Kelly Link talks about Pretty Monsters


We at One Story can barely keep up with the success of our authors.  This month we were lucky enough to interview Kelly Link, whose short story “The Great Divorce” was One Story issue # 59.  Kelly’s new collection Pretty Monsters was published by Viking Children’s Books in October.  Pretty Monsters has received outstanding reviews, and was included on Amazon’s 2008 list of Top Ten Books for Teens.

Kelly Link is the award-winning author of Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners (selected by Time Magazine as one of the Best Books of 2005).  The recipient of a 2006 NEA grant, Link lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she and her husband Gavin J. Grant run Small Beer Press who, among other great offerings, publish Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a consistently brilliant literary magazine.

Here Kelly talks about loving dead people, exhuming ex girlfriends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other subjects of Pretty Monsters.

The stories in Pretty Monsters seem to have a shared, funny narrator, giving the sense they are being related to us by a friend.  Was your intention to have a continuous narrative feel?

Point of view is a way of manipulating distance.  You can get inside the heads of your characters, and then draw back and comment on those characters’ prejudices or peculiarities through the filter of that intermediary, your narrator.  It allows for lateral movement.  And of course you (and now I mean you the reader as well as you the writer) may begin to suspect that the narrator has their own agenda or story.  There’s more of a sense of play, of elasticity when the characters want one thing and the narrator may want something else.

It can also be a way of tethering a story that heads off into fantastic or supernatural territory.

Until you asked, I hadn’t actually thought about how many narrators were lurking and loitering in these stories.  They’re smart alecks, aren’t they?  It’s a relief to hear they’re likable, which is not to say always trustworthy, I hope.

The kids in the story “Magic for Beginners” are obsessed with a “reality show” called The Library, whose reality bleeds into the real lives of the characters, who may or may not be characters on the show itself.  Was The Library based on a real TV show?

The story “Magic for Beginners” was based on the experience of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I moved from Somerville, MA to Brooklyn to Northampton, MA during the seven years Buffy was on, and the one thing all of the places I lived had in common, besides too many books, was a room with a television where we got together with various friends to watch new episodes and then dissect, praise, complain, rewrite and rewatch.  It was an enormously social experience, and it’s not one I’ve had since Buffy ended.  I wanted to write something that would capture the way it feels to be a fan and a member of a fandom.

On the other hand, the television show itself, The Library, was my attempt to write all the things that would be–if not impossible, then at least costly and impractical–to do in an actual television show.  Like having different actors take over key roles in each episode, and putting in elaborate settings and all manner of special effects.

Speaking as a slush reader, there’s nothing worse than a piece of fiction that reads like a transcript of an episode of a television show, and so, in self-defense I started to wonder what could be done in fiction with a television show that you couldn’t actually do using a camera, a script and a bunch of actors.

People loving dead people pops up here and there in the stories.  Jeremy loves Fox (who may or may not be dead on a show that may or may not be “reality”), Miles loves Bethany (a teenaged-sweetheart whose grave he digs up to recover his poems).  Was it a happy accident to have so much death and loss in the collection, or was it an intentional theme?

Well, that collision between love and death is inevitable, isn’t it?  There are a fair number of ghosts in this collection because I love ghost stories.  There are some bloodthirsty monsters because when I was a kid, I loved reading monster stories.  Pretty Monsters is actually a young adult collection, and so these stories needed to have a certain dramatic urgency.  The possibility of death raises the stakes.  So does the threat of humiliation.

“The Faery Handbag” is a story about a magic pocketbook that contains several changing worlds.  Where did you come up with the idea for this story?

I’ve always loved stories where the insides of something were bigger than the outside.  I was drawing on folklore about fairy hills and people going in for one night and coming out hundreds of years later.  I was also inspired by a friend who proposed marriage to his girlfriend on a Scrabble board.  I started to think about other uses that Scrabble boards and tiles might have, such as divination.

What influenced your decision to make so many of the main characters young?

I like writing from the point of view of children, or young adults.  They’re in this weird transitional space, between worlds.  Their actions have real consequences, but that doesn’t mean that they’re taken seriously.  They’re specialists in music, or dinosaurs or clothing labels.  They want things with a kind of great and terrible intensity that makes them great characters to write about.  They say things that adults wouldn’t let themselves say.  When I write about adults, I’m most interested in writing about adults who have retained some of these qualities.

Why do you write, for lack of a better word, fantastically?  Do you hope to get at human emotion through alternative means?  Is it just more fun?

I don’t know that I have a particularly good reason at the moment.  It’s not just that writing fantasy, or ghost stories, is more fun, because I’m not sure I’m willing to go on the record saying writing is fun.  Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.  But certainly I’m more interested in the fantastic and the weird, in the experimental and pulp traditions.  It just feels like more expansive territory.  You can still use all the tools of realistic fiction.  You’ve just got this other, complimentary set of tools as well.

I love Angela Carter’s fiction, Joe Hill’s short stories.  The world that matters most to me is the kind of fiction that I imprinted on, and never stopped reading.  That’s science fiction, fantasy, ghost stories, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett.  I’m an unapologetic fan of space opera, heroic fantasy, hobbits, novels about dragons like Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw or Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books.  I still read young adult fantasy by writers like Ysabeau Wilce and Elizabeth Knox, M.T. Anderson and Diana Wynne Jones.  So maybe these are all the reasons why I write what I write, because I want to create work that will exist, at least partially, in that same space.

The Aura Estrada Prize

The Aura Estrada Prize is a new literary prize, the first of its kind for young Spanish language women writers.  The prize is named after an incredibly gifted emerging Mexican writer, the wife of novelist Francisco Goldman, who tragically died last year in an accident.  In honor of her memory, the prize seeks to launch the careers of talented young women who might otherwise not have their voices heard.

On September 18th 2008, a benefit event will take place in New York City to raise funds for this prize.  Tickets are still available for the event.  This prize is poised to make a crucial difference in Latin American letters, and in literary possibilties for women.  For more information about the prize, and how to donate, go here: The Aura Estrada Prize.

Stephen King returns like a prodigal son to the short story

If you were in attendance at last year’s Best American Short Stories night at Symphony Space, you heard Stephen King tell the audience his work editing 2007’s collection made him return to the shorter form.  Excited and formally dressed (rare for the jeans and t-shirted Sox fan), he reiterated his loyalty to short stories and his concern with its current lackluster state in America.

Well, Stevie is as good as his word.  An article on Publisher Weekly’s website announced his return to the short story in a new collection titled Just After Sunset.  In 13 new pieces, Stevie traverses truncated ground to explore survivor’s guilt and psychological terror (natch).

Readers of Just After Sunset might want to gauge whether the stories meet up to the standards he professed to apply when editing BASS 2007: “What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky…I certainly don’t want some fraidy-cat’s writing school imitation of Faulkner.”

In 2006, on another night at Symphony Space, Stephen King was interviewed by John Connelly.  There I heard him do something I’ve heard from no other writer.  He said he was working on a story and if no one minded, could he tell the crowd about it and they could tell him what they thought?  He briefly went into a story idea and stopped near the end because, he said, he didn’t know the end yet.  What do you think? he asked.  The audience answered in loud applause and an overwrought, possibly drunk woman in the balcony yelled: Write the hell out of that story, Stevie!

For those who still have their Brontes in a Boil over Stephen King’s literary merit, especially as it pertains to the short story, I will paraphrase an anecdote King told at Symphony Space that night: one day he was shopping at a market near his home in Florida and a woman approached him and said, with reproach, I know you.  You’re that writer.  He said yes, he was a writer and the woman informed him she did not like his writing, it was too morose and horrifying and sad.  Why couldn’t he write something more uplifting? she asked him.  Like the movie that’s out now, what’s it called, that Shawshank Redemption?

Stephen King did not say whether he told the woman Shawshank Redemption was based on a short story he wrote called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”  Or if he told her his story “The Body” was the origination text for Stand By Me.  Of course, he has plenty of good stories that haven’t spawned movies.  For those of you who still have their Hemingways in a Huff over it, think of it this way: writing stories that millions of people read wouldn’t, like, suck.

Which is essentially what I was trying to convey to Mr. King when I yelled from the balcony.

For more information about Stephen King’s introduction to Best American Short Stories 2007, check out our blog entry.

Here is information regarding our Superhero reading with Owen King, who has the same last name as Stephen.

Charles Baxter has something to say about the short story.

Interviewer to Charles Baxter:  What is the status of the short story?

Baxter:  Beats me. 

In The Missouri Review’s Spring 2008 issue,  Marsha McSpadden and Trevor Gore interview Charles Baxter, author of four short story collections, three poetry collections, two essay collections and five novels, including Saul and Patsy, The Feast of Love and, most recently, The Soul Thief.  Baxter has a rep for being an inspired teacher and a writer who is cooooool with an inordinate amount of o’s.  Here is a particularly intriguing part of the interview in which he talks about the current state of the short story, common mistakes young writers make, how he hates and loves Raymond Carver, and makes a debatably sexist statement about Lorrie Moore.

Interviewer: What’s the status of the short story?

Baxter: Beats me.  There usually has to be some writer in the culture who’s writing stories that get people so excited they want to write them, too.  For me, it was Raymond Carver, and to an extent Grace Paley.  Then it was Lorrie Moore.  A lot of women want to write stories like that.  I don’t know whether some of you  feel that way about George Saunders–quite a few people have gone nuts over those stories.  There are great young short story writers like Aimee Bender, Eric Puchner, George Saunders and Edward P. Jones.  Poe would say the most powerful literary work would be poems or short stories because you can take them in during one sitting and they’ll have a cumulative effect.  I wrote The Soul Thief so that you could read it in one afternoon and evening.  Ideally, that’s how short stories work.  When a short story really works, it changes your life, and it has that same effect because it hasn’t taken you a month and a half to read.  I would think, in a culture in which we’re distracted all the time, people would want to go back to stories.  I love that form.  You can learn more about writing from short stories than you can by writing novels.  If you make a mistake in a novel, you can go on to write another seven hundred pages before you’ve realized what your mistake was.  The novel is a very forgiving form.  I spent years of my life writing bad novels that were never published because I didn’t realize the mistakes I was making.  I only really figured out how to do it by writing stories. 

Interviewer:  What were the mistakes?

Baxter: I thought it was enough to write great sentences and that I didn’t have to know how people actually behaved.  I had those implausible characters.  It was a kind of hallucinatory, bogus world.  I was trying to impress people.  I was thinking too much about the audience.  I was gripped by a form of literary bad faith.  You need to practice humility; I hadn’t achieved that.  These novels were directed, absolutely, by these themes I wanted to prove about people.  All the characters looked like puppets.  It’s common among young writers to want to impress their readers.  It’s a result of watching too much TV and too many movies where the filmmakers assume that you have a short attention span, so they keep setting Chevrolets on fire.  That’s rhetoric.  That’s not art.

Interviewer:  You mentioned Carver.  I’d like to know what your thoughts are on Tess Gallagher bringing out the original Carver stories instead of the stories edited by Gordon Lish.

Baxter: In many cases, the edited stories are half as long as Carver intended them to be.  I kept What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on my desk and I would consult it often because it was an example of what I did not want to do.  I did not want to write that kind of book.  I loved the book.  But I hated it too.  You can learn the most from the books you don’t like.  And that book was a very powerful example of the kind of writing I didn’t want to do.  That was Lish.  Not Carver. 

New York Observer makes stalking your favorite writer easy!

Yesterday I threw a stone in Brooklyn.  Ouch, said a writer.  I walked a block or two away toward the Botanical Gardens, and threw another, bigger stone.  Ouch, said another writer, protecting his laptop with one hand and rubbing his bruised neck with the other.  Just proves the old saying.  Writers are wimps.

A recent article in The New York Observer lists the top 100 literary people/places/organizations in Brooklyn by neighborhood.  They’ve even included a friendly cartoon map with icons signifying your local Brooklyn writering holes.  One Story is #21, perched precariously near the Gowanus in our beloved Can Factory, in which no cans are made. 

The article then creepily goes on to list authors by neighborhood.  The sound you hear is the hum of several literary razor phones in Brooklyn dialing moving companies.  I suggest they move to Woodside, Queens, where yesterday I threw a stone and hit an Irish pub, arguably the finest among inspirations. 

Civil Disobedience is not just a river in Egypt

Sam Ruddick writes about breaking fiction’s rules in this recent Luna Park post.  He highlights a story by Erika Mikkalo called “Your 2nd Husband” in the current Fence as exhibit A.  The story, he says, breaks several “rules” branded into the asses of MFA students in late night work shops.  For instance, she uses 2nd person throughout, switches points of view regularly (pov!), offers no real plot, and is unconcerned with the so called main character until later in the story.  Sounds like heaven to me but I acknowledge the thesis statement of Sam’s post is mostly correct: bring that story to an MFA workshop, and you will probably get scribbles that say; pov–pick one! What is this story “about?” I’m confused!  Why are these people so weird?  And, hold me.  Sam champions Fence for continuing to publish work that goes against the grain and I champion them, too. 

If you are going to break one rule, Sam says, you have to break a couple.  However, what is a rule to one person can be a suggestion to another.  A professor told me once why he thought it can be more challenging to write experimentally than it is to write “straight.”  When you veer away from rules, or dare to create a world of new ones, there is less to hold onto, and more imagination is called into play.  The experimental writer has to invent everything from the characters to the milk they drink; if you create a world where no one sits down, what do chairs look like?  But there are those of us who revel in this kind of play, who were born on the wrong side of the reality tracks, who would find it harder to write straight than to write experimentally.  I am one of those people.  While I enjoy reading a myriad of styles, I am not interested in writing a standard relationship unless someone can levitate or someone else is secretly a refrigerator.  Perhaps as my mother says, I’ll grow out of it.  I doubt it.  Ethics question: If a sign says Do Not Walk on The Grass, but you feel there is no ethical problem with walking on the grass, do you walk?  My smug answer in college: No doubt everyone else will obey the sign, so I can walk on the grass and one person’s feet won’t do much damage.  Civil Disobedience is not just a river in Egypt.  I wanted to learn the rules in an MFA so I could know what I was breaking, and because I respect the “learn ballet before you attempt modern” philosophy.  Picasso could render realistic drawings like a pro.  He just didn’t want to. 

My assignment to everyone: write a story that goes against your “rules,” whatever they are.  Figure out what you are avoiding and write it.  If you avoid dialogue, write a page of nothing but dialogue.  If you are a person who walks on the grass, who goes by his or her own hip set of rules, first: stop being so smug.  Second: figure out what your rules are, and write against those; for example, write a simple story about two people who are not refrigerators falling in love.  Or, try writing a love letter to someone/thing unexpected; a fruit juice you enjoy, a bus driver who doesn’t groan when you drop your token, a supermarket.  Whether or not you’ve been branded by an MFA, it will be a hair let down feeling.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth #1 on NYT Bestseller List

On April 20, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second story collection “Unaccustomed Earth” will debut at #1 on The New York Times Bestseller list.  While this is good news for Lahiri fans who enjoy her richly crafted stories about Indian immigrants, normally well educated Bengalis, adjusting to life in America, it is also good news for the short story.  Lahiri’s collection sits atop a field of novels on the list, muscling past serial novels by Jim Butcher and Jonathan Kellerman.  Read the short write up about it here

Earth, Wind and Fire Season

One Story Issue 98, Amelia Kahaney’s charming “Fire Season,” is igniting hearts and minds all over the country, no pun intended (none achieved).  The lovely editors of Luna Park, an online blog dedicated to wrangling the best news from the country’s literary magazines, has seen fit to stop, drop and roll out the red carpet (now we’re just being silly) for Amelia’s debut story.  Check out their write-up here.  And, check out Amelia Kahaney herself tomorrow night at Pianos, as she reads from her incendiary story (that’s the last one, really).