In Kelly Link’s stories, teenage girls buy robotic Vampire Boyfriends, astronauts tell ghost stories in outer space, superheroes hold conventions in hotels, and rabbits become creatures of bizarre menace. Get in Trouble, Kelly Link’s fourth collection, was recently a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. But Link has long had a loyal following, and it’s easy to see why. It’s clear that Link herself has fun with her fiction, and that energy is infectious. Here, we talk with Link about playing with genre conventions, short stories vs. novels, and the use of unreal elements in her stories.
One of the things that I love about your stories is that they mix so many different genres. In your latest collection, Get in Trouble, astronauts tell ghost stories and horror stories (“Two Houses”). Many of your stories contain superheroes and supervillians (“Secret Identity,” “Origin Story”). And still others are populated by magical, otherworldly creatures (“The Summer People”). When you are writing, are you aware of the ways in which your stories are playing with particular traditions? How does this inform your technique?
Hi! Thank you! Look, when I think about writing at all, I’m usually thinking about genre and, more generally, about the conventions (the expectations that readers have) of certain kinds of story shapes. Most of the stories in the new collection started out with me thinking things like: how can I tell a ghost story on a space ship? What informs a ghost story if the people in it are isolated in every possible way from their own history, their own families, and the natural world? Or: what’s my entry point into a superhero story? Well, what if I set it in an abandoned theme park in the mountains of North Carolina? Even the one non-genre story in the collection, “The Lesson” is influenced by me thinking about genre in the sense that the rule for writing it was: I won’t utilize ghosts or monsters or genre elements here, so what can I put into a story that disorders/disarranges/estranges a reader in lieu of the fantastic element?
Up to this point, you have made your name as a short story writer. In my opinion the current literary environment puts a lot of pressure on writers to publish debut novels. Did you ever feel the pressure to write a novel early on?
It did seem clear enough, yes, that it would be easier to publish a debut novel than a debut collection. We started a press because we realized that there was a niche for short story collections, particularly collections that had at least a toe in genre. But on the other hand, I didn’t feel any particular pressure to write a novel because I wanted with all of my heart to write short stories. I want to write short stories even when I don’t like writing them. I don’t actually like writing. But I want (and wanted) to write short stories enough that it seemed worth doing despite how awful and difficult and uncomfortable it can be, figuring out how to make a short story work. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write exactly the kind of things that I want to write, and to be published in the kinds of magazines that I most wanted to be published in. The initial goal—figuring out how to make a particular short story work in such a way that I felt satisfied with it—is still the thing that I feel I ought to pay attention to. Everything else is going much better than I ever expected.
It’s only in the last three years that I’ve had any desire at all to write something novel-shaped. And it’s more sideways than that. The stories that I wrote got longer and longer, and finally Holly Black pointed out to me that whether or not I meant to, I was headed in the direction of a novel. And I should be clear that even when I had no plans to write a novel, it was pleasurable to know that there were people who were enthusiastic about the idea of a novel, especially when I had no intention of writing one. Now that I’m writing one, it’s much less pleasurable. Much, much better to be the person who hasn’t written something that everyone wants, than to be the person who has written a novel that turns out not to be particularly interesting.
How do you use “unreal” elements (such as hauntings, robot boyfriends, superheroes) to develop the emotional core in your fiction? How do they help you develop particular aspects of character and plot?
In terms of architecture, I’m not sure that I see much difference between the unreal and the real in terms of how they organize stories. In a story, something happens to someone. Or someone does something. That something can be “real” or else it can be “unreal”. It can be both at the same time, which is my preference. The unreal requires the real, although the real does not require the unreal.
The particular challenge of writing fantasy is that one must persuade the reader to engage with the fantasy element by larding on a certain amount of plausible or folkloric detail, all of which has to be either made up by you or else borrowed from other stories about the supernatural or the fantastic that—at this point—you can assume your readers have some familiarity with. Most of us have a certain shared set of associations now with the idea of magic school or Hell or dragons. They’re hard to avoid. Right?
The big question for the writer is whether you want to tether the fantastic element to some symbolic meaning. Some writers seem to think that this is the whole point. But I don’t want a reader’s grasp of a story to come down to a one-to-one meaning. I want there to be some (actually, a lot) of drift. That seems desirable. The more closely and specifically you anchor the fantastic element to one particular symbolic meaning, the less room you leave readers to attach their own insights, questions, perturbations. Even worse, you lose psychological realism. The characters flatten out. There can be a kind of pleasure in this, if you’re aiming for a fairy tale feel, but you have to be trying for this deliberately. And, of course, you can have the same kind of issues with realistic fiction too, if you approach stories as containers with one particular, correct lesson/meaning inside where every object and gesture needs to have an invisible label the reader spells out with a decoder ring.
But: from the very start I wrote stories that were ghost stories, science fiction stories, fantasy stories. I figured out how to make a character seem real enough at the same time that I was figuring out how to tell stories that contained unreal elements, so I figured out those things in tandem. And the reason that I wanted to write those stories was because those were the kind of stories that I loved to read. I loved the kinds of characters that you found in genre fiction, science fiction and fantasy and horror and young adult. I loved competent protagonists and antiheroes and people who had outsized and improbable things occur to them and still went on with their lives. I liked detectives and ghosts and monsters and doppelgangers and adolescent girls, and I wanted to write stories about all of them.
If “Stone Animals” didn’t have, at the end, a house surrounded by a bunch of miniature people sitting on rabbits, it would just be a story about a slightly dysfunctional marriage in which the husband worked too much. But I didn’t want to write a story about a marriage. I wanted to write about tiny people on rabbits, in part because that presented me with a tonal challenge. The fantastic is always going to wobble between the ridiculous and the eerie, the twee and the terrifying. There’s slide. It gives you a much weirder palette to work with, and there’s still space to come up with a particular, strange marriage between two very specific individual people. So you get a much larger scope. I almost always start with the fantastic element, and usually with the ending, and the rest of the story hinges on the intersection of the strange thing and the closing moment, me working backwards from there.
This became a very long and convoluted answer. So I’ll have to hope there’s something useful in it.
I saw you read about a year ago at Powell’s, and in the Q&A you discussed how writers like George Saunders and Karen Russell are helping to bring “strange” fiction into the mainstream. (I would add you to this list as well!) By strange here, I just mean stories that contain realities other than our own, and that often include elements of genres like sci-fi or magical realism. Can you speak to this? Do you find that there is now more of a taste for “strange” stories that were before viewed outside of literary fiction?
There was always a taste for genre work, which is why genres like romance and science fiction and thrillers are referred to, disparagingly, as popular fiction. But now it’s more acceptable to write it. I think that there were a couple of decades in which the wall between high and low culture was much harder to scale. We still assign merit based on who likes to read what. Genres that are mostly written and read by women or adolescent girls are still less likely to be taken seriously, right? I’m much more interested in why and how readers respond to certain kinds of stories and how those stories work, than in whether or not one kind of fiction should be taken more or less seriously than other kinds of fiction.
Your stories are long and wonderfully intricate. I always wonder: how much time does it take you to write a story? And what is the process like on a practical level (do you have a routine, outline, go through multiple drafts, etc.)? Where do your ideas come from?
Some of the stories in Get in Trouble were, for whatever reason, very easy to write. “The Lesson” is a story that I’ve been thinking about, in various incarnations, for a couple of years. Once I figured out how to start it (by writing from the end first, backwards), I managed to write it in about two short intervals: two days, and then a pause, and then about a week of sustained work. “I Can See Right Through You” took over a year and a half, while I figured out the first seven pages or so, and then the rest took about a week and a half.
As for routine, I meet up with my friends Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, and sometimes other writers. We talk about things that we’re reading or working on, and sometimes we put forward a problem that we’re having with our current work and talk through possible fixes. Then I put headphones on and write. When I get stuck, I go back to the beginning of the story and revise until I get to where I left off. Then I work until I get stuck again at which point I go back to the beginning and so on and so on. I pick up speed as I go. The ending is almost always the easiest part to write. Now that I’m thinking about it, from the midpoint on, a story usually takes about a week to write. The first few pages can take anywhere from one or two days to over a year.
As for ideas, I think that as a writer you eventually figure out the kinds of stories and shapes and characters that you want to spend time with—as a reader, too. The more honest you are with yourself about the particular, peculiar-to-you kinds of things that you enjoy, or that you have an interesting quarrel with, the easier it is to reach for them as you work.
I know that you are working on a novel right now, but are you working on stories at the same time? Any other projects?
At some point soon I’ll hit the point in writing this novel where I have more words on the page than any short story has ever required. I anticipate this moment with mostly pleasure, the idea that I’ll have 16,000 or 20,000 words, and still have not reached the midpoint of the thing that I’m working on. I have no idea what that will be like, and that’s thrilling. I don’t have plans to work on anything else, but who knows? And, of course, there’s still plenty of Small Beer work on the editing side.
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser