Interview: Ellen Klages

Ellen Klages is a thoughtful writer with an uncanny knack for mining the fantastic from the everyday.  A finalist for the John W. Campbell award, her SF/F writing has garnered her numerous award nominations and inclusions in “Year’s Best” anthologies. Her story “Basement Magic” won the Nebula Award in 2005, and her novella “Wakulla Springs” (co–written with Andy Duncan) won the World Fantasy Award in 2014. Klages not only spins tales touching on fantastic elements, her historical fiction has been lauded as fresh and captivating. In 2007, her novel, The Green Glass Sea won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, among others, and was selected as the One Book for One Nebraska for Kids.

“In The House of the Seven Librarians” is set in the memory–library of our childhood and is a story that any book lover will immediately take to heart. Whether or not we actually had a Carnegie Library in our lives is irrelevant, we instantly recognize the magical charm that is at the heart of all the best libraries. Universal topics of love, loss, and yearning are made all the more poignant by the presence of the mystical, yet extraordinarily orderly Librarians. This story will make you yearn for the days of card catalogs, dust motes in sunbeams, and the evocative, unmistakable smell of books well–worn and loved.

Uncanny Magazine: At the end of “In The House of the Seven Librarians” you recount your inspiration for this story. It is clear, from both those notes and the story itself that libraries, and librarians, are important to you. Has there been an influential, “feral” librarian in your life? A special library?

Ellen Klages: The library in the little town I grew up in was like a second home. I based some of the interior of the story’s library on my memories of it. (It’s been remodeled and expanded in the intervening years, and when I went to visit, I barely recognized it. Sigh.) 

My mother’s best friend, my “courtesy aunt” Harriet, was the children’s librarian there. And the librarian in my elementary school, Mrs. Jones, was canny enough to see that, even when I was six, I was a voracious reader. She let me check out all the books I could carry, rather than the one–per–week that other first graders were allowed. 

Most of the librarians in the story are based on a book guardian from some era in my life—I mixed and matched and scrambled the names and the descriptions, though—and I stole Marian from The Music Man.

Uncanny Magazine: The Carnegie Library is a magical place, both figuratively and literally. The story is filled with magical and mythological elements such as the Seven Librarians, Dinsy’s three wishes, and her subsequent offering of a half–eaten cookie to the library. You’ve talked in the past about your circuitous writing process and how you winnow down to the final tale. Were there any elements that didn’t make it into this story? Any darlings that were sacrificed?

Ellen Klages: Not in this case. (Well, I did have about 11 pages of description of what Stacks look and feel and smell like, but I didn’t sacrifice any of it, just reduced it, like a good sauce, down to a one– or two–paragraph essence.) I had been thinking about this story for about six months, and when I finally sat down to write it, the first draft mostly came out all of a piece, in about five days. 

Uncanny Magazine: The story sets up many instances of dramatic tension: The Men in Suits vs. the Librarians; timelessness vs. the appearance of new, worthy books; progress vs. tradition; chaos vs. order; the desire to stay vs. the desire to leave. These are huge ideas yet they are presented gently, even orderly. What was the thought process in deciding on the tone of the story? Was there any temptation to make this story bigger, louder?

Ellen Klages: None at all. Why would I write a LOUD story about a library?

In terms of the big ideas, I really wasn’t thinking about them, at least not consciously. As I was writing, it felt very much as though I was letting the Library—and the Librarians—tell their story, and the details just flowed out of my pen. It’s one of the oddities about writing—that library and those librarians were more real to me than the little cabin in which I was writing. I wasn’t writing about them as much as I felt as if I was there, watching them, and taking quiet, careful notes.

Uncanny Magazine: Libraries have changed tremendously, even since this story was first written. Do you think modern libraries still offer the same sort of mystery and magic as the nostalgic library featured in your story?

Ellen Klages: The library in the story is very much the library of my memory, more than 50 years ago, now, and for me, a wooden card catalog is more magic than a computer. But I think that if you are a reader and a book person, the library (or libraries) of your childhood, will always be The Library to you. It really is the place where so many of us first discover the mysteries and wonders of the world. It is a haven, a portal, a doorway to anywhere. And I suspect that is just as true for kids today, even if it is a place that is much more multi–media. 

As Dinsy says:

Letters! In her very own alphabet. Did they spell words?
Maybe the drawers were all full of words, a huge wooden box of words.
The idea almost made her dizzy.

I hope that sense of wonder remains part of everyone’s library experience, whether the words come in a box, on paper, or on a screen.

Uncanny Magazine: This story, originally published in 2006 is much beloved and features on many “favorite short story” lists. I recently saw it recommended as a host gift for the 2015 Midwinter ALA meeting. Why do you think this story resonates so strongly with readers?

Ellen Klages: For the same reasons as in the previous question. For those of us who are lifelong readers, a library really is a magic place. I tried to make this particular library both nostalgic and timeless, and I think that allows readers to be transported back to their own favorite library. And that’s a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for giving Uncanny Magazine readers insight into this lovely story.

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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