If you haven't read Kelly Link yet, then you're in for a treat. Through her stories published in journals and anthologies and her two previous collections, Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, Link has won over fans across the literary spectrum. Her newest collection, Pretty Monsters, is being marketed as a young adult book, but it's a wonderful all-ages introduction to Link's stories, displaying her characteristic blend of humor, heart, suspense, whimsy, and magic. From reclusive wizards to alien cults and teenage werewolves, these stories explore the fantastic, the absurd, and the all-too familiar from one page to the next.
Between her own writing, her work with Small Beer Press (which she co-founded), editing her zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and teaching at two different writing programs, Kelly has a lot on her plate. But she was kind enough to answer our questions via the email during some downtime at home in Northampton, MA.
Trap Doors, Ping Pong, and Pretty Monsters: An Interview with Kelly Link
Meeting House: What were your criteria when considering which of your stories to include in Pretty Monsters? What makes this a young adult collection, beyond the ages of most of the characters?
Kelly Link: Well, the more recent stories were all written originally for young adult anthologies — “The Faery Handbag”, “Monster”, “The Wrong Grave”, “Wizards of Perfil”, “The Constable of Abal”, and “The Surfer.” “Monster” is the second story I wrote for Eli Horowitz’s McSweeney’s anthology, Noisy Outlaws. My first attempt was “Magic For Beginners” — which was much longer than the kind of thing they were looking for. We ended up including one story from my first collection, “The Specialist’s Hat,” because I loved traditional ghost stories better than anything when I was fourteen. Ghost stories get a special dispensation when it comes to young adult. I wanted to put together a collection that had the kinds of stories that I loved when I was a kid: ghost stories, horror stories, science fiction, and traditional fantasy.
My editor at Viking, Sharyn November says that the one hard and fast rule for young adult fiction is that the protagonist has to be experiencing something for the first time, that they’re in a liminal or transitional space. The characters may be taking on new responsibilities or making new and interesting mistakes, or they might be caught between two worlds. So there’s a lot of overlap between fantasy and young adult. I once attended an publishers panel where someone asked the editors at the table what you could or couldn’t do in young adult: the editors looked at each other and then one of them said “You can’t be boring. And no bestiality.”
I’ve just asked Holly Black, who says that these are all classic issues in young adult: family, friendship, negotiating complicated kinds of relationships for the first time, transformation. Her prohibition is: young adult fiction should never be approached from a viewpoint of nostalgia. Immediacy is key.
MH: What were you reading when you were a teenager? What do you wish you had been reading or hadn’t read? What books do you recommend to young readers?
KL: I read anything I could get my hands on: Lace, Flowers in the Attic, all of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Angela Carter, H. P. Lovecraft, E. Nesbit, Alfred Payson Terhune (he wrote many books about dogs, some of them heartbreaking) I wish I’d found Terry Pratchett a bit sooner. I didn’t read Tove Jansson or I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) until I was working in a bookstore as an adult. I think I would have loved The Decameron just as much as a teenager as I did when I finally came across it. I really loved reading books when, at some point, I got the feeling I wasn’t supposed to be reading them.
There’s a certain set of young adult books that I recommend to readers of all ages: M. T. Anderson’s various novels, and Diana Wynne Jones, of course. Most of Robert Westall’s novels are out of print at the moment, but The Watch House and The Scarecrows and The Wind Eye are wonderful horror novels. Recently I’ve loved Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda fantasy novels, and Elizabeth Knox’s two book series Dreamhunters and Dreamquake. Margo Lanagan writes amazing short stories, and her first novel, Tender Morsels, is just coming out. David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy is a funny, romantic, utopian high school novel in which nothing bad happens. I almost cried when I finished it, because I didn’t want to come out of the world he was writing about. And then there’s I Capture the Castle, which is about wanting to write and falling in love.
As for books that aren’t conveniently shelved in young adult, my suspicion is that younger readers would probably love Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novels are wonderful, and so is Matt Forsythe’s graphic novel Ojingogo. For short stories, I’d recommend Saki or John Collier or E. Nesbit’s ghost stories.
MH: What do you think of allegory? A couple stories in Pretty Monsters could be read as allegory. How much do you want a reader to take away from one of your stories beyond what you put on the page?
KL: This is either one of the biggest strengths or the biggest weaknesses of science fiction and fantasy and horror, especially secondary world fantasy, that the narrative inevitably works on more than one level. The king’s wound represents a violation of the kingdom, represents the reader’s own sense that something is wrong in their own world. Lovecraft’s monsters may be stand-ins for foreigners or Portuguese fishermen. A tentacle is never just a tentacle. In genre, whether the author likes it or not, there’s the surface reading and there’s the surface-narrative-as-metaphor. Sometimes that secondary reading rises up and swamps the literal reading. I think of stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” or, one of my favorites, her story “The Poacher”, which is operating simultaneously on about five different levels of meaning.
When I read, I like to be suspended somewhere between different possible readings. When I’m writing, I want to allow as much of a gap as possible, while still trying to entertain, for readers to insert themselves. I’m always aiming to write the kinds of stories that change shape in between readings.
MH: I also noticed a certain interest in framed narratives, unreliable narrators, and the like, in your stories. I’m thinking of “Magic for Beginners,” “The Faery Handbag,” and “Pretty Monsters.” Do you like a narrator more when you don’t totally trust him or her? What interests you more: stories, or the communication between writer and reader? Or is it equal and inseparable?
KL: I don’t trust people who seem trustworthy, at least not in fiction. I’ve read too many mystery novels. In real life I think I’m more often gullible than not, easily disarmed or charmed by people I shouldn’t be charmed by. I’m not great at reading people—it’s taken me years to figure out how to know when someone is drunk, for example. But in a book I do love an unreliable narrator, or someone who is inconsistent in ways that are consistent with my experience of human beings.
There are a number of stories in Pretty Monsters where there are layered points of view, or multiple storytellers. Hopefully this provides a kind of connective tissue. In general, I’m probably more interested in stories and in the dynamics between various characters than in the communication between writer or reader, or maybe it’s that I can’t separate those two things. In the end, the story is the communication.
I do like tricks. I like trap doors, and framed narratives, authorial interjections, unreliable narrators, complications, reversals, and ambiguity, as long as the characters in a story and their experiences still compel, still have a certain emotional complexity and power.
MH: You do quite a bit of editorial work, between Small Beer Press, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and other projects. What do you learn from editing that you can apply to your writing, and vice verse?
KL: The editing I do for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror is selecting fiction that’s already appeared in print. Year round we get to see a broad, representative range of the kind of fantastic or surreal work that’s currently being published. Between that and reading for Small Beer and our zine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the teaching I do at the Clarion workshop and Stonecoast’s low-residence M.F.A program, I get to see work from writers working at the top of their ability as well as work from writers who are figuring out just exactly what they can do. The editing and the teaching reinforce each other. For example, when I teach, I line edit in the same way that I would work with a writer that we’re publishing. When I write, I work the same way: the entry point in revision is through thinking about word choice or about how I could rework a particular sentence.
MH: How’s Northampton treating you?
KL: Well, we have a ping pong table, so that’s good news. But a skunk has just taken up residence in the crawl space under the room where the ping pong table is: bad news. I’ve been on the road so much for the past few years that I’m still not sure I know what it’s like to live here. Recently, we’ve had a bit more time to do things: there’s a strong community of artists and writers, and so I get to meet up and work with Holly Black when we’re both in residence, and my partner Gavin and I just took a letterpress course as well as a wood engraving class from Barry Moser. Plus there’s plenty of places to get good coffee, and a great pho place in Amherst.
MH: I know you’ve discussed this elsewhere, but what do you think of genre? Is the idea of genre limiting or useful or maybe even liberating? Is it something you consider when you write, the idea of being considered a “genre writer,” or is that a silly thing to think about?
KL: How about all of the above? I like complication in real life too, and it also makes me happy (in a very uncomplicated way) that there’s confusion about whether I ought to be considered a genre writer. I consider myself a genre writer. I write ghost stories and I make the kinds of distinctions about fiction that genre writers make. I recently taught a seminar in which I used the shorthand term “mainstream fiction” as a category term. One of my students raised her hand and said, “What does that mean? Mainstream fiction?” And of course, it’s term that sf & fantasy writers use when they want to make broad generalizations about all fiction that isn’t shoehorned into a genre category like Mystery or Fantasy or Romance.
Every writer makes up their own genre, as far as I can tell, based on the books that they read when they were young and the kinds of books that they continue to read as adults, as writers. If you’re lucky, you can figure out first why certain kinds of writing continue to appeal to you, and then figure out how to borrow those techniques or adapt them or combine them with other techniques or traditions. It’s a terrible thing for a writer to do, to deny an attachment on their part to a certain kind of storytelling or genre because it has low cultural value, to put it behind them. You’re cutting off your own roots.
MH: “The Specialist’s Hat” and “Pretty Monsters” are kind of spooky. So is “Monster,” even if it’s also absurd and amusing. What do you find scary, in life or in writing?
KL: Thank you! I scare easy, but maybe when you scare easy you develop a taste for it. When I was a kid, it was a habit in our family to hide behind doors, or lurk in the garage in the dark when you knew someone else was about to walk through. Then you would scream and jump out. I don’t recommend doing this, though, not since I did it to my best friend in high school. Her father was a cop, and she already knew she wanted to be a cop when she grew up: she punched me in the stomach before she realized it was me. She was already thinking in terms of self defense.
There are all sorts of things that I both love and fear: J-horror, like Ringu, or M. R. James, true ghost stories, roller coasters, etc. For years, though, I couldn’t stand to be on airplanes. Now I take a Xanax, which is less expensive than driving cross country used to be.
MH: You said in an interview that you wanted to try writing a novel, but also that you wanted to be able to write very tight and focused stories. Are you working on a novel, or are you working on trimming down your writing, or both?
KL: I’m actually working on both of these. It’s always good to be aiming for goals at opposite ends of the field, right?
MH: If you could give your sixteen-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
KL: Hang on. Life mostly gets better. One day you will discover your superpower. Don’t be ashamed of the things that you love.
And when you get to college, don’t take classes based on the course description. Take the courses based on the instructors instead. A good teacher can make any subject riveting. (I was always a sucker for a good course description.)