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Our Books, Our Shelves: TJ Klune’s Wish for Us All: Solace in the Queer Community

Book cover. (Image: Tor Books.)

The first time I went out into the world to celebrate with my community, I was told I was going to Hell. I was an abomination. I was living a life of sin. I would only know fire and brimstone unless I changed my ways.

I was 18 years old, attending my first Gay Pride in Tucson, Arizona. The streets were awash with people and rainbows, glitter and drag queens in beautiful costumes. A few years later, I’d be comfortable enough to dance (horribly) on a float that wound its way down 4th Avenue, but in 2000, I wasn’t quite there yet.

Still, I felt like I had found my home. My people. I was with others like me, queer people who refused to live in the shadows. Generations of queer people who had come before me had allowed me to have this moment, to step out into the sun and shout into the world that I existed, that I was here, and I wasn’t going anywhere.

It was a different time. There was no social media, at least not like there is now. Gay marriage was still 15 years away. A majority of people in the US were against queer people, as if their opinion was necessary for us to exist. When queer people were shown in media, it was usually tragic tales of suffering, sickness, and death, all in service of our straight counterparts to teach them a Very Valuable Lesson. We were conditioned to think we were broken, deficient, sin personified.

At my first Pride, a shaggy man stood on the corner with a bullhorn, surrounded by a few others holding signs with cherry-picked Bible verses. He screamed above the noise of the parade, telling us he was a messenger of God, that the children were being corrupted. This is, unfortunately, typical. Even now, when you go to pride parades, you’ll have people like him, people who claim to represent an all-powerful being who hates us for who we are, even if we’re all supposed to be made in His image. As I walked by him wearing a tight shirt and rainbow beads around my neck, he pointed at me and said, “You’re going to Hell.”

I laughed at him, even as my insides squirmed uncomfortably.

I didn’t know then what I know now, why Tucson Pride came into being. Chances are, you know of Matthew Shepard, the gay man in Wyoming who was beaten, tortured, and left to die outside of Laramie in 1998. He did die, six days after he was found.

But do you know about Richard Heakin?

Richard was a twenty-one-year-old gay man who, in the summer of 1976, drove from Nebraska to Tucson to visit a friend. After leaving a bar—the Stonewall Tavern—he was beaten to death by four teenagers who decided to “hassle some queers” (according to court testimony). Tried as juveniles, Richard’s killers were given probation. That bears repeating. Four murderers got no jail time. They were free to go about their lives as if they hadn’t taken one.

Richard’s tragic end was the first time that the queer community in Tucson, Arizona came together, outraged that Richard’s death mattered so little, his murderers walked free with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. A year later—1977—Tucson became one of the first cities in the nation to add sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination laws.

That same year, fifty people gathered in a park for the first Tucson Pride. And they’ve continued on every year since, growing bigger and bigger.

I didn’t know about Richard Heakin when I went to my first Pride. I wouldn’t know his story for years to come, but I remember being so stupefied as this self-proclaimed man of God told me I was going to Hell, that I didn’t say anything back. I knew people hated us—hated me—but I didn’t have time for such things. I shook it off and continued on with my friends. Others jeered the so-called preacher, laughing in his face, shouting to drown out his voice so the only voices that actually mattered could be heard.

This was—and frankly, still is—the reality for so many queer people. We were told we weren’t going to Heaven when we died, that we’d only know suffering for eternity. Generations of the queer community have heard the same from people claiming to represent God. We would never know the eternal peace that straight people would when we closed our eyes for the last time.

Under the Whispering Door is a book about death. It’s a book about the power of grief. It’s a book about trying to become a better person, in realizing a life lived selfishly is not a life lived at all. The main character, Wallace, is a bisexual man who believes the world is his for the taking, and that nothing will stand in his way. And then he dies, and realizes the world is far more mysterious than he first realized. That death—for all its power—is not an ending, but the beginning of something else entirely. He’s taken to a teashop where a man named Hugo awaits. Hugo, whose job it is to help the recently departed continue on to what’s next.

Wallace—being Wallace—does not want to cross, and demands that this terrible mistake be fixed. It cannot, of course; time only moves in one direction, a river ever-flowing. And so, through fear of the unknown, Wallace stays in the teashop, refusing to go through the door that awaits him, the door that calls to him in whispers. In his journey he finds a family, a home where one should not exist, and a love in Hugo that is more powerful than death.

This novel isn’t religious by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not supposed to be. I am, for lack of a better term, lazily agnostic. I don’t know if I believe in a supposed higher power. I don’t know if I believe in the idea of Heaven and Hell. I don’t know what happens when we die. No one does, at least no one living. Is this it? Is this all there is, and when we die, there’s nothing? Is this our only chance to be the best version of ourselves?

I don’t know, and that haunts me.

But I know what I’d like to believe, even if I still find it hard. I’d like to believe that there’s more. I’d like to believe that it doesn’t matter if you’re queer or not. I’d like to believe that whatever’s out there loves me for who I am, and doesn’t care about the things I’m not.

Under the Whispering Door is my fervent wish for all of us, that when we’ve reached the end of our lives, something wonderful awaits us. But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t more for queer people. This is a book for everyone, but I wrote it because I wanted my community to find a bit of solace, no matter their beliefs. To show them that we deserve to find everlasting peace just like everyone else. I didn’t set out to answer what, exactly, comes next, and I stuck to that. But in the end, that’s not the point.

The point I strove to make is that it’s there for all of us. To prove to that preacher who told me I was going to Hell simply because I’m queer was wrong. He was. I might not know what comes next, but I know he was wrong. He has to be. I’m not the best person who ever lived, not even close. There are days when I’m not even a good person. But I try. Still, I try. Because I’ve known loss. I’ve known grief. I’ve known the pain of a mortal life, and this cannot be it. It just can’t be. And if it’s not, it means that those we’ve lost are waiting for us. That we will find them again, one day.

I want this so badly, and not just for me. I want it for everyone in my community who has ever been shouted at by a preacher with a bullhorn. I want it for everyone in my community who has ever suffered at the hands of others for speaking their truth.

I don’t know what happens next. But what I do know is that we’ll all find out, one way or another. It is inevitable. We are born, and we dance and ache and love and persevere, and then…well. We’ll find out, won’t we?

And I aim to prove that preacher wrong.

Get your copy of Under the Whispering Door here.

About the Book:

A Man Called Ove meets The Good Place in Under the Whispering Door, a delightful queer love story from TJ Klune, author of the New York Times and USA Today bestseller The House in the Cerulean Sea.

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead.

And when Hugo, the owner of a peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace decides he’s definitely dead.

But even in death he’s not ready to abandon the life he barely lived, so when Wallace is given one week to cross over, he sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Hilarious, haunting, and kind, Under the Whispering Door is an uplifting story about a life spent at the office and a death spent building a home.

About the Author:

TJ Klune (he/him) 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. Being queer himself, Klune believes it’s important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive queer representation in stories.

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TJ Klune (he/him) 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. Being queer himself, Klune believes it’s important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive queer representation in stories.