Back Talk: Kelly Link
Kelly Link writes perfectly matter-of-fact, category-defying stories about zombies that hang out in convenience stores and tower-dwelling wizards who may or may not exist. Her style is clear and direct, and her plots turn subtly but sharply: there you are, lulled into thinking that you're reading just another story about unrequited teen love, and suddenly you've got a werewolf on your hands. Her new collection, Pretty Monsters (Viking, $19.99), is labeled as Young Adult fiction, but it includes stories previously published for adults.
You're a short story writer. Do people always want to know when you're going to write a novel, or why you haven't written one yet?
Yes. Part of me thinks it's a reasonable question, and I also think, Well, if you like the short stories, shouldn't you ask for more short stories? I don't think there's any guarantee that I would write novels that work in the same way the stories work. I don't think I have the skill set yet. I would love to write a novel, but mostly because it seems like a shame not to try to do something that a lot of people want you to do. I feel sort of like a coward every time I start a short story. But I think I will always love short stories. I'm more excited by short story collections in general--a lot of the editing or anthology work I do is based around the short story. I love novels. Some of my best friends are novels! But I really love short stories best.
Is the publishing industry biased against stories?
Yes. You know, we worked with an agent recently--my husband and I run a small press [Small Beer Press], and we're publishing a collection by a children's writer, Joan Aiken, and we were talking to her agent, Charles Schlessinger. He said that when she wrote Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the American publisher said to her, This is good, but maybe you should stick to writing short stories. If you gave us a collection we would be interested, but we can't take the novel. This was the early '60s. At some point there was a shift. At some point people liked stories better. Now there is an idea that people like novels better. On the other hand, people in Japan are writing stories on cellphones now. But there aren't as many markets for stories as there used to be in the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s. There used to be more magazines with much wider circulation for stories. Now that people spend a lot of time online, maybe that will change again.
You released your first major collection, Stranger Things Happen, as a book for sale and also as a free digital download under a Creative Commons license.
As a reader, I really prefer a book, an object. But I also really like the idea of being able to give stuff away for free. Up to a certain extent, the more you make something available, the more people pass it around. There are many, many, many more downloads of the collection, but sales for the physical book have never gone down. During the first year it was available online, the sales went up. It works the same way a library does.
One of the things about the Creative Commons is that it also meant that the stories, in terms of ideas or narrative, are up there and available to people who want to make other things out of them. A couple of the stories have been made into plays. Somebody took one of the stories and made an experimental music piece from it. I think she turned the prose of the story into a kind of Morse code and then set that into a score for cello. A lot of people have done podcasts of the stories. When I write, I'm constantly drawing from fairy tales or books that I love. This was a way to make the stories available to a larger community and enter into a larger conversation.
What's up with the proliferation of labels being used to describe you and some of your contemporaries like Shelley Jackson and Aimee Bender: Slipstream, Interstitial, the New Weird?
It's because of the Internet, because people enjoy taxonomy. They like creating categories; they like making lists. I love making lists. And so you make a list of those books that you respond to or you notice have something in common and you put a label on it. One of the writers who came up with the label "New Weird" is the fantasy writer China Miéville. He's said that he just likes "weird shit." Which is my favorite label so far.
So the labels are coming from readers, not editors or marketers?
It's user-generated content. And then what happens, of course, is a publishing company says, This sounds like a term, we can do an anthology based on it. It's not a bad thing. It just means more books.
Some fantasy literature is utopian. But your characters suffer--a grandmother dies, a boy digs up his girlfriend's grave, friends torment each other and even the zombies seem sad.
Science fiction and fantasy and also YA books are about characters who are in an interstitial place. They're moving between worlds. And so when you're writing fantasy, or when you're writing YA, you're writing about characters who are under a lot of stress, who are beginning to enter into new spheres of responsibility or power, or for the first time in their lives have the ability to make enormous mistakes. So the stakes are really high. There's the superhero thing--you suddenly discover that you are important or have a special ability or are the chosen one in some way. But two, because the stakes are higher, it's much more likely that in the same way that extra good things are going to happen to you, extraordinarily bad things are going to happen to you. One of the first things people tell you in a writing class is make your characters suffer. The more good stuff that happens to your character, the more bad things, for balance. But also, people are interested in characters to whom bad things happen.
You've written your share of zombie stories. How worried are you about an attack?
Zombies, I am persuaded, will happen at any moment. I do spend a lot of time worrying about zombies. I thought if I wrote a couple stories I would purge that. But there are mornings when I wake up and think, I am not prepared for the zombie attack today.