The Feminist (and other) Appeal of Kelly Link’s Fiction

The following is a reconstruction from notes taken during a panel at Wiscon 31 (Friday 23 May, 20:45–22:00). The moderator was Margaret McBride (MMB); the panellists were Eileen Gunn (EG), Paul Kincaid (PK) and Micole Sudberg (MS). It is not a complete record: I stopped taking notes before the end, and though I write fast I did not note down every word that was said. I have used the words used by the panellists as far as possible, but have also turned a few notes into sentences. I may have got some things wrong. If you haven’t read any of Kelly Link’s fiction you should, and could start by downloading a copy of her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, from here.

MMB: What makes Link’s stories work so well? She appeals to non-genre readers as well as genre readers – why?

EG: The appeal is inherent in what she’s writing and how she’s writing. Her point of view is inclusive – she doesn’t write like a genre writer. And the issues she addresses are everyday issues. She draws out the surrealism from everyday life and makes it integral to her stories.

MS: I am a genre reader, so what I say about why she appeals to non-genre readers is going to be a guess to some extent. I think part of it is the lack of explanation and the acceptance of mystery – there’s no need to definitively pin her work down. (The cynical viewpoint would be that this means it’s easy for non-genre readers to “misread” the fantastical elements as psychological.) Does her work feel like sf? It feels more focused on the strange than on the fantastic – it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed the border into the impossible. Which perhaps means it appeals to those who like the strange and those who can be persuaded by it.

PK: Link doesn’t so much write fantasy as write about fantasy, writes realist fiction in which fantasy is a way of making sense of the world. You could say that the strange thing is why she appeals to genre readers. She could be read without any recognition of the fantastic – her stories are about story, and the way they cross boundaries allows us to cross boundaries.

MMB: How important is the recognition of other stories in Link’s work?

PK: If you look at a story like “Flying Lessons”, the longer we look the more we start to recognise the myths, legends, fairytales that have fed into it but been subverted or distorted. Most fairy tales have a familiar shape, provide a form of comfort. Link introduces distortion, which makes us look again.

MS: “Flying Lessons” is one of my favourite of Link’s stories. If you don’t know it, one of the big references is Orpheus, but part of the fun is working out the references. In the way it has a familiar plot but an unconventional structure, I think of it as a transitional piece on the way to something like “Travels with the Snow Queen”. That starts to break out of the familiar plot and change the ending (it becomes a breakup story) in a way that still gives a comfort of recognition, but an unexpected comfort. The building blocks of the story we thought we were getting are used to say something unexpected. I think this ties in to Scott Westerfeld’s response to the New York Times reviewer who seemed confused about what the zombies in “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” are for. I don’t entirely agree with Westerfeld – yes, the zombies are cool and fun, and that’s one part of what draws you into the story, but they’re also a comment on the protagonists’ need to control their anxiety. They’re doing multiple things.

MMB: And the style of the story reflects that anxiety – in the list of things you’re meant to be afraid of, for instance.

EG: The zombie contingency plans are a control strategy – they’re a story. And it’s a different use of story than you see in fairytales, it’s about people making things up as they go, why they tell and how they tell.

PK: “Lull” is another obvious use of story – the reader goes into the layers of story, but doesn’t come all the way out. It breaks your expectations, it’s as if you yourself are trapped in the story at the end.

MMB:Magic for Beginners”, which is the story about an imaginary TV show, plays a similar trick. Let’s talk a bit more about what’s good about Link’s story structures.

PK: It’s striking how many of her stories use that sort of brokenness. Even in the more conventional stories, there’s often a sense that there are bits missing and that’s hard to do. (I imagine the ultimate Kelly Link story, some years from now, which consists of a tremendously evocative title and nothing else.)

MS: I wouldn’t say they’re broken so much as they have an empty space that the reader is invited to fill. Even when the stories aren’t directly addressing the reader (which they often do) they’re making allowances for the reader to fill in the gaps. It’s interesting to compare “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” and “Monster”. In some ways “Monster” is conventional horror – at the end of the story the attempts to control chaos don’t work. It’s a campfire story that turns out to be real, the reader was lulled into a feeling of control that wasn’t real. “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” uses an unreliable narrator, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but still plays on that sense of horror-recognition. And in “The Faery Handbag” it’s up to the reader to interpret the ending as about loss or about hope.

MMB: Is this waiting space to do with how she writes her endings?

EG: I think it’s hard to consciously produce that kind of effect by conscious structuring. If I know the structure of what I’m writing ahead of time I find it impossible to write. Link’s stories defy structure in satisfying ways – they’re structured, they satisfy that reader need … but not entirely.

MMB: How do the voices she chooses – younger voices, or using the second person – affect her story structures?

PK: Her voice is very interesting. When it’s a younger voice it’s not straightforwardly a younger voice – in “The Girl Detective” the perspective shifts, never stays in one place. In “Travels with the Snow Queen” the story is told to “you”, but your role changes over the course of the story because the character changes.

MMB: It seems to me she’s writing close to the characters’ point of view but not quite inside it – you only notice this when you realise you know some things the character doesn’t.

PK: There’s a sort of meta-author, telling us that the real story is not the one we’re reading.

MS: Both the “You” and the “I” in her stories tend to slip. In “The Girl Detective”, “I” is variously the girl detective, an observer inside the story, the narrator … the playfulness of style and the combination of the deliberately young tone is one of the things that makes the story work.

MMB: What about her use of humour?

MS: A lot of the humour in a Link story is about disconcerting juxtapositions – Nancy Drew and twelve dancing princesses – which matches the way the structure works to unsettle the reader.

PK: Yes, she uses incongruence. In the bank robbery in “The Girl Detective” the vault is loaded with dirty socks. Also – the difference between humour and satire is that humour tends to need affection. Cruel humour puts people off. It’s interesting how appealing the characters and circumstances in Link’s stories almost always are.

MS: And humour is dependent on structure, it has a grammar – a bad joke is a joke that hasn’t been told in the right way, in the right order. So the way things are revealed matters.

MMB: We should also talk about the feminist aspects of her work.

MS: I think “The Girl Detective” is a feminist story because of the missing mother. We ask ourselves, why is the mother missing, and then, why is the mother always missing? The quest for the mother aligns with the reader’s quest for the girl detective – for missing women in stories.

PK: In something like “Travels with the Snow Queen” there’s a rage that is impossible to escape, a rage at the way that character has been treated. The mad and foolish actions in that story are driven by that rage. But for lots of Link’s stories, feminism is more like the air they breathe, it’s not necessarily driving.

EG: You can look at the stories from a feminist point of view but feminism is not “in” the stories. They inspire feminist reading but are larger than that one reading.

MS: A couple more stories – in “Most of my friends are two-thirds water”, one of the interesting things is the complicity of the sympathetic female characters with what’s hurting them. The story is told by a narrator who’s in love with the guy who has the story about aliens, she has this painful, dead-end conversation with him and then directs her anger at the blonde women he’s talked about. “Stone Animals” I think is another story that has a lot of rage in it, but it’s buried and (therefore?) more self-directed on the part of the female lead. One of the most potent aspects of that story is how the characters are unable to change, or even recognise, their situations.

MMB: The blurb on the back of Stranger Things Happen reads in part, “These eleven extraordinary stories are quirky, spooky, and smart. They all have happy endings.” Do they all have happy endings?

EG: That’s clearly a blurb written by the author – more unreliable narration! Can’t trust it.

PK: Although we are asked to provide endings for a number of her stories – perhaps we are more likely to invent happy endings.

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