Kelly Link—whose speculative fiction often draws comparisons to Angela Carter, Karen Russell, and Margaret Atwood—was named a finalist yesterday for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction thanks to her latest short story collection, Get in Trouble. Each story is a magical compilation of vampires and ghost boyfriends, hurricanes and iguanas, spaceships and haunted houses, flirting and trying to save the world. Though the rules may change from world to world, the human element—even when the characters aren’t fully human—is always powerful and vibrant.
During Link’s recent trip to Chicago for the Columbia College Reading Series, I sat down with her to talk about writing speculative fiction, her thoughts on MFA vs. NYC, and the novel she’s working on now.
Sara Cutaia: When you’re setting out to write a story, do you ground yourself first in the world you’re creating and its elements, or do you start with the character’s struggle?
Kelly Link: I usually start with an ending. So that probably seems a little more “world-based” in the sense that there’s something in my mind that I feel would be an interesting place to land on more or less. And then I go back and figure out characters, and I think figuring out the characters and the world takes place at the same time. A large part of figuring out who characters are is figuring out where they grew up, class, race, all of that kind of stuff. It’s all tied to world, really. And it’s all tied into figuring out who is going to do the kinds of things in a story that need to happen to get to that ending. That’s an important part when figuring out your characters.
Cutaia: Get in Trouble is full of stories that blend the old tropes and fairy tales with modern aspects of society, including wealth, paparazzi, fame, the Internet, and even space exploration. Where do you find inspiration for stories that mix the old and the new like this?
Link: A large part of it comes from reading, probably. Reading other stories, reading from books that my friends are working on. But also, sometimes, from seeing a weird headline. There’s a man on Twitter, Florida Man … those types of headlines always get me thinking [Laughs]. There are even some Florida stories in this collection. And a few of my characters are like the Florida Man, the types that do these weird, impulsive things. Maybe what it means is, I grew up in Florida, and this is the kind of story that it seems kind of natural to write about.
Cutaia: You and your husband co-founded Small Beer Press, where you edit the twice-yearly zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (great title by the way), and where you also publish about six to ten books a year. You’ve also been editor for a couple of anthologies over the years. Why is it important to you to wear so many hats? Editor, publisher, writer?
Link: I think it’s because I really like publishing and making books as much as I like writing. Writing is in many ways very frustrating. To sit down and work on a story is kind of excruciating, to pull stuff out of thin air. In fact, I probably really, really love writing only 25% of the time, and the other 75% of the time I’m wading through until I get to the point where I’m finally enjoying it.
On the other hand, publishing books, both publishing and the making a book part—where you get to pick a cover artist and work with that artist—that’s a very weirdly concrete work compared to writing fiction. You can see the result much more clearly, and feel the progress. Also, getting to work with the writers we publish feels in many ways much more close to normal than writing does. I just really love writers, and working with writers, a great deal. I feel when I do that, there’s sort of a tangibly good outcome that I don’t always feel when I’m writing. I think also because I don’t write on a daily basis, if all I did was write, it would be pretty miserable.
Cutaia: What about the balance with your personal life? Being a mother, a wife, a writer, a teacher. How do you handle that?
Link: Well my husband does more of the childcare than I do. Which is really great, because I get to arrange my own work schedule. So I’m gone, I travel, but when I’m home, I can sort of organize longer periods of time to be at home than if I had a day job. It’s just really a question of scheduling. It’s much more flexible.
Cutaia: And do you enjoy that flexibility? And the travel?
Link: I do! I enjoy traveling. Sometimes we get to travel with our daughter. We’ve gotten to take her to places like Australia. As a result of the fact that I write, and we publish, we get to take her to cool places like Sweden, and places like that. She’s been to a lot of places with us, actually!
Cutaia: You’re obviously pro-MFA, as you got your own at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and you’ve taught in many programs yourself. And you’re always speaking highly of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, where you’re frequently an instructor. What are your thoughts about the controversy of MFA vs. NYC?
Link: The issue with both is they’re both very, very expensive. It’s very expensive to live in New York. And it’s very expensive, a lot of the times, to go through an MFA program. I think now that I’m older, and I’ve gone through my MFA program, and I’ve also been in New York, my main concern is always: if someone is starting out, I don’t want them to go in debt, in order to jump-start their writing career. Because writers don’t necessarily make a lot of money. You can find a community of writers pretty much anywhere, even online.
Before I had the group of friends that I work with now, in Western Massachusetts I would go to science fiction conventions and meet up with people I was friends with and we would have workshops or talk about work. I started doing that around ’95. But now there are many online places that are very welcoming. The great thing about an MFA program, though, is you come out already with a network of people you know. Hopefully you keep in touch with them and you continue to exchange work with them. You all have a shared history. And even if you’re not somebody like me, who wants to get together and write around other people, you still need a group of people you know, so that in different points in your career, you have that community of people you can talk to.
Cutaia: Yeah, it’s an interesting set-up you’ve got going with your writing friends. I’ve read in a few places that you are good friends with writers Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, as well as a whole slew of other talented authors. They’re always reading and critiquing your work. How were you able to find such a smart and talented group to work and produce with?
Link: This is my advice: you’re either a writer who does your best work by yourself, or else you’re a writer who discovers that you work better with a community. Most writers find a sort of balance between the two. For me, the balance is: when Holly, Cassie and I are all home, we meet up, and all work together. We work with headphones on, or with the TV on, and we’ll stop and talk to each other about what we’re working on. We all trust each other enough, and there’s not a lot of ego involved. So when one of us goes, “I don’t think that’s working,” we go, “Alright, let’s talk about it then.”
Before I moved to Western Mass., I was in Brooklyn. There were a lot of writers in that area that I would meet up with and work with. The writer, Shelley Jackson, who has done two of my covers, she and I would meet up and do work. The author Jonathan Lethem was in Brooklyn at that time. Sometimes I would drive out to California and work with friends out there for a month! I really like driving [Laughs]. So if I had time, then I would do that. It ended up being a weird coincidence that a couple of people whom I know a little bit, and really loved their work, ended up moving to the same town as me. We all had friends in New York who would occasionally come up and work. Libba Bray, sometimes. Maureen Johnson. And I will say, in New York, they all have their own writing groups. You realize that at a certain point, writers just know other writers. And most of them are really good people. And they’re fun to spend time with.
Cutaia: Let’s step back and think about you as a storyteller: why writing? What made you want to write, rather than other forms of entertainment where you could tell stories?
Link: I think that if I had gone through a different kind of college, or gotten a different kind of degree, I would have gone into television. Because the kind of work life I have now, in terms of writing, is in some ways close to the way writer’s rooms work, where you have a lot of people in the same space working on stories where there’s just this free-for-all feel and you just talk about work. If I had known that’s how television works, I might have tried that. But frankly, at the time I would’ve gone into it, I don’t think there were as many interesting things going on in television at the time. Also, I took a lot of art classes before I went to college. I really loved watercolor. That was a decision I had to make: did I want to apply to a place like RISD, or to a more traditional sort of college? In the end, I went to Columbia in New York, because it was in New York, and that’s where I wanted to be.
Cutaia: Was there a reason New York was so desirable to you?
Link: Yes, actually, I really loved Broadway musicals [Laughs]. I actually started out in a musical workshop at Columbia and realized that was not going to be my thing. I didn’t quite have the brain to organize that kind of narrative. For a long time I would get standing room tickets to go see musicals. And then I married someone who doesn’t like musicals! Oh, well.
Cutaia: And why speculative fiction? What draws you to that genre of writing?
Link: It’s just what I grew up reading, and what I always wanted to write. I don’t think at any point I thought I wanted to write a different kind of story. It was always ghost stories, or fantasy or science fiction.
Cutaia: Write what you know, right?
Link: Yes, absolutely. The strange has always been a little bit more interesting anyways, you know. It has its own set of rules. So, for example, in realistic writing, things happen in a predictable pattern, and the world conforms to the kind of rules that we don’t even think about: your alarm goes off at the time that you set it, etc. But then in speculative fiction, you can play with something called night-time logic, where, for example, you have a carton of eggs, and every single egg that you crack open has a double yolk. That’s actually something that has happened to my husband and I.
So, the world feels a little bit strange. There are writers that write more realistic fiction, but they’re a little more experimental. Or maybe, their point of view about the world is a bit askew. There is always a set of coherent rules to the story, but you’re not quite sure how to explain them. Oftentimes stories will have a little bit of both. At the end of stories, you might not have explained everything, and you’re left with an open-ended question. And I think it’s much more important to phrase certain types of questions, than it is to answer them.
Cutaia: So you’ve now written four books, and many more short stories here and there; how has your writing changed over the years? How have you changed as a writer?
Link: Hmm. I don’t know. The only thing that anyone has ever said to me came from my Israeli translator. I was brought into this workshop to meet with her. And it was great, because I got to sit around and listen to people discuss issues of translations on my recent collection, which was fascinating. But what she said was that—she had done two other books of mine—she said that this collection had less metaphorical flourishes, and that the metaphors this time were more built into the stories. She was having particular issues with a story called “Light.”
She said the Hebrew word for “light” and some of the word choices I was making in the story didn’t have a good one-to-one correlation. She could not figure out a system for making it work. Previously, she could come up with the equivalent for my stories, and it didn’t matter if the specifics changed a little bit because they weren’t tied in so tightly with the thematic work of the story. I thought that was really interesting, and I’ll have to think on that a bit more going forward. Before she said that, I thought I didn’t use as much metaphorical language as I did in my first collection. I felt there were just fewer similes and metaphors. But what she said was they were a little bit more submerged. So maybe the language has shifted in some ways.
Cutaia: Do you think that’s been a learned habit from hanging out with other writers more often?
Link: I think some of these stories I wrote a bit more quickly. I got to a thing that I was happy to be doing faster than previous stories. But in some ways that meant that the language became a little bit less out there. A little more stripped down. Before, I struggled with the notion that there was a certain kind of vocabulary or structure of sentences I should be using; now I rely on them, because I know how to use them. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing! You know? I don’t know long term if the stories will become more and more like each other.
Cutaia: How much of your own personal experience ends up as foundation for your stories? Do any of your stories mirror any real life situations for you?
Link: Yes. Sometimes it’s from my life, sometimes things that friends or family have told me. Not necessarily big, dramatic moments. But weird moments. The story that probably has the most from my life is a story called “The Lesson.” Our daughter was born at twenty-four weeks, and a lot of the emotional stuff in that story and the experience we had after, in the NICU, mirrored that story. So not necessarily stuff that happened on the page, but all of that went in to that story. The things that different characters feel. The other part of that story is something that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, which was a story that my sister told me about a piece of taxidermy in a bed ‘n breakfast that her friend stayed at. That was a true story, about the rustling and the beetles. I had said to her, “What happened?!” and she said, “I don’t know, I think she just left.” So I’ve been going crazy for years, thinking about it! I wrote that story really quickly, and backwards. I wrote the ending for about three or four pages before going back to the beginning.
Cutaia: In many of the stories in Get in Trouble, important scenes take place in houses. To name just a few examples, in “The Summer People,” Fran and her father take care of houses; in “Light,” a lot of the pivotal moments happen in Lindsey’s house; and there’s even a story named “Two Houses” that deals with spaceships that act as homes, as well as two haunted houses that are the focus of Sisi’s ghost story.
Link: Wow, that’s interesting, I didn’t think about this [Laughs].
Cutaia: What is it about houses or homes that pulls you towards them in your writing?
Link: This is a great question. Hmm. For one thing, all of these stories were written after we were living in a house for the first time since I was a kid. We’ve now lived in our house longer than anywhere I’ve ever lived somewhere: over ten years, maybe even longer. Before that, I had only really lived in one place for about eight to nine years. Part of it may come from that. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to move that often. You find a place that you love, and you live in one place for the rest of your life. That’s kind of my deal. I also really love living spaces. So the other part is thinking about different kinds of living in a certain space, and what makes a house really pleasurable? And when I finished this collection – the next story I want to write is a novel. So I was starting to think about what I wanted to do in that. And it may be as simple as I really love haunted houses.
Cutaia: That’s great! And it leads me to the next question: You’re out promoting your book that’s recently out in paperback; what’s next? You’re working on something new?
Link: I am! When I sold this collection to Random House, they also bought a novel. I still have to write that, I’m not too far into it yet. The longest story in Get in Trouble is maybe 15,000 words. That’s pretty long for a short story, but novels are huge—70,000 words or more. So at some point in this novel, I will have more of it than I will have ever had with one thing before. I feel like that will be the tipping point. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I feel like I do have a lot more ideas about what happens in it, and about the people in it. I have much more stuff in my head about this than I’ve ever had space for in a short story. I’m writing scenes and thinking, “Oh, this could be a short story scene…” but I have to think about it differently now. There’s a lot more interiority, you know, getting inside people’s heads. So that’s pretty exciting.
FICTION – SHORT STORIES, SPECULATIVE
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
February 9, 2016 (paperback)