We’ve got this. We’ve. Got. This.
We are thrilled to have TJ Klune, the New York Times bestselling author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, join us on the blog as he talks publishing a book during a global pandemic, the importance of believing in yourself when no one else does, and his hopes for the future. Check out the full article below.
*TW for mention of suicide*
By TJ Klune
On the morning of December 31, 2020, I sat down at my desk and flipped my word-of-the-day calendar to the last page. The word (meliorism, defined as the philosophical belief that the world tends to improve when humans aid its betterment) wasn’t what caught my attention, though I’d muse on it later and wonder why that word at that moment.
No, what caught my attention was the bright green sticky note covering the last word of the day, something I’d forgotten was there.
Since 2011, I’ve had this little quirk; one of many, I can assure you. On January 1, I’ll write myself a little note and stick it on the last page of the calendar for the last day of the year. Think of it as…well. Wish might be too strong a word. Perhaps hope fits best. I leave myself a note for what I hope will happen in the following year. Usually, I forget it’s even there until I reach December 31.
So, on the last day of the year that never seemed to die, I found the note I’d written to myself one year before. 2020 was going to bring about big changes for me. It would see the release of two books with my new publisher Tor/Tor Teen, in The House in the Cerulean Sea and The Extraordinaries.
The note I’d written to myself read: You’ve got this. Even if no one else believes in you, believe in yourself. You’ve. Got. This.
Trite? Sure, yeah. At least a little bit.
But then I think about the year I’ve had, the year we’ve all had. You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 didn’t go the way anyone thought it would. With the pandemic, with civil unrest, with those in power doing their damnedest to add fuel to the fire rather than figuring out a way to keeping it from burning everything to the ground, 2020 was, for lack of better words, a stupid mess.
And it got me thinking about meliorism, the belief that the world tends to improve through human effort. By any stretch of the imagination, that can be hard to swallow. Yes, I believe that humans can aid in betterment, but how can we make things better when we as a species seem to be hellbent on self-destruction? Because even though there are people who want to improve our world, there are those who act in direct opposition, wanting to destroy everything they touch.
Honestly? I rolled my eyes a little at the idea of meliorism. And that caught me off guard. Here’s why.
I turned thirty-eight years old in 2020. When I was younger—say, a teenager through my twenties and hell, if I’m being honest with myself, even into my early thirties—I was cynical as they come. I was caustic, my sarcasm a weapon used to deflect anything that was outside my comfort zone. I don’t think I was a bad person, but looking back, I wasn’t as good as I could’ve been.
I know exactly when that changed: 2013, when an event took place that shook my entire world down to its foundation, and the happy, blissful life I’d been living collapsed around me. Someone I loved very much fell severely ill out of nowhere, and it broke me. 2013 was a dark time for me, perhaps the darkest moments of my life. More than once, I contemplated suicide. Once, it came close, but I chickened out at the last moment, too scared to die, and so, so angry at myself that I couldn’t even do that right. When the man I loved later died, I was despondent, lost, and oh so furious that I could barely breathe.
I got better. Not on my own, of course, and definitely not right away. I had my friends. I had my family. I had my dog, my cat. I had my writing. I sought the help I so desperately needed, and through a combination of therapy and medication that could help manage my depression, I found my way out of the shadows. I’m still a work in progress. Though they don’t happen as often as they used to, I still have bad days, days when I don’t want to get out of bed, the very idea of being a functioning person too much to handle. But I have the tools now to combat those days, reminding myself of three words that have become a mantra of sorts.
You’ve got this.
I’ve softened, the older I’ve gotten. Oh, I’m still sarcastic, but it doesn’t have the sharp edges it used to. And the cynicism that once ruled my life has also lessened with age. I take the time these days to appreciate the little things, to be thankful for all that I have, and spend less time worrying about all the things I don’t have.
That’s why I was caught off guard with how quick I was to dismiss the idea of meliorism. How could we improve anything when 2020 seemed to go out of its way to prove that many people don’t give two shits about others? And it doesn’t help that every day seemed to bring news that blew the previous day’s news out of the water. Things just seemed to get worse and worse and worse.
But I don’t want to be that person anymore, someone so mired in cynicism, so I took a step back from those thoughts and turned my attention to the note I’d written the year before. “You’ve got this,” I muttered to myself. “You’ve got this.”
You’ve got this.
I do. Even in my darkest days, I’ve got this. I’ve been through too much to not have this. So, then, what am I doing to make the world a better place?
In the grand scheme of things, it may not seem like much, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve thought back to all that I’ve heard from readers, I keep coming back to one thing.
The House in the Cerulean Sea.
The book, released in March right at the beginning of the pandemic, is, at its core, a story about kindness. It follows an everyman, bland and boring and more than a little lonely in a city without color and where the rain never ends. This man, Linus Baker, works for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) as a social worker. It’s his job to inspect the orphanages where magical children are placed, segregated from everyone else. For their own safety, he’s repeatedly told by his superiors, in the thick tome titled RULES AND REGULATIONS, and in society in general. Because he’s the model employee—empathetic but within the guidelines set forth by DICOMY—he’s summoned by his superiors and given a top-secret assignment: to investigate a mysterious orphanage on an island that houses the most dangerous magical children known to man.
What he finds there isn’t anything like he expects, but I won’t rehash that here. If you’ve read the story, you know what happens, and I thank you for reading the book. If you haven’t yet read it but have found yourself reading these words and are curious about my novel, I hope you’re ready for an adventure if you decide to pick it up.
I was excited as 2020 opened, knowing this year was going to be different than all the years that came before.
And then the pandemic kicked into high gear, literally the week before Cerulean came out in the middle of March.
I remember watching in disbelief as we were all told to stay home, to wash our hands all day, every day, as people decided they needed sixteen thousand rolls of toilet paper for their household, as we were told people were getting sick, that people were dying.
That was more important than any book.
But I still had to release a book. I cringed at the thought of saying, “Hey, I know everything is super scary right now, ha ha, but I think you’d feel better if you read my book! Why, you ask? Because it has the Antichrist. Ta-da!”
I worried that my strange and hopeful little story would get lost in all the necessary bluster and noise. I worried (absolutely without cause) that if the book didn’t sell well, Tor would turn around and say, “Welp, you tried. Please shut the door on your way out.” I worried that the two-year buildup I’d created in my head that led to this moment was all going to be for nothing, and I was dumbstruck by the ridiculousness of it all.
But a strange thing happened. People bought the book. People read the book. Booksellers pimped it out, Bookstagrammers created crazy beautiful photographs of my book, telling people to read it, not just because of the story, but because of the way it made them feel.
And it was how it made many of them feel that hit me the hardest, because I think, deep down, it’s what I was hoping for more than anything.
It made them feel like they were being hugged.
I don’t know if I can impress upon you just how humbling that is, how wonderfully profound. I heard and read that phrase over and over—this book feels like a hug—and for one of the rare times in my life, I was speechless. Because whether I knew it or not when I wrote it, that’s what I wanted for people. To make them feel happy, to make it feel like the book could hug them back just as tightly, to remind them that no matter how dire things get, there is still good in the world. Perhaps, I told myself, I made the world a little better—at least for the time it took to read the story—and maybe that counts for something. A small thing, but a thing all the same.
I don’t know what’s going to happen today. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week or next month. But I think about meliorism now. Perhaps if we weren’t here, the world would be a better place, the scourge that is humanity gone, allowing things to heal. But for better or worse, we are here, and we need to make the most of the time we have. Because the world will not change for the better unless we work together toward that betterment. I’ve lost a lot of my cynicism, but that’s okay, as it’s been replaced by something bigger. Something stronger. Something that feels a little like hope. Trite, still? Hell yeah, but screw it. It’s how I feel.
On the first day of this new year, I wrote a new note for myself. I stuck it to December 31, 2021, and there it will remain until I reach that day. I won’t tell you what it says because even if it’s not exactly a wish, I’d rather not take the chance, just to be safe. But I know I’ve got this, that I’m going to do my best to try and aid in the betterment of the world. I hope you will too because in the end, we owe it to one another to try.
You’ve got this. I know you do. And I can’t wait to see what you do with it.
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