While Kelly Link might be an unfamiliar name to those who rarely step beyond the domain of literary fiction, for readers of ghost stories, science fiction, and tales of the macabre, grotesque and chillingly strange, Link’s work is hallowed ground. A writer of short stories (she has never produced a novel), Link has published four collections, two of which – The Wrong Grave and Pretty Monsters – have been released recently in Australia, accompanied by illustrations from Shaun Tan. Stranger Things Happen (2001) and Magic for Beginners (2006), her earlier collections, received breathless acclaim from critics and writers as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Sarah Waters and Audrey Niffenegger, and won her a cult following in the US, where she lives and works. She has won a Hugo Award, three Nebula Awards and a World Fantasy Award over the course of her career.
Link is impressively chameleonic; an author who slips between genres or turns them upside down to subvert and play with reader expectations. With an imaginative prowess that is often compared to Borges’, Link’s intelligent stories tread the borderline between the realm of the familiar world and its ghostly, unknown counterpart.
Kill Your Darlings spoke with Kelly Link about genre fiction, the germination of ideas, and the benefits of working with other writers.
– Hannah Kent
KYD: Hi Kelly, thanks for agreeing to speak with Kill Your Darlings. You’re about to come out to Australia for Adelaide Writers’ Week. Is this your first time?
KL: I came out with my husband about six or seven years ago. We went to Sydney and Brisbane for a workshop called Clarion [a prestigious residential workshop for writers of science fiction and fantasy] and spent some time on vacation there as well.
KYD: Laura Kroetsch, the director of Adelaide Writers’ Week, has said that if she ever met anyone who hated speculative fiction, she’d suggest they give your writing a go. Now, for our readers who are perhaps unfamiliar with this term, can I ask you to define speculative fiction?
KL: You know, there’s another writer, China Miéville, who says that, basically, ‘speculative fiction is weird shit’. Which is a pretty handy definition [laughs].
If I’m describing my stories in particular, I might say that they are ghost stories; they are stories where there’s suddenly an incursion of zombies, stories in which unlikely things happen. Where improbable things happen.
KYD: Would you say that you are a speculative-fiction writer? Or do you try not to define what it is that you do, in terms of genre?
KL: I usually say that I’m a science-fiction writer, although if I say that to a group of science-fiction writers they usually start laughing – I don’t actually write traditional science fiction. But it’s what I grew up reading. When I first started selling stories to magazines they were to very pulpy, genre magazines. And for many years my husband and I edited an anthology called The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, so my ties to the genre community are pretty strong. I think that this is a period during which there is a lot of crossover: there are many writers coming from the mainstream who are using elements of speculative fiction, or genre fiction and vice versa. We’re seeing terrific novels like Colson Whitehead’s recent book, Zone One.
KYD: Why do you think Laura recommended you in particular for those who hate genre fiction? And there are a lot of these people out there! ‘I won’t read anything that has anything remotely supernatural in it. I won’t go near a zombie.’
KL: [Laughs]. Well, actually, when I’m asked by people what I write, if they don’t know my work at all, I often just say that I write science fiction because I figure that tells them very quickly whether or not they will want to read what I do. You know, I don’t mind people not wanting to read my work.
KL: Having said that, I think that people who don’t have any sort of appreciation for genre will still enjoy a ghost story. There is something about a ghost story that feels very close to life. I think everybody knows somebody who has a ghost story, or who have themselves had some kind of weird experience. Also, there are many writers who work in literary fiction who, once in a while, will write a ghost story. Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald…
KYD: Susan Hill…
KL: Exactly. Ghost stories seem to be one of those crossover points.
KYD: You don’t feel tempted to call yourself a writer of ghost stories then, rather than science fiction, to try and recruit more readers?
KL: [Laughs]. I’m not too worried about recruitment! When I was a bookseller I had a pathological fear that I’d recommend a book that someone might not like, so I’d much rather put people off rather than disappoint them [laughs].
KYD: Well, your short stories are certainly filled with a lot of ‘weird shit’, as China Miéville might say. They have been described by critics as ‘quirky’, ‘surreal’, ‘gleefully deranged’ – that’s a good one – ‘off- kilter’, ‘wonderfully odd,’ ‘original’, ‘magical’, and – I think this is my favourite – ‘realm-straddling blends of fantasy, science fiction, fairytale and capital-L literature’. In your collection, The Wrong Grave, for example, the eponymous story is about a young man who digs up his girlfriend’s grave to recover poetry he put in her coffin, only to be haunted by a tattooed woman who craves beef jerky. In another story, ‘Magic for Beginners’, a group of school friends bond over a television show called The Library, which has no screening time or regular channel. There are zombies, magical handbags, aliens, cults, bloodsucking ghosts, but to talk about your stories only in terms of what is ‘weird’ about them is to belie their complexity. They also explore that which is deeply familiar.
Now, please forgive me – I loathe asking this question of any author – but the nature of your short-story collections begs it… Where do you get your ideas?
KL: [Laughs]. I think a lot of my ideas come from reading. I spend a lot more time reading than I do writing. And there are instances where I read a book, or I see a movie, and it might not be very good. Maybe I had expectations that something more interesting was going to happen. So I start to think: What would happen if I had it my way? The movie Species 2 was terrible, but I came out of that movie filled with ideas for much better stories.
It’s the same for terrific stories. If you read a terrific story with really interesting characters then I think that’s your natural inclination – to sit down and start writing yourself. To open up a conversation with the work that you’ve been reading. And I think that if you like, as I do, a very broad spectrum of work – both very pulpy science fiction, and also, for example, Penelope Lively or Grace Paley – then you start to think of cross-pollination and how those writers make it all work together. How ideas or techniques might fit together. Many of my ideas are inspired by other people’s creative work.
A lot of my ideas also come from friendship. Different patterns of friendship or different kind of relationships. When I sit down to write, I don’t want to rewrite a friendship so that it comes out better. I don’t even necessarily want to try and represent what went on in a particular relationship, but I do want to think about how our patterns of behaviour suggest something larger. Something about our interactions. And when you begin to introduce fantastic elements into a story then it’s a lot of fun to think about how your characters might have to deal with the situation. You know, do they handle them with aplomb or do they become increasingly freaked out? What are the repercussions? Some of the stories come directly from those that friends or family tell you. I always ask if I can use them but…
KYD: Are your friends suspicious now, when you ask them around for dinner?
KL: [Laughs]. Well, fortunately most of my friends now are writers.
KYD: So you’re all poaching from each other?
KL: Yes, we’re poaching from each other, exactly. You do sort of say, ‘Can I use that?’ or ‘Are you going to use that?’ There’s a lot of back and forth.
KYD: Can you tell me a little more about your writing process? How do your short stories evolve? Do you start out thinking ‘I’m going to explore this particular human experience?’ In Pretty Monsters, for example, there is a focus on very ambiguous friendships amongst a group of adolescent girls. Did you start out thinking that this was something you wanted to explore, and then went: ‘Now, what fantastical element can I bring into this to make it more interesting’? Or do you start out thinking, ‘I want to do something with werewolves?’ How do you bring it all together?
KL: That was a difficult story to write. There are three storylines going on there, in fact. And it was very hard to balance, especially the storyline that all the way up until the end is a pretty realistic piece of fiction: the story of the girl who has a crush on an older boy. I knew I wanted to write about that. I was thinking about a certain kind of young-adult fiction and the ways in which it doesn’t really bear much truth of how people experience relationships. You know, you’re in high school and you have a crush on somebody – most of the time it’s not necessarily going to be returned. Yet in a lot of YA fiction, the story is about their relationship working out. Even in real life when those real relationships work out, they’re transitional relationships; they don’t continue. I wanted to write about a different situation.
It was a lot of fun writing about a character who is single-minded in her pursuit of a relationship and who feels that things are going to work out, and who also feels that kind of longing. I think everybody can identify with that. But it actually gets her into a great deal of trouble. That storyline was very hard to balance with the other, about the ‘ordeal’ ritual [in which a group of girls initiate their new friend through an ‘ordeal’]. The ordeal-ritual story was actually a lot of fun to write. I was able to see that story very clearly; I knew the sort of things that were going to happen in it. I wrote both halves of the story very quickly and then I spent a little over a year trying to get the proportions right.
So, often what happens is that I have a couple of ideas that I think might work together in interesting ways. I will draft something fairly quickly – within a month – and then I will spend quite a long period of time reworking it. That’s a period where I do a lot of work and think. ‘That seems better, that seems better,’ and then I’ll think, ‘No, still not working.’ Then there’s almost always a point where I go, ‘Okay, I think it’s working well enough.’ It’s very rare that I think that a story is doing exactly what I want, but there comes a time where you have to go, ‘That’s good enough.’
The other kind of story I write is one written between two days to a week, and all it needs is some fine tuning. ‘The Wrong Grave’ was a story like that. That was a story I wrote very quickly and I thought, ‘I can tinker with this.’ And I did tinker with it for a while – but they were very, very small changes.
KYD: I found ‘The Wrong Grave’ really funny, by the way. I love the ego of the boy in thinking his poetry, which he impetuously put in his girlfriend’s coffin, is so brilliant as to necessitate his digging her up. This is something I find striking about your work. Many of your stories are unsettling, discomfiting and spooky, but they’re also very funny. They contain a great deal of irony. Is this something that you intentionally introduce to offset the dark subject matter?
KL: Yes. Things that are funny and things that are scary … they’re cousins. They’re next door to each other. And in fact, when I read something – and I think this is probably true for most readers – when you find something funny, or when you begin to respond to a work that you find funny, you are knocked a bit off guard. And so the thing that comes along that is scary is scarier because of that, because you’ve made yourself more vulnerable. And then, once you’ve gotten a bit scared, and something comes along that’s funny, it knocks you off balance again. It’s a feedback thing; it keeps on deepening your response. And that’s a useful tool for a writer, but as a reader it’s also pleasurable – to be continuously caught just that little bit off guard.
My goal, often, is to keep on knocking over the reader. To establish enough of the narrative so that they trust that I know what I’m doing, but to continue to unfold things so that whenever they think they have their feet, they find that something is a little bit different from what they thought it was. To keep them interested.
KYD: This is certainly a reaction I had as a reader. I found that so many of your short stories contain plots that twist so suddenly that you’re left thinking: ‘What just happened?’ It’s the equivalent of bungee jumping as a reader. You know the rope’s there, you know that at some point you’ll be pulled back up, but you have no idea when that will be.
Do you find that when you’re writing your stories you plan out their narrative arc to ensure that you are constantly swiping the rug from under your readers’ feet? Or is it something that arrives intuitively?
KL: I think it varies from story to story. What I think everybody hopes for when they sit down to write is that it will be an organic process and that you will then refine. But in actual fact, if I outline or think through a story, when I sit down to write it, the first set of ideas I had begin to seem stale. The first ideas that you reach for are often not the most interesting ideas, so in the revision process you try to go through and find something that will be more interesting. I want everything to feel as though it fits together, not as if I’ve done it just for effect. But I want it to feel that the things that happen do so because they were supposed to.
KYD: It’s a hard thing to pull off, perhaps especially if your work doesn’t naturally fit into a single genre and you’re so aware of the conventions of particular genres. It’s a bit like a minefield. You have to be aware of which ones to use, and which conventions to step around. Am I right in saying this?
KL: Yes, my working method is often to go and sit in a cafe with friends who are also writers. As we work, often we pause and talk about or share problems. There’s a lot of conversation about what conventions of the genre are useful this time around, and which you can get away with messing – how far, in fact, you can push things. All genres have sets of rules or guidelines. If you push them too far out of shape then even your ideal reader is going to begin to feel dissatisfied, but if you use enough of them then you can go on to do other things.
KYD: Perhaps this is the reason why some people have described you as a ‘blue-collar Angela Carter’, who of course did some similar things with the conventions of the fairy-tale genre. Would you agree with this assessment?
KL: I love Angela Carter. I’m not at all sure that I write like her. I think that she had a very particular voice. Her work meant, and still means, a great deal to me, but I don’t think I’ve achieved quite the things that she achieved with language and the sentence. And besides being a gorgeous stylist, she was also a very funny writer, and I think one of the things I took away from reading her is that when you look very closely at forms like fairy tales, there’s a lot of really weird detail you can reuse. And also that funny or sly narrative voice – that is also a very useful trick.
KYD: You mentioned before that you’re a writer of ghost stories, and I know that you’ve said in another interview that when you sit down to write a story, you usually want to write something scary. Why is that?
KL: I don’t know. I know that when I was a kid the stuff that I grew up reading was mostly fantasy. I love Tolkien and I love E. Nesbit, and C.S. Lewis, but I don’t really feel drawn to write that kind of book. But when I first started picking out books on my own from libraries, they were often anthologies of ghost stories, and I really loved those. I would seek them out. When I came home from the library, those were always the first books from the set that I read. It was like eating popcorn! I’d finish one ghost story and I wanted to read another ghost story. I still feel that way.
KYD: Do you think that we like to terrify ourselves by reading ghost stories simply because it’s entertaining, or do you think it’s because they give us a deeper understanding of ourselves?
KL: I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about this, because I’m about to be on a panel where we talk about the idea of the abyss – the metaphor of the abyss and looking into it – and why this is something either useful creatively or why it’s an impulse that certain people have. And obviously there must be something addictive about that frisson, that feeling, that tingle. I really like stories in which certain elements are left unexplained. In which there is the inexplicable. I don’t like the feeling of coming out of a short story, knowing that I really understood all the character motivations, that there was nothing in there that the author couldn’t explain. What I like are stories where the author throws something in there that maybe the character tries to explain, but you think, ‘Well maybe that isn’t the explanation.’ I come away feeling … maybe saner, when it seems to be that I don’t have to try and understand it all.
KYD: I’ve noticed that a lot of your critics and readers have commented on the way in which your stories build up tension and complexity, and then end without any closure in the traditional sense. Is this something that you consciously do, or is this something that you feel would be a disservice to the reader and to the story?
KL: After years of writing this kind of story I have a logic that makes sense to me as to why I do it. I don’t know that it’s valid [laughs]! But you know the idea of the tidy ending, or even the epiphany in which the character learns something about themselves or the world? Those kinds of stories feel formulaic to me. In fact, stories that are open-ended feel more naturalistic. I like to leave the story a couple of moments before things reach their conclusion. It seems to me that by that point, the reader has invested a great deal of energy into the story, and I would like to leave them alone with it. I give it over at that point.
I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of closure. I would really rather build up a certain amount of momentum, try to get the reader in a collaborative mood where they’re doing the hard work of putting the story together as they’re reading it, and then leave them there at the end to continue it. Or in some cases just to go back and reread the story again. I think most writers would be happy with the idea that when someone finishes the story they might feel tempted to go back and read it from the beginning again in the hope that they will be able to complete it in some way. That a reread would in fact change the way they saw the story.
KYD: I find that your story, ‘The Specialist’s Hat’, is a really good example of the way in which you do this. The story [in which two girls play at being ‘Dead’ with their mysterious babysitter] also scared the bejeesus of me.
KYD: But this is a good example of the way in which your stories start out being centred in the familiar, in a milieu we all recognise. So even though this story is set in an old house, ostensibly it’s about an eccentric father doing some research for a biography, and his two daughters. Then he leaves on a date and a babysitter arrives, and everything is more or less familiar and expected. And then things escalate very quickly – like we were saying earlier, the rug is pulled out from under the readers’ feet. This is what happened with me. I had to go back and read it again to find out exactly what had happened to the girls. Yet, even after reading the story again, I still didn’t have any more answers than I did the first time. My first reaction to the open-endedness of the story was one of frustration. Do you encounter many readers who demand to know what happened?
KL: Yes, I do, and I think it can be frustrating if you’re a certain kind of reader, to approach the author and have the author say that they don’t know either. As far as I’m concerned, this story is an exploration more than a description. The thing I was really interested in exploring in ‘The Specialist’s Hat’ was the idea of game playing, and making certain kinds of decisions which you think you’re making in the context of playing a game, but which turn out to put you in a liminal state. A state in which you have crossed over in some way. It seems to me that whatever has happened to the girls, they’re not properly dead, they’re in a state that is so analogous to being dead that they may as well be dead. That they are trapped in a certain kind of space. And I don’t know if they are permanently trapped there, but I think they have made some decisions about not being in life anymore, leaving stuff behind.
KYD: Is it difficult as an author to navigate that path? You don’t want to frustrate or alienate your readers by not putting enough in, but you don’t want to overcompensate either. Do you trust your own experience when it comes to leaving certain things unsaid?
KL: I do. My primary impulse is to entertain, but I want to entertain myself at the same time. I want to enjoy the process of putting a story together. I want to write the kind of story where I don’t become bored. And there is obviously a balance between frustrating and entertaining your reader. What I usually end up thinking is that I want to frustrate people in the right way. You know what I mean?
KYD: An engaging frustration.
KL: Yes. You can use the reader’s frustration. I’ve been in a lot of workshops, which is useful because you have a direct engagement with people who are very fresh from the material, asking you the kind of questions that your ideal readers would be asking you anyway. That’s very useful because it teaches you how people respond to your work, or to fiction in general. You quickly learn two things. One is that there’s always a real range of response because everyone reads a story differently. Sometimes there’s a general consensus, but often people have different takes on what the story’s about, what the author’s intentions are, and the things that they like. What you end up taking away from a workshop is how to close down avenues of reader response that you don’t want.
I wrote a story called ‘Some Contingency Plans for Zombies’ in which there are no zombies, but something happens at the end and a guy steals a child. And I workshopped this story and at that point, at that draft, the story worked pretty much as I wanted. But 50 per cent of the people in the workshop were convinced that he was a pedophile. And I thought, ‘That’s not what I want to resonate. I can understand that response, and that’s a valid reading of the story, but I don’t want that to be the first response.’ So I reworked it and took out and added pieces, then workshopped it again and people came up with different theories, but it was no longer a consensus that the main character was a pedophile.
After a while, if you’ve been in enough workshops, you can internalise different kinds of readers and so you can begin to think of how different kinds of readers will respond. I love workshopping and I also find it very useful after I write a draft to think about the different ways in which readers might respond. I always want a really wide range of responses because that signals the readers as actually doing 50 per cent of the work. They’re creating this story along with me as they read it on the page, and collaborations between the reader and the story produce different kinds of stories. So I’m always really happy when I get to workshop something and there’s a lot of argument about what the story might be about. I think that means I’ve been successful. I think, too, that the endings have a lot to do with this. The more definitive or closed an ending is, the harder it is to come away with multiple interpretations.
KYD: You mentioned Clarion previously, and you’ve just said how beneficial you find workshops. Do you think that more writers should seek out a workshop, or create one? The notion that the writer must be a solitary figure remains a popular one. Do you think this is a damaging perception?
KL: I think that there are writers who work well alone, who have tried workshops and have found that it muddies the water. It confuses their purpose. Everybody works in a different way. But I think that if you write and you’re not satisfied with your work, or if you are not working in a way that you like… For example, I would much rather not write than write. Once I have started writing something and once it’s going well I enjoy it, but before then I would really rather not sit down and do it. So workshops and going out and working with friends in cafes is a way that I manage to feel invested in what I’m doing. I need that conversation and sense of companionship, and to know that people are engaged in the same sort of business. I’m happiest when I do that. This is probably true for a lot of writers, whether you’re at the beginning stage or later on. If you haven’t tried workshop then I think it’s not a bad idea. Having said that, there are some terrible workshops out there… But I think you try it out and see.
Maybe if you haven’t been to a workshop you will think that they’re useful because of the feedback you get on your work. I think it’s actually the reverse. You become a better writer by reading the work of people who don’t write like you do: by thinking about what makes their work successful and thinking about where it fails, and commenting and discussing their work. You bring that criticism back to your own writing afterwards. The other thing that I always tell people who are curious about workshopping or partnering with other writers is that the things you tend to loathe the most in other people’s prose are usually issues that you are having in your own writing. I’ve taught enough workshops to be able to listen as the critique moves around the circle – and I usually know the work of each person in the room – to recognise that the things writers really hate are things they struggle with too. So now I pay a lot of attention to what I dislike in other people’s work, because if I’m having a very strong negative response to it, it’s usually for a good reason. It’s not just because you hate it. You’re either afraid that you’re doing it, or you already are.
KL: It’s been a while since I’ve gotten the chance to workshop. We have a daughter now who is three, so there’s maybe been a four-year gap where I haven’t workshopped at all. But I suspect that any issues I would have would be to do with pacing. I also think that I, speaking as an editor or reader, become very impatient with digressive material, or with stuff that begins to feel self-indulgent, which suggests to me that I should really pare down what I’ve been working on recently [laughs]. You know, really strip it to the bone and make it more spare. If I was having the opposite response, I’d go back and look at it from another angle.
KYD: I suppose that’s a particular concern for the short-story writer. You need to strip it down to the bone.
KL: Yes. You do.
KYD: What are the challenges of being a short-story writer in a world where it’s usually the novelist who gets all the glory? Do you feel like the overshadowed sibling?
KL: No, oddly I think I get more attention as a short-story writer, perhaps because it seems like a slightly eccentric thing to do. I think there’s a feeling that writing short stories is chaotic, and that people ought to be rewarded for doing this stupid thing! [Laughs]. My work has been reviewed in places that have surprised me. I think people either take pity on the short-story writer, or else they wish to reward them in some way for not writing novels.
KYD: Positive discrimination?
KL: [Laughs]. Yes! The same goes for writing stuff that comes out of genre and science fiction and fantasy. I think again people end up championing my work and the work of a couple of other people out of this sort of contrariness. ‘You say that you don’t like science fiction or fantasy? Well here’s some! We will review this.’
KYD: It may be what we’re doing by interviewing you… [laughs]. But it’s reassuring to hear! Thank you, Kelly, for talking with Kill Your Darlings. It’s been a real pleasure.
KL: Thank you very much.