An Interview with Kelly Link: “All Books Are Weird”

Photo by Ellen Datlow

Kelly Link is an influential American writer of hard-to-classify short fiction that has been described as fantasy, slipstream, or magic realism. Link has published three collections: Stranger Things Happen (2001), Magic for Beginners (2005), and Pretty Monsters (2008). Her stories have won the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.

Although not known as a writer of “weird tales” per se, most of Link’s stories tend to be grounded in an underlying darkness. The story reprinted in The Weird compendium, “The Specialist’s Hat” (1998), creeps up on the reader, slowly trading a sense of innocence for one of terror. The story is technically as perfect as classics like Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” and showcases the effortless complexity of Link’s fiction. Her most recent editorial collaboration with her husband, Gavin Grant, is Steampunk!, an original anthology of YA fiction.

WFR caught up with Link in the middle of short story revisions, from which she took a break to answer our questions about weird fiction… Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? And what kinds of weird things did you read as a child?

Kelly Link: My parents were both big readers. There are only two books I remember my mother taking away from me. One was Bored of the Rings. The other was A Confederacy of Dunces. As a child, everything seemed pretty weird, and that was good: Clan of the Cave Bear, Flowers in the Attic, Grimbold’s Other World, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Is Rising sequence, the Greek and Norse myths, Stephen King, Joan Aiken, Saki, Margaret Storey, the Earthsea books, M. R. James, Dracula, Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borrible novels, Diana Wynne Jones, The Amityville Horror, Reader’s Digest’s Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. Oh, and we had a large record collection of musicals. Godspell, My Fair Lady, Camelot. Musicals: pretty weird. If you were to do an archeological dig for formative influences, all of the above would be a start. And yes, I maintain that all of these books are weird. Is weird fiction, for you, more about the scare, catharsis, discovery, or some other element?

Kelly Link: The mingled feelings of estrangement and recognition. Depending on what is going on in your life, you, the reader, may want more of one of these than the other. I love to be scared. I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, right — last night I thought, okay, I’ll stop at the next section break and go to sleep. Only the next section break began in an old farmhouse in Northampton. As I was reading the book in an old farmhouse in Northampton, I kept going for a few more pages. What weird writers have been influences on your work, in whatever way?

Kelly Link:  All of the above, of course. As I got older, I read short stories by writers like Angela Carter, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Carol Emshwiller, Karen Joy Fowler, John Collier. Shelley Jackson and I were roommates for a while. There’s the cumulative effect that the anthologies of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling continue to have. There’s the direct effect of workshopping with writers like Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Karen Joy Fowler, and many of the writers of Sycamore Hill. There’s the impact of working with writers at Clarion [writers workshop] or in MFA programs. There’s what you read: in the last few years, the short stories and novels of Joe Hill, Margo Lanagan, M. T. Anderson, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Elizabeth Knox, and Helen Oyeyemi, whose most recent novel is Mr. Fox.

Look. All books are weird when you think about it. I just read a terrific quote from an article by Edward Docx, “Among the Russians,” in which he and a group of Russian writers are talking about writing. Out of that conversation comes this description:

Deciding to write a novel is like visiting an obscure, half-forgotten and slowly-evaporating planet entirely comprised of swimming pools and deciding that what is needed is… yes, another swimming pool! But, for obscure reasons, a swimming pool that must be built single-handedly from scratch and then filled using only a syringe.

Something about that quote seems pertinent here. It goes without saying that real life is also weird.  Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you if someone says it about your own work?

Kelly Link: Every reader is going to have a different tolerance for the weird. That tolerance can either increase or decrease. In addition, the more you read, the more peculiar and peculiarly specific your tastes or dislikes may become. I particularly like when someone approaches a particularly rigid form (romance, high fantasy, English detective story) with some degree of weirdness. (For example, Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean, or almost anything by Peter Dickinson.)

I’d be flattered if someone said that my work is “too weird” for them. I value the uncompliment. I’d ask what they usually liked to read, and try to recommend something that they might like better. Most of what I write is too weird for my mother —which is fine! We both love Molly Gloss’s historical novel The Hearts of Horses.  Your story “The Specialist’s Hat” reprinted in The Weird is absolutely chilling as you begin to understand what’s going on. Can you tell us what sparked the story, and if you had any particular weird stories in mind as touchstones while writing it?

Kelly Link: I wrote “The Specialist’s Hat” at Clarion. I wanted to write a ghost story, and so I checked a bunch of M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft out of the library. I had H. R. Wakefield’s “The Red Lodge” in mind as well. I was also thinking of the Carl Sandburg house.  In terms of overlooked writers, is there anyone living or dead writing dark fiction who you think deserves a lot more attention?

Kelly Link: Well, everyone should read Lucy Lane Clifford’s story “The New Mother.” I only recently discovered the novels of Michael McDowell. Oh, and Patricia Geary and Rachel Ingalls! They’re both terrific. And if you’re an adult reader and haven’t read M. T. Anderson’s work, try Thirsty.  Finally, as an adult, what’s the single weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?

Kelly Link: I’m afraid some of it would have been in the slush that I read for, or while I worked as an editor for The Greensboro Review. Then there’s the children’s picture books The Thing in Dolores’ Piano by Robert Tallon, and Tomi Ungerer’s The Beast of Monsieur Racine. There’s also the work of Shelley Jackson: her collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, her novel Half Life. I’m a word in her project “Skin,” which is a short story published as individual tattoos on the skin of 2,095 volunteers.

WFR Oddbits:

—The Lane Clifford story “The New Mother” recommended by Link was published in 1882 and influenced Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. A relevant quote from the story:

So together they stood with their two little backs against the door. There was a long pause. They thought perhaps the new mother had made up her mind that there was no one at home to let her in, and would go away, but presently the two children heard through the thin wooden door the new mother move a little, and then say to herself — ” I must break open the door with my tail.”

For one terrible moment all was still, but in it the children could almost hear her lift up her tail, and then, with a fearful blow, the little painted door was cracked and splintered.

12 replies to “An Interview with Kelly Link: “All Books Are Weird”

  1. The New Mother” is such a fantastically strange story. When I stumbled on it, my reaction was 50% “wow, this opens up all sorts of new directions for my writing” and 50% “1882!! There are far far more stories out there that I NEED to read than I ever dreamed.”

  2. Pingback: Creepy Classic: Lucy Clifford’s “The New Mother” | Weird Fiction Review

  3. I would love to read that story; reposting it here would be a great favor to us Weird lovers!

    Reading this interview caused my “books to look for” list to expand rather alarmingly. I quake at the thought of what reading your collection would do to that same list.

  4. Pingback: Kelly Link y sus cuentos de lo extraño - Fata Libelli

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