Ellen Klages on the ‘fantastic constructs’ of her magical San Francisco

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[Ellen Klages has won her share of literary awards, but the biggest prize of all goes to the reader, who gets to explore the familiar, but distinct, worlds she creates. A San Francisco Bay Area resident since the 1970s, Klages paints a sparkling alternate vision of that city as literally magical in her World Fantasy Award-winning novel “Passing Strange” (reviewed here by The Fabulist). She spoke with us here about her relationship with San Francisco, its LGBTQ history, and the realities of oppression and liberation that weave through her real and imagined city of dreams. This interview has been edited for clarity, concision and continuity.]


THE FABULIST: In “Passing Strange,” you created a fantastical vision of San Francisco, which is already a fairly fantastical place with its own mythology. And before we get into the whys and wherefores and magic of your book, I wonder if you’d like to share with us a little bit about the setting, and what made you first fall in love with San Francisco and discover it as a haven or a refuge of your own. 

ELLEN KLAGES: I moved to San Francisco when I was just out of college. I had come to visit a couple times when I was a kid because my mother’s brother, my uncle, lived in Mill Valley, which is about 20 miles north of the city. And once a visit, we would come into the city and drive down from Marin through the tunnel, and there — suddenly the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay and the city on the other side. And it was like going to Oz. It really was the most magical thing. Even now, 40 years later, I’ve made that drive probably thousands of times, I still come out of that tunnel, and at certain times of day, that vista still takes my breath away. 

I told my mother when I was eight that I was going to move to San Francisco when I was an adult. And she said, “That’s nice, dear.” 

And then when I got out of college, my mother said, “now what are you going to do with your life?” And I said, “I’m moving to San Francisco.” And she said, “Well, this is sudden!” I shrugged. “I told you when we were visiting.” She huffed. “You were just a child.” 

Even a kid can tell the difference between Columbus, Ohio, and San Francisco. 

How did the real city of San Francisco inspire the semi-fictionalized milieu of “Passing Strange”?   

Not only is [San Francisco] a beautiful place, but it is a place that wears its history kind of like a layered garment. You’re walking around in the present and you turn the corner and there is a very 19th century building or or something from the 1920s. And this just fascinated me … all of that history was present if you knew where to look for it. And I started looking for it. 

I found out about Mona’s, which was the first lesbian bar in on the West Coast and possibly one of the first in the United States, and I had just come out … so the fact that there was any gay history at all was just amazing to me.

I went hunting. I went to the library and looked up old buildings and started writing a story [about Mona’s]. There are, I think, four scenes of it. But I was 23. They were not very good scenes. I was not even a baby writer — more of a fetal writer. But I kept those four scenes. And for 40 years, when I’d get a new computer I’d take files from one to the other, and think, “You know, one of these days I’m going to do something with this.” 

In 2015, Jonathan Strahan, an editor and friend of mine, started acquiring for Tor.com’s new novella program. And he said, “You want to write a novella?” 

I said sure. Then I went home to think. A novella is 40,000 words or less. So it’s a very, very long story, or a very, very, very short novel … and I thought, oh, I could actually finish the Mona’s story!

And that’s pretty much what I did. I think one sentence out of the prose that I was writing back in 1976 actually survived. But I kept the character names and most of my ideas about who they were and where they went. It grew from there. 

The bar Mona’s, as one of the key venues in “Passing Strange,” is a place for the lesbians of San Francisco in 1940 to escape to, and that resonates with this larger idea of San Francisco itself as a refuge or sanctuary. But both Mona’s in your story and the city in real life are flawed utopias that don’t always offer actual escape from America’s mainstream prejudice and bigotry. What are your thoughts about “Passing Strange” as a story of escape and refuge? 

I think any city is an escape. Because it’s so anonymous. If you live in a small town, everybody knows your business. If you move to a city, you are more free to go about your business to some degree without everybody knowing who you are and what you’re doing every minute. 

Emily Netterfield and Loretta Haskell are the two romantic leads in a story that has a rich palette of personalities, and both are “escapees” of a sort. 

Emily escapes just ahead of her family trying to commit her because she’s gay. In fact, that happened to her college girlfriend, her first love. This actually happened back then. People were committed for being gay. 

Committed to an asylum? Or gay conversion therapy, I guess they call it today. 

Asylums. Nursing homes, rest homes. They tried to cure them, using sometimes brutal methods, including electroshock therapy and lobotomies. 

Emily and her girlfriend were still in college, planning to move to New York when they graduate, get an apartment together and live gloriously free. And they get caught one morning in bed with each other. They’re both expelled. The girlfriend’s parents come and pick her up and take her directly to a “rest home,” and make plans to marry her off to somebody that will be tolerant of her checkered past. 

Emily doesn’t give her parents the chance. She jumps on a train and gets as far away as she could. She’s on the East Coast, so she comes to San Francisco. 

Haskell escapes an abusive mother and comes out here, too.

I think a lot of people move to San Francisco because they can be who they actually are in a way that they can’t be living in their small town or living with their family or whatever else it is that they’re escaping from. 

But at the same time, there are no utopias. 

Part of the irony here is that the women in your book escape to San Francisco, and create beautiful lives for themselves, but still have to “pass” as heterosexual. 

There are six women in the book. All six of them pass in one way or another in the course of the story. One of the things that I tried to do is make it very clear that inside their own homes, inside their own relationships, these women have extremely happy, fulfilling lives.

Outside in the real world, they have to hide who they are. They have to pass. 

Emily does drag at Mona’s. And that’s her job. She’s a singer. She’s not actually disguised as a man, but she was dressed in more masculine attire. 

And Babs has to use her sister’s address because she’s a professor at the university, and if they found out that she was living with another woman, she would lose her job. 

Polly at one point passes for being older than she is. And Haskell can pass as a “normal” woman out in the world. 

Helen is passing as Chinese — she’s Japanese American — in order to work at Forbidden City, which is another major venue in the story. 

Franny is the only one who doesn’t try to pass — she is uniquely herself.

The venues of “Passing Strange” are really singular … uniquely San Franciscan and uniquely set in that particular time — 1940. 

There are three venues in the story: Mona’s, which is a lesbian bar; the World’s Fair out on Treasure Island, which only existed in 1939 and 1940; and Forbidden City, which was a Chinese nightclub where white people could basically come and watch Asians in a non-threatening setting.

By “non-threatening” you mean a culturally removed setting in which tourists are able to witness and experience something different from their whiteness and the “normalcy” of their lives. 

The Forbidden City was outside of Chinatown. And so they didn’t have to actually go into Chinatown, which felt safer.

All three of those places were to some degree fantastic constructs. The World’s Fair was completely imaginary — it was a real place, people could go there for the day, but it was a fabricated world. They built an island, then a city on top of it. Like a fairy tale, all pastels and palaces — nothing like any city that’s ever existed.

And Mona’s was as much a haven for women in the neighborhood and women in San Francisco as it was a tourist attraction. There were literally buses that would take visitors from the World’s Fair to this bar to see actual queers. 

There was an exotic tourist culture — beside Forbidden City, one could go see Mexicans in a bar called Sinaloa, or men in drag at Finocchio’s. People from, say, the Midwest, had the opportunity to see the Other in the same way that they could go to the zoo and see an elephant without danger. Not too close, but you get to observe the elephant in its “natural” habitat. 

This huge tourist industry existed for visitors who came and looked at people that were not like them, and then went home with their stories: “You won’t believe what I saw, we went to this nightclub and there were girls dressed up as boys!” 

It was titillating to see the “exotic.” And it also kept places like Mona’s in business, because otherwise the cops would’ve raided them. Homosexual gatherings weren’t legal, but the tourists, ironically, made it safe for everybody. Trading some freedom for exploitation. For the price of letting people come and stare, the cops leave the place alone.

But at the same time, it was also one of the only places in the city where women could go and feel free to be themselves. 

As Helen says at one point, the dancers get to dance, the singers get to sing. She worked at Forbidden City, because no place else would hire a dancer that looked like her. Like Jack, the stone butch piano player at Mona’s, who couldn’t perform anyplace else.

These bars gave a sense of belonging and a sense of refuge for all of the people involved. And at the same time, they were kind of sideshows.

And as such they existed in this sort of half-world, I suppose, in which the Chamber of Commerce and the police can recognize it as an economic thing that brings tourists in. 

If you went to see a play in the Theater District, in the program along with ads for restaurants and fine tailoring, there were also ads for Mona’s and Finocchio’s and Sinaloa. Very much mainstream and not mainstream, at the same time. 

This double life, I guess that’s sort of at the heart of the name of the novella. “Passing Strange” is a specific reference. 

Yeah. “Strange” was code for “gay” in in a lot of things, especially back then. There were a lot of gay paperbacks, mostly for women, some for men, and they would have titles like “Strange Sisters,” “Strange Love.” There’s a book came out in 1931 for gay men that’s called “Strange Brother.” 

And “passing” I talked about. It seemed like an apt title for all of these people who are both coded and passing — and yet have perfectly ordinary lives when they’re just hanging around, you know, drinking wine and eating pizza. 

As you were talking about the World’s Fair, I was thinking of Disneyland, and “It’s A Small World,” where you have these caricatures of other cultures. Created in a fanciful sort of semi-automated, pastel-colored, stereotypical diorama. 

I think the Golden Gate International Exposition, the San Francisco World’s Fair, was at least self-sterotyping, because the pavilions were actually built by the representative countries. But the palette and design of the Fair as a whole was determined by committee. 

It was this beautiful artificial construct that you could spend days and days and days at, and see not only cultural artifacts and performers from other countries but also technological wonders: robots, innovations in sewing machines and vacuum cleaners and mimeographs.

And also art. Diego Rivera was at the Fair painting a mural, which now is at San Francisco City College. Go and see it. It’s stunning. And it’s one of the few parts of the fair that survived. 

Out on Treasure Island, there’s one airplane hangar that had been the Palace of Fine Arts, and a fountain. Other than that, all of the statues and all of the buildings were bulldozed to make way for a planned airport, which became a Navy base once the war began. 

Like I said, there are layers of the past in San Francisco if you know where to look.

That was one of the real pleasures of the book, having myself lived in San Francisco and being quite charmed by its beauties and vistas. You created a new vision of the city, an old vision anew and showed me as a reader the city in a way that I could not previously imagine it. You took us up Telegraph Hill above North Beach and showed me a vista of the Bay and Treasure Island, alight with the World’s Fair. You walked me down Montgomery to North Beach and showed me shops and culture and community and people and architecture. That was all incredibly vivid and revelatory. I wonder if you could share a little bit with us about your research process and turning the dry, dusty pages of history into something so alive as we found in “Passing Strange.”

I have never thought the pages of history were dusty or dry. I did a couple hundred hours worth of research for this book, and loved every minute. When I started working on it in 1976, I had notes, and I had programs from the theater, and I had all sorts of things I had saved for 40 years. So I have to thank my past self for not throwing it out. 

And I went to all of those places. I walked around. I took notes. Because the geography hasn’t changed. The light has not changed. The neighborhoods obviously have changed a lot. For a month I read about the history of Chinatown. I re-read all of Dashiell Hammett Continental Op stories, because he was writing about San Francisco in the late 1920s. He was actually there, and he has an amazing eye for detail.

At one point I got some View-Master reels of the Fair and could see it in 3D, which was really trippy. For me, historical research and historical fiction are as close as I can come to time travel. It’s really easy to find pictures of the 1939 Fair. Google “Golden Gate International Exposition.” It’ll take you fifteen seconds to type it and three seconds to come up with thousands and thousands and thousands of pictures. 

Mona’s, as far as I can tell, there are only maybe half a dozen pictures in existence. I have one shot of the outside from 1939 or 1940. And a couple of interior shots, not shots that they took of the interior, because nobody at the time would go to a bar with their camera. But they did take pictures of people with the singers, and then they would sell the photos in these lovely little silver envelopes that said “Souvenirs of Mona’s.”  You can sort of see the interior behind the people in the picture. 

And there are a few oral histories that archivists have at the SF gay and lesbian archives, interviews with people who actually went to Mona’s and talked about what it was like to walk in there. There are about four paragraphs of description about Mona’s that I’ve been able to uncover. And half a dozen pictures. And I turned them into a chapter. So that was possibly the biggest feat of imagination. 

There are a couple of books about Forbidden City and Chinese nightclubs, and a documentary film on Forbidden City, I was able to get a copy from the San Francisco Public Library and watched the DVD. When there were shots of the interior, I took screenshots of my laptop with my phone so I would remember exactly what the layout looked like. 

My job as a writer is to describe the setting a way so that it doesn’t feel like history. It just feels like you’re going out for the evening to a nightclub where you’ve never been before. 

You succeeded in that. And frankly, to me, it felt like a little bit of a privileged glimpse into another world and time that I could never go to. 

Nobody can go. The World’s Fair doesn’t exist anymore. The building that was Mona’s still houses a bar, but not a lesbian one, the chances are very strong that they’ve remodeled it in the last 80 years. Forbidden City closed sometime in the ’60s. 

When I look at a photograph of the city. I always want to peer around the corner and see what was in the back alley or see what was down the basement stairs. My sense of history is not the dry, dusty pages. It’s the stuff that people didn’t talk about. Because either nobody knew or nobody cared.

Let’s check in about the magic in this book.

I’ve been talking about history, but this book actually is a fantasy. It’s noir. It’s pulp. It’s queer. It’s a romance. But it is also a fantasy. 

I have gotten a lot of pushback from people who have said that there’s too much magic in my historical fiction, too much history in my fantasy. Peanut butter! Chocolate!

As a fantasy, the magic makes only a fleeting but critical appearance at a few key moments in the story. It’s not a dominant central presence as Tolkien’s One Ring, as the Force in Star Wars. It’s there, and it’s dominating those stories. But most of “Passing Strange” is about the emotional nuance of these sparkling and emotionally magical lives in the city. And then an actual supernatural thing happens. And it’s like seeing a rare bird on a branch and it flies away.

I’m going to object to that, because there is magic in the beginning of the story. They talk about the difference between magic and science and religion and beliefs and superstitions and supernatural stuff. And then there are little hints all the way through about magic. In every single chapter.

Here’s my feeling about magic: If you had a magic rock, would you talk about it all the time? If you had a magic rock that you could only use once, would you pull it out because the bus is late?

At my mother’s house and my grandmother’s house, there was always a cupboard that was way up high, over the stove. Nobody could reach it without a step stool. And that was  where the platter lived that was only ever used for Thanksgiving or Christmas, the good platter, the good teapot. Only for special occasions. 

And that’s kind of how I feel about magic. It is not for everyday use. It’s something that is a treasure, and it’s very rare, and it’s cherished to some degree.

And I was startled, when the book came out, how many people thought that I had just shoehorned the magic in the end for my own plot devices. Sigh. There’s talk about magic in the beginning, to set everything up. I put the gun on the mantelpiece, to use a literary metaphor, so I could have it go off at the end. 

There was a lot of setup and a lot of intentionality. And a lot of the magic is ancestral — about heritage and about culture. There’s an origami type of magic. There’s an Eastern European, Old World, old-Europe kind of magic. And they both appear to be handed down generationally to the people who wield it in your books. 

My fictional magic is either genetic — you have powers or you don’t — or it is a skill that you learn from, from somebody older than you, who has learned it from somebody older. Tradition and magic seem to go together hand-in-hand.

Will you be returning to these characters and this world in any future stories? 

Well, there’s a story that came out four years before “Passing Strange” called “Caligo Lane,” you can find it online [and] read it for free; it’s also in my short story collection, “Wicked Wonders.” It takes place three years after “Passing Strange,” but it is a very short story, 3,000 words, and entirely about Frannie’s magical process, in great detail. There’s also a story that takes place two years before “Passing Strange” about Polly called “Hey, Presto!” And I just finished and sold a story called “Pox” for “The Book of Dragons,” which will be out in July. That takes place in San Francisco in 1969, and both Franny and Polly are in it.

I might continue to revisit these characters, except for Emily Netterfield and Loretta Haskel. I will never go back to them, because at the end of “Passing Strange” they go off on an adventure of their own, and [there are] tens of thousands of ways that could go. I’m sure that if I wrote one version of how their lives unfolded, it would not be the same as what someone else imagined. I won’t write about them because I don’t want to close any of those possible  doors. 

That’s your privilege as the writer. You can tell us. 

No, no, it’s actually not, in this case. I left their fate open for interpretation, completely and totally, and each reader gets to imagine what they want to have happen next. I’ve taken them to exactly the moment I wanted, got them out of immediate harm’s way. But what their future holds belongs to each reader now, and I do not want to impinge on that.

In the early 1950s, there were hundreds of lesbian paperbacks. Some of them are cheesy, almost soft-core porn, some of them are actually really well-written, but the covers of most of them have a blonde woman and a dark-haired woman. And by the end of the story, almost always, the blonde-haired woman has discovered the love of a good man and has given up her sordid past. And the dark-haired woman either commits suicide, is killed, or is committed to an asylum as incurably insane. Those women were not allowed to have happy endings. 

There are a very small handful of paperbacks from that time that are exceptions. But there is a long, long tradition of lesbian stories, starting with “The Well of Loneliness” in the 1920s, where there cannot be happy ending because society — and publishing — won’t allow it. One of the things I was conscious of in writing “Passing Strange” was that I was determined for Haskel and Netterfield to have a happy ending, but not a Disney happy ending. 

No tying it up in a neat little bow.

Tell us a little bit about the other strand of your writing career. You’re doing adult fantasy and science fiction and you also write for middle grade readers and historical fiction

I’ve written three books of historical fiction for kids. The first one is called the “Green Glass Sea.” It’s about two eleven year olds who are growing up in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project while their parents are developing the atomic bomb. 

And the second book is a sequel to that, called “White Sands Red Menace,” which takes place about nine months later, after World War II has ended — the beginning of the Space Age, the beginning of the Atomic Age, the beginning of the Cold War, and the very first U.S. rocket launch. 1946 and 1947 is an odd time to set a historical fiction book, because it’s the eye of the storm: the world has just changed completely and dramatically, and everything is going to change again, but not quite yet.

The third book, “Out of Left Field,” features the same family, set in 1957. It’s about a 10-year-old who is a baseball pitcher, the best pitcher in her neighborhood. She gets scouted for Little League, tries out, makes the team. Then the coaches find out she’s a girl. And all bets are off because according to Little League’s handbook, “girls are not eligible,”  Period.

It’s also the year that the Giants and the Dodgers left the East Coast and came to San Francisco and L.A., respectively, the year that Sputnik went up, and the year Eisenhower had to call in the National Guard to help the students at Little Rock, Arkansas, integrate the high school. 

So the book is about baseball history, about the joys of doing research, about civil rights, about standing up for what you believe in and fighting to be included in something that you’re excluded from. 

And it won an award. 

It won the Children’s History Book Prize. And I went to New York in May and they had a ceremony and I got a medal. It was very exciting. And it won the Ohioana Book Award for middle grade. 

Congratulations. And of course “Passing Strange” won the World Fantasy Award in 2018. 

Yeah.The World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2018. It has been very nicely received. 

Should we be keeping our eyes open for any news stories or books, or even small- or big-screen adaptations? 

It has been translated into French and Spanish, but no film nibbles yet. If you’re a movie or TV producer, and you’d like to get in touch with me, my website is www.ellenklages.com

We really appreciate your participation and conversation and we can’t wait to read what else you have coming down the pike and look back at your catalog. Thanks a million. 

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Joshua Wilson is the editor and publisher of The Fabulist Words & Art.

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