WBBT Interview – Ellen Klages
Sweet jeebus, Ellen Klages is awesome.
No, I’m sorry, I’m not going to pretend to be a disinterested party here. Because it is frigging true, and here’s the proof. The woman, a master of the fantasy genre, goes out and writes a work of children’s historical fiction called The Green Glass Sea, right? Everything from unnatural seabeds of radioactive straight-outta-Oz glass and superhero comics went into that novel. Well the book gets raves. It gets applause. It gets kudos. And then it happens to get a Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction which, let me tell you, they do not hand out to every Tom, Dick, or Jerry. So what does Ms. Klages do? She turns right around and writes us a sequel to Green Glass called White Sands, Red Menace. Now there’s a book that knows its stuff. So when I got a chance to interview Ms. Klages I knew precisely what I wanted to talk about. Everything from "Operation Paperclip" to spinthariscopes, of course. The fact that this woman makes for a fabulous interviewee doesn’t hurt matter any either.
Fuse #8: Okay, let’s jump into it. I noticed that in the course of White Sands, Red Menace you knew an awful lot about a practice the CIA called "Operation Paperclip" where Nazi scientists were hired by the American government. Generally we don’t hear a lot about that in adult fiction, let alone children’s. How did you run across this information and how did you work it into the book?
Ellen Klages: One of the things I love about research is that in the course of looking for one bit of information, I frequently stumble onto another, even more interesting subject. Back when I was working on The Green Glass Sea, I did some reading about the German atomic scientists, and found out about other Nazi programs — like von Braun and the "rockets" that he was developing to bomb London. Discovering how he and the other Nazi rocket scientists got to America was both fascinating and disturbing; I’d found one of those hidden parts of history that no one seems to know about.
What’s more intriguing than a long-lost secret, right? So I kept digging.
I found two books about "Project Paperclip" (the name comes from how the files of these particular Germans were marked by the military in late 1945 for separate processing), both written in the 1980s, after many of the documents had been declassified. I read that von Braun signed forms requisitioning slaves from Dachau to work on the V-2 assembly line, and that the army was aware of that, but chose not to prosecute him as a war criminal, because they wanted his expertise — and the rockets / missiles — more.
And sixty years later, no one knows that?
At the end of WWII, there was a lot of disagreement among the scientist of Los Alamos about the ethics and morality of using the Bomb. I wanted to put that into GGS, so that readers would know there were two sides to the story. And so, in the sequel, I wanted to present what I saw as a similar moral dilemma about the V-2s.
The challenge for me as a writer, was how to have two teenage girls discover something that was not public knowledge, secret information that no one, outside army intelligence, knew. It just wasn’t realistic. Then I found the May, 1945 issue of LIFE magazine, with the photo of the bodies outside the Nordhausen factory, with a caption that said that they were among the 20,000 slaves who had died building the V-2s. That was something Suze would have seen, and it gave me what I needed to have her put two and two together — along with the reader.
Does it still matter? I think it does. I think that the ethics of scientific research is a very current issue. Stem cells, cloning. How far can science go before it’s too far? There’s a lot of debate in the medical field about using data compiled during the horrific medical experiments done in concentration camps. Some say it should never be used; it was obtained in the most inhumane ways possible. Others say that it may save lives in the future, and that good outweighs the original evil.
There are no easy answers, but I believe that it’s important to ask the questions. I hope that White Sands, Red Menace will inspire readers — both adults and kids — to ask their own questions, have debates, think about how choices we make now might affect the future.
Fuse #8: You’ve chosen such a distinctive time period to write about. It’s that nebulous era right after the war but before McCarthyism became full-blown and it’s not a time that a lot of authors gravitate towards. What drew you to this era?
Klages: At first, it was because I wanted the story to continue without too much time passing. I didn’t want to pick up the girls’ lives right after the war, but I also didn’t want to age them more than a year or so. Therefore, 1946 and 1947.
When I started reading about the period, I knew almost nothing about it. The 1940s appears to be the only five-year decade in American history. The war ends, and boom — now it’s the Fifties. At least according to most history books.
As I started reading, I realized that it was not only brand-new territory for historical fiction, it was a really fascinating time. Everything had just changed, and people were still reeling. Everything was about to change again, and people were choosing sides. The future was looming, just beyond the horizon, and no one knew if it’d be the end of the world or the beginning of a brave new one.
I once described this book as a history of the future, because that’s what struck me most as I did my research. The past was over, and magazines, books, ads were all looking ahead. Rockets to the moon! Ovens that would cook dinner in five minutes! Atomic fuel pellets that would cost pennies and run your car for a year!
What had been science fiction was becoming reality. (At least some of it.)
As an SF writer, as well as a historian (and a citizen of that far-off future, the 21st century) that was very fertile ground to explore.
Fuse #8: As with Green Glass Sea you have brainy Dewey and artistic Suze. But now you’ve added Dewey’s hot motorcycle riding mama. Where on earth did she come from?
Klages: I wanted Rita to be the last person on earth anyone would expect to be Dewey’s mother — or Jimmy Kerrigan’s wife. What’s the opposite of an atomic scientist? In my first notes she’s a stick-figure stereotype — a slovenly, drunken biker chick.
As I wrote other parts of the book, I kept putting her off, creating most of the other bits and pieces around her. Because stereotypes aren’t very interesting, and I didn’t know what else to do with her.
I read a few books about contemporary women and their bikes, and then found out that the American Motorcycle Museum was 20 miles from my dad’s house. So I went. Their library had a bound volume of a 1947 motorcycle magazine that not only had some photos of female bikers, but also some interviews. These women talked about freedom, about not just staying at home, not being content to do what other people expected them to do.
In other words, they were strong, independent women at a time when that wasn’t much valued. Very much like Terry Gordon, but in an entirely different way.
The light bulb went on, and Rita began to evolve.
She became a fundamentally good person who had made some bad choices. Like many women of the 1940s, she’d been on her own, had to support herself. Rosie the Riveter, on wheels.
She lived her life on her own terms, didn’t care much what other people thought about her, because she was doing what she wanted to do. She was pretty self-sufficient, because she’d had to be.
Sound familiar? By the end of the book, I’d discovered that Dewey is very much her mother’s daughter.
Fuse #8: It’s natural to assume that with the amount of research you do for these books, you probably have a lot of information stored up about the early space program. Have you ever felt inclined to write a non-fiction or informational title about this era?
Klages: No, I’ll leave that to someone else. I love research, and am fascinated by history and science (and art, and popular culture). But what delights me is using that very solid reality as a setting for my imagination to play What If?
Historical fiction is, for me, the best of both worlds — the certainty of what actually happened combined with the endless possibilities of the characters I get to create to live there.
Fuse #8: After you wrote The Green Glass Sea you told readers that you had an actual piece of The Sea in your possession. Do you have any eBay goodies collected in conjunction with White Sands, Red Menace? Or, if not, do you have any desire to get ahold of something in particular?
Klages: My writing process is very visual and tactile. I traveled to White Sands and Alamogordo, taking notes and pictures, but I couldn’t travel to 1946.
So I use photos and objects from the period to both inspire me and to give me the sort of details that make the past come alive.
While working on WSRM, I had a huge stack of magazines: a complete year of Seventeen magazine (1946), one each of Popular Mechanics (1947) and Popular Science (1946), and several dozen issues of LIFE, and a handful of others. The wallpaper on my laptop was full-screen photos and postcards of "downtown" Alamogordo in the late 1940s.
I’ve said before that writers are magpies — the world is full of shiny things that I need to line my nest, many of them on eBay. In various parts of my (oh-so-cluttered) house are: an ad for the Kix Atomic Bomb Ring (from the Sunday comics); the ring itself (more than 15¢, these days….); six or seven different spinthariscopes (yes, they still work); a 1939 Royal typewriter; a hectograph; a can of Atomite; a model of a V-2 rocket; a 1948 Alamogordo High School yearbook; postcards of White Sands; and a box of old bottle caps, broken tin toys, pieces of Erector sets, marbles, paper labels, Mason jars, and cigar boxes.
As for my desire — what I’d really like is for someone to start building a Wall, or maybe many Walls, and send me pictures. Perhaps someone with more techno-savvy than me could begin one online, in Second Life or another interactive site, so that readers from all over the world could add to it, a virtual collaboration of art and science, reality and fiction.
That would be so cool.
After conducting this interview with Ms. Klages I asked if she had any images she might want to include. Boy howdy does she! But at one point she wrote something that I thought you might find interesting as well.
"I discovered that I don’t have any photos of my collection of spinthariscopes, but here is a link to a very informative page that you can use instead:
Definitely check it out. It’s a wonderful site. Thanks to Ellen for the great interview, and here are some more images from her files that I didn’t want to shrink down for the piece:
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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