'I Get to Eat My Cake & Throw It At You Too': A Chat with Kelly Link


Kelly Link is the author of four short-story collections: Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters (for young adults), and, most recently, Get in Trouble. At least yearly, I reread “Travels with the Snow Queen,” a story about fairy tales, robber girls, and talking reindeer that also manages to be one of the most accurate renderings of unrequited love and wanderlust I’ve encountered. “Ladies,” the narrator snaps at one point, “Has it ever occurred to you that fairy tales aren’t easy on the feet?” It’s this snap, this practicality, this awareness of the body behind the words, that distinguishes Link’s work within the recent (and not so recent) trend of retelling fairy tales and ancient myths and superhero movies. Her characters, even when they’re zombies or vampires, are utterly human. “Monsters—” her work seems to say, gleeful as a glossy magazine, “They’re just like us!” And they are, only more so.

Her fabulist leanings have earned her comparisons to contemporaries like Kevin Brockmeier and Karen Russell (who calls Link “darkly funny, sexy, frightening”), but I’d also recommend her work to fans of Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, and the great Grace Paley. Like these writers, Link has an ear for the threat in everyday language. “I don’t bite,” a mother says to her daughter’s boyfriend in “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back,” but a book has already been shredded, a nose torn off. The explanations offered do not satisfy. Explanations rarely do, in Link’s stories: they prickle or pique or simply don’t exist. Readers must be content, instead, with settings like puzzles to be solved; with characters who are canny and brave and in deep, deep trouble; with sentences like teeth: unsettling on their own; put together, a weapon.

Her readers are legion, and loyal. Link is so beloved by her fans that she makes that ubiquitous epithet, “cult-favorite,” seem eerie in its potential for literal truth. I was fifteen minutes early for her reading at my local bookstore, but the place was already packed, and the audience wasn’t just large but giddy, abuzz with the kind of frenetic energy you have when you’re ready—expecting—to be delighted by what comes next. The poet Raymond McDaniel introduced Link: “We don’t know what we’re in for,” he joked, and that’s the pleasure. Link read from one of my favorites in the new collection, “I Can See Right Through You,” an intricately structured story about aging movie stars, sex tapes, ghost hunters, and regret. The piece is Link at her creepiest, but it is also deeply sad, no special effects needed. “You could, perhaps, imagine that there is a supernatural explanation for these things,” Link writes, “but that would be wishful thinking.” What story, after all, isn’t a ghost story? We’re all haunted by someone, by something.

Fairy tales, myths, legends, and tropes strike me as similar to the magical handbag or the tent you write into your story “The Summer People”in that they’re bigger in than out. We can throw all manner of stuff into them and they can take it, carry that weight, despite their skeletal structure. It seems to me, though, that you’re not only packing these handbags, you’re stitching them together and running them up a flagpole, or making them into hats instead.

Is this a conscious impulse? Is it a matter of keeping yourself (or your reader) interested in a story that’s been told a dozen different ways before? When does a source material feel particularly open to you? Are there any that feel closed?

Stories are, of course, much bigger on the inside, especially when the reader and the writer have both read sufficient other stories. The moment you put in a reference to a fairytale, or pull a strand out of the superhero genre of story, or stitch in a line from a book or poem, those other stories are going to enter the particular thing that you’re doing. The story expands.

There’s another thing going on, as well, which is that the only real reference point we have (as writers or readers) for the fantastic is other stories: books, movies, oral tradition, ballads. So of course all of these representations connect up, sometimes (often?) even when the writer is unaware of stories or traditions that the reader has access to. Because I’ve been reading the latest book, I’ll mention Charlie Stross’s Laundry series, which is a funny and smart mashup of Lovecraftian mythos and James Bond-style espionage novels. Writing your own stuff often means recognizing patterns that, in combination, will give you your own material to work with.

And look, there are all different sorts of readers. I don’t expect everyone to like what I like to do. That would be weird! But for what it’s worth, when I start a new story, often I’m not particularly interested in what I’m writing. Writing the story is the long, mostly tedious, occasionally enjoyable process of finding an interesting direction and figuring out how to point myself and readers that away. Figuring out how to move the story along at the right speed by shaping sentences in certain ways.

I’ve been mulling over the question of source materials—I have no idea! Certain kinds of story shapes, or patterns, or source materials, I guess, appeal at certain moments. I know that I wrote a handful of zombie stories at one particular point, because I was watching (and rewatching) all the zombie movies I could find. But did I want to write zombie stories because I watched the movies, or did I watch the movies because I was suddenly interested in the idea of zombies and how people told stories about them? If I try to come up with a list of stories that I don’t want to tell, I guess it would include the serial killer genre. (Even if I’m almost done watching the first season of Hannibal.)

In work, there’s often a sly, trickster-like narratorial presence in stories that otherwise appear to be strictly third-person—parentheticals, addresses to the reader, “I”s barely glimpsed before they’re gone again. I’m wondering if you know who that narrator is. Is it you, the author? Or does it depend on the story? You’ve got plenty of characters I wouldn’t trust not to be sneaking off to pull double duty, both protagonist and narrator. And where did that voice come from? What business does it have here?

Oooh, interesting question! It isn’t me, and yet it must be me in some fashion, because I’ve inserted a voice into the narrative to make observations that the characters can’t make (or that I won’t, perhaps, allow them to make). I guess I’ve always liked a story with behind-the-curtain intrusions (Greek chorus, a frame story, the Cabaret-style Master of Ceremonies). And yes, safe to assume that the narrator and protagonist are sometimes closer than they appear in the rear-view mirror. What this kind of voice allows me to do is to destabilize the narrative even as I’m establishing it. I get to eat my cake and throw it at you too.

With this new collection, did you have any goals or rules or hoops set up for yourself? Anything you wanted to do that you hadn’t done yet, maybe? Or that you wanted to take another shot at?

Well, I tend to think about the story that I’m currently working on, and not much past that. A group of stories doesn’t become a collection until there are a significant number of them, and until that point I don’t think too much about how they fit together.

Having said that, there are a couple of vampire stories in this book. I would sort of like to write more vampire stories. There’s more of a split between the kinds of characters who show up in this book: adolescents and the middle-aged. The middle-aged protagonist stories are a bit grimmer, as you might expect. Adolescence is the period in which you begin to figure out what you’re capable of doing and being. Middle age is, often, a period in which you realize that the choices that you’ve made (however terrible or excellent) rule out other kinds of choices. Middle age isn’t the age of tragedy, but it doesn’t usually have that gosh-wow, everything is awful, everything is wonderful quality to it. If it does, then look out.

The last story I wrote, “The Lesson,” was intentionally different from the other stories. It has more of my own life in it. It was, as well, a place for me to experiment with intentionally wrongly-made paragraphs. The fantastic elements are less improbable. And I wrote it backwards for the first two days that I worked on it. I started at the last sentence and made my way in reverse for as long as I could, which was somewhere between one and three pages.

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Fairy tales are children’s stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one.” You once said about Pretty Monsters that because it was a young adult collection, the stories “needed to have a certain dramatic urgency.” Get in Trouble has its share of teenage protagonists as well: why does a young adult story demand dramatic urgency more or differently than stories for adults? Is that urgency embedded in the fact of childhood and teenage-ness itself?

That Rebecca Solnit quote is pretty terrific. I’d add that young-adult narratives are usually about the protagonists doing things for the very first time. First love, first attempts at discovering who we might become. There’s a lot of dramatic urgency attached to those firsts, but at the same time, they’re just firsts. You don’t always get things right the first time you try them. So the transitory nature of our actions/the transitional state adolescents find themselves in gives the young-adult story a kind of speed. Life goes on around you. And you, yourself, are going to keep on changing whether or not you want to.

Some of the stories in Get in Trouble, on the other hand, are decidedly adult! Not only written for, that is, but about: protagonists have kids and divorces and casual sex and drinking problems and regrets. (I’ve always loved how you write sex, more Lorrie Moore than Angela Carter, and how it can ground otherwise otherworldly characters—like Bunnatine and Biscuit in “Origin Story,” just two more superheroes who can’t commit.) Did these themes come naturally as you’ve gotten older? Was it a matter of imagining where those younger protagonists of yours might end up? Did taking on more adult characters and content feel liberating or challenging—is that dramatic urgency harder to imbue?

Thank you! It’s tremendous fun to write about sex. It always tells you something about your characters. It’s one of the first rules about finding a story, isn’t it? What does your character want? It doesn’t seem particularly harder to write adolescents than to write the middle-aged. I mean, it’s hard to write characters, period. You have to stand outside looking in, but you have to be inside, too. But in any case, there’s not that much difference between the two sets of protagonists. They’re all people. And I’m a middle-aged person now whose memory of adolescence is still, for whatever reason, pretty vivid. More experience to drawn on.

Weirdly, it causes me some pain to imagine that my adolescent characters might end up in the situations and emotional states that my middle-aged characters find themselves in. I want to imagine that the adolescent characters grow up to live long, happy, productive, and satisfying lives—rainbows and unicorns all the way, every problem with a solution that doesn’t cost them too much. I feel a bit more hard-hearted toward the middle-aged characters. Well, some of them anyway. Some of them ought to know better.

“I’m no longer watching television in which middle-aged men figure out how to be men,” you told Gigantic. “I’d rather watch shows about teenaged girls figuring out what it means to be a monster.” Let’s be real, this is the most important question I have: What are you watching now?

I love The Vampire Diaries with all of my heart. Gothic, slapstick, romance. Shocking plot twists, and lots of pleasurable pattern reconfiguring. There’s still at least one season to go, and I’m already in mourning, because what show will ever get me this hard? But there’s also The Book Group, which ran for two seasons and is about an American woman who moves to Glasgow and forms a book group in order to meet people and maybe get to sleep with someone. It’s fabulous. The French series about the dead coming back, The Returned, is creepy and wonderful. I also loved Slings and Arrows, about a Canadian theatrical group. My husband and I are finally watching The Mindy Project, and I hear that I will really love The Good Wife when I get around to watching it. The cast of Brooklyn 99 is so very, very good that I can almost forget that I’m watching a goofy and charming show about a police force during a period in which I’m increasingly aware of the many ways in which police, in the real world, abuse their power.

What books are you pressing into people’s hands these days?

I’m going to keep plugging Molly Gloss’s Hearts of Horses, which now has a sort-of sequel, Falling from Horses. I’m reading Charlotte Boulay’s poetry collection Foxes on the Trampoline, and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Next up is Sarai Walker’s Dietland, Matt de la Pena’s The Living, and Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories. Mary Ruefle’s book of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey is terrific. And for those who don’t know it, the extremely NSFW web comic Oglaf is now collected into two volumes. Also, I’m finally caught up on P. C. Hodgell’s epic fantasy series, which began with the novel Godstalk, and does everything that I like epic fantasy to do.

In that Gigantic interview, just over a year ago, you thought the novel-to-be would include coming-of-age, Florida, and a haunted house. Still true? (And, um, how is it going? Between you and Amy Hempel, this is a banner time for short story writers taking the plunge: I’m nervous! And excited, of course.)

I’m nervous too! Still thinking about the same materials, but I haven’t made much progress since then. What I can say is that I don’t have any real desire to write another short story in the foreseeable future. So the needle still seems to be pointing in the direction of a novel.

Mairead Small Staid (@maireadsmst) is a poet and essayist living in Michigan.

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