Memory Is a Mysterious Machine: The Millions Interviews Kelly Link

February 9, 2015 | 4 3 min read


Kelly Link, reigning queen of the strange, wonderful, fantastical short story, is putting out a new story collection this month called Get In Trouble. Lauded by Neil Gaiman as “a national treasure,” she has been delighting the fiction world with her creations for nearly 20 years. I was able to send her a few questions about her new book, and her fiction in general, before her upcoming reading at Elliott Bay Book Company.

The Millions: Each of your stories is contained within its own micro­universe, with its own rules of physics and morality. Do you think there is a single thread that connects all of your pocket universes (to use a term from “Light”) together? If there is a theme, is it restricted to Get In Trouble, or is there a larger connection through all of your stories?

Kelly Link: I just asked my husband, Gavin, if there was a common theme or connection, and he said, “Loss?” But I prefer to think that the theme is more of a question, which is, “Are you sure you want to do that?” What I noticed when I read through these stories while putting the collection together, was: these characters drink a lot.

TM: A lot of the writers putting out fantastical fiction these days ­you, Karen Russell, and Aimee Bender, for example ­seem to write primarily short stories. What is it about the short story form that you think works well for weird, fantastical stories?

KL: Lots of others, too: Judy Budnitz and Kevin Brockmeier, and let’s say all of the writers that we publish at Small Beer. Holly Black has told me that she thinks it’s possible to take greater risks in short stories, or experiment in ways that are harder to sustain at novel length. One can do it, but your audience may have less patience. Short stories do seem to be made for telling ghost stories. But then again, there’s Helen Oyeyemi and Kathryn Davis and Mat Johnson and plenty of writers who do whatever they want to do with strangeness at novel length.

TM: Your stories are so deeply imaginative, so full of inventive and unique characters, settings, and situations. Is there anything in particular that you do, while writing your stories, to spur the inspiration and ideas behind them?

KL: Look, the particular strengths or merits of any writers are going to come, in large part, from the way in which they see the world: the things they notice, the kinds of rhythms or structures that they are drawn toward. I spend far too much time thinking about relationships and the kinds of actions that people take in life, the things they say. I’m forever going: “On the one hand…but on the other hand…but then again on the other other hand…and so on.” It comes of being the daughter of a minister-­turned-­psychologist.

Of course the strengths of a writer also come from said writer realizing how much they suck at certain aspects of writing. Which means you lean hard on the things you can actually figure out how to do. There’s no point in being well rounded.

HL: I noticed a common setting in a few of the stories in Get In Trouble: South Florida. Did you ever live in Florida? Why that setting in particular?

KL: I lived in Florida as a kid for seven years. I hated being sweaty all the time. I come from a family of perspiring, semi­talented tennis players. Our tennis coach had married a flight attendant who had survived a famous plane crash. So that made him kind of a celebrity figure to us. Why am I suddenly thinking of this? Who knows. Memory is a mysterious machine.

I also loved how weird the landscape was, and how much of everything there was: thunderstorms every afternoon, always geckoes to try and catch, and the malls! I probably spent half of my time in Miami, hanging out at The Falls, which was a super fancy mall built around a series of artificial waterfalls. It was the Narnia — the Middle Earth — of malls. Anyway, as far as landscapes go, it’s certainly one in which you can imagine a lot of impossible things.

HL: Some of your stories (in Get in Trouble, “The Summer People” in particular) contain fairy tale story elements. What attracts you to fairy tale­style storytelling? Why do you think we (writers and readers) keep retelling and rereading versions of the same stories, or at least, stories with similar elements?

KL: Well, there’s the practical matter of fairy tales being common currency. Everyone knows a version of “Snow White.” So you can rework it to suit your own purposes, and then there’s already a kind of ferment going on that’s extraordinarily useful. I don’t know that, once you get to the 20th century, that there’s one style of fairy story. You have any number of styles. Grace Paley’s stories often have a kind of fairy tale patter to them. That sense of a narratorial agenda. I like any kind of hint that there’s an authorial or storytelling overlay. That kind of directional nudge that you, the reader, can either go along with or else pick a quarrel with.

You can apply the pattern of a fairy tale to almost any narrative and find points of convergence.

is a bookseller at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. Her superpower is looking awesome in your dad’s shorts.