Kelly Link writes the kind of short stories I wish I could – little gems of speculative fiction in which movie stars are haunted by demon lovers, rabbits aren’t to be trusted, and superheroes share convention space with dentists. They’re dark and funny and sad and weird and they do what all of the best fiction does – they reveal who we are as humans to ourselves, unearthing all of the creepy secrets we’d rather keep hidden and the everyday miracles we’re all capable of. I’m not the only one to think so – the New York Times agrees with me and Neil Gaiman thinks she should be declared a national treasure. And yet, I feel like only a few folks in my circle have read her work.
This is due in part, no doubt, to the fact that she exclusively writes short stories and we are culturally weird about short stories as an art form (Link herself alluded to this at a recent reading I attended.) We don’t seem to credit short fiction nearly as much as novels – no one declares their intention to write the Great American Short Story at dinner parties. Then, too, there’s the content of these stories – too fantastical for the realistic fiction set, with their ghost boyfriends and fairy-tale themes – yet with too many elements of real life for the hardcore sci-fi and fantasy contingent. However I do think we’re entering an era where more of these sorts of stories are becoming popular, and I’m hoping to see Link’s star continue to rise with that shift.
Being an Honorary Lady of Comicazi, however, is about more than simply creating great works – our Honorary Ladies must promote the empowerment of women, which Link does in spades – her female characters are complicated and often a bit damaged but they are real, and they stand up for themselves. A great example is the story “Travels with the Snow Queen” which you can read here. But one of the things I like best about Kelly Link, and a way in which I think she empowers all sorts of people, has nothing to do with her own writing – it’s the way she promotes and makes a space for others to tell their stories. You see, when she isn’t busy being a national treasure, Link, along with her husband Gavin Grant, publishes the work of other writers of weird, wonderful stories that don’t quite fit into neat genre categories. The couple put out a truly fantastic literary journal, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (I get the subscription that comes with fancy chocolate and YES THAT IS A REAL THING) and they also publish books as Small Beer Press, including The Liminal People, a book I’ve told you to go read before. (And now I’ve told you again, and you’d better hurry, there’s a sequel coming.)
Small Beer is publishing speculative fiction from all sorts of voices – women, certainly, but also many people of color, folks with many different experiences and backgrounds, and I think that this is really important work. Some might say it’s just science fiction – but think of how much of our modern lives are influenced by the crazy stories that people wrote years ago – what technology and innovations were inspired by Wells and Verne, what social change has been brought about through the cautionary tales of Orwell and Bradbury. By bringing diverse voices to the world of fantasy and science fiction, Link, Gavin, and Small Beer Press help to ensure that our ideas of the future are more diverse, too.
I’m pleased to name Kelly Link the latest Honorary Lady of Comicazi, and hope that many of you will check out her work and the work published by Small Beer Press. If you’re already a fan, tell me about your favorite stories in the comments! My essential five Kelly Link stories are:
1. The aforementioned “Travels with The Snow Queen” from Stranger Things Happen. I’m generally a sucker for a fairy-tale retelling but this one is exceptional.
2. “The Specialist’s Hat,” also from Stranger Things Happen. Never has a nursery rhyme about a hat been so terrifying.
3. “Stone Animals” from Magic for Beginners. Don’t turn your back on the rabbits.
4. “Origin Story” from Get in Trouble. This is everything I love in one story – superheroes, heartache, imaginary games, and dentists. Okay, I’m not really into dentist stories, but this isn’t really a dentist story anyway. Just read it.
5. “The New Boyfriend” from Get in Trouble. This story is actually too genius to even describe to you, because I don’t want to spoil any of it. Let’s just say that by the end, the entire idea you have of the story and the protagonist will change.
BONUS SHORT STORY FANATIC PS: My dear friend Nandi recently turned me on to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. The concept is simple – writers pick stories from the New Yorker archive, then read them and talk about them. It’s as if your lit class in college was full of totally brilliant, excellent readers. No Kelly Link here but Gary Shteyngart reading Lorrie Moore’s “Paper Losses” gives me a lot of the same feelings.