Kelly Link Interview – On Chocolate and Trampolines
Not quite two years ago I was reading The Guardian and came across a list of Top 10 Weird Fiction, offered by China Mieville.
The list featured writers and works of known quality — dare I say superiority — that included the likes of M. John Harrison, Mervyn Peake, Philip K. Dick, Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carroll, Stefan Grabinski, H.G. Wells, Max Ernst, the prodigious Jane Gaskell, and ended with an author previously unknown to me residing in the 10 spot.
Being rather impressionable, I ran — not walked — to get my copy of Kelly Link’s collection Stranger Things Happen, an investment of which that was not marred even when it became available free for download, instead it was a rare moment of unselfishness, a gratitude that others would be able to share in the fantastic trips offered by Link, in what was, and explicitly still is,one of the most noteworthy collections in recent years.
Now, with a new collection out this year, Magic for Beginners, anthologies co-edited that include the last two Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and Trampoline, which was published by her Small Beer Press, a publisher with a keen scrutiny for quality fiction (Maureen McHugh’s collection Mothers and other Monsters is a finalist for this year’s Story Prize), and a faery hand-bag full of honors that include the Hugo, Locus, James Tiptree Jr, and World Fantasy awards in to her name, I am proud to welcome Kelly Link.
Jay – Kelly, your stories are often and aptly described as ‘defying description’, and offered in a manner that is complimentary to the highest degree. How would you describe your work to a potential new reader?
Kelly Link- Usually I say something like, “I write stories with zombies in them.” I figure that either the person who asked is going to be charmed by this, because, like me, they’re fond of zombie stories, or else they’ll know to steer clear. I believe in truth in advertising. If that doesn’t seem helpful, then I’ll elaborate by saying that I write ghost stories or that I’m a science fiction writer. My suspicion is that when people say things like, “You’re a writer! What kind of things do you write?” they’re merely being polite. Or else you’ve startled them badly and they’re suppressing an urge to flee.
Of course, being a former bookseller, I’m also extremely comfortable finding out what kinds of books they actually _enjoy_ reading, and talking about those books, or else asking if they’ve read other books which are like the books that they love, which they might actually enjoy.
Jay – You have two collections, one Stranger Things Happen, the other, the recently released Magic for Beginners. What would be, if any, the chief difference between the writer who wrote the stories in the prior to the latter?
Kelly Link- She’s a little bit older, and she has a real desk now. I used to write at a kitchen table, when we lived in Brooklyn. I also tried to write a greater variety of stories, to be a little bit looser in some stories, like the title story, for example. To complicate other stories, like Lull or Catskin. I was trying to write at different speeds. I think I’m a better writer, and hopefully a little less afraid of making mistakes. I’m also trying to be better about actually sitting down and writing on a regular basis. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I’m much more aware of how much time I’m capable of wasting.
Jay – You and Mr. Grant started Small Beer Press, a publisher committed to outstanding fiction by talented writers, (loving Maureen McHugh’s Mothers and other Monsters now), what can you tell us about future Small Beer Press releases?
Kelly Link- We’re publishing Alan De Niro’s debut collection, Skinnydipping in the Lake of the Dead. We’re reprinting Howard Waldrop’s debut collection, howard Who? as well. We’re hoping to put out more chapbooks, and there are other projects that we’re still pursuing. I’d love to put together another original anthology, along the lines of Trampoline. I’ve always thought that Aquarium would be a great title for an anthology. Coming up with anthology titles is always fun.
Jay – How was the title Trampoline chosen?
Kelly Link- I wanted a noun for the title that had the same sort of feeling as the old magazines like ASTOUNDING had. Something that felt like it came with an exclamation point even if there wasn’t actually one there. Trampoline just felt right. Afterwards a friend was telling me that he remembered a lecture in an art history class where the speaker said that the reaction of a viewer to a piece of art should be like that of someone falling against and then bouncing off a trampoline. That sort of catapult.
And I also just like trampolines.
Jay – In a recent and brief discussion I was involved in, speaking of another terrific short story writer, Ted Chiang, your name was brought up. As with Chiang, your published body of work has been all short fiction. Is there any inclination on your part to write a full-length work?
Kelly Link- It’s always good to be compared to Ted Chiang. Some days I ask myself: What Would Ted Chiang Do? I think it takes a certain amount of stubbornness to be a writer, and maybe Ted and I are stubborn in similar ways. You can only do a limited amount of things, and if you aren’t stubborn, it’s easy to get caught up in work that you aren’t passionate about.
On the other hand, I’d like to at least attempt a novel. There are things that you just can’t do in short fiction. At the very least, I could make some brand-new, interesting, educational mistakes.
Jay – If you ever started working on a novel is there a particular story(s) of yours that you think you would expand on or base it off, or would it be something completely fresh?
Kelly Link- I’m not sure. Because I generally like to leave story endings open, there are a few that I could imagine going back to. I’d love to go back to the characters in The Faery Handbag and write about what happens once someone goes into the handbag. I feel the same way about Louise’s Ghost — that Anna would be an interesting character to go back to. And Magic for Beginners felt very much like the opening of something longer. But the stories that I’m most satisfied with — The Hortlak, The Girl Detective, and Lull — are really finished.
The idea of starting off fresh is also tempting. But this is all extremely hypothetical.
Jay – Earlier this year you made Stranger Things Happen, which features stories that won the World Fantasy Award, The Nebula, and James Tiptree Award available for free download. What was the motivation behind this, and did you achieve the desired effect?
Kelly Link- Gavin and I did this because we’ve been relatively successful with Stranger Things Happen, and because from everything that we’ve seen, making something available under a Creative Commons copyright doesn’t mean you stop selling books.
It just means that you reach a different audience, and that maybe someone working in a different medium will be able to use the stories that I wrote. We did it because we could — it’s one of the nice things about publishing the collection ourselves. We could set up a framework where readers or creative artists could feel free to take stuff and make something new out of it.
I’m a fan of libraries, too.
In the first week after we put Stranger Things Happen up online, we had 15,000 downloads, which is as many copies as we’ve sold in four years. How cool is that?
Jay – What element do you think you bring to the table that you think separates a Kelly Link story from other stories?
Kelly Link- I don’t really see myself as separate. I see myself as someone who is part of an ongoing conversation between writers and books and readers and writing instructors, etc. Every good writer ends up sounding more and more like themselves, though, and I hope that my stories sound like me, only better. I’m preoccupied by certain things: dead people, loss, weird shoes, the interiors of certain handbags or rooms or catskin suits.
I also hope that my stories change if you go back and reread them. I don’t want to nail meanings down, or get too much in the way of the reader. I don’t really believe in endings.
Jay – You co-edited The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, the 18th collection cataloging some of the best stories in both genres, with Small Beer Press cohort Gavin Grant and the former franchise at Scifi.com, Ellen Datlow. How was that experience, and what are some of your favorites stories of the year?
Kelly Link- So far? There’s a wonderful Kim Newman darkish fantasy in a Marvin Kaye anthology of fairy stories, and Patricia McKillip also has a great story in the same anthology. Every single story in Joe Hill’s collection, 20th Century Ghosts is gorgeous, and a couple are just knockouts. There’s a terrific Bruce Sterling fantasy from F&SF. At long last, there’s a new collection from Rachel Ingalls.
I’ve also been reading some wonderful novels — Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania, and Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, which doesn’t come out until next year. I loved Kage Baker’s new novel and David Marusek’s debut novel, Counting Heads, although that’s science fiction.
Jay – That’s interesting, as there has been recent discussions pertaining to preferences regarding formats — multi-book sequences or self-contained — I read and enjoyed A Princess of Roumania and Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, the former a possible quartet, the latter a trilogy, do you have any preferences regarding format, and if so, as a writer, reader, editor, and publisher, what are your thoughts?
Kelly Link- I don’t have any preference. I loved Paul Park’s novel, and I also loved Naomi Novik’s. Tove Jansson and Joyce Ballou Gregorian and L. M. Boston wrote wonderful series. I reread Tolkien every few years. I’m enjoying Kage Baker’s Company novels. Dorothy Dunnett and Dorothy Sayers, of course, wrote series.
But I also love Geoff Ryman’s Air and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and Hope Mirlees’ Lud in Mist. I wouldn’t say that I prefer one style over The other, except that there’s something satisfying going on a vacation or a long road trip with a stack of books in a series by an author whom you’ve only recently discovered.
Sometimes I’ll get bored as a series continues, but I love every single book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s EARTHSEA sequence. One of the books that I’m most looking forward next year is Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia, which is the third in a series. As other writers who know much more than me have pointed out, a really good sequel takes everything that the first novel did and turns it upside down. It changes everything that you thought you knew. Turner’s second novel, The Thief, was that kind of sequel.
The real question for me is whether I love short story collections and anthologies even better than novels and novel sequences. And I’m not even sure how to answer that one.
Jay – What future projects can we expect from you, both as an editor and writer?
Kelly Link- Well, again I’d love to edit some original cross-genre anthologies in the next few years. I have a couple of young adult short stories coming out next year, and I’m especially happy with one called The Wrong Grave which will be in an Candlewick anthology edited by Deborah Noyes. More short stories! More young adult short stories! I should have another collection out in about two or three years, and that seems very fast to me.
I’m still an editor on the onlinewritingworkshop.com, and I’m teaching with Holly Black at Clarion East this summer. I’m planning to learn how to drive stickshift, and I’d really like to get a dog. But we probably travel too much.
Jay – I hate to invoke legends, but reading Stranger Things Happen took me as close to that experience of wonder and the brush with the fantastic I had when I read Burning Your Boats the first time. Whose work influences your stories, both past, and if applicable today?
Kelly Link- That’s a scary compliment. I love her work. I think Angela Carter is a bolder, more knowledgeable, and more pyrotechnical writer. But she’s an influence, and so are writers like John Collier, Joan Aiken, Saki, Eudora Welty, Carol Emshwiller, Peter Straub, M. R. James, Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, Lorrie Moore, and I could keep on going. More recently, I feel as if I’m working in the same territory as writers like Shelley Jackson, Margo Lanagan, Kevin Brockmeier, Aimee Bender, Judy Budnitz, Stacey Richter, Benjamin Rosenbaum, and the writers that I’ve workshopped with — Richard Butner, John Kessel, Maureen McHugh, Christopher Rowe, Jeff Ford. I could keep going!
I had Fred Chappell and Karen Joy Fowler and Tim Powers as writing instructors, and they were tremendous influences, both as teachers and for the work that they do as writers. I get most of my writing done in cafes with another writer, Holly Black, and she’s constantly rescuing me when I get stuck. I go back and read young adult novels when I’m floundering, and Diana Wynne Jones and Robert Westall and T. H. White and J. R. R. Tolkien some of the writers that I go back to most often. I love revisiting books that I feel I ought to know by heart. The good ones are the ones that surprise you by turning out to be a different book each time you read them.
Jay – Twice you have mentioned the importance to you of a story changing over time on subsequent rereads as a quality that you attach with exceptional story-telling. What stories of your own have exhibited this evolution the most in your own eyes when looking back at your work?
Kelly Link- I really couldn’t say. The author is usually thinking about an entirely different set of things when she looks at her own work.
I can point to other writers whose work shifts around — Karen Joy Fowler, Carol Emshwiller, Grace Paley, George Saunders. Most recently I’ve been rereading a story by Joe Hill called My Father’s Mask. It’s a very slippery story. Christopher Rowe’s story The Voluntary State is another good one, and most of the stories in Trampoline were ones that I read over and over again — Richard Butner’s Ash City Stomp comes to mind. Lots of Ray Vukcevich’s work.
Margo Lanagan stories are a good example of this kind of slippage, and so is a lot of the fiction that Ellen Datlow published on SCIFICTION — I’ll just mention John Kessel’s The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Andy Duncan’s Zora and the Zombie. The stories that Gavin and I reprint in our half of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror have to be stories that our ideal, imaginary reader is going to want to read more than once.
Jay – Would you mind telling readers what they are getting with the ‘zine you co-founded, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet?
Kelly Link- An inexpensively reproduced, half-legal, stapled and usually photocopied twice-yearly zine which contains a certain quantity of genre fiction, non-genre fiction, weird fiction, ghost stories, fairy tales, nonfiction, poetry, advice, and ephemera that we liked enough to include. The chocolate level subscription comes with a quality chocolate bar.
Jay – Everybody loves chocolate! I would like to thank Kelly for taking the time to visiting us and hope she decides to indulge us again in the future.