Kelly Link is primarily known for her short stories and has released four short story collections characterized as weird and slipstream fiction—a blend of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and literary fiction—Stranger Things Happen, Pretty Monsters, Magic for Beginners, and Get in Trouble. She also works as an editor and runs Small Beer Press, a publishing house, with her husband. And now she’s working on a novel for Random House about a haunted house.
Horror has been a big influence on Link’s fiction, especially ghost stories. “I’ve always loved horror, although I have trouble with gore…In fiction, I love ghost stories and stories of the uncanny the best,” she says.
Link loved being read to as a child, but when it came to learning how to do it herself, she was reluctant. “I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. My dad read me all of Tolkien when I was in kindergarten. My mom read me all of C. S. Lewis. And then when once I learned to read—I was a little bit slow—I would just go to the library and sort of work my way through the shelves,” says Link.
“My parents have explained to me that apparently I was…a little bit lazy. I felt that if I learned how to read, that in fact they would stop reading to me…I think what they finally did to get me to read was, they sat me down on the couch and explained that if I would learn how to read, I could read any time I wanted to read. And that was persuasive.”
Link studied writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but says what she mostly did during her workshop was reading. And she believes that one book taught her everything she needs to know about writing: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. “Everything I needed to learn I found in The Bloody Chamber: the playfulness and generosity and friction—of ideas, in the admixture of high and low, the mythic and the realistic. Here are ten overlapping stories about marriage and sexual awakening, decay and transformation, house cats and big cats, wolves and people who act like wolves,” says Link. “There are retellings of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Bluebeard.’ There are counts and countesses, brides and husbands, mothers and fathers. There are only a handful of named characters, many just signifiers: Mr. Lyon and Beauty and Wolf-Alice.”
Having taught writing, Link advises authors to read as much and as widely as possible. “I write genre fiction, and so I encourage my students to become well read in genre fiction at the very least. I tell them that even if they don’t plan to write straight-out fantasy and science fiction and horror, they may want to borrow the techniques and the tropes of genre, even if they want to put these to slightly different purposes. I believe every good writer has at least one good ghost story in them, and I badly want to read it,” she says.
Link admits to being hooked on love stories and romance and encourages writers and readers not to be ashamed by going after what they like. “I do love love stories. I spent a lot of the time when I was going through an MFA in creative writing program sneaking out to bookstores and reading paperback romance novels…and I would really hope now that if anybody out there is in a writing program, that they would boldly read their romance novels. That’s one of the things about figuring out what kind of story you want to write, is figuring out the kinds of things you are drawn to, even if you feel you shouldn’t be drawn to them,” says Link.
A big part of Link’s reading diet is rereading things she’s liked before. “I do reread books and stories, all the time. Often children’s books and ghost stories, especially anthologies of ghost stories,” she says. “Stephen King’s novels or collections. I reread things that I loved, or that had a particular effect on me. I once asked a bunch of horror writers why it was still pleasurable to reread scary stories when their power to scare us has diminished. The writer Nick Mamatas said, ‘I read to feel a sense of dread.’”
Most of Link’s writing process, she says, is avoiding it. “I find it hard to make myself sit down and write. I have a hard time making myself continue to write. But once I have a solid first three to five pages of a story, things improve. I like getting to the last third because by that point I know what I’m doing,” says Link.
As for the most satisfying part of the writing process, Link says that is working out the issues of a story. “The part of writing that is most pleasurable to me is problem-solving. Story math. How do I achieve a certain kind of mood? What can I leave out? What are the different ways to read the fantastic bits of the story?” says Link. “The introduction of the fantastic means that there are going to be metaphorical meanings, and this gets messy very quickly, especially with horror. What are we afraid of? Who is the other? Who is being punished and why?”