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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Ellen Klages and Passing Strange

Ellen Klages joined us on the show to talk about her novella, "Passing Strange," which appeared on as it turned out, precisely two years before our chat! The story is set in San Francisco in 1939, and includes magic. As Ellen said, "It's our world. I didn't make it up, but I did get it on the page."

I asked Ellen what had been the initial seed of this novella. As it turns out, the novella has a very long history! Ellen told us that she started writing a novel or a short story or something in 1977 when she was 22 or 23, and had just moved to San Francisco, and just figured out that she was queer. She ended up wandering around a lot, learning about Mona's and many of the other locations that appear in the novella. She did a lot of research and did what she described as cosplaying Haskel and Netterfield with her love of the time. She told us she thought it would be a novel. She had four scenes typed, and would read the scenes every few years and say to herself, "Damn, I should do something with that."

Then, years later, Jonathan Strand asked her for a novella for By that point, Ellen says, she had four or five folders full of notes and photographs put together from all her years of research. At that point she did 3 1/2 more months of research before writing. She read about a dozen books on Chinatown. She said she started there because it was "the thing I knew I had to get right." She filled eighty pages with notes, most of which didn't get used. One page, which she showed us on video, was filled with Haskel's signature. She explored the gay and lesbian historical archives about Mona's.

Three of the characters in the story, Babs, Polly, and Franny, have appeared in other works of Ellen's fiction. In "Out of Left Field," Babs and Franny appear as relatives of the main characters. Polly appears in "Hey, Presto!" and Franny in "Caligo Lane."

I asked Ellen why she included magic in the story, and she told us that honestly it was because the story would appear at, and she felt compelled to make it fantasy. "I would have viable magic if it killed me." The original scenes she wrote were straight historical. She had written a story about Franny and the origami magic earlier, so that magic was preexisting, but she knew Franny couldn't rescue Haskel and Netterfield with her magic because it's not her book. She had to figure out a way for Haskel to save them. She spent six week noodling stupid ideas in Google, including learning the name for pixie/fairy dust in 37 languages until she found "tunderpör," which is Hungarian.

The art that Margaret Brundage did for Weird Tales was a critical piece of research for the story, because that turned out to be Haskel's profession.

It took Ellen eleven months to write the story, following each piece to the next piece. She had lists of creepy Weird Tales adjectives, and was proud to tell us that she used forty of them in two pages at the end of the story. Initially she said she thought the whole thing would be written as pulp, but that wasn't how it ended up working out. She describes the story as being "like phyllo." It has forty or fifty different layers. She didn't want the research to shout, "Research!"

Cliff asked Ellen about how she chose what to feature, given that the past contains so many things that are familiar to us and so many that are unfamiliar. Ellen told us she doesn't explain very much about what is going on. She describes a lot of the 1939 World's Fair because it existed for two years and then was bulldozed. She went to the location of the fair to see views of the city so she could describe what the city looked like from there. A lot of it was just details tossed in like "used the pay phone in the luncheonette" which is not so alien as to need a lot of explanation. She says three percent of what she knows ended up on the page... otherwise it would have been a giant infodump.

Ellen was trying to stay under 40K words, the official novella length limit. When she had one chapter left to write, she discovered she already had 52K words. In the end, she had to cut 19K words out of it. That's an enormous amount! She told us that no whole scenes were removed, but a lot of unbearably clever dialogue had to go. She trimmed sentences down as much as she could, line by line, cutting all flab and repetition. She told us, "I tend to use 'so' a lot." She described it as like making a sauce. "You just keep reducing it." It gets smaller and more concentrated and the flavors are reduced to their essence.

Paul asked Ellen what draws her to this time period. Ellen says she is fascinated with the twentieth century, particularly with "stuff I just barely missed." She says she has no interest in the future because "it could be anything." Ellen says she has always liked antiques and old junk, and the smell of old books. She calls it "as close as you can get to time travel." "I like to write about places where I wasn't." She says she likes to look at a picture and peer around the corner. She has viewmaster reels of the fair in the 1940s in 3D. "The stuff that tourists want to see is not what I want to see."

I asked Ellen how the character of the art collector/pulp dealer Marty Blake came into the story. She said he came in very late. She told us that she's always imagined that Haskel looked like Lauren Bacall, and initially she wanted the frame story so that someone could say she looked like Lauren Bacall (this wouldn't have been possible in the time period, because Lauren Bacall wasn't known yet). Once she had the frame story, Ellen needed details for it. She read Dashiell Hammett continental ops books, and in both of the Chinatown stories, there was a basement with a hidden doorway. She wanted to do a version of this that would not be like a cliché. She also wanted to be sure that Helen could be as active as she was at age 100, so she found the story of a 100 year old Japanese woman who was a swimming champion.

Ellen had established that Helen would have the painting, but needed to figure out what she would do with it. Destroy it, obviously - but bringing in the pulp dealer allows her to talk about the history of the pulps. She wanted a sleazy guy, and had to drop the idea of him calling her Lauren Bacall because it worked better if Marty thought Haskel was a man. Ellen also asked herself why Helen would cheat the guy, and finally came up with the idea of her friend who had been ripped off, and Helen giving away the money as charitable donations and tips. She had to put the gotcha scene with Marty right at the end.

Apparently the frame story of Helen and Marty confuses a lot of people, perhaps because the novella has chapters and suddenly jumps into the past with a totally different set of characters. Ellen said she relied on her editors to say if it was too confusing.

Ellen loves the cover image for this story. She says it's one of the few times a book cover has been essential to the plot.

Pastels as an art form were chosen for her, because those are what Margaret Brundage worked in. They have a slightly fuzzy quality, and a sense of depth because their surface is not flat. When she did research on pastels she learned how fragile they were. In fact, Margaret Brundage's career ended when her publisher moved from Chicago to New York because it was so difficult to ship the pastel works without damaging them. This sent Ellen into researching medieval fixatives. She couldn't use varnish because it yellows and cracks. Then she learned about fish glue! At one point she had 3-4 recipes for fish glue, and tried to figure out how important it was to explain. "I could get 3 pages of notes down to 2 1/2 sentences.

Ellen says her favorite sentence is one that follows the scene where they eat raspberry rings, when Helen comes to deliver fish guts for the fish glue: "You know, most buildings only have the milk delivered."

Ellen imagines Netterfield as a very young Katharine Hepburn. Because she had Hepburn and Bacall as very clear images for the two characters, she watched five or six Bacall and Hepburn movies to get the cadence of their dialogue and use it in the story. She says she never reads aloud from scenes where Haskel and Netterfield are together because "I just can't switch" between the two voices which are so different in cadence. The two actresses formed a key part of the worldbuilding, which Ellen described as "laying a concrete foundation for myself." She's been thinking about these characters for 40 years, and says at twenty-three she would have loved to see a romance noir with Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn as the romantic leads. By the time she started worldbuilding, she could already hear the characters' voices in her head.

We asked if she had expected the story to be as successful as it has been. Yes and no, she said. When she finished her distillation (sauce-making), she was certain it was the best thing she'd ever written. She could pick up 4-5 pages without finding anything to change. After an incredibly messy process, it turned out to be the best ever. "You hope the editor won't go, 'meh.'" But the beta readers loved it and the ARC got a good review. Sometimes when things come out in January, 6 weeks later no one remembers, but in this case, people still remembered it and were talking about it at Thanksgiving.

In fact, "Passing Strange" has received seven or eight award nominations and has won three awards. It gave rise to the best year ever of Ellen's career! Yaaay! Ellen said at one point there was hardly any competition at the novella length, but now publishes 44 novellas a year, which has changed the game. Ellen told us the ego part of her thought "of course it will do well" and the writer part thought "no one will remember." But people did remember, and they are still talking about it two years later, which doesn't happen often.

Ellen tells us "I write slow. I love research so much more than writing." Writing is in third place behind research and editing. She especially hates first drafts. She writes longhand in a notebook, and then types it into a computer because she can't read her own handwriting.

She said when she was worldbuilding this she did some of it with actual visits to the locations, like Telegraph Hill looking out at Treasure Island at dusk. However, she also worked at home with her phone, iPad and laptop all open at the same time showing 3-d views out toward Treasure island. She said she "sat there doing the Vulcan mind meld" and then wrote a description. She said she did go to North Beach and eat raspberry rings, and walk around Chinatown and eat dim sum.

Ellen told us the top of the TransAmerica building was where the Montgomery block was, and that's where Haskel's studio is. She walked around the neighborhood a lot in 1977 and in 2008.

She said she knew Diego Rivera was at the World's Fair, and that Frida Kahlo had paintings on display at the fair but was coming in person later. She couldn't find out which Kahlo paintings were on display, though, and then on Ebay late one night she found someone selling the catalog of the art building from the 1939 World's Fair. She bought it, figured out which paintings were present... but the catalog was in black and white, so she then had to look up what the painting had looked like in color. That's research dedication!

Ellen also used the 1939 San Francisco phone book to find names of luncheonettes and laundry places.

She loves the cover art for the story. She was able to buy the original art, and keeps it at home.

What a treat it was to have Ellen on the show! Thank you so much for giving us your insights, Ellen, and thank you to everyone who attended.


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