The beginner’s guide to Kelly Link

Kelly Link has in the past been described as “the best short story writer out there, in any genre or none”. Over five collections for both YA readers and adults (with some crossover between the two), the American writer and publisher has developed somewhat of a cult following, which is now expanding with the release of her latest collection Get in Trouble.

While often categorised alongside writers of fantasy or science fiction – and fans of these genres will find a lot to like – Link’s stories also sit alongside the very best of magical realism and American contemporary fiction. Link’s stories are funny, sexy, grotesque and ridiculous, and have been compared with Ursula K Le Guin, George Saunders and Neil Gaiman, among others. Rather than highlighting the fantastical in the mundane world, Link has an uncanny knack for highlighting the mundane in the fantastical, her characters just as bored and horny as the rest of us. Backstories and side narratives are begun but deliberately left unresolved, and stories end on a note of exquisite frustration, with everything hanging in the balance. Link doesn’t waste time explaining the rules of the worlds her characters inhabit – she simply trusts you to keep up.

I first read Kelly Link in an undergraduate course, and she’s probably the only writer I studied at uni that I still evangelise about. For those looking to dive into the world of Kelly Link, here’s my recommendations on where to start.


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Begin with… Magic for Beginners

Link’s second collection, published in 2005, was her first with a major publisher. It’s phenomenal from start to finish, and the perfect introduction to Link’s inimitable style, featuring beautiful illustrations by Shelley Jackson and an intoxicating mix of the whimsical, the disturbing and the weird. Teenage fans of a mysterious cult TV show start getting phone calls from the show’s characters; the items in a family’s house become haunted, one by one. One of my favourite stories, ‘The Hortlak’, (which can be read online here) involves workers at a convenience store trying to work out what to sell to the zombies that shuffle in and out. ‘Some Zombie Contingency Plans’ starts out as a funny, kind of sweet story about a guy named Soap who crashes suburban house parties, but takes a devastating turn – the story’s open-ended conclusion all the more chilling. The final piece in the collection, ‘Lull’, is a breathtaking piece of literary art – stories nested within stories, time running backwards, and a spirited exploration of the power of storytelling.


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Follow-up with… Get in Trouble

Despite the ten-year gap between collections for adults, Link’s latest feels like a natural continuation of what began in Magic for Beginners. I’ve written more about Get in Trouble here but there’s a similar focus on the ordinariness of the extraordinary. In a world where superheroes are as common as dentists, recruiting for sidekicks is done at conventions in casinos; a teenage girl’s life-size animatronic boyfriend starts acting strange when she switches it to ‘ghost’ setting; two super-powered teenagers shoot the breeze as a dark undercurrent emerges from their small-town banter. Link’s style feels more matured here, and some pieces are more contemplative than in previous collections, but her writing is as inventive as ever.


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For Younger Readers try… The Wrong Grave or Pretty Monsters

These two companion volumes for YA readers feature beautiful and haunting illustrations by Shaun Tan, and stories that again bring Link’s genre-bending mix of fantasy, horror and realism to life, and a great introduction to the short story as an artform. Although both collections include a couple of stories from Magic for Beginners, there are other brilliant additions such as The Wrong Grave, a wryly funny piece about a boy who tries to exhume his dead girlfriend to retrieve the poems he left in her coffin.


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For further reading try… Stranger Things Happen

It’s a little harder to come by in Australia, but Link’s first collection Stranger Things Happen is also worth a read. The stories in this collection are arguably a little rougher and not as tightly written as her later work, but with stories about sexy blonde aliens invading New York and instructions on how to get to Hell from the middle of London, it’s worth tracking down.

Link and her husband Gavin J. Grant also run a publishing house called Small Beer Press, and have edited several anthologies as well as a zine called Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, with short fiction by other American and international fantasy/horror/magical realist writers.

I’ve also heard a rumour that Link will be in Australia later this year…


Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.