How do you describe someone like Kelly Link? Her short stories attract the most extravagant praise – Michael Chabon greeted her second collection, Magic For Beginners, with “once more, for a little while, the world is worth saving” – but just try telling people what to expect from them. I decided I’d get her to do it for me. She spoke to me on the phone from the Massachusetts farmhouse she shares with her husband and publishing partner, Gavin Grant, and their two-year-old daughter.
“My starting point when I describe my writing is that I’m trying to let people down easily if they decide they don’t want to read it. I’ll say that it’s quirky, that often it’s a ghost story or that there’s a touch of the supernatural to it. That’s if I’m describing myself to people who don’t read fantasy and science fiction. If I’m talking to somebody who does read fantasy and science fiction, I’d say, well, I’m not really sure that it’s science fiction or fantasy.”
This is not just the polite evasion of someone who doesn’t aim to help you fit her for a pigeonhole. Link – it’s the perfect name for her – draws on traditions and genre conventions that do not, traditionally and conventionally, like to be seen in each other’s company. People with narrow reading habits can find her bewildering. When she was first finding her literary feet, she did a masters course in creative writing. The other students, who were all writing either poetry or realist fiction, found her work “interesting, but weird”. Shortly afterwards, she went to Clarion, the six-week live-in writing workshop that turns up on the CVs of many of today’s best science fiction and fantasy authors. “I kind of expected that I would find my people there, so to speak.” In the sense of making lasting friendships, that did happen, but the critiques she got boiled down to “interesting but weird”. It seemed she was neither fish nor fowl.
“Weird” is, in fact, one of the currently popular self-descriptive terms for people who want the freedoms of genre without the restrictions and the ghetto status. M John Harrison and China Miéville have actively argued that their own work should be seen in the context of a long tradition of Weird Fiction, going back not just to Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany, but also to Borges and Kafka.
Whether or not “weird fiction” means more in practice than “non-mainstream unclassifiable” is an interesting conversation, but it’s worth noting that Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s recent anthology, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, includes work by Miéville, Harrison, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Chabon, Margo Lanagan, Neil Gaiman, Karen Joy Fowler, Haruki Murakami and Kelly Link. None of these writers is very like the others, but they all play fast and loose with genre boundaries, and there clearly is a legitimate sense in which they belong in the same book. (If you put them all in a room together, they’d have more to say to each other than “Interesting but …”).
I notice, however, that I still haven’t described for you the essential quality of a Link story. I need more help. How would she describe herself to someone who loves her writing, but can’t find the right words to define it? “Hmm”, she says. There’s a long pause. “I don’t know that I could. I think my fear would be that I would end up pointing out too clearly patterns, or things that once you notice them you might then begin to notice them iterated over and over again. I think every writer worries about doing the same thing over and over, hitting the same emotional notes …”
Well, great. I adore Link’s stories. I read them obsessively. And here she is, suggesting they’re full of underlying commonalities, which is my cue to say, “Yes, I have spotted many, let us discuss them”, and all I can come up with is “Um”. I am going to have to turn in my Perceptive Kelly Link Reader badge. No, wait, I can think of one. Open endings. The title story of her collection Pretty Monsters – a disturbing, funny, richly ambiguous fusion of three possibly related werewolf storylines – closes with the definitive Link final sentence: “The end of the story will have to wait.”
“There’s something very tidy about endings. I wouldn’t want all endings to be loose or to be tangled, because that would become another kind of artificial, but what I like about endings that are more open is that it’s harder to disengage from them. You go on thinking about the story a little bit longer. Stories that have too neat an ending, they’re very easy to put down and walk away from. I don’t want to write stories that feel disposable.”
That is part of the reason, possibly, that her stories have the substance of much longer works. When I think of the astonishing title story of Magic For Beginners – about a cult TV show in which a group of friends are brought together by their love for a cult TV show – my memory insists I’ve read something with a novel’s heft and complexity. Link has never written a novel, though she did start one once – “It was about somebody digging a gigantic hole in their backyard” – and was even offered a book contract for it, after her writing class teacher quietly sent a few chapters off to an agent in New York. But then she won a competition for a six-month trip around the world. (You had to answer the question “Why do you want to go around the world?” Her answer: “Because you can’t go through it.”) She decided globe-trotting for half a year was probably a better idea than figuring out how the backyard hole novel ended.
When she got back, she got a job in a Boston book shop, which is where she met her future husband, Gavin Grant. They married shortly after founding independent publisher Small Beer Press. Small Beer’s maiden book was Link’s first story collection, Stranger Things Happen. (Grant comments, “For the most part I did not tell people that I was publishing my girlfriend. The people I knew at the American Booksellers Association, when I finally did tell them, were appropriately horrified. Until they read the book and went, ‘Oh. Okay then.’”)
Small Beer’s aim from the beginning has been, Link says, “to publish books that don’t quite fit into any particular genre. We publish the books that other presses might take on except they’re not quite sure how to market them”. She and Grant also work together as a freelance editing team, putting together projects for other publishers; their latest book is a young adult fantasy and science fiction anthology for Candlewick Press, Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories.
“We were talking about steampunk, and how it’s still a pretty loosely defined genre, with an enormous audience, especially in young adult; and we knew a lot of young adult writers we wanted to work with. What we wanted to do was leave it as open to the writers as possible as to how they wanted to interpret steampunk.”
One of the most surprising interpretations came from Elizabeth Knox, one of two New Zealand writers in the anthology. “She’s one of my favourite writers. I’ve loved every book I’ve read by her, and her two young adult books, I thought they were magical. So I knew from the start that we wanted to ask her for a story. And we wanted a graphic component to the book, we wanted some comics in it, and I love Hicksville, so we got in touch with Dylan Horrocks. At first we thought that he would turn in a graphic story, and then as he worked on it he decided that he wanted to write his first short story. And it’s terrific. It’s often one of people’s favourite stories in the anthology”. Link will be sharing the stage with both Knox and Horrocks during her upcoming trip to New Zealand. “This is a dream trip for us. I can’t tell you how much we’re looking forward to it”.
When she gets home again, she plans to sit down with two close friends, novelists Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, and discuss what projects they should each work on next. “I feel I’m going to be given a lot of advice on novel writing. The thing about people who write novels is they want everybody else to write novels too. I’m feeling a lot of pressure on that front”. z
Kelly Link is appearing at Writers & Readers Week, March 9-14, as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington, February 24-March 18