We’re excited to kick off 2024 with this interview with Winter Short Story Award for New Writers guest judge Kelly Link. Link’s first novel (!) The Book of Love comes out in early February, and we are eager for its release. In the meantime, be sure to submit your own work to the 2023-2024 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers for the chance to win a $3,000 cash prize along with publication and agency review. Submissions close January 28!
Thank you so much for agreeing to judge our Winter Short Story Award for New Writers! We can’t overstate how much we admire work, and how exciting it is that you’ll once again be selecting the finalists for one of our contests. You previously judged a Fall Fiction Contest back in 2016, where you chose Ruth Joffre’s unforgettable “Night Beast,” which was later the titular story in her collection from Grove Atlantic.
Besides your writing, you co-run a small press, co-edit a literary zine, own and operate a bookstore and have also judged a number of contests over the years. Do you find that your selection process differs between these practices? How do your experiences in all these corners of the literary world inform your reading and evaluation?
Well, the sad news is that we’ve shut down Small Beer Press for the foreseeable future. My husband, who is the heart and soul and brains of the press has now been down with profound long covid for two years, and it just isn’t possible to keep doing the work that running a small press requires. But no, I don’t know that the process works differently when I read. I’m attempting to read with my full attention, to be willing to be surprised, entertained, troubled, delighted. I’m interested in what a particular writer can show me it’s possible to do in the short story format. I’m interested in what that writer is interested in.
As a judge, what kind of stories are you looking for?
I’m looking for stories that feel as if they matter to the person who wrote them, where I have the sensation that I’m in conversation not only with another person, but with all of the writers and various communities that they’re in conversation with. I’m looking for stories that make a promise on the first page, telling me what matters in that story. I’m looking for stories that understand something of the genres from which they’re drawing, that feel as if the writer is taking a big swing. The subject matter doesn’t have to be big, the stakes don’t have to be high, but I want to feel as if there’s something lively and outsized about the language, or the voice, or what it tells me about how we live in the world.
Rebecca Makkai once wrote for us that in her decisions for our anthology, she weighed the question of polish vs. promise, ultimately leaning toward “spark and promise” over all. Which camp are you a part of?
I’m in Makkai’s camp, here, though I often find that promise & polish go together. Which is to say, polish is often part of what makes someone’s voice their voice. What I’m leery of is the substitution of polish for risk taking. Sometimes a story with gorgeous sentences feels, nevertheless, like a good piece of taxidermy but without the strangeness.
I think I speak for everyone when I say we can’t wait for your novel to come out in February. What can you tell us about the book?
It’s quite long! It’s set in an imaginary small town off the coast of New England, where three high school students come back from the dead and find themselves up to their ears in various mysteries. It’s my love letter to the romance genre and The CW-style supernatural melodrama, and kids who start bands with their friends.
As you’ve been working on the novel, after so many years of writing short stories, did you find that your process was at all different? Did you come to this novel knowing it was a novel, or did that realization only come later? How did that affect the way you approached your drafts?
I knew from the start I was writing a novel, and that it would be told from many different points of views. Much as with short stories, I knew the broad outline of the larger story, and I knew most of how it ought to conclude. The hardest part was that once I’d hit around one hundred pages, I couldn’t begin each day at the beginning and revise to where I’d left off as I would with a short story. I had to keep moving forward. But once the book was more or less done, revision became enormously pleasurable. I have stacks and stacks of various versions of the novel in my office now.
What does your research process look like? This is something I don’t think writers talk about too often, but that I find fascinating. Everyone approaches research so differently, and at different stages in their writing process.
I read a fair amount of music theory and musician’s biographies for The Book of Love. I also tagged in a writer friend, Sarah Pinsker, to help me figure out what guitars my characters might be drawn to, and a librarian, Steve Ammidown, to get some of the details right about category romance. And last year my husband and I slowly drove down the coastline of Massachusetts to see if I wanted to make any changes to Lovesend, the nonexistent town I’d set the novel in. But, honestly, I don’t often need to do a lot of research. For my last collection, White Cat, Black Dog, research meant rereading various fairytales, and asking people who lived in Reykjavik if they’d mind looking at a story to make sure “Prince Hat Underground” didn’t stray too far from the real place in its details.
This year, we’re starting a new series in which we ask writers about their creative activities besides writing. What do you most enjoy doing when you’re not writing? How do those pursuits inform your writing, or otherwise make space for your writing? What changes for you when returning to the page after a period of not writing?
This is a great question. At various point in my life I’ve painted with watercolors, and made coil pots. I made jewelry for a while. Right now the work that I do at Book Moon feels creative. Not just the bookselling, though that does feel creative to me, but we get to make cards, design T-shirts, and so on. Teaching workshop, too, which I’m doing at the moment, is absolutely a form of creative work. We got chickens during the pandemic, and taking care of them feels restorative to me. Our dog, Koko, provides a lot of delight.
I’ve never been good at any kind of daily writing practice. I take long blocks of time away to focus on bookselling, or teaching, to do editorial work for Small Beer, etc. I don’t quite know how life and writing will change now that the Small Beer work isn’t there anymore. I have half of a middle grade novel, and a plan for a short ghost novel, and next year I aim to return to those. I don’t know what changes for me when I come back to writing after time away. But I do feel most fully and comfortably myself if I’m engaged in some kind of book work, whether it’s writing, teaching, editing, or bookselling.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer