Armed to disarm the teen reader
Over the last few years, Kelly Link has come to be regarded as perhaps the most imaginative writer working the rich territory where fantasy, ghost stories and faerie tales come together with literary fiction.
Handbags have entire civilizations in them; a poor woman who needs train fare sells her niece to a wizard. “The zombies were like Canadians,” one story goes, “in that they looked enough like real people at first to fool you.”
Link herself talks as if her corkscrewing, mind-bending, sardonic short stories -- which have earned raves from Jonathan Lethem and Neil Gaiman -- are easy to pull off.
“I’m assuming I’m not the only writer out there who loves both [H.P.] Lovecraft and Lorrie Moore,” Link, 39, said by phone from her office near Northampton, Mass. “But what I get when I write is some Lovecraft, plus some Lorrie Moore, hopefully plus a little of me in there as well. So it’s about infinite recombinations.”
Her latest recombination may not be so simple: peddling stories that have been hits with fans of experimental and postmodern fiction to kids.
That’s the task of “Pretty Monsters,” a nine-story collection just released by Viking Children in a substantial print run of 40,000. The book gathers mostly old stories from two acclaimed collections put out by Small Beer Press, the hip house she runs with husband Gavin Grant.
“Pretty Monsters” could break this critics’ darling to a larger audience -- readers wanting to move on from Harry Potter, for instance -- or leave a lot of 16-year-olds scratching their heads.
The move was inspired in part by the ardor of Viking editor Sharyn November, as well as the enthusiasm of a publisher that knows even in gray days for the book business, the YA audience continues to expand.
But will it fly?
“I think they very much can work in that format,” said Judith Rosen, a Publishers Weekly correspondent. “She and her editor have worked together before on stories for the YA market, and I think they carefully culled these stories -- they have a direct narrative. She grips you right away; she has this wonderful way of addressing the reader as if you’re her chum and then suddenly you’re off. It wasn’t like she said, ‘Oh, I have these stories sitting around.’ ”
And Rosen pointed out, “Fantasy is incredibly popular with teenagers right now.”
Most of the stories, Link said, were written for YA anthologies, including the 2006 McSweeney’s collection “Noisy Outlaws.”
“Young adult readers are pretty passionate,” she said. “They’re often sophisticated readers; they’re still at the age when they’re reading for pleasure and still have time to read. They’re not making distinctions between high and low forms: They like what they like.”
Link, who grew up in Miami and in Greensboro, N.C., said she’s “been up to my neck, from the beginning, in genre.”
It was as a teenage bookworm who loved science fiction, Anne McCaffrey and Roald Dahl that she decided she wanted to become a writer.
“I was pretty lax about it,” she recalled. “I pictured a writer’s life as being pretty good. I wasn’t actually writing. I worked on yearbook. I wrote poetry. I thought, ‘I’ll get started any minute now. As soon as I get done reading this book, I’ll sit down and write stuff. There’s plenty of other stuff to do as a teenager. And I went to college and finally figured out how to write short stories.”
She earned degrees from Columbia and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro without ever being forced to write what she calls “mimetic” fiction. “I never had a teacher say, ‘Could you do this but take out the fantastic elements?’ ”
While at college, she found revised versions of folklore, as well as Angela Carter’s feminist reimaginings of fairy tales.
“I was layering all that on top of the faerie tales I read as a kid,” Link said. “Just that revelation that you can tell the same story, over and over again, if you bring something new to it. Faerie tales and mythologies are so bare bones that they are infinitely variable. You can rework them over and over again, and they are strong enough narratives that they can support that kind of work.”
The typical Link story begins with a startling premise related in a matter-of-fact voice: “All of this happened because a boy I once knew named Miles Sperry decided to go into the resurrectionist business and dig up the grave of his girlfriend, Bethany Baldwin, who had been dead for not quite a year.” That’s from the new collection’s first story, “The Wrong Grave.”
As in oral storytelling -- as well as the meta-fictional work of writers such as Donald Barthelme -- the narrator often addresses the reader directly, which can do odd things to a story’s tone. As Rosen put it, “The magic seems so everyday you almost forget we’re talking about magic. The narrator makes it very matter of fact.”
Link tries to give the weirdness “a lived-in quality” that makes people comfortable. “You can get a lot of effect by making somebody feel at home, then knocking them a little off balance.”
Link’s stories, as well the press she runs with Grant, have made her a hero of the genre-bending slipstream movement.
The offices of Small Beer (the name comes from a low-alcohol ale popular in the Middle Ages) are in a refurbished New England mill that looks like something out of Blake, surrounded by trees that burst into violent color in the fall. Novelist Ursula K. Le Guin has called the imprint “a first-rate operation -- courage, chutzpah, high literary standards, handsome books -- everything you want from a publisher. They’re one of the small houses that fill the huge gap left when the big houses started letting the accountants, instead of the editors, decide what to print.”
“Pretty Monsters,” with illustrations by Australian artist Shaun Tan, is the first of Link’s books to be published outside the shoestring-budget, indie world of Small Beer. Link is on the same journey as some of her story’s heroes.
“The thing that distinguishes a young-adult narrative,” she said, “is a story of coming into a new world or a new sphere, experiencing things for the first time. So there’s actually a lot of overlap between science fiction and fantasy and young adult, because frequently genre narratives, even mystery, are about people being thrust into a new world or taking on new responsibilities.
“And that can mirror the experience you have when you’re a teenager, where the world is a strange place, and you don’t know what the rules are.”