NEA Big Read
Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters

by Kelly Link

Whether or not this story has a happy ending depends, of course, on who is reading it. Whether you are a wolf or a girl.


Kelly Link (Sharona Jacobs Photography LLC)

Music Credit: Music composed and performed by Philip Brunelle

Kelly Link: Two things that make me happiest if I can achieve them in a story, is to make somebody laugh, or to make them feel kind of a sense of eeriness or maybe a chill. And in some ways I think the two sensations, they run parallel with each other. In fact, sometimes I think, they're more or less the same thing. The unexpected is the thing I find most pleasurable.

Jo Reed: That‘s Kelly Link—she's the author of many books, including the short story collection, Pretty Monsters which is one the Big Read's newest titles, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts—I'm Josephine Reed.

Kelly Link loves to be scared and she loves to read—so writing ghost stories and fantasy was a smart move on her part. Luckily for us, she's also one terrific writer—she positions the ordinary into fantastical worlds and creates characters that are deeply realized with rich emotional lives. So we can understand their reactions when they spot a werewolf or bump into a ghost. Equally adept at writing for both young adults and adults, Kelly Link is mistress of the unlikely—blending humor effortlessly into stories that are typically rigid in their seriousness. Her collection, Pretty Monsters is a case in point.

All but one of the ten magical stories in Pretty Monsters were written for young adult readers. The heroes of these stories are mostly teenagers grappling with familiar adolescent angst, but add to that—a brew of unexpected monsters, ghosts, pirate-magicians, and undead babysitters, and the result is unlikely and yet perfectly believable. What Kelly Link calls “shape-shifting stories.”

Kelly Link has received many awards including three Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, and an NEA fellowship in creative writing. Recently, she was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Get in Trouble, and now Pretty Monsters is one of the Big Read's newest titles.

Kelly Link is a meticulous craftsman—no question there, but her imagination is still inflamed by that sense of wonder that fantasy fiction and ghost stories have given her since childhood.

Kelly Link: Both of my parents were big readers. Not only did they read, they read to me. In fact, when I was little before I learned how to read my mother read C.S. Lewis to me all the way through the whole Narnia series. And I still remember my father reading me Tolkien's books. So my first love was fantasy and science fiction and ghost stories.

Jo Reed: How did you get started as a writer?

Kelly Link: I am not entirely sure. I think the first story I ever finished was in college in a workshop. I took a workshop because I loved books so much I wanted to see if I could write something that approximated a short story. And so I wrote something for that workshop, and not only did I write a short story, but I discovered that I really liked being in a workshop. I liked listening to people talk about the stories that they were reading. I liked hearing people talk about the kinds of problems they had when they wrote stories. And so then after that I just kept on taking workshops and writing stories. And my life right now is not particularly different from that. I still meet up with a group of friends who are all writers and we all work together. And when we finish something or when we're in the middle of a project we'll share it with each other and talk about writing.

Jo Reed: How do you begin a story? Do you have a skeleton of the plot? Do you start with the characters?

Kelly Link: Often, what I do is I will think “I want to write a scary story.” Or, “I want to write a love story.” Or, “I think it would be fun to write an epistolary story.” And usually there's a couple of settings that seem to me that they would be productive to explore. That there's a lot of story attached to those locations or I will think “Well, here's a kind of person that I haven't gotten to write about before, and I think I'd like to put them into a ghost story just to see how they would respond.”

Jo Reed: Do you begin a writing day by starting fresh or by revising?

Kelly Link: Well, the first part is often the hardest part at least for short stories. I find it very hard to pick up any kind of theme until it seems to me that I've got some stuff on the page that is the way that it needs to be. So character's names, even something as sort of outside of narrative as, does the rhythm of the sentence feel right for this story or for this character? Does that description, does that tell me something about the way that the point of view character sees the world? And once I have a couple of pages of that, then the story sort of kicks into high gear, and I can keep on going. But, every day when I sit down I do go back to the beginning and revise until I get to the place where I left off, kind of like putting your feet into a pond and getting used to the temperature. And when I am stuck during the day while I'm working I will go back to the beginning, and keep on revising until I get to the point where I was stuck and see if anything has been jarred loose.

Jo Reed: You write young adult fiction.

Kelly Link: Yes.

Jo Reed: In the sense that your main characters typically are young adults. What was the draw to young adult fiction?

Kelly Link: You know, I've never stopped loving young adult books in terms of what I like to read. I like to read everything, but I am particularly excited by really good young adult stories. For a couple of years, I worked in a kids' bookstore. I went through my MFA program while I was working in a children's bookstore. And that was sort of a chance to revisit books that I hadn't read in a long time, just as well to read books that I had sort of missed out on when I was in college. And I do write adult fiction as well. And it is usually pretty clear to me when I sit down and begin a story what kind of story it's going to be.

Jo Reed: And what does writing for young adults, as you did, for Pretty Monsters for example, what does that allow you to do that you might not be able to do?

Kelly Link: Well, I think because I'm drawn to fantasy to begin with that there's a very clear connection between stories—fantasy stories, many fantasy stories and young adult. That they're often stories about people discovering a kind of power that they have, coming into a new sphere where their responsibilities are different. Finding a community of people that they didn't know existed before. And that is true of both fantasy novels and short stories and also of young adult. You know, having said that, some of the stories that are in Pretty Monsters are stories that were first published by adult markets, stories like “The Specialist Hat” and “Magic for Beginners” were originally published in the adult markets. But when we put this collection together there's a long tradition of ghost stories belonging sort of equally to children's books as well as to adults.

Jo Reed: Yeah. And we see that Philip Pullman's editing of “Grimm's Fairytales”, for example.

Kelly Link: Yes, absolutely.

Jo Reed: There would seem to me, especially in your work, a really particular challenge to the fantastical fiction that you create. First, it's fantastical. But yet, the characters themselves seem very real with deep emotional lives. And the stories are often filled with vivid everyday details. How do you maintain that balance?

Kelly Link: Well, I do think of short stories especially as these very small containers in which the characters and the readers, hopefully, get to experience very large emotions. And in order to read a story and really connect to it in terms of emotion or feeling, the characters have to feel real. You know, we care about real people. We care about things that when we encounter them in a narrative we think, “I understand how they're feeling.” And there's a long tradition of the fantastic of fairytales where the characters are closer to archetypes, where we don't really have a lot of sense of their interiority and those stories work because they're more kind of a pattern of a journey or something and they're pleasurable for that reason. But what I like about contemporary fantasy is you get to imbue the characters in the story with feelings that everybody has had at one point in their life. And the fantastic elements or the scary elements in a story, that sort of provides the fun. That's sort of the bonus, the stuff that is, you know, not necessarily true of our experience in the world in terms of—you know, we've been to those places but, again, I think the feeling that it evokes in the reader is we think, “Well, I have been in situations where I realized that something very scary was going on or where I realized I was completely out of place. Or I realized that there was something magical about the experience that I was having.” And I think, again that's true of young adult fiction that there is a real sense of almost limitless possibility at certain points when you're an adolescent as you begin to have more responsibilities, but also more freedom.

Jo Reed: Also for me because I also love young adult fiction, the intensity of feeling is really kind of extraordinary.

Kelly Link: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: Because, you know, when you're in love when you're a kid you're never going to be in love again because this is it and it's love and it's amazing.

Kelly Link: It's true. And the stories that I write that are for adults I think often times it's “Here we go again. Here's this pattern that this person falls into repeatedly. Here's a situation with maybe a change.” Or, you know, if you're a lucky character in a grownup story you think “Oh, I didn't think I would get to feel this way again but I do.”

Jo Reed: Right. I always felt like growing up I discovered the tragedy of love isn't that, “Oh my God, I'll never love again.” It is actually that you will.

Kelly Link: There's a good part and a bad part too.

Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly. Well, the kids in the story “Magic for Beginners” are these kids who are obsessed with this reality show that seems to be off schedule and pops up when it pops up. And, well, it's bleeding into the lives of the characters in the story itself. Where did this come from?

Kelly Link: You know, I had been living in New York, and I got together with a group of friends and we would watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” all together and then we would talk about it. And so part of the experience of watching the television show was the community that I watched it with. And in some ways, you know, “Magic for Beginners” is a story about what it is like to be part of a fandom, part of a group of people who love something so intensely that they organize their life around it which is—I think an experience which is most common when you are young and have more time.

Jo Reed: Well, in “Magic for Beginners” there is this community of kids who come together as friends and fans of The Library, the television show. But it's also kind of a disillusion of it because Jeremy, the main character, and his mother are leaving town for an indefinite period of time to look for an inheritance. And I honest to God don't know what the—the enormous appeal for me was about Jeremy inheriting—part of the inheritance is a phone booth which he calls regularly and then his calls begin to get answered. And I was entranced by that.

Kelly Link: Well, one of the seeds for the story was also the writer Karen Joy Fowler who I also used to go to California and sit and work with her. She said, “I have a really great idea for a novel for you.” She said, “I read a newspaper article about somebody who inherited a telephone box and I think you should maybe write a novel about that.” And, you know, that seemed great to me, a great starting place. But, I also I had this idea that I also wanted to write about somebody who had inherited a casino, sort of an unusual casino. And I thought well somebody who owns a casino probably would also own a telephone box.

Jo Reed: Why not?

Kelly Link: Yep.

Jo Reed: “Magic for Beginners” is also a great example of meta narrative which is a technique you often use in your stories. What's the attraction there?

Kelly Link: I think the thing about short stories is you only have a certain amount of space to make a world or a set of people three dimensional. And this may seem counterintuitive, but I think that there are things that you can do structurally or there are things that you can do with point of view to make it a little bit more challenging for the reader, and maybe they interrupt the story in certain ways. But, my general feeling is that if a reader has to do a little bit of work then they are more likely to be invested in the story that they're reading because they're sort of creating it with the writer. And one of the things that you can do with point of view is you can have somebody who is sort of narrating the story, but who isn't part of it. The narrator in “Magic for Beginners” isn't me. It really, she isn't a character in the story. But, you know, even the fact that it may for some readers make the story feel a little bit more artificial, remind them that they're reading a story. But, I think, my hope is that it also raises an interesting question and sort of invites the reader into the story as well.

Jo Reed: Well, yes, that's exactly what my note says because it's not arch or off-putting. It's rather confiding and inviting.

Kelly Link: Confiding is one of my favorite words. When I think about my favorite books they're books or stories where I feel that someone has taken me aside to tell me something because they thought I would be charmed by it. Or because they thought it might be useful to me or they—you know, they thought I would enjoy it in some way. One of my favorite books is Dodie Smith's novel, “I Capture the Castle” which has one of the best opening sentences ever. The sentence is, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” And the narrator is a confiding narrator. She's somebody that you want to hang out with and I find that it's easier to write the story if either the point of view character in it or something about the structure has a similar quality of invitation.

Jo Reed: You also managed to mix humor into situations that are fraught and I'm thinking of “The Surfer” which is one of the two stories in “Pretty Monsters” that has a first-person narrator. And it's, you know, it's a complicated story, as most of yours are. It has aliens and a pandemic. And the main character Adorno, his father kidnaps him and they end up quarantined in Costa Rica. And you have this line that literally made me laugh out loud because bats are invading the hanger where they're all living in Costa Rica. And his father, who is a doctor, says, “Don't worry about it, even though the floor is totally covered in bat guano it isn't a health risk.” And then you write, but as a matter of fact one of the joggers slipped on it and the next day and sprained an ankle. And I literally just laughed out loud. It was so funny and unexpected.

Kelly Link: Well, thank you. I think the two things that make me happiest if I can sort of achieve them in a story is to make somebody laugh, or to make them feel kind of a sense of eeriness or maybe a chill. And in some ways I think the two sensations they run parallel with each other. In fact, sometimes I think that they're more or less the same thing. The slipping on a banana peel and somebody jumping out to scare you, have a similar I guess disruptive quality.

Jo Reed: Yeah, they're unexpected.

Kelly Link: Yes. Yes. And I think the unexpected is the thing that I find most pleasurable.

Jo Reed: Well, the “Faery Handbag” is the other story with a first-person narrator. And it actually is one of my two favorite in this collection. I love that story.

Kelly Link: Thank you.

Jo Reed: Can you give us a quick take of it?

Kelly Link: Sure. I guess I would say that it is a short story told by a girl named Genevieve who is the inheritor of her grandmother's handbag which has gone missing. And so she's telling the story of the handbag and how it went missing. And the handbag itself is a magical item. It contains an entire Eastern European village.

Jo Reed: And I absolutely believe that it did in some ways.

Kelly Link: I was talking with somebody recently about this particular story and I realized that I think part of the reason why I wrote it was because I had grandmothers with very, very big handbags. And a younger sister who more than anything in the world wanted to own as many big handbags as possible. One, I think, because she felt that then she would be a grownup. But two because she was very organized and I think she loved the idea of all of the compartments.

Jo Reed: I get that. And, in fact, if you look in any bag it certainly does tell a story.

Kelly Link: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: The story that haunts me is the title one, “Pretty Monsters” which is two or more stories that twist on themselves and become intertwined. What's the background on that?

Kelly Link: That's the last story that I wrote for this collection. There are three stories that sort of fit together at the end, I hope. And I had a story about a girl named Clementine Cleary. And I took it to a workshop and got a lot of feedback on it. One of the things I learned in the workshop was the story worked, but that it didn't do some of the things that these readers who are very good readers felt that I usually did in stories, they felt that it needed to expand in some way. And so I set it aside, and then I thought, "Well, what if I told sort of a secondary story about two sisters that would slot in, maybe never touch in a totally concrete way, but it would be connected." And then I did that. And then once I had the two stories, I rewrote the first one. I began to tease stuff apart and put stuff together. And then when I got to the end I thought, "Oh look, there's space here for one very, very short sort of last story that would be fun to tell." And part of this was I think because I'm very fond of young adult fiction which the main characters are adolescent girls. I'm also very fond of stories about monsters. I love movies like Ginger Snaps in which adolescent girls also turn out to be monsters. And so I wanted to sort of explore the intersection of being monstrous and being adolescent. Being wild.

Jo Reed: Well, as you say at the end of that story, “Stories shift their shape.” And boy that one was a multiple shape shifter.

Kelly Link: Oh good.

Jo Reed: I want to talk about endings because I think they are difficult. And I think some of your stories end abruptly, “Monster” for example. And in “Pretty Monsters” you write, “The end of the story will have to wait.” And I think you do that with some of your stories. So it's a choice. Why?

Kelly Link: Yes, it is a choice. I think when I first started writing stories that the think that always felt the most artificial to me was any sort of sense that things should tie up neatly. That the stories that I liked best are stories where you gave enough momentum to the events of the stories, to the characters, that you filled things in enough that the ends of the stories felt a little bit like jumping off places. Or like sort of leaving somebody at the top of a roller coaster, where you think, “Well, I've set up enough stuff that you can hopefully imagine some things that might happen next. I hope you know the characters well enough to go along with them, to keep on going even after the story stops.” And I also think, you know, this is after writing for a long time, teaching workshops for a very long time, talking about stories, in general, that stories where the endings are too tidy or stories which in the long run are easier for readers to think, “Well, I got what I was going to get out of that story and now I can stop thinking about it.” And my hope is that by maybe raising questions more than I answer that even if there's something a little unsatisfying to the reader it means that they get to keep on thinking about it even after they finished.

Jo Reed: Boy. I really can't get that story out of my mind.

Kelly Link: Oh I'm sorry, but I'm also very glad.

Jo Reed: Well, the collection itself is illustrated by Shaun Tan. And he created a drawing for each story. Can you tell me about that process and how you collaborated together?

Kelly Link: Yes. When I sold this collection to an editor at Viking Penguin one of the things that I really hoped was that there would be an illustrated component. And I am enormous fan of Shaun Tan's work, of his writing, his art. His graphic novel The Arrival is one of my very favorite books. And so when my editor asked if I had any ideas for an artist, I said, “Well, I only know him a little bit, but the dream illustrator for me would be Shaun Tan.” And she got in touch with him and he agreed. And that was absolutely the best part of writing these stories. It felt like a gift. So I sent the stories to him and he asked a couple of questions, but I think mostly what I said was, “Whatever you do I'm going to like.” And that was definitely the case.

Jo Reed: Do you find joy in writing?

Kelly Link: Yes and no. I often find it pretty excruciating. But, I work through that. I don't like the sort of first part of the day sitting down to write. And I typically don't like my drafts before the sentences start to feel right to me. I do know writers who find writing pleasurable who are, I think, natural storytellers and can work very quickly. And I am happy when I can work quickly. And when I'm stuck in sort of a slower part or when I'm trying to come up with a container to put the stuff into it that I want to put into, it's actually pretty miserable. But, you know, having said that I wouldn't want to do anything else.

Jo Reed: Mm-hm. You've received many awards, including a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. What did that fellowship allow you to do?

Kelly Link: You know, it felt like this reassurance that what I was doing that it was worth it. It's not, maybe, a good thing to have constant validation that you're doing everything exactly the way that you should be doing it. But I think when you're a writer, and when your work is mostly self-directed to be given a grant and be told, “We think you should keep on doing this. In fact, we feel that so strongly we're going to give you some money.” That was extraordinary. And the other thing too is, there was a period of time in which I didn't teach. I could just write. I could sit and think about what I wanted to write. You know, I could write. I could sit and think. All of that is extraordinarily useful.

Jo Reed: And Pretty Monsters has been named a new Big Read title. What does that mean for you?

Kelly Link: Boy, you know, I don't even really know. It's exciting. What I didn't realize when I started writing was how happy it makes me, one to get to meet other people who want to write, whatever stage of their career they're at. Two, that I just really love talking to people about stories. And so the idea that there are community events in which everybody has read the same book and then get together and discuss it with each other is really exciting regardless of whether or not it's my book. The idea that it might be my book is really thrilling. The idea that people get to ask me questions, or tell me about something that it made them want to do is really, really exciting.

Jo Reed: Well, I'm glad you brought that up about questions because to the discussion questions that we have up on the Big Read website, you added the last question which was, “If you could ask the author one question about these stories or about writing them, what would it be?” And I'm curious if you've gotten—I know it's early in the day but I'm curious if you've gotten any responses?

Kelly Link: I have not. No.

Jo Reed: Okay. You have to keep us posted when you do.

Kelly Link: I will and I'm really looking forward to that. I have to say that I don't think I've ever had anybody ask me a question or sort of express an opinion about something that I've written that was disheartening. I think any question that anybody asks in a genuine or sincere way is sort of a gift to the writer, you know, that somebody felt moved enough that they wanted to tell you something or ask you something. And sometimes when people say to me, “Well, I really loved this story in a collection,” or “I really loved this particular collection.” Sometimes I like to say, well, what story didn't you like? What was the story that you read and you thought no? Just almost for the purposes of helping me figure out how people read things and the kinds of things that somebody might respond to in positive or negative ways.

Jo Reed: And finally, what's next?

Kelly Link: Well, I am working on a novel.

Jo Reed: Whoa. That's a change.

Kelly Link: Yes. It's a huge change. And I will say that the first year of working on it was really tricky. It was very, very hard to figure out what exactly I wanted to do and how to do it. And now I am actually having a great deal of fun. It's nice to have such an expansive project.

Jo Reed: And,I'd love to have you complete this sentence. If you like Kelly Link's stories, you might also like...

Kelly Link: Oh. That has actually genuinely thrown me.

Jo Reed: Oh my God.

Kelly Link: I'm the daughter of a psychologist. And so I think there's certain kinds of questions that I can imagine sort of the sea of possibilities. Let's go with Halloween. You might also like Halloween.

Jo Reed: That's kind of perfect since it's coming up.

Jo Reed: That's author Kelly Link. Her short story collection, Pretty Monsters, is one of the new Big Read titles. You can check out the rest at NEABIGREAD.org. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog or follow us at @NEAArts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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