20 Questions With Kelly Link
By Lynne Jamneck
28 February 2005
Kelly Link sold her first story, "Water Off a Black Dog's Back," in 1995. Her work has won and been nominated for numerous prestigious awards. "The Specialist's Hat" (1998) won a World Fantasy Award, and the novelette "Louise's Ghost" won her a Nebula in 2001. Her stories have been gathered in the chapbook 4 Stories and collection Stranger Things Happen. With her husband, publisher Gavin Grant, Kelly Link runs Small Beer Press. They also coedit Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.
Lynne Jamneck: From an early age you seem to have had the support and encouragement from both family and friends to become involved in writing. How important is it for any aspiring writer to have that—a sense that someone else supports what can be a very abstract way of making a living?
Kelly Link: I think it must be extremely important. I've always had a great deal of support—so much support that I often feel guilty, because I don't feel that I work as hard as I should. And of course, feeling guilty can also be useful.
On the other hand, I'm also very stubborn, and when I've been given advice that I don't agree with, or told not to do certain things, I do what seems to me to be right. In workshops, especially, you can't follow everyone's recommendations. Workshops teach the writer that there are as many possible readings and interpretations of a story as there are readers of that story, especially when those readers are also writers. So it can be confusing. You have to listen carefully, and decide what is useful. In the long run, you have to be your own most careful reader.
And for most people—most writers, even—writing is not even an abstract way of making a living. I make some money from writing, but I don't make a living from it. Even if I were a novelist, I still don't know that I would be making a living.
LJ: Tell us a bit about your childhood—the daughter of a pastor turned psychologist. That's an interesting start, for one. Are there any specific instances or effects from your childhood that have had a significant influence on what you write about?
KL: My family didn't stay in one place for very long. We lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Glenside, Pennsylvania; Miami, Florida; Greensboro, North Carolina. We also went on a lot of car trips, and my grandparents took my sister and me to Germany and to Scandinavia. When I went to school, I went to New York City, and then to St. Andrews, in Scotland. So a lot of the characters in my stories are transplants, or migratory, have itchy feet, or are just plain out of place.
Both of my parents loved books and read to me, and of course wherever you go, you can almost always find a bookstore. Except in Florida, where I spent most of my time in the mall at Waldenbooks and B. Dalton. As soon as I could make that kind of independent decision, I tended to relocate to areas of better and better bookstores. Now I'm obsessed with good libraries: there are outstanding ones in Salt Lake City, Utah, and in Lexington, Kentucky. Sorry, that's a digression.
Most of the things that I remember from childhood wouldn't make a particularly good story: rescuing worms during rainstorms, our schnauzer attacking a wheel of cheese when someone dropped it during dinner, my parents tricking us into riding Space Mountain at Disney World (we thought it was an educational people-mover kind of ride), playing Star Wars (I got to marry Harrison Ford and my sister married Luke Skywalker) in first and second grade. On the other hand, we always had lots of interesting babysitters—seminary students and friends of my parents—who told really good ghost stories.
LJ: Which writers have been the biggest inspiration to and influence on your own work?
KL: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Joan Aiken, Karen Joy Fowler, Carol Emshwiller, H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, Robert Westall, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Diana Wynne Jones, Tanith Lee, Joanna Russ, Howard Waldrop, William Browning Spencer, Patricia Geary, Kim Stanley Robinson, Angela Carter, May Swenson, Anne Bishop. Lots of others. I've had wonderful teachers: Raymond Kennedy, Lee Zacharias, Michael Parker, Fred Chappell, Tim Powers, Pat Murphy, and others. Writers from workshops like Sycamore Hill are frequently the first readers of any story I write, and without workshops, I wouldn't get much written at all. So there are writers like John Kessel, Richard Butner, James Patrick Kelly, Maureen McHugh, Greg Frost, Jonathan Lethem, Karen Joy Fowler again, and others, who are direct influences in at least two ways: I read them, so that's the first kind of influence, and then they also read my work and give me feedback.
Recently I've loved books by Ann Patchett, M. John Harrison, China Miéville, Jeffrey Ford, K.J. Bishop, Kevin Brockmeier, Shelley Jackson, George Saunders, and Dodie Smith. And music is always a big part of how and what I'm writing: Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes, Be Good Tanyas, M. Ward, Yo La Tengo. That's a pretty long list, and it could be even longer. I love Patricia Anthony's novel Flanders. I just reread it. And then there's Sebastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement, which is another wonderful WWI novel. I recently read Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and it was absolutely wonderful. It was like reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King for the first time.
LJ: Do you still consider yourself a reader first and a writer second? What influence do you think your particular reading experiences have had on your own work?
KL: Oh yes. How about reader first, and then editor second, and writer third? I don't know how to answer the second question. I'll read anything: historical novels by writers like Dorothy Dunnett, romance novels by writers like Laura Kinsale, young adult novels, mysteries by writers like Josephine Tey and Donald Westlake and Jen Banbury, Stephen King novels, poetry by people like Ron Padgett and May Swenson, books on cooking by Jeffrey Steingarten, nature books by David Quammen . . . I'll read anything. But I only seem to write stories in which weird things happen.
LJ: What makes the short story form such an attractive one for you? Have you given any more thought to writing a novel-sized work? The sometimes mentioned possible young adult novel?
KL: I would love to write novels, although mostly I would love to write a novel just because it would be nice to know how. I never feel upset, when I'm working on a short story, that the short story isn't a novel. Short stories feel right to me. Maybe I have a short-story-length attention span. Or maybe it has something to do with reading, again. I'm a fast reader, so I can usually read a novel in a few hours. Maybe if it took me longer to read novels, I'd have more patience or understanding for how to write them.
I love novels for the characters, and because they're looser than short stories. There's more room for digressions and flourishes and interesting mistakes. I would like to write a young adult novel. I'd also like to write romance novels. I'm interested in how certain formulas work and in how you can fool around with those formulas. I'd love to write horror novels, except that I'd have to stop being squeamish.
LJ: When you start out to write a new story, do you usually have the basic framework of an idea already mapped out? Or do you sit down and start writing and let yourself be amazed (or scared) at what eventually materializes?
KL: I usually have a starting place and an ending. In between, there are lots of things that I know are going to happen, although I don't know why or how. At the moment, I'm working on two stories. One is about someone who steals a painting, and the other doesn't really have a plot at all. It's just about zombies and zombie contingency plans. I don't know how it hangs together, though. I'd like Sleeping Beauty to end up in there too, but I'm not sure yet how she fits into any sort of zombie contingency plan. Usually I go for long walks or go ride my bicycle until things come together. I don't ever scare myself; I wish I did. I like being scared.
What's always amazing is how much you forget of a story, after you write it. When I come back to a story that I haven't looked at for a bit, I'm always most happy about the stuff that I'd forgotten about.
LJ: Do you think that the insistence of defining fiction in terms of a certain genre is stifling? How many readers steer clear when they see a book described as, for instance, SF, when really, it contains many other characteristics and themes?
KL: I've worked in bookstores, and I think that genre categories are useful categories for shelving. But yes, for writers, they can be stifling. On the other hand, it's good to be a little stifled. It means that you have to work a bit harder, think a bit harder. Terri Windling and Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner and Midori Snyder and others have been putting together a group, the Interstitial Arts Foundation, to promote and discuss work that slips in and out of genres. Of course, there are as many readers who are allergic to unclassifiable work as there are readers who loathe specific genres. I'm always happiest talking about writers and books in context; for example, someone who likes Dodie Smith might also like Diana Wynne Jones. Someone who read and loved Holes might also like Motherless Brooklyn. If you like Wislawa Szymborska, you might also like Judy Budnitz. If you liked A Wrinkle in Time, you might like Sheri S. Tepper's Marianne trilogy.
LJ: How would you classify your own work?
KL: I say that I write SF. I also say that I write ghost stories. It's what I grew up reading, and it's what I want to write, whether or not I'm actually managing to write it. Sometimes I just say that I write weird stuff. (Not in the New Weird sense. I don't know that I qualify as New Weird.)
LJ: You and your husband, Gavin Grant, run the small press Small Beer Press. Tell us a bit about how that came to be.
KL: We worked at the same bookstore in Boston: Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, which recently closed after 29 years. The rent on Newbury Street was just too high. Gavin was the new book buyer for a while, and then he did temp work, and I became the new book buyer. Gavin started a 'zine because he had access to a photocopier and some design programs at his temp job. I knew a lot of writers who had stories that hadn't been published, even though they were wonderful stories. So we started putting out a twice-yearly 'zine, and after a few years, Gavin proposed to me with a window display at Avenue Victor Hugo, and we moved down to New York. We both knew a lot of people who worked in publishing, and by that time I had enough stories to make up a collection that no editor wanted to buy, because short story collections don't sell very well. So we designed a chapbook and then decided to publish two collections: mine and Meet Me in the Moon Room by Ray Vukcevich, because Gavin and I both loved Ray's work. The goal with the 'zine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, has always been to break even. With the books, we're also hoping to break even, except on a larger scale. We've been putting out two books a year for the last four years, and this year we publish Sean Stewart's new novel Perfect Circle and Jennifer Stevenson's debut novel Trash Sex Magic. We're also going to start publishing reprints. The first reprint is Carol Emshwiller's classic, funny, wonderful Carmen Dog. I'd love to reprint some of Peter Dickinson's novels and maybe Joyce Ballou Gregorian's young adult novels. We're hoping to publish a multivolume set of Joan Aiken's short stories.
LJ: How has working in publishing changed your point of view about writing?
KL: I don't know. This year Gavin and I edited the fantasy half of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (Terri Windling has stepped down, in order to have more time for her own work), and so I read a ton of magazines and collections and novels. (There's a lot of good fantastic work being published, both in and out of genre, and a lot of my favorite stories were longer works—novellas and novelettes.) I also work for the Online Writing Workshop, and I read slush for Ellen Datlow at SCIFICTION, so I'm reading a lot of good writers who are at the beginning of their careers. As an editor, what I want most from a new writer is voice—as if you're getting a letter from someone. I don't know how to explain this in an interview.
As a writer, I realize, from working in publishing, that I've been incredibly lucky. I've found editors and readers who don't mind what I'm doing. I got to publish my own book. I got to ask Shelley Jackson to paint a cover. I got to pick the font (Centaur) and decide how the page should look. I even got to write my own jacket copy.
LJ: Tell us a secret—something about Kelly Link no one else knows.
KL: Sorry! I can't think of anything. Either I'm extremely boring, or else I tend to spill all my secrets anyways, or else I'm extremely, extremely secretive. Take your pick. I suspect all three things are true.
LJ: What is the "weirdness" that permeates your work? Is it something definable—something you can put your finger on?
KL: Thankfully, I don't have to analyze the weirdness. In fact, it would probably be a bad idea for me to do so. Listen, everything is weird. There's no such thing as normal. And I don't mean that weird is normal. Weird is weird. I'm always being surprised by how strange things are.
LJ: Ghost stories seem to hold a special attraction for you. Is there a special symbolism or metaphor for you in them?
KL: No. I just like ghost stories.
LJ: What are your opinions on writer's workshops? Should every aspiring writer, regardless of talent, make an effort to attend at least one at some point?
KL: I've found workshops to be very useful, not least of all because you have to write things for them. The other useful thing is that you have to look hard at other people's stories and see how they work and don't work, or else how you would make them work differently. And then you take that ability to look at things back to your own work.
Workshops drive some writers up the wall. But being driven up the wall can be useful too, if you're a writer. One of the skills that you have to develop, in workshops, is the ability to not listen, as well as ability to listen. Not everyone will read or understand your work the way you want it to be read. And again, that's a useful experience. Everyone reads differently. When you have ten people in a room, looking at one story, what you discover is that everyone has read a different story. It's terrifying and confusing, when that happens, but it's also liberating.
LJ: In a nutshell, how would you rewrite Briar Rose?
KL: Well, I like the idea of rewriting Briar Rose in a nutshell. I'd love to rework Sleeping Beauty, but Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Poacher" has already done something amazing with it. And so has Theodora Goss, in "The Rose in Twelve Petals." Maybe I'll retell Sleeping Beauty and make it about narcolepsy and zombies, because presently I'm obsessed with zombies. But it hasn't gotten thick enough yet. There isn't enough stuff there for me to write about (and by not enough stuff, I mean that I don't have enough stuff to do anything new with it).
LJ: Neil Gaiman has called you "probably the best short story writer currently out there, in any genre or none." Peter Straub, in turn, says: "I think she is the most impressive writer of her generation." How does it feel to receive such sterling recognition from your peers?
KL: Well, they're not my peers. They've both been writing for a lot longer, and they've written a lot more books, and besides, they've written novels, which I don't seem to do. Furthermore, those are blurbs, and the purpose of blurbs is to make the writer sound like the best thing since sliced bread. Once I wrote flap copy for an epic fantasy novel, and that's what I was told to do: make the new book sound like the best thing since sliced bread. What exactly does that mean, anyway?
It's extremely scary and flattering and even somewhat worrying to write fiction that is then read by writers whose books have meant a great deal to me. My head is probably pretty swelled by this point.
LJ: You've been nominated for various awards and have won the James Tiptree Jr. Award ("Travels With the Snow Queen," 1997), a World Fantasy Award, ("The Specialist's Hat," 1998) and a Nebula ("Louise's Ghost," 2001). Do you consider this a different type of recognition? Are both of equal significance to you?
KL: Well, I think the World Fantasy Award (Gahan Wilson's bust of H.P. Lovecraft) is really, really cool looking. The Nebula would make a good murder weapon. The James Tiptree Jr. Award, which Ellen Klages made for me, was a snow globe with a bloody foot in it. Recently it exploded on my bookshelf, so now I don't have a James Tiptree Jr. Award—just a bloody foot and a wooden base.
I was knocked off my feet to win the Nebula Award. I didn't believe Jim Minz (an editor at Tor) when he called to tell me I'd won. I hadn't even written a thank-you speech, because I hate writing speeches, and it just seemed impossible that I would win. Being nominated was gratifying enough.
LJ: What does the future hold for the publishing industry in terms of speculative fiction? How long before electronic media replace hard-copy books completely?
KL: Oh good grief, I don't know. I'm much more worried about the [then] upcoming [2004 Presidential] election than I am about publishing. Publishing is a happy, happy place to be, when you think about politics. There are a lot of excellent small presses producing excellent collections and anthologies and magazines and novels at the moment, and there are still good books coming out from mainstream houses. But it's much, much, much, much harder for writers to make a living by writing. Not that it was ever particularly easy.
Will electronic media replace hard-copy books completely? Don't be silly. But I spend a lot more time reading online newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times, and blogs, and ezines, which I used to spend reading books. There's a lot of stuff to read out there, even when you're just reading blogs about what to read.
LJ: Any helpful advice for aspiring writers?
KL: Read lots. Subscribe to magazines like F&SF and Asimov's. Read poetry. Read in all genres, even genres that you don't think you like. Read difficult writers. Learn how to like as much as you can. Go out and write in cafés with other writers, so that you don't get lonely. Look for online workshops if you don't live somewhere with a useful writers' group.
Write and rewrite and rewrite. Learn to enjoy rewriting. Get rid of Solitaire on your computer.
LJ: What would you like your epitaph to read?
KL: I can't answer this question—how about a tiny, tiny novel? I would like a tiny, tiny novel on my tombstone. Or even a short story.