The Beatrice Interview

Kelly Link

"I've never wanted to write stuff without weirdness."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Jonathan Lethem and Neil Gaiman both agree: Kelly Link is the best short story writer working today. Chances are that, after reading the eleven stories collected in Stranger Things Happen, you'll concur. There are wonderful reimaginings of ancient myths and fairy tale motifs, as in "Travels with the Snow Queen, and stories that put emotional estrangement together with the supernatural in touching yet unsettling ways, like "Vanishing Act" and the World Fantasy Award winning tale "The Specialist's Hat." But Link's literary life isn't confined to writing; Stranger Things Happen is also the first book from Small Beer Press, which she and her partner, Gavin Grant, run together from their apartment in Brooklyn; they've also published a collection of surreal fantasy stories by Ray Vukcevich. I first met Kelly when she gave a reading at our local independent bookstore; when we got together for coffee a few weeks later, I was happy to discover that we shared a background working for indies (me at Dutton's in Los Angeles, her at Avenue Victor Hugo in Boston).

RH: Did you read a lot of science fiction when you were young?

KL: My dad read me all the Tolkien books, and my mom read me C. S. Lewis, and then my dad started passing me books by writers like Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein. And I'd go to the library and get everything I could. I read a lot of Ursula K. LeGuin, and a lot of other writers who wrote books for both children and adults.

RH: Did you know early on that you wanted to be a writer?

KL: I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, but my family and a lot of my teachers said that I should be a writer. What I really wanted to do was read a lot of books. I still read more than I write, though I think probably everybody does that.

RH: When you started to seriously pursue writing, did you begin as a fantasy writer?

KL: No, but every time I've sat down to write a story, things have happened in the story that weren't realistic. Somebody turns into a werewolf, and somebody who's dead is trying to get someone's attention, that sort of thing. I read a lot of very realistic mainstream writers, but I've never wanted to write stuff without weirdness.

RH: When you begin a story, what comes to you first?

KL: It's usually an image. For one story, I saw a room full of feathers, and I wrote towards that image. I don't have ideas the way that a lot of my friends who are writers seem to have a box full of ideas. I'll have ideas for three stories, and when I'll start writing one, I'll end up throwing an idea for another story into it, and then another, and soon what I thought was going to be three or four stories has become one.

RH: Working in a bookstore must have been a great experience for you.

KL: It gave me a lot of inspiration, but it was very frustrating as well. You notice what sells and what doesn't. And because I was working in a used bookstore, I became familiar with the writers that people had forgotten, the books you can't sell even though they're wonderful. A lof of writers fall away, and only some of them come back once in a while.Plus there's so many books, that sometimes you can start to think, why bother writing at all?

RH: Were you working at Avenue Victor Hugo when you decided to launch the zine <Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet?

KL: Gavin is really the editor of LCRW, I'm more of a co- editor. I was still working at the bookstore; he had been the manager but had left in order to make more money at a temp job answering phones at this huge company, the name of which I've completely forgotten. Anyway, he had access to a photocopier and decided to put out a zine. When that first issue got attention, he decided to make the second issue a lot nicer. A lot of people who worked at the bookstore contributed to the early issues, and I also have a lot of writer friends, so we started asking them for submissions.

RH: How did that escalate into Small Beer Press?

KL: I graduated from an MFA program and moved to Boston to work at the bookstore. Right around the same time, the publisher of Edgewood Press in Boston approached me. He'd read a couple of my stories in magazines and wanted to publish a collection. So I agreed, we signed a contract, and he gave me some money while I went to write three or four more stories for the collection. He ended up not liking the later stories as much, and we decided that in order to stay friends we should abandon the book idea, because I was quite happy with the stories I'd written and the direction I saw my work going in.

In the meantime, Gavin had started the zine, and eventually, having met all these people in the publishing scene, we'd seen how magazines and books get put together... When we moved to New York, we talked to a couple friends about helping us with copyediting, we got advice on printers. My friend Shelley Jackson, who's a writer and illustator, did the cover. We read a lot of books on fonts and layout. We looked at a lot of small press books that weren't well-designed, and figured out why they didn't work. And I'd worked in bookstores for seven years, so had he; we knew what good books are supposed to look like.

RH: What direction do you see your stories going in?

KL: I think I'm very contrary, and when I see my writing going in a particular direction, I tend to backtrack or start something new. I've talked to an editor at Random House about writing a young adult novel. I've worked for a children's bookstore, and I love children's books. I don't feel ready to write an adult novel, but I think I'm familiar enough with the form of young adult novels that I could do that. There's a certain pattern to YA books, things you can do and things you can't do, and I think I'd be comfortable working within that pattern. So that will probably be the next thing I work on, but there's also a couple stories I want to write.

I was all excited about this, thinking I could write a children's book and get rich, then work on short stories for a while, but I've since spoken to friends who write children's books, and they've let me know that, no, it's more like $2,000, maybe $3,000 a book. So it's pretty much the same as writing science fiction; you don't get paid a lot for it.

RH: How about a science fiction novel? Is that a possibility?

KL: I think I'll always write short stories. I love to read novels, but except for the young adult novels, I can't really see myself writing them. There are certain short story writers who write novels, and you read them, and you feel as if it's just a short story that's been covered in layer after layer of wrapping until it's 250 pages long. I don't want to write something like that, and I just don't feel that I understand the novel form well enough not to do that yet.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Thaisa Frank | Complete Interview Index | Michel Faber

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan