Kelly Link meets me in a coffee shop in New York’s West Village, where she orders a lavender latte and seems delighted by the strangeness of it.
The cultish fans of Link’s fiction, in which characters come back from the dead and superheroes live among us, might not be surprised to hear that Link attracts odd details like iron filings to a magnet. Either that, or oddities are just what she focuses on.
This month, Random House will publish Get in Trouble, a collection of stories by Link that has already made it onto many of 2015’s most-anticipated lists and reportedly sold in the mid-six figures in a two-book deal that included a yet-to-be-written novel. Though Link has already published two adult collections—Stranger Things Happen (Small Beer, 2001) and Magic for Beginners (Small Beer, 2005)—and Pretty Monsters (Viking, 2008), a collection of YA stories, this will be her first adult release with a major publisher, and it could be the title that catapults her beyond her passionate, geeky readership and into the literary mainstream.
Link thinks of herself as a late bloomer. She didn’t start writing seriously until she took a workshop with Raymond Kennedy during her freshman year at Columbia University. Her first story was a ghost story—she followed it up with a “Greek myth–noir mashup, which took place at Monkey Jungle [in Florida].”
From those early stories to Get in Trouble, strangeness has possessed Link’s fiction. “If I put a ghost or a vampire or a superhero into a story, I’m promising a certain amount of fun. Narrative energy. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear a ghost story? So already the reader is going to be giving you a certain amount of attention.”
Many of Link’s anecdotes hinge on absurd images. When I ask about her childhood in Miami, a place that appears in much of her fiction, she tells me how her father “chased peacocks off the roof of his car in the morning” at the half-finished development they lived in for seven years.
Near her house there was a coral reef covered by a thin layer of topsoil, with holes large enough for her to climb through. “There was a fire, once, that went into the coral reef and our lawn smoked for days. It’s a pretty fantastical landscape.”
As a teenager, Link had a pet boa constrictor named Baby, and she “spent a lot of time in malls trying to decide if I wanted to buy a candle shaped like a dragon or a candle shaped like a schnauzer.”
After graduating from Columbia, Link traveled around the world for free, thanks to winning a sweepstakes, a detail that seems suited to one of her stories: “You had to answer three basic geographic questions, and then the tie-breaking question was, why do you want to go around the world? I wrote down, ‘Because you can’t go through it,’ and that was how I won.”
Following the trip, Link enrolled in the M.F.A. program at UNC Greensboro, after being accepted from the wait list. She’s grateful for her time there. She admits she’s always struggled to put pen to page and “the structure of the workshop made me sit down and write.”
One of the ways Link has managed to overcome the challenge of being a writer is by embracing the writers’ group. “For the last few years I’ve met up with Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, who live one town over,” she says. “We talk about work in progress, career stuff, what we’re reading. When we get stuck we’ll pass our laptops around and problem-shoot. There’s something about starting stories that’s the equivalent of having to listen to a recording of yourself. You think, ‘Do I really sound like that?’ And there are usually so many other things that I could be doing.”
Aside from her writer’s group, Link has devised a few other tricks to help her write: “Sometimes I’ll type out someone else’s short story before I start my own: a kind of finger exercise. Or I’ll try to come up with an interesting technical issue in the story that I’m working on, so I can distract myself with problem solving.”
These strategies seem to be working: by most rubrics, Link has been remarkably prolific. In addition to her writing, she has edited anthologies and runs the independent literary press Small Beer with her husband, Gavin. Small Beer has published Ursula K. Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler and produces the speculative fiction zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet—but Small Beer might be best known for publishing Link herself.
Link is also a mother. Her daughter Ursula was born prematurely in 2009 and weighed just a pound and a half. “We spent over a year in the hospital with her,” Link says, adding that her experience in the NICU influenced her writing in many ways. For a while, she says, she didn’t write at all.
But when Link began again, she found the experience seeping into her work. While many of the stories in Get in Trouble share genre elements with Link’s previous writing—demon lovers, prophetic Ouija boards, superheroes—one story stands out for how strikingly realistic it is. In “The Lesson,” a couple await the arrival of their first child, who is being carried to term by a surrogate. They go through the motions—attending a wedding, bickering—in the midst of the consuming anxiety about their surrogate’s increasingly complicated pregnancy.
“I wanted to write, in some way, about the period right before and after her birth,” Link says. “I could probably write a book about the whole year, but instead I took the experience of all that love and joy and terror, that absolute helplessness—and smushed it into another story, about a wedding on an island.”
Before Ursula’s premature birth, which dwarfed all their other worries, Link and her husband wondered what they’d do if they had a kid who didn’t enjoy reading. But Ursula grew into a serious book lover—and Link credits her daughter's early fragility, in part, for the role that books play in her life.
“There were a couple of weeks after her birth when we couldn’t hold her,” Link says. “And even once we could, it was pretty strictly scheduled—three hours a night, or so. We took turns. So since we couldn’t hold her, we read to her. You could see her heart rate go down on the monitor as we read.” Ursula is currently a big fan of Templeton from Charlotte’s Web.
Link is writing a novel, something she hasn’t done before—part of her deal at Random House. She has some tentative ideas, including setting the story behind the scenes at a haunted house.
“Right now I’m in the fear-and-loathing stage,” Link says. “So that part’s pretty familiar. Comfortable, even.”
Julie Buntin is a freelance writer in New York.