Kelly Link Is Committed to the Fantastic

Kelly Link Is Committed to the Fantastic


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?



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