I’m still not sure exactly who I should thank for alerting me to Kelly Link’s story collection Stranger Things Happen, but I do remember when it came my way. I was at university, a time when books and references to those books seem to circulate mysteriously between local and international bookshops, libraries, your room, and those of your friends’. It was just the right time to begin reading Link, who immediately became one of the first to come to mind when I think of writers who are most excitingly and alarmingly contemporary. In her work there is often more than a hint of sympathy for the ways in which technology and modernity complicate all the old predicaments connected to being human.
In Link’s latest collection, Get in Trouble, stories like “The New Boyfriend,” “Valley of the Girls,” and “The Summer People” are laced with humorous resignation to the frequency of mind-body disconnects. Shifts in tone and atmosphere click together so artfully that you almost feel as if the words are changing you as you read them. How on earth does she do this?
In the conversation that follows, Kelly Link generously gives thinking time to questions in which I unsuccessfully attempt to uncover her methods. (Well, I had to try.) We corresponded by e-mail, and here’s what we wrote:
Helen Oyeyemi: Your new collection is called Get in Trouble. Are there ways in which you see fiction as getting its readers into trouble? Or do stories have a greater tendency to get us out of trouble? Or both? Is there something else to keep in mind about the statement/invitation/command of this book’s title?
Kelly Link: The title has a lot to do with a realization I had about the underlying mechanics of narrative. Which is that trouble drives story. Certainly it drives these stories. What did I think, previously, that stories were about? I have no idea. I spend so much time in my own life considering consequences and imagining outcomes, that it’s a kind of joy to inhabit characters who don’t overthink. Or who, perhaps, think but act anyway.
You’ve mentioned that you feel a sense of fullness upon completing stories, and I remember feeling quite mystified and delighted by that. Mystified because my own experience of writing is feeling drained afterwards, but delighted by the possibility of stories actually nourishing their teller. To me it also sounds as if stories occur to you as external chains of ideas and it’s then necessary to take them in and make them presentable. Is that it, or not at all?
And now I’m trying to figure out what a workable metaphor for writing would be, when I think of how I do it, and what it feels like to be done with it. I did have the sense of pushing back from the table, I suppose. And of satiation. But I think what I meant was more that I had too much in my head, all the finished stories jostling around, that I couldn’t find a way to clear the cupboard for more. This last year was one in which I got a great deal of writing done, at least for me. I’d finished one story, “I Can See Right Through You,” which took almost two years, and then I got three other stories done as well.
What was it that kept “I Can See Right Through You” in development for two years? Could it have been finding the right beginning? (I’m thinking of that anecdote Italo Calvino tells about the artist who required ten years, a country house, and 12 servants before he was in exactly the right frame of mind to draw a perfect image of a crab with a single brushstroke.)
“I Can See Right Through You” took such a long time because I knew the kind of relationship that I wanted the two central figures to have, but not much about them individually. For a while they were two women. I gave them a failed marriage. Some children. I saved something like a dozen different openings (I’d get about three to four thousand words in, and then be stymied again) so that later on, I could go back and see if it were possible to figure out a better way to proceed in the future. But it’s still a mystery to me, how to make yourself find the right way forward at a smarter pace. The slower I work, the more I stumble.
As for my requirements, it did take renting a friend’s house in Polperro, Cornwall and the company of other writers, for the rest of the story to come clear. Stories usually arrive as fragments that attach to questions. Sometimes the question is from an editor: Would you like to write a story in honor of Ray Bradbury [“Two Houses” Or, I’m thinking about two ghost stories told to me by two friends, plus a desire to write about a murder-house-as-repulsive-art-object. The bits that go into the story are things that have been stuck to me for a while. Sticky things. So less external chains than a Katamari-style ball of the like and the unlike. And once I have the question and the material, it’s a matter of establishing a tonal quality that will suit. This often takes the longest to figure out.
There’s a shift that happens when I’m writing, in which the internal voice moves from, “What about this? Maybe? Or maybe this?” to a more definitive series of yes/no. Eventually there are more “yes” responses than “no”. But I can still look at stories and see a line of dialogue or description that never quite got to “yes”. They’re placeholders for whatever I wanted to do that I couldn’t get done. I’m always lending bits of stories to other stories, and then having to come up with new bits.
It makes sense that “Two Houses” has a Bradbury connection. There’s a quiet expansiveness to it that reminded me of my favorite Bradbury book, Something Wicked This Way Comes: a sort of circular wave silently and rapidly expanding at the heart of a lake, the source of the commotion not (yet) visible. Trouble! I also like the leaving in of dialogue and descriptions that don’t necessarily smooth the reader’s path — yes, they’re placeholders, but for a reader they can also be seen as elements that build a story’s logic. Lending bits of stories to other stories and having to make up new bits (something I find myself doing, too) makes me think that once the trouble in a story revs up it doesn’t ever really wind down.
Now I’d like to know what, in your opinion, is the difference between a love story and a horror story?
So how it works is that I immediately begin to think of the similarities, rather than the differences. The idea of falling, that vertiginous feeling, the idea of being seen and known; a kind of attention to the body — attentiveness to the being, the presence, the whole of oneself or of the other; being seen and known, absolutely; absorption. The extension of oneself into the unknown. I think of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
I suppose that was a bit of a trick question because I, too, see more similarities than differences there and it’s a perspective I’ve recognized reading your stories. The Haunting of Hill House is full of scares, but one of the biggest for me was the realization that it’s a love story. Though maybe the love story bit falls under conceptual shock. I do believe there must be a difference between love stories and horror stories though, that it’s more than just labeling; the difference may be subtle and may often dissolve, but it’s a pet project of mine to find or tell a story or two that knows what this difference is . . .
“Shock” seems like the right word for that place where we aren’t quite sure what emotion we’re experiencing: intensity in the moment that swamps meaning. Let’s posit that a love story can be sustained longer than a horror story. (“Love bears all things.”) Perhaps a love story is also a more capable container? Horror and love are also maybe modes of interpretation/reading.
One of my favorite things about your writing is the gentle but implacable escalation of strangeness. The shift always takes me surprise, and then once the first blast has receded I marvel at the way it was done. Reading your ghost stories is a bit like walking on moving platforms, with the sound or vision that’s to be feared always just ahead or long past, having gone by in a flash. I was thinking about other writers who also work with atmosphere in idiosyncratic ways: Shirley Jackson, who warns you quite clearly that all is far from well but somehow amplifies the moment of crisis beyond expectation, and Robert Aickman, whose narrative preference seems to be the equivalent of keeping you in the gloom with a blindfold on and then shaking things up by allowing an occasional peep through the fabric.
Hidden somewhere in this rambling comment is a question about technique and how important it is to you as a reader and writer. Do you reread your favorite stories and novels, for instance? Is there anything in particular you look for in a story (or poem, or essay) while you’re reading it, or any structural requirements that you have when it comes to your own?
Thank you! Coming from you, this gives me the most perfect kind of happiness. I’ve been rereading Robert Aickman recently. I keep going back to “The Cicerones” and “Rosamund’s Bower.” Although “Ringing the Changes” may always be my favorite. When I write I spend a great deal of time putting cloths over all the mirrors, so to speak. There are always the things that you want to be clear to the reader. There are the things that you want them to make up their own minds about. There are the things that you wish them to be surprised by. And then there are the things that you want to leave lying there unanswered. One of my favorite books when I was a kid was a Reader’s Digest book called Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. Faces that appeared as stains on tiles, the Russian countess who dreams that her father appears and says, “Your happiness is at an end.” Kaspar Hauser: I think I memorized most of it.
That countess in the Reader’s Digest book — do you remember if it transpired that her dream father was right??
Her father says to her, “Your happiness is at an end. He has fallen. He has fallen at Borodino.” She has this dream three times, and she and her husband, a Russian general, search on a map for Borodino and cannot find it. But then her husband goes off to fight a battle against Napoleon’s army, and he dies in a place called Borodino — and as in the dream, her father comes into the room where she is staying, and says the words from her dream.
I do reread books and stories, all the time. Often children’s books and ghost stories, especially anthologies of ghost stories. Stephen King’s novels or collections. I reread things that I loved, or that had a particular effect on me. I once asked a bunch of horror writers why it was still pleasurable to reread scary stories when their power to scare us has diminished. The writer Nick Mamatas said, “I read to feel a sense of dread.”
Are you writing something about Angela Carter?
I was asked if I would write an introduction to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber last summer and agreed, and then spent far too much time not only rereading her short stories, but also reading various introductions. I felt I needed a crash course in how to write that kind of thing.
At the same time I was also reading Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s fairy tale anthologies. Reading other people’s reworkings of fairy tales was a way of reading fairy tales, of course. Seeing how other people read them. What mattered to me with Angela Carter was her voice, the way the register switched from high to low — from an arch, almost nails-on-blackboard surface doodling to something that was almost sodden with meaning. (“Now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation.” I love “The Lady of the House of Love” best, the way you are moved from the horror of the gothic to the horror of World War I, on a bicycle, of all things!) Her fairy tale stories had a kind of show-your-work scribbliness to them. (I read Tristram Shandy a bit later.) I liked that quality.
The part of writing that is most pleasurable to me is problem-solving. Story math. How do I achieve a certain kind of mood? What can I leave out? What are the different ways to read the fantastic bits of the story? (The introduction of the fantastic means that there are going to be metaphorical meanings, and this gets messy very quickly, especially with horror. What are we afraid of? Who is the other? Who is being punished and why? What is precious or a marker of beauty/value/worthiness of love? Why?) Angela Carter, working her way through a fairy tale, takes it apart at the same time so that you can see the seams that she sees.
What was the last thing you read or saw (art exhibitions, films, TV) that took you aback in a good way?
So, three things quickly. An exhibit of Sol LeWitt at MASS MoCa, and a short film about the 65 people who drafted and painted the wall drawing installation according to his recipe. Tanya Tagaq, a singer. The Vampire Diaries, which has all my favorite things in it: recursive patterns, including doppelgangers; unreliable narrators interacting with each other; lots of surprise kissing and also surprise impaling; oh, and a reading that the poet Mary Ruefle gave at the Tin House Workshop.