Interview with Kelly Link
by Kirsten Kowalewski
Kelly Link is the author of the young adult collection Pretty Monsters, which has just been released as a trade paperback by Penguin Group. She has written two other collections, Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners. Her novellas and short stories have won a variety of awards. Most recently she has won the 2009 Locus Award for best novella for her story "Pretty Monsters". She co-founded Small Beer Press with her husband, Gavin Grant, and edits the zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Kelly has a daughter, Ursula, who you can read about in earlier posts on this blog tour, which you can get to from her website. She would like to share a chocolate bar with you.
We are also hosting a contest giveaway for a copy of Pretty Monsters. Visit our contest page for details!
KK: When I first read Pretty Monsters, I was struck by how effectively you captured the darker side of being a teen- the cruelty of the boys in “Monster,” Miles’ self-absorption in “The Wrong Grave,” Clementine’s self-delusion in “Pretty Monsters,” the violent anger in “The Cinderella Game.” It is a very powerful technique. How do you tap into the emotions of teens, and how do you express it in writing in a genuine way?
KL: The height of my popularity was probably when I was in kindergarten. I’d have to check with my mother, but the way I remember it, I was in charge. I told other kids what to do, came up with games to play, or suggested doing things that we weren't supposed to do, and everyone pretty much went along with it. But by the time I knew how to read -- somewhere between 1st and 2nd grade -- my star was declining. Maybe reading was my downfall?
We moved from Pennsylvania to Miami when I was in fourth grade, and when I was in 10th grade, we moved again, to Greensboro, NC. I had fewer and fewer friends each time we moved. Not to mention, by the time I was in fifth grade, I was wearing headgear to school. Sometimes I’d also bring along my pet boa constrictor, Baby. I could wear her as a belt, and at the time that seemed really cool -- even though, of course, it wasn't. I spent a lot of time catching geckoes and anoles, and I didn't always have the good sense not to do this in front of other people.
The short version is, I was a weird girl with funny teeth who had a pet boa constrictor and spent most of her time reading fantasy and science fiction. Oh yeah, and I also wet the bed until I was in sixth grade. And I’m also pretty sure that I was awkward, socially inept, etc. etc. When you’re not popular, you spend a lot of time observing the people who are popular, for a couple of reasons: you are trying to avoid being noticed/made fun of, and also, you are trying to figure out how they do it. You spend a lot of time thinking about why people are the way they are. You imagine unlikely scenarios in which you might be friends with the people who are making fun of you.
When I write, it’s very easy to access all of those emotions again. I’m still the same person. I care much less about what people think of me now, but I still care about what people thought of me then. And in the end, I care about all of my characters -- the ones who are brave, the ones who are mean, the ones who do stupid things, or who never figure things out. I can imagine being all of them.
KK: Your bio on the book is brief- it mainly lists the awards you've won. Can you tell us a little about yourself, beyond the bare facts?
KL: I'm 41 years old, and married to Gavin J. Grant, who is also a writer. We run Small Beer Press together, and until last year we lived in a small farmhouse with a big, overgrown backyard in Northampton, MA. Earlier on this blog tour I wrote about our daughter, Ursula, who was born at 24 weeks and 1 and 1/2 lbs in February 2009. We've spent the last year in hospitals, with her, because of complications due to her prematurity. A couple of months ago she finally came home with us to an apartment in Brighton.
Before we started Small Beer Press, I'd mostly worked in bookstores, or done various freelance projects, partly because I wanted to avoid any job where I would have to wear panty hose, or answer a phone. I had a fear of jobs involving call buttons. My father was a Presbyterian minister who went back to grad school, when I was a kid, to get a degree in psychology. He now lives on a farm in North Carolina with my stepmother, and gardens, builds barns, and practices as a psychologist. My mother and I worked together in a children's bookstore for a few years while I was in graduate school. She's a teacher. I'm the oldest of three children. I have one brother and one sister.
I'm a feminist. I like dark chocolate better than milk chocolate. I like roller coasters and German board games. I spend too much time online reading posts on Apartment Therapy, Fandom Wank, and Jezebel. I like roller coasters. I'm left handed, I like Burmese food, and I really wish that at some point I'd managed to live on the West Coast -- Seattle, or San Francisco. I've lived all up and down the East Coast, and I'd love to live even closer than I do to an ocean, preferably one that I could swim in. The two best vacations I've ever been on were ones where I went swimming every day: in Jamaica, on a writer's retreat, and in Byron's Bay, in Australia. A perfect day would be one that involved swimming, some writing, dinner with friends, and a stack of good books waiting to be read.
KK: How did you get started in writing? What was your path to publication?
KL: Here's a pretty complete history: I took three workshops with the writer Raymond Kennedy at Columbia College. In the last workshop I turned in three chapters of a novel, and he gave them to his agent, Binky Urban, as well as to his editor. They both asked to meet with me, to see if I was planning on writing more of that novel. I was about to graduate and go traveling -- I'd won a free trip around the world -- and I wasn't sure whether or not I could finish a novel. When I came home, I still didn't want to finish the novel, but I did decide to apply to the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In my second year, I started submitting stories to magazines -- before that, I'd entered The Writer's of the Future contest, and maybe also submitted something to The Twilight Zone, which was a magazine, along with Night Cry, that I loved. I submitted "Flying Lessons" to Ellen Datlow at Omni, and something to a literary magazine -- I can't remember which magazine, or what story. Those stories were rejected, but I also submitted "Like Water Off a Black Dog's Back" to a new magazine, Century, and was amazed when the editor wrote back to accept it. I also applied to the Clarion Workshop, and got in.
While I was at Clarion, Asimov's bought "Flying Lessons" and Realms of Fantasy bought "Vanishing Act." All of this was thrilling -- but then I didn't sell another story for the next two years. I was very slow to submit work before 1994. I thought that what I was writing was pretty good, but I also thought that as the author, I probably wasn't the best judge of whether my work was publishable -- or interesting to other people. So I didn't submit anything until I was pushed to do so. Ellen Datlow ended up being the editor who really championed my work -- even that first rejection was very encouraging -- this is what I tell writers who haven't sold their fiction yet. You may or may not be a good writer, but even if your work is publishable, it may take a while to find the editor who is the right reader for you.
The best thing to do is to keep on submitting to the places and the editors that you most admire, that you most want to be published in & by.
KK: When you write, what’s your routine? For example, do you need peace and quiet, or do you prefer to work with music playing?
KL: I have a mix on my iPod that I listen to, but I also like to sit in a cafe and have other people around me, talking and eating. I like a certain level of background noise. I like to work in the afternoon, and to have at least two or three hours to settle in. I love to work at a table with other writers. At a certain point in a story, I am still writing on my computer, but I also carry around a pad of paper so that I can put down notes or ideas or sentences that will go into the story the next time I'm at the computer.
KK: How do you write? For instance, do you use an outline, or write a certain number of words each day?
KL: I haven't written anything in the last year or so -- I've hardly managed to write even very basic emails, or to keep in touch with friends. But before that, I was starting to realize that I'm a writer who likes to have a fixed routine of some kind. And then, after a year or two, I need to find a new routine, because the old one doesn't work so well anymore -- I've started to come up with ways of avoiding writing. A lot of the time I'd rather do anything than write.
When I am writing, I start at the beginning of a story every time I sit down, and make revisions -- small and large -- until I get to the place where I left off. And then I do a little new work, and then go back to the beginning again, or to a part that doesn't yet feel right. I'm continuously revising. This method probably works better for stories than for novels, although sometimes, even with this process of revision, I can get a story done quite quickly, say in a day or so. Other stories take months, or even a year.
KK: There are a number of references to zombies and werewolves in your writing, in addition to other references to horror fiction and horror movies. Are you a horror fan? Books, movies, or both? What’s your favorite monster?
KL: I've always loved horror, although I have trouble with gore. I'd wanted to watch "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" for years, after reading Men, Women, and Chainsaws, but I only finally got up the nerve to do so when I was in my mid-30s. I went to see "Audition" with Ellen Datlow, and thought it was incredible, but I've avoided all of that director's other movies like the plague. The first things I remember watching on a DVD player are "Xanadu," the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Di, "Alien" and "Jaws 2." My sister and I have a particularly vivid memory of watching the Hammer Horror movie "Blood on Satan's Claw." And of course I love all the zombie movies, esp. the Romero ones, and "Return of the Living Dead," and "Shaun of the Dead." I didn't love "Zombieland" as much as I wanted to. At the end, the female characters behaved so stupidly and out of the character, and the romantic narrative was so conventional -- that I felt cheated.
In fiction, I love ghost stories and stories of the uncanny the best -- M. R. James, H. R. Wakefield, E. F. Benson, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Edith Wharton, Robert Westall, Joan Aiken. In movies, "Don't Look Now," "Carnival of Souls," "The Haunting," and "Ringu."
The two books I always want to recommend to horror readers are Lynda Barry's Cruddy and M. T. Anderson's Thirsty. I love the novels & short stories of Stephen King, Peter Straub, Caitlin McKiernan, Joe Hill. Gemma Files is a really interesting short story writer. I'm looking forward to her novel. One of my favorite books of last year is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's The Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby. I'm reading Victor LaValle's Big Machine right now, and Helen Oyeyemi's White is for Witching.
KK: How do you feel about being published as a YA author? Do you enjoy writing for teens? Do you plan to continue to do so?
KL: All but one of the stories in Pretty Monsters, even "Magic For Beginners" (which ended up being published in F&SF) were originally written for young adult anthologies. I never really stopped reading YA, and I always wanted to write it -- it's just that until recently there hasn't been much of a market for young adult short stories.
KK: Up to this point, you’ve published short stories and novellas. Do you think you’ll write a full-length novel, or do you prefer the short story form?
KL: I'd like to write a young adult novel, but I don't want to stop writing short stories. I'd love to write something as good as Ben Rice's Pobby and Dingan, or Lynda Barry's Cruddy. I'd also love to write a romance novel.
KK: On the back cover of Pretty Monsters, Audrey Niffenegger has described you as the literary descendant of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. Would you say that your writing has been influenced by them? If so, how?
KL: How about this: I've been influenced by writers who were influenced by Borges and Kafka. I've always felt that what I wrote came out of reading writers who were in the center of the sf/fantasy/horror genres, and then, on the side, reading writers like Eudora Welty and Lorrie Moore and Angela Carter and Ursula K. Le Guin and Grace Paley, Karen Joy Fowler and Carol Emshwiller. Tracing influences is hard. I've probably been as influenced by Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear books and V. C. Andrews's Flowers in the Attic as by Borges and Kafka.
KK: I get a sense from your work that you might have read Joan Aiken’s short stories. Did her writing influence you? What are the strongest influences on your writing?
KL: I have always loved Joan Aiken's short stories and novels. If you've read any of my short stories and liked them, you really ought to go and hunt down copies of collections like The Far Forests, The Green Flash, or Not What You Bargained For or her novels: some of my favorites are the Dido Twite series, The Trouble With Product X, The Shadow Guests, The Kingdom and The Cave, Voices in an Empty House.
I think I've read everything that she's written that was published. (Small Beer is publishing a book of previously uncollected stories by Aiken next year. We also published a collection of her Armitage family stories.) She was an endlessly inventive writer.
KK: You teach creative writing at the college level. When I took creative writing, the English department actively discouraged the writing of genre fiction as “easy” or “formulaic.” As both an educator and a writer, what are your feelings about genre fiction?
KL: I write genre fiction, and so I encourage my students to become well read in genre fiction at the very least. I tell them that even if they don't plan to write straight-out fantasy & sf & horror, they may want to borrow the techniques, and the tropes of genre, even if they want to put these to slightly different purposes. I believe every good writer has at least one good ghost story in them, and I badly want to read it.
I'm writing up a blog post on MFA programs and workshops that will go up at some point during this tour -- not sure where yet, though. It's absolutely true that genre writing can be formulaic, but 1) it's good to understand how the formula works, so that you can improvise off of it, and 2) not all genre writing is formulaic, by a long shot, and 3) realistic fiction is often formulaic as hell, anyways, and 4) there's a balance you need to consider when you write, between being predictable, and following certain kinds of narrative patterns, and being experimental/unpredictable/going against those patterns. There are writers who faithfully adhere to certain kinds of patterns, and still produce something wonderful and new and fresh, and there are other writers who go out and do something which demands more of their readers. A good program ought to encourage thinking about narrative in as many ways as possible.
KK: I noticed that you frequently use metafictive techniques in your writing. For instance, in Magic for Beginners, you almost immediately identify Jeremy as a character in one episode of a television show, who is also watching the show. Once you’ve exposed the narrative, how do you keep your readers invested in the story?
KL: I'm fairly sure some readers are put off by these techniques. But they allow me to point out things about how fiction works, and about the experience of reading, and that's a big part of what makes me want to write fiction: thinking about how it works. And if these metafictive techniques work for a reader, what I hope is that it's a bit like going to a Penn and Teller magic show, or a Ricky Jay show, and being told how the trick is done even as you're watching the trick. But doing something like this is, of course, dependent on there being a large body of intelligent and excellent work by writers who aren't doing this kind of thing.
KK: Your stories often seem to end abruptly, before they’re really over. “Monster,” for instance, cuts off rather suddenly. Why do you end stories in this way?
KL:Don't most horror stories end in a rush? When I get to the end of a story, I think of that story as being absolutely over -- the endings are the endings -- in that I hope that the narrative has a coherent and satisfying shape, even if part of what is satisfying about it is that it's a little unsatisfying/unsettling. I also hope that the reader is left with enough forward velocity to go on thinking about what happened next, and that the characters and their situation and their actions will linger in the reader's mind. "And then what happened?" is a good way to think about the beginning of a story, but I also think it's a good way to end a story, as long as there's enough meat in the middle. Things keep on happening. Having said that, I think the ending of a story like "The Wrong Grave" winds things up in a way that the ending of "Magic For Beginners" doesn't. The way the story ends depends on what kind of story it is -- on the overall narrative architecture, and the demands of the beginning and the middle of the story.
KK: Your stories seem to have elements from many genres, including horror, fantasy, and magic realism, and you’ve won awards for your writing in both science fiction and fantasy. Would you describe yourself as a genre writer?
KL:Yes. My goal was always to publish in science fiction and fantasy magazines. I only ended up selling to literary magazines by accident. (Or at least that's how I think of it.)
KK: You run a small press, Small Beer Press. How does publishing influence your writing? Do you prefer one over the other? How do you arrange your time to allow for both writing and running a small press?
KL: I love both kinds of work. At the moment I'm not doing enough of either kind, because of the kind of year it's been. Having said that, we've just turned the proofs of Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, and it's tremendously satisfying to see the final cover, and the loose sheets. I think it's gorgeous, and the author seems happy, too. We're getting ready to send Kathe Koja's historical romance Under the Poppy to the copyeditor, and we're working on Karen Joy Fowler's collection, What I Didn't See. In a normal year, I teach, work at Small Beer, and do some writing. I'm never as organized as I need to be. Teaching creative writing means that I'm always thinking about writing, and that both helps and hinders any actual writing I do. Editing/publishing work is easier to set aside, but it's also more satisfying than writing, because it's much easier to love someone else's work with all of your heart than it is to love your own.
KK: As a teacher and publisher, you spend a fair amount of time evaluating other writers’ work. Does taking an analytic approach to other people’s writing affect your own writing?
KL: Yes, but only up to the point when I'm actually writing a story. When I write, I have to shut that part of my brain off. When I'm not satisfied with what I'm writing, or when I'm revising, that part of my brain is on again. To let someone else read and critique your work -- that's an act of generosity, just as much as it's an act of generosity to offer that critique. I hope that the person whose work is on the table gets as much from the critique as I do, offering it.
KK: Shaun Tan’s artistic style seems like a natural fit for your work. Did you have input into the choice of illustrator for your book? How closely did you collaborate?
KL: I had final say on the cover, which was by Will Staehle -- something that not very many writers get. He produced 6 excellent covers, and the one that Penguin used was probably my favorite, although Canongate/Walker are putting out a YA edition in the UK with one of the alternate Staehle covers that I love in an entirely different way.
Shelley Jackson had produced spot illustrations for Magic For Beginners, and it was a great experience -- a way for me to see my stories in a way that I otherwise wouldn't be able to. I loved Shaun Tan's The Arrival, and when he agreed to do illustrations for Pretty Monsters, it was the best part of putting the collection together. He came up with ideas, and it was like getting a series of birthday presents, seeing each illustration.
KK: What’s next for you? Is another YA collection in the works, or will you be taking your writing in a different direction?
KL: Gavin and I are co-editing a young adult anthology of steampunk stories for Candlewick, and most of the writers have turned their stories in. We have stories by Libba Bray, M. T. Anderson, Holly Black, Elizabeth Knox, and Garth Nix, among others. Meanwhile, I've published a couple of stories about unlikely superheroes, and I have a couple of ideas for short stories that I want to write -- a bookstore story, a messiah story -- when I have time. There are also two picture books that I badly want to write.
KK: Is there anything you’d like to share with librarians and readers?
KL: I'd like to sit down and share a beer, or a bar of chocolate. I'd badly like to get back to the main libraries in Salt Lake City and in Seattle, because they're so beautiful. If anybody has any recommendations for other libraries that I should visit, please share. I probably ought to also recommend a couple of books that I've been reading, so here goes: James Enge's Blood of Ambrose (please ignore the generic cover, which doesn't do it justice) and P. C. Hodgell's Kencyr series, which Baen is reprinting. (I'm on an epic fantasy kick.) I also just finished Diana
Wynne Jones's latest YA, Boris Akunin's Sister Pelagia series, which takes a fantastic turn at the end, and Holly Black's White Cat, which I first read and loved in workshop. Michael Grant's Gone series is compulsive reading -- along with White Cat, they're the books that I'd give to a reluctant teen reader. (Or a reluctant adult reader, for that matter.)
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