Interview: Kelly Link offers a quiet but ferocious start to the Mission Creek Festival

Kelly Link

Prairie Lights — Tuesday, April 4 at 4 p.m.
Hancher — Tuesday, April 4 at 6 p.m.

Kelly Link will read at Hancher on Tuesday, April 4. — photo by Sharona Jacobs Photography

The Mission Creek Festival this year starts not with a bang, but with an insistent whisper — the sort you can’t possibly ignore. The kind that lures you close, that forces you to listen. At 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 4, short story writer and Pulitzer finalist Kelly Link will draw in listeners for a live recording of the Fail Safe podcast. She’ll speak with host Rachel Yoder at Prairie Lights. Then, at 6 p.m., before the musical festivities kick off with My Brightest Diamond and Andrew Bird at 7:30, Link will give a reading in Strauss Hall at Hancher Auditorium. Both events are free.

Link is a force of nature as a writer, one of the strongest tale spinners of our time. She’s got the awards to prove it, of course — a Shirley Jackson award, a Locus award, a World Fantasy award, a Hugo and three Nebula awards, and her most recent collection, 2015’s Get In Trouble, was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer — but the stack of accolades is nothing compared to the effect of reading her prose. You can read it easily, too: If you’re looking for a primer, she’s released her first collection, Stranger Things Happen (1995), under a Creative Commons license.

Her prose has a lilting tone and a conspiratorial voice — and she has a way of creating narrators who get inside your head. Link’s work can be deeply unsettling, because it never feels too far out of reach. The premises and settings that pull her work out of the mundane world can (sometimes literally) take on a life of their own, but it’s the way that the characters — and the readers — react that does the heavy lifting in her stories.

Link graciously answered some questions for us via email recently: A perfect opportunity to get to know her a bit before she hits town.

You’ve served as editor for genre-specific anthologies (Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for five years; Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet), but your own work hovers at the intersections where horror, fantasy and sci-fi meet. What excites you about that liminal space where genre gets distorted and redefined?

To be clear, I’m a big fan of work that lands smack in the middle of genre. But it doesn’t seem to be a productive approach for me when I write. Distortion comes out of a particular perspective — every writer is going to invent their own territory, their own genre by pursuing the material that they are most drawn to, laid out in a pattern of their own design.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on word economy. As a short story writer, you vie with poets for packing a punch into a circumscribed space. Why do you choose this medium? What challenges you about it?

I love short stories. I wrote my first ghost story in college, and after I finished that one, all I wanted was 1) to write another short story and 2) not to have to write anything else. For the last twenty years or so, this pretty much describes my life. I hate writing short stories and I also love writing short stories, which can be reduced to I love writing and I hate writing.

As for the form, short stories have always seemed to be exactly the size I needed them to be. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and I’m still in the first third. There’s an alarming amount of space — it took me a long time to figure out a narrative that was large enough to eat up that space.

What’s your revision process like? As someone who has done a fair bit of editing as well, what’s that author-editor relationship like for you on the writer side?

I revise as I write the first draft. Usually, the start of the story is me writing a first sentence over and over until it seems as if it’s headed toward the story I want to tell. I have a clear idea, usually, of the ending, and every sentence I write needs to be in service of pointing a reader toward the complexities of that particular ending. Whenever I’m stuck on a piece of description or dialogue, I go back to the start of the story and revise the bits that, as I wrote them, I knew were not as good as they ought to be.

There’s a kind of yes/no switch in my editor brain as I work, and on the mechanical level, I’m trying to move as much of the writing to the yes column as possible. The editor brain is always trying to anticipate the possible, various experiences of readers who are more or less predisposed to be entertained by weird-ish short stories.

Kelly Link kicks of Mission Creek 2017 on April 4. — photo by Sharona Jacobs Photography

Your stories, most recently in Get in Trouble, deal with a level of, let’s say, existential angst that’s really most familiar to fantasy/sci-fi readers on the Vonnegut end of the spectrum. What drives your curiosity about the human condition?

Being human drives curiosity about the human condition. I like love stories, and stories about family, and stories about people behaving badly. I like gossip. Twitter is a gift to me.

What’s the most exciting topic you haven’t yet explored in print? Is there anywhere you don’t believe your writing will ever take you, or any subjects or ideas you avoid?

Oh, that’s a great question. I want to write a book with a haunted house in it. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever write a baseball book, but who knows? Fairly sure I’ll never write a self-help book or a book about playing bridge, or a utopia.

Who’s on your radar right now that fans of the short story format should be keeping an eye on?

Not to be self-serving, but I have to mention Sofia Samatar, who is one of my favorite writers. We’re publishing her collection Tender any day now. But you can find her short stories online. I love Alice Sola Kim’s short stories, and Maria Dahvana Headley, Kai Ashante Wilson, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Robert Shearman. Mariana Enriquez. I’ll also mention Victor LaValle’s forthcoming novel The Changeling, because I love it so very much.

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