The love of books / The pain of existence

Author Kelly Link in a publicity shot, hands on her cheeks, showing elaborate rings of silver and lapis

Today: Sam Thielman, a reporter, critic, essayist, and editor, and graphic novel columnist for the New York Times; and Trevor Alixopulos, comics artist and author of The Hot Breath of War.

Issue No. 62

Kelly Link Knows What She Likes
Sam Thielman

Welcome to Weltschmerz
Trevor Alixopulos

by Sam Thielman

Writer and bookseller Kelly Link was a Pulitzer finalist for her 2016 short story collection, Get in Trouble; in 2018 she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for “pushing the boundaries of literary fiction in works that combine the surreal and fantastical with the concerns and emotional realism of contemporary life.” Her new novel, The Book of Love, was published to universal acclaim in February. She hardly needs me to praise her, but I’m going to do it anyway. Every time I read her work, I find that my sense of what a story can do grows larger and more generous. I asked her to talk with me for Flaming Hydra this month, and she said yes.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

So I was really delighted to see that you were writing a novel a few years ago when you first announced it, and then White Cat, Black Dog came out, and I kind of thought, “Oh, this is where the novel went.” But that obviously wasn't the case, and now The Book of Love is here, and wonderful. Your master plan was still in motion. How did that happen?

White Cat, Black Dog felt like an illicit project, because my primary job during that period was to be writing a novel. It was kind of a secret goal, not something that I had sold to Random House; it was not something I was supposed to be working on. So I did not give it to my editor until I also had a draft of the novel that felt like something I could turn in as a finished piece of art—and then I said, “And here, also, is this collection!”

And now we're gonna get a book a year from you for the duration.

[laughing] Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think my life is a little bit more complicated now. And I do want to write other novels, and I honestly would like to write them more quickly.

Why do you say life is more complicated now?

Well, at the moment, I'm teaching, I have a bookstore. My husband has long Covid. We have a teenage kid, so it's just… there's a lot more. Not even responsibilities, but just a lot more going on than there used to be.

Reading The Book of Love I felt like I got a really clear sense of what it was like to be a teenager today, which I don't always find in books written by people who are no longer teenagers. Does parenting help bridge that generation gap a little bit? 

My kid was eight, maybe, when I started this project. As they have gotten older, I'm not quite sure how much having somebody in the household who is coming up to [my teenage characters’] age influenced or changed the way I was working, but I do think a great deal about how even my experience of adolescence is different. The writer Howard Waldrop said that every writer—even in genre fiction, where you're writing about the future, or other worlds, or the far past—is still in some way writing about their own Golden Age, which is often a period of childhood or adolescence. The things you felt, or the way you perceived the world, translate into even the most outlandish or far-flung science fiction or fantasy. 

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