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Kelly Link: Fantasy & Magic Realism

Writers and Readers 2012
Kelly Link: Fantasy & Magic Realism

Reviewed by Courtney Johnston

Kelly Link – bookseller, publisher, short story writer – has the most composed voice you have ever heard. Many of her short stories have a sardonic or headlong narrator, but on the stage, Link exudes calm. In conversation with the more spikily energetic Elizabeth Knox, Link comes across as thoughtful, friendly, quietly humorous; the kind of person you’d like to sit with at a table on the fringes of a big fancy event, spinning ridiculous back-stories for the diners at the tables around you.

The conversation gets started where good conversations so often do: a remembrance of influential childhood books. Link recalls being six or seven, and having her father reading her ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ while (perhaps simultaneously) her mother reads her C.S. Lewis. She came to love ghost stories, reading and reading into the night and becoming more and more scared, until she had to into her parents’ room: eventually, her mother tells her that she either has to stop reading them, or stop waking them up. She chooses to stop waking her parents up: the story she and Elizabeth Knox decide to ‘sacrifice’ to the audience (they agreed to pick one story and share its spoilers, thus saving all the rest) is itself a ghost story, about an aspiring teenage poet who disinters his dead girlfriend, in order to rescue the poems that he short-sightedly buried with her.

Teenagers figure large in the talk. Knox and Link discuss the question of ‘approachable heroines’, and Link recalls a class she taught at university; a compulsory paper that students had to sit, where they read assigned texts and tried to discuss them critically. Many of her students did not seem to read for pleasure (or even for assignments) and their chief concerns when tackling the texts she set them were (1) was the character a good or a bad person, and (2) did good characters get an appropriately good ending, and bad characters their just desserts? It made her, Link recalled, a little angry. She doesn’t want to write stories that are that tidy, that neatly resolved – but she does want readers to be entertained.

‘Pretty Monsters’, Link’s most recent collection, takes stories from her earlier collections and repackages them for the teen audience. They slip over well – smart, imaginative tales that often hide an emotional sucker-punch, yet rarely en with a tidy conclusion. Talking about the recent explosion in YA fiction, Link cites a definition of the YA novel as a ‘book that’s about a character who is experiencing something for the first time’. Everyone, she continues, remembers being a teenager, encountering things for the first time, being unsure what to expect or what will happen next. Link’s stories, Knox observes, often feature the ‘uncivilised teen’, and Link agrees: the YA protagonist can stand in for people as a whole; teens are not yet as good at hiding their actions and emotions, while at the same time their emotions and actions are closely monitored. Stories centred on young protagonists, she observes, are often very immediate and very intimate, a necessity in fiction for younger readers. I am reminded at this moment of the deep affection people feel for tv series like ‘Freaks and Geeks’, ‘My So-Called Life’, and ‘Friday Night Lights’; I glance around the audience and wonder how many Angelas are sitting around me.

One thing that strikes you about Link is the collaborative vein to her career. She and her husband Gavin J. Grant began publishing a zine (‘Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet’) more than a decade ago, and went on to establish Small Beer Press in 2000, a publishing house dedicated to both new and re-released fiction. She and Grant edit the fantasy half of ‘The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror’, and in 2011 their anthology ‘Steampunk!’ was released. In addition to this is the way that she writes; as often as possible, in the company of two fellow writers, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare (‘very good, very professional writers with horrible deadlines’), in a cafe or at someone’s house, passing laptops between them when someone gets stuck, suggesting solutions, ‘meddling just the tiniest bit’, copy-editing on the spot. Knox is obviously both fascinated and repelled by this scenario. You sense that Link would like to expand on these collaborations: she takes a question from the floor about whether she’d be interested in working on a comic or a tv series, and she immediately plumps for the latter, and describes how much fun she imagines it would be working in a room full of writers, sparking ideas off each other. One of her most beloved short stories, ‘Magic for Beginners’, is of course about a tv show – a speculation on just how immersive and shared an experience television watching can be, and an experiment in writing that does things that no actual tv show could possibly attempt.

There is an obligatory discussion towards the end of the session about genre and labelling. Earlier, Link observed that in addition to her love of genre fiction, she also loves writers of realistic or literary fiction – Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore – writers who use a humour or an experimental or slanted approach to bring the reader to an unsettling place. ‘The fantastic,’ she says, ‘is a tool for revealing the strangeness of everyday life, as well as being immensely pleasurable to work in.’

Link pre-empts the charge that as a writer who has migrated (seemingly accidentally) over into literary fiction, it is easy to say she doesn’t mind being labelled. At the same time, you can tell she has no hang-ups about the words used to describe her writing. As a bookseller and a publisher as well as an author, Link is very aware of the desire to be in the part of the bookshop where you will find the largest possible audience; the allure of the display shelf, the table-space. Recounting the experience of hearing that ‘Magic for Beginners’ was placed in the Magic section of a bookshop, she wryly concludes: ‘they’re gonna shelve you somewhere’.