WILLIAMSTOWN -- Don't try to pin down author Kelly Link -- she's one step ahead of you and impossible to pigeonhole with a style of fiction that resembles alchemy.
Link will read from her work Thursday, Oct. 24, at 4 p.m., in Griffin 3 at Williams College as part of the David G. Hartwell ‘63 Science Fiction Symposium.
Link is known for work like her collection "Magic For Beginners" that doesn't bow to the demands of the current market, aligning with the science fiction category, though her stories often have supernatural elements -- she loves a good ghost story. She is generally considered a young adult writer, but in an era of 500-page extravaganzas and multi-part series as the norm, Link made her career specializing in short stories.
"When I first was writing stories, I really came from a place of wanting to write ghost stories and about weird things happening to people," Link said. "I did not really think of the work I was doing as any other than science fiction, and the first magazines I submitted to and the magazines that I still sometimes get published in are science fiction magazines. I really like YA, I like science fiction, I feel lucky that I've gotten to move around these categories. I'm also fond of romance novels. I don't know that I could write one, but I'm drawn to them, I like dramas in which the patterns are a little bit more clear."
What Link specializes in is a form of hybrid genre fiction that has been offered names like "slipstream" and "magic realism," using elements from not only science fiction, but horror, fantasy and others. Link says that the conventions of these genres -- whether separate or in the form she uses them -- which can sometimes be viewed as weaknesses in the "proper" fiction world are actually tools for the writer to build further.
"If you're going to do something that is a little bit more experimental, if you give off clear signals about the architecture or structure you're working with, you already have enough story there to mess around with it," she said. "As a writer there's this double pleasure of figuring out why certain kinds of patterns are pleasurable and then figuring out how to work around those patterns in ways that may be counter to the ways those patterns should work, and then coming up with solutions for how to make that still be fun and engaging for a reader."
Genre novels -- and movies and television shows -- have experienced a boom in the last decade, particularly in the realm of young adult entertainment, and Link thinks that, among other things, it's due to the down to earth quality that grounds any given book about the most fantastic scenarios and helps them walk a mesmerizing line for readers.
"Genre novels, even novels with vampires or werewolves in them, don't really resonate unless there is something about a character in them, a realistic situation that speaks to the reader," Link said. "You still have to have the realism, it's just that you get all this other stuff too. Sometimes the way in which the realistic aspect and the fantastic aspect intersect, there's something disingenuous about the way that the fantastic comes up with solutions, but I think that in the premise, there's usually something that has to feel true. There's certainly any number of very realistic novels that feel just as implausible as the worst science fiction. Just because a novel is realistic doesn't mean the way in which characters are portrayed is anything like the real world."
The young adult market has also boomed over the past decade, even among adult readers, and Link thinks this is because the label can signal the way the content is approached in the book, a story-driven form that is appealing to readers who have become less enchanted with the adult literary fiction world.
"I don't think being labeled young adult fiction necessarily works against you," said Link. "It does seem to be, post J.K. Rowling, the genre that people feel comfortable going and browsing in. I think most readers who are avid readers will go in and take a look at the YA section because there is a lot of terrific work being done there and there's not much of a stigma attached to it. Or rather, if there's a stigma it's counterbalanced by the fact that what people assume about YA is that it's supposed to be stuff that's fun to read, and YA is probably a lot more complicated than that, but people who think what I really want is just a really good story probably go to young adult now in the same way they used to go to science fiction and fantasy."
Having built a career on short stories, though, Link is now curious about what lies beyond her usual word count. A recent deal with Random House will see the release of not only a new collection of short stories, but a debut novel, which Link has not written yet, but is committed to write.
"I want to see what it's like," she said. "I do think that it requires a very different kind of thinking. I've been assured by my friends who write novels that the great thing about writing novels is that beginnings are always the hardest part. You begin a novel and you just keep on going and you don't have that thing where you finish the story and think, now I have to start all over again. Rather than doing that over and over again for a couple of years, you just get to focus on one longer piece of storytelling. That sounds very appealing right now."
Attempting a longer work isn't an overnight decision for Link, who has spent the last several years hanging out each week in coffee shops with a group of novelists, find out the particulars of their craft.
"I've spent a lot of time talking about problems that are particular to novels and the kinds of structures that are pleasurable in novels and how novels work," said Link. "It's been an education -- a very long, slow education in how novelists think about storytelling."
The collection from Random House became the written impetus for this effort. It contains longer stories than usual and it was the first time Link ever felt constricted by short form writing.
"Some of these stories were tricky to write and I think the reason they were tricky to write is because I was thinking about stuff more the way a novelist thinks about stuff," said Link. "The things I wanted to do in those stories, I had to figure out a way to do them. By actual fact, if I had been writing a novel, they would have been much, much easier to pull off."
It's a new journey for Link, one that she's embarking with confidence. Her hope is to craft a classic ghost story -- one of her favorite things -- that is allowed to breath and live and change within its own covers. It's a change that Link embraces.
"It is enormously pleasurable, whether you're reading a story or writing a story, to allow yourself digressive moments, moments where you do things that feel as if they're not necessary," she said.
"In actual fact, they should be necessary or they shouldn't be in the story, but you have to do it in such a way that it feels as if what you're doing is extra. I think in novels, you get this piece even more so, you get to have even more that are not so much about economy or forward motion, but that has difference kinds of pacing. The idea of writing something that I get to vary the pace, even more so than I get to do it in stories again, that's really appealing right now."