Kelly Link Is Committed to the Fantastic

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In “The Book of Love,” a début novel from the short-story writer Kelly Link, three teen-agers find themselves in their music teacher’s classroom in the middle of the night. They are wearing costumes from “Bye Bye Birdie,” and they remember only “a blotted, attenuated, chilly nothingness” from which they’ve slipped “one by one by one,” as if through a “loose stitch.” They have come back from the dead. Their music teacher, who is involved somehow, informs them that they must compete in a series of mysterious tasks to determine who will remain alive and who will return to nonbeing. There’s Laura, a gifted guitarist with hints of Tracy Flick; Mo, who is sensitive and logorrheic; and Daniel, who would like to be excluded from his own Lazarus narrative. Sleeping at home is Susannah, Laura’s older sister and Daniel’s ex-girlfriend, who may have had something to do with their deaths.

Because the kids have been reconstituted by sorcery, they have wizard-like powers. They also attract the attention of some very old and magical beings, including the moon goddess Malo Mogge and Bogomil, a wry, soft-spoken personification of Death who is “by far the handsomest man” Laura has ever seen and turns into a wolf. Link has been praised for binding psychological realism to fantasy and sewing whimsical touches onto mainstream literary forms. In 2016, her story collection “Get in Trouble” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; two years later, she received a MacArthur “genius” grant. Her fifth and most recent collection, “White Cat, Black Dog,” from 2023, stood out in a sea of books retooling old myths for contemporary times. If “Get in Trouble” explored mischief-makers, “White Cat, Black Dog” played on the trope of the fairy-tale hero to depict the difficulties that come with trying to do the right thing.

Link’s childhood was peripatetic (her father was a minister). After a wayfaring early adulthood, she settled, in 2001, in the small Massachusetts town of Northampton. She now lives with her husband, Gavin; their child, Jade; their Labradoodle, Koko; and an assortment of chickens. She and Gavin run a local bookstore, Book Moon, which curates a mix of science fiction, fantasy, contemporary fiction, poetry, and titles in other genres, in addition to offerings from the couple’s publishing business, Small Beer Press. Speaking to me from a text-and-curio-filled room that any self-respecting necromancer would be proud to claim as a studio, Link chatted about the worthwhile frivolity of the fantasy genre, how children read differently from adults, and why she hates to write and does it anyway. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Every chapter in “The Book of Love” has a title that signals the point-of-view character. The Book of Daniel. The Book of Laura. The Book of Susannah. What made you decide to write a book of books?

I knew at the outset that I wanted to tackle things a short story doesn’t allow, such as multiple points of view. I thought, Well, I want them all to feel like they have weight, at least to themselves. And I’m a preacher’s kid. I spent a lot of time in church reading the Bible, because, besides the hymnal, you couldn’t read other things. That structure—the book of so-and-so, the Book of Ruth—is very appealing.

Is there a connection between your religious upbringing and the fantasy you write now?

What religion and fantasy have in common is that the reader knows, going in, that they’ll be asked to imagine that the world might be different from the way it is now. They’ll be asked to imagine the possibility of a world that is radically transformed. I salute and love the fact that fantasy is, in some ways, a frivolous genre. You read a genre book not necessarily because you feel you’re going to learn something. Sometimes it’s because the structure of a particular genre produces patterns that are pleasurable to engage with.

I didn’t expect you to say that the fantasy genre was frivolous!

It’s a story I have to tell myself when I’m working. That I am engaged in a practice which, on some level, is frivolous. I am imagining changes to the world that produce a kind of delight, not necessarily trying to describe the world in the way that it is.

It’s not that the fantastic can’t be used as a tool to do serious and pointed work. Plenty of genre writers do exactly that. But I am committed to the idea that there is something, aside from utility, in the excess and play of imagination that fantasy allows as a genre. I couldn’t write if I felt that I had something which needed to be said.

You use a lot of box imagery. Laura says she’s “more of a box person”—more likely to contain or repress dark parts of herself—than a person who wields her darkness to hurt others. In “White Cat, Black Dog,” one character suggests that “the box that gives the comic story its shape is made, on purpose, too small.” In the same story, another tale is “so small I could fit it into a box . . . small enough to carry inside the smallest pocket.” But, the character says, “were I to take it out of its box, I do not know that I could ever fit it back inside again.”

I don’t know that Laura is repressing dark parts of herself. I think she’s someone who is setting aside feelings or parts of herself that are too painful or too complex, with the idea that she will engage with them later on. She’s ruthless with other people, but also with the tenderest parts of herself. I’m interested in how we enlarge or dismiss our feelings, our histories, our traumas, and so on. And I do, very much, feel that stories—art of all kinds, really—are containers for things that we, both writers and readers, haven’t had space to articulate or allow ourselves to feel.

Your work seems attuned to the pleasure of categorization and patterning, but it also often resists being boxed in by genre.

I think a lot about narrative structures and about the kinds of assumptions we make about what a short story should do. People don’t necessarily pick up a short story because they expect it to give them pleasure. They often seem surprised when it does! But when I write short stories I want to shape patterns to create surprise and delight. And when I pick up a collection it’s because I hope to be surprised and delighted.

What surprised you most about writing a novel?

The form was capacious enough to let me introduce points of view that may not have been essential to the novel’s project. These perspectives didn’t necessarily feel digressive, but they were less attached to the central plot and central characters. I enjoyed that the novel was capable of carrying them along as well.

Do you get more attached to characters that you spend more time with? Is it harder to make them suffer?

Yes and no. I went through a lot of stages with these characters—feeling annoyed with them, at times—because the book took a long time to write. It was eight years of work, and I was unhappy a lot of the time I was writing it. So when my characters began to go through things that were really tragic or difficult—the real tumult—my main feeling was: at last we’ve gotten to this place that I knew we were headed.

Publishing the novel was strange. I worked on it for so long, much longer than you ever have to work on a short story. When it went out into the world, I’d been living with it for almost a decade. So it was a bit like a wedding, or a party, where all these people now get to meet your novel for the first time. Which is great, but you’re, like, you know, I was living with this guy for eight years. You have no idea how much work he was.

What were some things the book did to drive you crazy?

My greatest fear, the whole time that I was working on it, was that I would stretch out my sense of narrative shape. Or maybe I thought I would become so enamored of the space that novels give you that I would lose my one true love, which is the short story.

Of course, while I was writing the novel, I was also sneaking off to write my collection of short stories [“White Cat, Black Dog”]. I suppose my sense of how to write a short story did feel out of tune sometimes during that period, but hopefully in useful ways. I want to believe that writing a novel taught me more about how to write short fiction. But what I will work on next is another novel. So I am wrestling again with that fear—that I am being seduced away by a longer narrative form.

I’m struck by this language of seduction: “sneaking off,” “seduced away,” “enamored,” “one true love.”

How interesting! I try to approach my work from a place of love, in part because I so often feel the reverse. I hate the mouthfeel of my own prose, I hate how inadequate I feel to the task of writing, I hate my relationship with writing. So, in order to do it, I have to locate a question that interests me enough to remain in the discomfort of that work. But the process of locating that zone of interest, that question, feels like falling in love.

I think nothing else returns me to my adolescent self in the way that writing does. I love it, I hate it, I’m in despair, I’m obsessed, I feel, deliciously, that marvellous things might be possible. It doesn’t sound very healthy, does it? But it is energizing.

There are a lot of loving nods to the romance genre in your book.

I’ve read romance novels for much of my life. The decisions that the writer has to make are so many, so tiny, and so complex. Like a game of chess! From an outside perspective, the pattern is limited, but on the level of craft, when I read a romance novel, I’m often blown away by what individual writers can do within that pattern. I admire all writers who are able to reliably produce a kind of pattern that elicits an emotional or physical response. I’m interested in all the different little paths to those big feelings, which have such staying power.

It’s been a while since I had a reading experience quite like “The Book of Love.” I was appreciating it on a craft level, but I also knew that, if I were twenty years younger, I would have been totally destroyed by the Bogomil character. Like, molecularly. I would have dissolved into goo. He would have consumed every moment of my fantasy life for years.

Is there anything better than a hot, scary guy who isn’t, in any way, real? I’m partial to all of the vampires in “The Vampire Diaries,” or all vampires, ever. My favorite sentence in all of Carson McCullers’s work is this one: “The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits.” I’m fairly sure that Bogomil’s origin story begins with that sentence. Would I want to meet the real-life equivalent at a party? Absolutely not. “Nice to meet you. Going to go talk to somebody else.” I’m older and wiser now, even if, in narrative, the monster still attracts my interest.

When you’re a teen-ager, you’re hungry for so much, and your situation as a desiring being who is definitely going to die is sinking in. You want to keep wanting, but you also want the longings to be satisfied, which means you’re half in love with death.

I’m in my fifties now—and still half in love with death. It’s the largest question, isn’t it? What happens to us when we die? It feels healthy to make jokes about it, to make stories out of it, to have feelings about it. But you have to be interested in life, too. One of the narrative strands in the novel is what it would feel like to come back from the dead. Laura is outraged because her sister, Susannah, isn’t doing her laundry. Daniel comes home, and one of the first things he does is wash the dishes. I imagined there would be something restorative and luxurious about all the routine emotions and actions of life when you’ve been exiled from it for so long.

Love of life is one of many different types of love in the novel. There’s also romantic love, familial love, platonic love. How do you define love?

Love is patient, love is kind, etc, etc. But to the writer love is interesting when it’s impatient, unkind, when it falters, when it’s greedy, when it isn’t particularly sturdy. Stories well up out of that contradictory space—the desire to love and be loved meeting up with how impossible that work is.

How do you define magic?

Any time you employ the fantastic, you’re introducing something that only exists in stories. The appearance of the fantastic points outward, back toward other stories, other representations, and all the baggage they bring along. Vampires and ghosts and unicorns and magic readily pick up associations with all the historical, contemporary, specific cultural anxieties and wish-fulfillments readers bring to them.

When I was writing the book and trying to build a framework for how magic might operate, I found myself thinking about how often magic feels like a metaphor for access to a lot of money. Money and power. I don’t love this idea—that magic functions as a kind of credit card—but you can’t get rid of it. I was interested, too, in the idea of who is good at magic, and whether or not magic is something only very special people can practice.

Right, the magical economy isn’t meritocratic. The kids don’t earn their powers; they acquire them by accident. And it’s not like “Harry Potter,” where some people are born special and then they get to go to a school for the magical aristocracy.

Right. Daniel is given a lot of magic, but he doesn’t want to use it. I have a really good friend, a writer, and our other friends complain that you can’t play a game of Dungeons & Dragons with her. Because if you say, “Your character is now encountering an army of orcs, what do you do?,” she’ll say, “I run away.” And if you say, “Well, now you encounter a dragon,” she’ll say, “O.K., I run in the other direction.” You can’t get her to engage with the action of the game.

I have enormous sympathy for people who don’t want to do things. To me, Daniel’s position is reasonable. He’s come back from the dead for reasons that he doesn’t understand. He is to some extent under the control, the power, of two people whose intentions are murky. He’s being asked to use magic and he doesn’t understand why. I might feel the same way Daniel does, honestly. Everyone in the novel is, in various ways, in mourning for the things they’ve lost. Daniel’s in mourning for himself, for his life. He’s in a bad place when the book starts, and it takes him a while to get to a better place. As a writer who doesn’t like to write, I felt sympathetic toward Daniel and his feelings about magic. My sympathies are also with Susannah, who is angry and confused because she doesn’t understand what’s going on. Susannah, I also had to figure everything out!

Why do you write even though you don’t like to write?

Even when I don’t like writing, I’m interested in the project of it. In the possibilities, too. And I’m stubborn. Perhaps there’s something useful in not loving writing. I hope it makes me a better editor of my own work, being suspicious of it at every step.

What do you think lies behind the literary association between magic and teen-agers?

Teen-agers are enormously uncanny! They’re like people but also not like people. Or maybe what I mean is that they contain many different versions of the person they’re on the way to becoming. That range can feel almost supernatural. In adolescence, it feels like extraordinary things might be right around the corner. I suppose it’s true that, as we go through life, extraordinary, sometimes terrifying things are always right around the corner. But adolescence is where we feel that most strongly in our sense of ourselves. And that lines up, I think, with stories of the uncanny or fantastic or monstrous.

I thought your portrait of Lovesend, the fictional town in Massachusetts where the novel is set, was so nicely balanced between astringency and sweetness, in that you captured this sense of small-town familiarity that never quite became sentimentality. Most people in Lovesend know one another’s business, and the reader herself gets to know the bartender and the music teacher. But that doesn’t mean that the bartender doesn’t get summarily turned into a tiger and imprisoned in a zoo for the rest of her life.

The short story requires attention to setting in the way that a novel does. Until I was in my thirties, I hadn’t ever lived in one place for more than seven years. I wasn’t drawing from place much as a writer. Because what did it mean if a character’s setting told you who she really was? Who was I?

I’ve lived in Northampton for almost twenty-five years now, and Lovesend is based, in many ways, on my life here. The main difference between Lovesend and Northampton and all of its satellite communities is that there are five colleges here, and Lovesend, in place of those, has the ocean. That’s wish fulfillment on my part. When I was a kid in Miami, we were in the ocean all the time. It was a big part of my personal landscape. And I am still kind of flummoxed that I live far away from the coast. I have ponds but no oceans.

I don’t know that I put much credence in astrology, but I am a Cancer, which is a water sign. Water is important to me. I am always happiest writing if I can get into a pool or a lake or the ocean in between stretches of work. I love the way that you can see the patterns of waves in the ocean. There are multiple patterns going on, and you can feel the pull of them. I find that deeply pleasurable.

Can you talk a little about the role of humor in your work?

One, I think most people are funny. Two, I think it’s sort of like sex: the way people joke or relate to humor is an insight into their character. Humor lets the reader see how somebody views the world and also how they deal with inconvenience or tragedy or, conversely, with getting the things that they want. In real life, humor is a tool that helps us navigate complex situations. And so it would be very hard for me to understand who a character might be if I didn’t have access to some sense of what they thought was funny. Or what they thought wasn’t funny! Which things that other people thought were funny actually annoyed them.

Your father was a minister who became a psychologist. I feel like that detail pretty poetically marries your interests in psychological realism and the otherworldly.

I owe a great deal to my dad. Because of his ministry, we lived in interesting places. And going to Sunday school is great training for writers, in the sense that you are given explications of the same texts over and over again. You start to accept, at a very young age, the idea that there exist many, many ways to read a story. Then, when my father was going to school to get his degree in psychology, he gave me and my sister all the personality and intelligence tests that he was learning to administer, which was enormous fun.

Did he tell you the results?

Never. He’d just say, “Interesting.”

Why not?

The way he put it was: Well, what would be the point? Knowing isn’t going to change who you are. And it may in fact not be good for you. He was probably right. Questions are often more interesting than answers.

In a profile of you that ran in New York magazine, you were quoted saying that you tried getting analyzed by a therapist once and knew it wasn’t going to work. Why didn’t it work?

Oh, at the point where going to see a therapist or a psychologist might have been useful to me, I thought, I can’t do that. That’s what my dad does. Which itself maybe indicates a certain psychological mind-set. When we misbehaved, our mom would say, “Go talk to your dad.” He would say, “Well, what did you do?” And we’d tell him. And then he’d say, “Well, why did you think you did that?” It was excruciating.

Which authors do you think shaped “The Book of Love” the most?

When I was writing the novel, there was a group of writers whose work I reread. They have a granular grasp of what life feels like and how relationships between different people subtly go sideways or open up. Grace Paley, Laurie Colwin, Kathryn Davis, Eva Ibbotson, Joy Williams. Williams sees the strangeness of people, and her stories engage with the spiritual and with the natural world. Colwin is so funny and generous. I wanted my book to be generous toward the characters, toward the readers. I wanted it to be generous toward the idea of possibility.

In terms of writers of fantasy, T. H. White is someone I realize “The Book of Love” is profoundly in debt to. “The Once and Future King” is one of my all-time favorite novels.

The “Book of Love” has a symphonic quality. The rotating viewpoints make it feel perhaps more communal or relational than a short story. Did you feel at all like writing the novel was a less solitary project for you, or that it might connect you to readers in a different way?

With the novel, you feel more guaranteed of having company with you. The reader is willing to go with you for that distance. But it means that you will have to do some of the work of carrying them. I think that’s both a strength and a weakness of the novel. The writer and artist Kathleen Jennings told me over Zoom that, when a novel engages her, she feels homesick for it when she puts it down. I’m not sure that’s quite so true of short stories. Maybe you carry a feeling of strangeness out of a short story, but you’re not pointed back toward it afterwards. When you put it down, you’re looking out into the world again. ♦


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