Kelly Link’s short stories have been dazzling readers for more than a decade now—her first collection Stranger Things Happen was published in 2001 via Small Beer Press, and released under a Creative Commons licence, which made it freely available online to download and read in a variety of formats. It’s a move we’ve long respected—to make work accessible for any who wish to read it, or alter/retell it. Her celebrated collections Magic for Beginners and Pretty Monsters made her a recognizable name across genres, but her most recent collection, Get in Trouble, is her most broadly-read yet, and was recently named a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Kelly’s short stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and she is the co-founder of Small Beer Press and co-edits the occasional zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.
Her story “Stone Animals,” which was selected for The Best American Short Stories in 2005, was somewhat recently reprinted in Electric Literature. One of our personal favorites, “The Faery Handbag,” can be found with Jelly Ink Press, and two from Get in Trouble can be found in The Wall Street Journal (“The Summer People”) and McSweeney’s (“I Can See Right Through You”). Of course, we heartily recommend buying one (or all) of her books. We’re excited to see where her writing takes her next.
Beyond all the aforementioned credentials, Kelly Link is also serving as the prose judge for our 2016 contest. We wanted to pin her down amid what we can only image is a hectic time to answer a few questions about her writing, the spectra around fairy tales, and what she might be looking for in contest submissions.
Q. Your stories are known for their balance of the real and the unreal—the realist and fabulist, some might say. What do those words mean to you, or that “balance”?
I can’t say that I think much about balance at all. I think a great deal about momentum, and the narrative shapes or opportunities that attach to certain kinds of genres. I think a lot about how to satisfy readers who may or may not enjoy a certain style of writing, or a certain kind of genre, or a certain kind of resolution. Anyone interested in writing in the genres of fantasy and horror and science fiction—or experimental fiction, for that matter—knows, starting out, that there needs to be an entry point in their work for someone who isn’t inside the writer’s head. The real world is going to creep in no matter how far out in space or time or style you’ve started your story. The starting point for the writer is always their own experience, their own reading, their own interests and obsessions and interactions in the real world. The trick is to make the fantastic elements just as complicated and nuanced as the stuff of real life.
Q. If you had to venture out to fairyland with only the books you could carry in your arms, which fabulists and fairy-tale tellers would you bring with?
How about a selection of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Years Best Fantasy and Horror anthology series. I’d also bring The Decameron, Diana Wynne Jones, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and The Once and Future King. I’d bring all the seasons of The Vampire Diaries on DVD. They have DVD players in Faery, right?
Q. We began The Ochre Issue with a quote from “The Faery Handbag”: “I know that no one is going to believe any of this. That’s okay. If I thought you would, then I couldn’t tell you. Promise me that you won’t believe a word.” How much sway, if any, does that narrator’s take on storytelling have in your own?
The great thing about dialogue and narrators speaking directly to the reader is that you get the effect of the thing said and at the same time, a sense that whatever is being said may be only part of what is meant. That is, unreliability and nuance are awesome. So many layers! Dialogue and point of view tell you much more about the inside of someone’s head, and what they want people to see/think about them as it does to convey information. So I guess that I’m interested in the play between what someone says, why they say it, and what they’re actually thinking.
Q. Which fairy tales have you worked with in the past? Which stick with you, in terms of the reading experience?
I love “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” I love “Sleeping Beauty.” I love all of Angela Carter’s revisions and retellings. I love Baba Yaga’s hut. I can listen to Holly Black retell the plot of “The White Cat” over and over again.
Q. Here’s something we ask of all our contributors: can you offer a short statement about how fairy tales have influenced your writing, either this work specifically, or your art form in a more general sense?
I loved fairy tales from the moment I could read. I liked how much happened in a small space. I liked that there were clusters of stories, where you could see how one pattern had been endlessly reworked and retold. I loved fairy tale retellings, and how they were a kind of vocabulary/basic narrative language/recognizable pattern for so many readers.
Q. Can you give people any sense as to what you might be looking for in the contest submissions? What kind of work would demand the $1000 award?
I’m looking for stories that surprise me with what the writer does with language, with structure. There’s Donald Barthelme’s terrific description of what literature is: “the creation of a strange object covered in fur which breaks your heart.” I read that and I think of the fiction of Kathryn Davis, Helen Oyeyemi, Robert Shearman, Alice Sola Kim, and lots of others. I can’t wait to see what comes in.