Among today’s short story authors, the name Kelly Link stands out as one of the masters of craft, creativity, and literary beauty. Her work has appeared across dozens of venues, such as Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and Asimov’s Science Fiction and has garnered three Nebula Awards, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award. Her short fiction has been collected in three acclaimed books: Stranger Things Happen, Magic For Beginners, and Pretty Monsters and has also appeared regularly in Year’s Best anthologies.
Beyond writing her own fiction, Ms. Link is also an editor and one of the publishers behind Small Beer Press and its magazine branch, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which she runs with her husband Gavin Grant. She’s also been an instructor for many writing workshops, notably Clarion East and Clarion West.
In this issue of Apex Magazine, we are lucky to include one of her stories from Pretty Monsters, “The Constable of Abal.” Although she is extremely busy, Ms. Link took some time to discuss with us weird fiction, MFA programs, the state of the small press, and her upcoming projects. To learn more about Ms. Link and her fiction, visit her website at kellylink.net.
APEX MAGAZINE: “The Constable of Abal” is a wonderful mash of ghosts, religious artifacts, myths, absentee gods, and the fascinatingly complex mother–daughter relationship. What was the initiating seed that made you want to write this particular story?
KELLY LINK: I knew that I wanted to write a secondary world fantasy in which the mother and daughter were not who they seemed to be. I wanted them to be grifters, first of all, and then turn out to be something even stranger. I was thinking of series like Diana Wynne Jones’s Dalemark Quartet. I also wanted the story to be a romance.
AM: I couldn’t help but be struck by the name choice of Ozma and the gender fluidity of the character — physically changing from a girl to a boy and back again on a whim. Was this in any way reflective of L. Frank Baum’s Ozma, who initially begins her journeys in Oz as a boy named Jojo, or was purely a coincidence?
KL: Not a coincidence, but I didn’t go back and reread Baum, either. It also just seemed like the right name for the character. I tried to come up with something else, but I couldn’t write her with another name once I thought about Baum’s Ozma.
AM: This story is so full of minute and yet vivid detail, from the ghosts clinging to the ribbons on their clothes to the temple floor in the old woman’s secret room. How do you decide which details to use, and what information to leave out?
KL: Well, I don’t ever leave out details, in that I don’t come up with information or description which I don’t then use. I only ever come up with what seems to me absolutely essential to make the story work. I’m not usually an overwriter.
As I revise, it’s usually a matter of adding in as much vivid details as seem necessary to make the story come clear without slowing down the momentum of the story.
AM: At its core, “The Constable of Abal” is something of a ghost story. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’ve always loved ghost stories; what do you think it is that draws you to this particular kind of story?
KL: I’m not sure that I know why I’m drawn to ghost stories. But if you say to somebody, Do you want to hear a ghost story? whoever says, No, I don’t.
AM:You’ve won three Nebulas, a Hugo, a James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the World Fantasy Award, among others, for your short fiction. Do you feel that winning some of these awards relatively early on in your career affected you as you continue to write? Did you feel any additional pressure or less because your work was so well received?
KL: Writing is miserable, hard, excruciating, and occasionally exhilarating. I spend so much time avoiding doing it, and agonizing over it when I do it that I don’t have much energy left over for worrying about whether or not it’s up for awards. When I’m up for an award, there are usually two or three other things on the ballot that I like better than my own fiction.
AM: In your interview with Kristen Kowalewski over at Monster Librarian, you mentioned that writing is often the last thing you feel like doing. Do you have any tricks you use to overcome that procrastination–block and get yourself to sit down at the keyboard?
KL: Right now I’m in Cornwall with a group of writers, all of whom are much better than I am at getting things done. It’s always useful to sit in a room full of people doing work.
AM: This is perhaps a more theoretical question than a practical one, but I’m interested in your thoughts on it: given your proclivity for weird fiction, do you feel that a writer benefits from a bizarre childhood/unusual life experiences when writing weird fiction? Or is writing weird fiction something that a writer might be drawn to because of having had an otherwise ordinary life?
KL: Everyone has a bizarre childhood and unusual life experiences, whether they know it or not. There’s no such thing as a normal childhood. What’s useful in writing weird fiction is learning how to understand and articulate those moments of personal, particular strangeness.
AM: Is there any particular element of writing (character creation, plotting, dialogue, beginnings, endings, tension, etc.) that you feel comes more easily to you than others? Is there any element of composing a story that you find particularly challenging across the board when you writes new stories?
KL: 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.
AM: Your work has mostly centered around short fiction — short stories and novelettes, specifically. Do you find yourself pressured to write novel–length work? And what do you feel is the status of the short–story–only writer in today’s SF/F industry? Is there any stigma in the industry towards writers who prefer/only pursue short fiction forms?
KL: I feel under pressure to write things that I’ve agreed to write. I don’t always manage to write stories I owe people. But at this point, I’m pretty indifferent to other kinds of pressure.
AM: You not only write fiction, but you’re also very involved in it from the publication side, running your own small press with Gavin Grant (Small Beer Press), and the biannual fiction magazine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. In your experience, how do you see the role of small press changing or expanding in the current publishing environment, in contrast or in tandem with bigger publishing houses?
KL: Well, publishing has been in flux for a very long time now — much longer than we’ve been running Small Beer Press. A lot is going to depend on whether or not the majority of independent bookstores and even Barnes & Noble survive the next few years. We don’t make enough money on books sold through Amazon to survive: if we end up in a future where the majority of readers buy their books on Amazon, we will probably shut down Small Beer Press and look for other kinds of work.
Gavin started Weightless Books (part of Small Beer Press) in order to sell eBooks — both ours and other publishers. We think about eBook strategies quite a bit.
AM: You’ve attended a number of workshops, as well as taught for them, and taken writing courses and taught them, too. If your students come away from one of your classes with even just a single important idea about what writing is and what they should be striving for, what do you hope that’ll be? For yourself, is there any specific idea or piece of advice you’ve received that particularly stuck with you over the years?
KL: Read widely and think about what you read. Read like a writer. Think about why you like what you like. Think about why fiction you don’t like might be successful, about what it does do successfully. And recognize that in workshop and in your reading that the things you most hate are probably present in your own work. That’s why you hate them.
AM: You graduated from the full–residency MFA program at University of North Caroline Greensboro, but have also taught for low–residency MFA programs like the Stonecoast MFA program in association with the University of Southern Maine. Do you have a preference for either format in terms of student development and community, and if so, why?
KL: My favorite model is actually Clarion, but I like both MFA formats a great deal. A low–res program is good for writers who have jobs, families, etc, and can’t pack up and move to another state for a program. They can be terrific and they are often more open to genre work — romance, sf & fantasy, mysteries — while still welcoming poetry, narrative nonfiction, and literary fiction.
But they’re expensive, and it can be hard to keep writing at the center of your life whereas a traditional MFA program means you have a period of two years in which everything else in your life is arranged around writing and workshop. Many traditional MFA programs provide funding/scholarships/teaching opportunities for their students.
What I don’t recommend is that you spend a lot of money on an MFA degree. Really! Apply to Clarion instead.
AM: What is your perspective on writing for a living verses writing while simultaneously holding down a day–job that pays the bills (besides the obvious challenge of making ends meet for the first!)? Do you feel that releasing writing from the responsibility of financial support might help or hurt the creative endeavor?
KL: It’s very unlikely that a writer is going to make a living by writing. So then the question is: how do you balance work, life, and writing? If you find out, please tell me.
AM: Given your history as not only a book lover but also a bookseller, what are your current favorite reads (fiction or non–fiction) that you really think readers of Apex might need to check out?
KL: I assume that you’ve already got Joe Hill’s NOS4A2. So then there’s Margo Lanagan’s new collection, Yellow Cake, and I’ll recommend Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races again, because I love it. I really love Mark Leidner’s poetry, and I’m rereading a bunch of Robert Aickman right now. I’ll also recommend watching The Vampire Diaries, because I love it shamelessly. Holly Black’s novel The Coldest Girl in Coldtown comes out in a few months, and I’ll plug Small Beer Press authors Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria) and Nathan Ballingrud (North American Lake Monsters): two books we published because I wanted people to find them and read them and fall in love with them.
And I really hope you’ve read M. T. Anderson’s vampire novel, Thirsty.
AM: After all these serious questions, how about a fun one just because? If you could be friends with any fictional character, who would it be and where would you meet?
KL: I’d like to hang out with Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci. Or Gandalf.
AM: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the upcoming months/years (if you can say)?
KL: Well, the reason this interview is so late is that I’ve been trying to finish a new story called I Can See Right Through You. I finished it last night. I’m not sure where it will end up being published, but it’s the final story for a new collection. And I have another story, “The New Boyfriend”, which will appear in a young adult anthology that Gavin and I edited for Candlewick. The anthology is Monstrous Affections, and it’s a follow up to Steampunk!
AM: Thank you so much, Ms. Link, for sparing us a little time for this interview and for sharing “The Constable of Abal” with us!