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.