, either because we were scared ourselves or because the people around us made us scared and could have potentially harmed us. I think it’s so important that we can tell these stories, not just for kids these days—kids these days, there’s that line again [laughs]—but also for people who never got to experience that for themselves. I think that’s a very important reminder that YA may be geared towards younger readers, but it’s for everyone.
We’ve talked a lot about Queerness, but Flash Fire also features an ADHD protagonist and touches on the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality. I know you’ve discussed these topics in-depth in other interviews, but I wanted to ask you, as a creative, how you approach intersectionality in your work?
It’s important for me to be diverse and inclusive because the world is not white people. That being said, I have to acknowledge the privilege that I have because of the color of my skin. I have to recognize the blinders that come with that privilege. When The Extraordinaries came out, there was some very pointed pushback against the idea of policing, and that was absolutely fair. When I was writing the book, I wasn’t thinking in terms of police violence. I was thinking in terms of comics, how you have cops on one side and superheroes on the other, and that’s the reasoning for why I wrote the way I did. But that just shows my privilege because I wasn’t considering anything else, which is why, in Flash Fire, I approach those topics not just for lip service. I make sure that these threads of talking about police violence and police brutality stretch throughout the book and continue through the third and final book (that I just finished writing a few weeks ago).
When you get that kind of feedback, you’ve got to make sure you listen. I want to make sure that I do right by my readers and my characters, so I have to do the work. So, in addition to talking to people in the community about what it means to be a person of color dealing with the police, I also took an anti-racism course through a college in Colorado. That was important for me because it shouldn’t be up to marginalized communities, especially people of color, to educate me. It’s something that I need to do on my own. That being said, it’s also important to me that when I do include such topics, knowing I’m a white person writing about police brutality, that we have sensitivity readers, people from the communities I’m writing about who read the books to make sure I’m doing right by them and what I’m trying to say. Sensitivity readers aren’t there to tear an author apart. They’re there to point out when I get something wrong and make sure that what I’m trying to say is correct. I am absolutely indebted to them because of what they did.
I think that’s so great how you not only took that pushback into account but also went a step further and took that course and really tried to learn more.
I needed to do that. When you get critical feedback, the easy thing to do is to become defensive, and I’ve done that before. It’s harder to sit down and have an honest conversation with yourself, especially when it comes to unintentional biases. I strive every day to become a better person, and this is just part of that. I want to be a better person.
You mentioned the third book that you just finished writing. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
Yes! It is the big finale, and all of the threads I’ve been building over the last two books finally come to a head. If you’ve reached the end of Flash Fire and you got shoved off that cliffhanger that I left for you, just know that you may want to go back and reread Flash Fire to really pay attention to what could be coming ahead because things aren’t going to be quite what they seem.
I had a very firm goal in mind with these last two books of the story I wanted to tell, and I think people will be surprised by how it turns out.
You’ve been writing for a while, and we hope you’ll continue writing for a while longer; what would you like your legacy as an author to be?
Oh boy. One, I think I want people to go back and start reading my first books and then continue over the years to see how much better of a writer I became [laughs]. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had with my first books, but they are absolutely imperfect, and I hope people can see that growth. But more than that, I hope people remember that my characters and stories were always meant to be celebratory in their ups and downs. We often can scoff at the idea of happy endings. But, happy endings are important, especially for Queer characters, and I’ve always made it my mission to give my Queer characters a happy ending no matter what they go through in the story.
I hope that’s what I’m remembered for: I wrote from my heart to give Queer people the happy endings they deserve.
I love that. In the spirit of uplifting other Queer voices, I’m going to ask you for a book recommendation from another Queer author. It could be anything: any old favorite, something you read recently, something on your TBR pile, etc.
Light from Uncommon Stars, by trans author Ryka Aoki. It is probably some of the best writing I’ve ever read. I had the privilege of being able to read it early and write a blurb for the book. It’s a mish-mash of science fiction, fantasy, Queer characters, an almost entirely Asian cast, and it is flat out amazing. It’s Ryka’s first book with a major publisher, and she is going to blow the world wide open. I am so excited for everybody to read her book. It is going to change lives.
Pre-order Flash Fire: The Extraordinaries, Book Two
Flash Fire releases on July 13, pre-order your copy of Flash Fire here.