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March 2007
Locus Magazine
Ellen Klages: Childhood Darkness
Ellen Klages was born Columbus OH. She attended the University of California at Berkeley, but dropped out in her sophomore year, spent time as a camp counselor and working at a book factory, then returned to college, graduating from the University of Michigan with a philosophy degree. She spent four years working as the self-proclaimed "minister of propaganda" for Harbin Hot Springs resort in Northern California, and later wrote for San Francisco science museum Exploratorium, collaborating with Pat Murphy and others on a series of science books for kids, beginning with The Science Explorer (1996).

Klages has published a dozen pieces of short fiction, beginning with Nebula and Hugo finalist "Time Gypsy" (1999). Other
Photo by Liza Groen Trombi

Ellen Klages, Author
stories include Nebula nominee "Flying Over Water" (2000), Nebula winner "Basement Magic" (2003), "Green Glass Sea" (2004), "Guys Day Out" (2005), "Intelligent Design" (2005), and "In the House of the Seven Librarians" (2006). Her short fiction will be collected in Portable Childhoods (2007). She was a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2000.

Her first novel, The Green Glass Sea (2006), is about the Manhattan Project, not SF, but "fiction about science," and should be of interest to genre readers. It recently won the Scott O'Dell Award for best American historical fiction. A sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, is forthcoming in 2008.

Klages also serves on the Motherboard of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and uses her improv comedy skills as the host of the Tiptree Auction every year at Wiscon, the feminist SF convention. She recently returned to San Francisco after six years spent living in Cleveland OH.
Excerpts from the interviews:

“For the most part, everything I've written is set in the past. They say 'Write what you know.' I find that it's not exactly who you are or what you've studied, but the way things make you feel, that provide the details that make my stories believable. I just keep coming back to the way something made me feel, and that gradually works its way into the story. It's like scrimshaw: tiny details. In some cases, an entire story takes place in either a very short time or a small space, and the details are what fascinate me because they're what make it real.

“My father says I have a memory like a lint trap. I have memory for emotional details and for textures. Like when I was a kid, and we were traveling and went into a grocery store where there were completely different products, different candy bars and kinds of soda. (That doesn't happen any more; now you go into a grocery or convenience store pretty much anywhere in the country, and it's the same stuff.) In 'Taste of Summer' there's a fictionalized version of an ice cream store I remember going to once on summer vacation as a kid. I wanted to recapture what it felt like going into it, the way that, because it wasn't near home, it was alien -- not scary-alien, just other.

“They also say science fiction is 'the literature of setting.' Sometimes it's a setting that had an emotional resonance for me, like the basement. For some reason, I loved the basement of our house, loved the way it smelled, and my story 'Basement Magic' came out of a nostalgia for how otherworldly something in my own house felt. I keep trying to recapture that feeling of going someplace new and not knowing what you're going to find. It's childhood -- not necessarily my childhood or anybody else's, but a sense of wonder that most people lose by the time they are adults and that for some fortunate reason I seem to have kept.”


“I write short fiction mostly, and I read everything out loud because it's the way I find the sentences that clunk. I'm also a performer, so I love to do readings. But when I've read 'Guys Night Out,' I could barely make it through the story -- and it's harder on the audience. It's one of those times when you suddenly realize that you are about to become emotionally naked in front of a roomful of strangers.

“Another story that I hadn't realized the power of until I read it to an audience was 'The Green Glass Sea', a version of which eventually became the last chapter of the novel. I looked up at the end of the reading, and the audience was stunned and terrified, although no one in the story was, and nothing had actually happened on the page.

The Green Glass Sea is my first novel. It grew out of that short story -- I knew what the relationships between characters were, the whole atomic background, and that I wanted it to start in '43 and end in '47 the weekend of the Roswell UFO sightings (which it doesn't). Though a novel has a very different structure, I just started writing pieces of it, exactly the same way I write short stories, and allowed it to grow.

“There's darkness in it, but nobody is scared in The Green Glass Sea except the reader. The Manhattan Project was in some ways like a Worldcon for the best scientists in the world: for three years, they all got to live with their own tribe. It was science camp, in a weird way. I think what I brought to it from my own life was the sense, from having worked at the Exploratorium, that art and science come from the same sense of curiosity.

“But fear is a major theme in the next book, which is a sequel whose working title is White Sands, Red Menace. The kids are in junior high, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, which is about 75 miles from the Trinity site and 60 miles east of what is now the White Sands Missile Range. It's where they trucked 300 boxcars of captured V-2 rockets that the Nazis had been using to bomb London and about a hundred captured German rocket scientists, so we could have a space program.”


“I like writing from the point of view of children, but I didn't write The Green Glass Sea as a children's book. I didn't change my vocabulary or my tone or my way of working, or anything else about it. It's certainly a book that children are enjoying and understanding, but my grown-up audience seems to be equally big. The book's about nuclear physics and the Manhattan Project. It's not World War II Lite or Atomic Bomb Lite, and part of that is because I wasn't really conscious of an audience -- of any age -- while I was writing it. I just wrote it for me, which is the way I always write.”

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.