Kelly Link’s writing first found me at a feminist clothing swap, because of course feminists bring books to a clothing swap. The book was worn, paperback — one of those not-for-resale tomes that someone got from someone who knows someone else vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry. Pretty Monsters was the title, and each short story was deliciously satisfying, a cauldron-cooked combination of the familiar and the fantastical. Such tales are frequently termed “magical realism,” though to ascribe Kelly Link to one particular genre isn’t exactly fair: her stories span moods and worlds as far apart as can be while remaining at all times thrilling, unexpected, and darkly funny. I was hooked.
Her latest collection of otherworldly offerings, Get In Trouble, is even better than her last… unless you read it first, in which case the next is better — it’s magic; don’t question it. Taking a break from her busy life of (we imagine) dancing in the moonlight and fishing for inspiration in the empyrean seas of myth and legend, Kelly Link answered a few questions for us about ghost sex, ghost stories, and secret vampires. We’re so glad she did.
Dirge: I’m going to start with a book question. Growing up, it seemed like the closest thing we had to “magical realism” was doors leading from the mundane to the fantastical — wardrobes, of course, but also the way one entered Amber in Roger Zelazny’s books: walking circles around a building, say, and then adding and subtracting things from reality until you cross over. Was there a similar “door” that fascinated you as a younger reader?
Kelly Link: Zelazny! The first Amber book is so good. I loved C. S. Lewis, of course, but there are two mass-market series that I discovered at some point in the 80s. One was Joyce Ballou Gregorian’s The Broken Citadel, which in some ways is a classic portal fantasy. An adolescent girl enters a house through a window, finds a library, and ends up on a beach in the kingdom of Tredana. Many adventures ensue. The other series was P. C. Hodgell’s God Stalk, which is a secondary world fantasy in which a group of portal-traveling warriors/creatures are making a last stand on a last world against a kind of soul-sucking darkness. P. C. Hodgell is still writing books in that series, and I still love them. The Tredana series is a trilogy. I guess I’m still fascinated by the different ways of inserting the fantastic into a narrative: especially portal fantasies and wainscot fantasies (like The Borrowers). Maybe because — as you point out — it suggests that our world contains exits and entry points that we can find if we’re observant and/or lucky enough.
Related: When did you realize that ghosts, vampires, and the like were officially Not Real? (Or are you still holding out hope?)
You know, I have no idea when I figured out that fantasy was fantasy. I don’t even remember when I figured out that Santa wasn’t real. My friend Holly Black once got a letter from a fan that said something like “Dear Holly Black, I’m writing to you because I need to know if fairies are real. And don’t lie to me like the other adults.” She wrote back that although she had never seen a fairy or a ghost herself, she knew other people who had seen them, and she believed those people. But: I’m afraid that I don’t know anyone who’s ever seen a fairy. Although I know plenty of people who have ghost stories.
I love that fan letter story! And I’ve noticed a similar prevalence of ghost encounters over fairy encounters — why do you think that is?
Oh, this is another terrific question. I don’t know that this is the right answer, but ghosts are human and fairies are not. So on the one hand, it’s easier to imagine that ghosts would want to communicate something, or something of themselves, to the living. I’m guessing that most people, if you asked them whether they would like to see or communicate with a fairy, or with the ghost of someone they knew and loved who is now dead, would choose the dead. On the other hand, we probably want to believe — even more than we want to believe in fairies — that something of our selves lingers past the point of bodily existence. But sometimes the desire for both runs in tandem: Arthur Conan Doyle, for example.
Fairies are a kind of secret. We intrude on their world in most stories. Whereas ghosts intrude on ours.
What about you, yourself? Would you rather sit down for tea with a ghost or a fairy? Is there a point in your life when you would have picked the opposite? (Bonus question: what would you prepare for an otherworldly dinner-guest?)
As it so happened, I was working with a couple of other writers when I got this question, so I asked them. Actually, I posed two questions to them. Who would you rather have tea with? Or, on the other hand, who would you rather have sex with? We unanimously agreed: tea with a ghost, sex with a fairy. I’m interested in meeting the person who would make the opposite decision. We were interested in how much crossover there is in folkloric material between fairy stories and ghost stories — the idea of fairy roads also being roads of the dead, etc.
If we’re all decided on inviting a ghost to tea, seems like you ought to have at least a small quantity of blood. Bread and salt, too. Maybe a bunch of crumbly, sugary stuff. Or maybe it would be like having a pet boa constrictor (which was me, when I was nine) and you’d have to go to the pet store for pinkies.
However. Tea with fairies also sounds great too. More than a little dangerous, but great. Would you get to take a selfie?
You could take a selfie, but it would wipe your actual memory of the event. Following that thread — mementos or memories?
More equivocation from me, I’m afraid: I’m stuck wondering whether it would be better to have memories or mementos of something terrible and horrifying, vs memories or mementos of something uncanny but beautiful. Memories of the uncannily beautiful, I suppose. Like seeing the green flash. I have enough weird, creepy stuff already.
In an interview with Strange Horizons, you said, about workshops: “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.” Have any of your stories come directly (or indirectly) from a “misreading” of something you published or shared at a workshop?
If I couldn’t talk with other writers about stories and the way they worked for different kinds of readers, I don’t know that I would want to write. The chief benefit of being a writer, on the other hand, is that I get to hang out on a regular basis with other people who write (most of them a lot more than I do.)
I think the most direct impact a workshop has ever had on my own story was the experience of fine-tuning “Some Zombie Contingency Plans”. A number of writers in the workshop speculated that Soap, the protagonist, had been in jail for sexual abuse of a minor, based on the ending of the story. I wanted to direct away from that read as much as possible.
What’s the worst (or best) dream you’ve ever had? Do you often have lucid dreams?
I had them all the time as a kid. Progressive lucid dreams in which I was alone in a basement hallway of a school and there were rooms with terrible things in them. A few years ago I saw a production of “Sleep No More” in Boston, and it was weirdly like that dream except the lighting was much lower. The other series of recurring dreams was basically the life of Robin Hood, whom I loved when I was little. In the last of that series of dreams, I was at a feast with Maid Marian and many other people and it turned out that we had all gathered together because Robin Hood was dead.
The weirdest dream I ever had was one in which I dreamed that my friend Lauren had died. When the alarm went off, I said to my boyfriend, “I just had a terrible dream that Lauren was dead!” And he said: “I had that dream too.” But I’m happy to report that as far as I know, my friend Lauren is still alive. Oh! And I should mention that several years prior to the matching his-and-her “Lauren dies” dreams, Lauren herself had dreamed that a mutual friend had shown up in a dream and told her that she should travel to New Zealand with myself and the same boyfriend. And so she did.
Certain readers (of all genres) are incredibly predisposed to loudly pointing out plot holes — not because they’re assholes, I think, but because their instinct is to suss out the world’s soft spots. In another field, they’d just be really excellent bug testers. Are bugs, plot holes, and other paradoxes or inconsistencies something you avoid or welcome in your writing?
Every reader has their own peculiar tolerances for generic conventions, for plot holes, for received language, for experimentation. It would be distressing if all readers had a uniform response to the kind of stories that I write, especially since my aim is to make stories that can be read in more than one way. As the title of the Fred Chappell collection says: More Shapes Than One. But! I’m a reader with my own tolerances. I can be kicked out of a story myself when I don’t trust that there’s a certain amount of urgency, risk, playfulness, psychological realism to the characters, and perhaps most important, a reciprocal and collaborative trust in the reader.
When I write, those are the things that I’m attempting. Coherence, too.
Which fairy- or folktale is itching for more retellings?
I don’t have a particular longing, except to see which writers are most drawn to which retellings and then to see what they do with them. But what I do believe is that every writer has a ghost story in them. And after they’ve written that ghost story, they’ve probably got another one in them too, and another, and another, etc.
Yes! This is just going to get more interesting as more recent books become our folktales. Yesterday I finished Paul Tremblay’s Head Full Of Ghosts (last month’s Dirge Book Club pick), which is a retelling of We Have Always Lived In The Castle, except in this hyper-layered way — a bit similar to your story Magic For Beginners, in that it synthesizes all these different realities and viewpoints. There’s something inherently modern there, where you have the plot, and then a show about the plot, and then a blog about the show about the plot, and a bunch of spiders spinning webs between the puzzle pieces. Do you ever think of moving all these patterns and layers to another medium that’s still word-based but more “interactive,” like 90s MUDs or Twine games?
And I’m just finishing Gemma Files’s wonderful Experimental Film, which also feels very modern and simultaneously built around very pleasurably familiar genre conventions/ideas. I haven’t ever wanted to move to MUDS or more interactive forms of storytelling, although the idea of working in television has a lot of appeal — both the idea of serialized storytelling, and the idea of building on other people’s ideas and particular approaches to storytelling.
Creating stories that coherently mutate with the reader’s perspective is such a skill, and makes your work a great pleasure to reread. What books (or albums or movies, if you prefer) do this for you — offering up new meanings and emotions with each rediscovery?
I love Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best horror anthologies. I love Eva Ibbotson’s romance novels. I’m bowled over by the omnibus collection of Frank Stamford’s poetry, What About This. I’ve been rereading Robert Aickman this year, catching up with Gemma Files’s recent work and Livia Llewellyn’s short stories, and remain devoted to The Vampire Diaries, which is apparently everything I want in a television show.
I’m dodging your question, just a little. Any complicated pattern — and all patterns are complicated, once you start thinking about why and how they work as patterns — offers up pleasure and interest. On top of that, you have the pleasure and interest of the voice of the writer.
What writer is a secret vampire?
Thomas Pynchon, clearly. But oh, how I wish Judy Blume was.
Header image via Magic Belles