How Kelly Link Wrote a Very Good First Novel

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Sharona Jacobs

Kelly Link is an anomaly: She’s a world-famous, best-selling author who for almost 20 years never published a single novel. Instead, it’s her five books of short stories that have won her acclaim and fans — not to mention a MacArthur “genius” grant and a Pulitzer. She is also an owner, since 2019, of Book Moon bookstore in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Now, finally, she is a novelist. At 628 pages, The Book of Love is a maximalist work sprawling with characters, plotlines, and magical possibilities. In the New York Times, reviewer Amal El-Mohtar called the book “profoundly beautiful” and said it “does justice to its name.” My review is that it’s a godsend for readers like me who have been looking for a big, gorgeous fantastical book to get lost in — it gives the kind of satisfaction that I haven’t felt since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell (remember that book? So much fun!).

The Book of Love takes place in picturesque Lovesend, Massachusetts, where three teenagers and one mystical Other find themselves resurrected from a mysterious death a year after their passing. They’re brought back from the dead by their high-school music teacher, who is actually a supernatural being and guards a portal to the afterlife. The teens are soon caught up in a magical game that they must play correctly in order to remain alive. Meanwhile, their family and friends are enchanted so as to believe they’ve been studying abroad in Ireland the whole time they’ve actually been dead. But there are more magical players, good and evil, involved in this game than there first seem to be, and Link isn’t afraid to stuff her book full of detours, for example into the realm of a moon goddess and a fictitious Black romance novelist. None of the details detract from the propulsive plot as the teenagers collaborate and compete to make it to the last page alive.

I spoke to Link as she sat in her car in the parking lot of a defunct Ramada Inn, on her way from her home in Northampton to New York for book events.

How did you intellectually and practically and physically and spiritually transition from writing short stories to writing a rather long novel?
Even if one is a short-story writer at heart, this is a world of novels. This is a world where readers love novels, which I get. I love them too. But if you’re a short-story writer, any time that you are talking with somebody, they will say, “Well, have you ever thought about writing a novel?”

My husband and I ran a small press for a couple of decades. I had the enormous privilege of working with a bunch of writers on novels. I also, in my writing life, have a group of friends that I meet with, sometimes on a daily basis, and they are all novelists. We spend a lot of our time talking about the possibilities that novels present to a writer. And I love their books. I get to read them when they’re working on them. And eventually, if you’re me, at least, you start to think, Well, what could I do at this length? My very good friend, one of the writers that I work with, Holly Black, said to me about nine years ago, “If you don’t intentionally write a novel, you will write one by accident. And so you might as well plan out how to do it intentionally.”

So when did you start working on this novel consciously?
I started thinking about it maybe eight or nine years ago, and then I started putting stuff down on paper maybe seven or eight years ago. I had a pretty clear handle on some of the things I wanted the novel to do. I had a sense of who the characters would be. I had an approach for the structure, and I knew what I wanted the end to be, and that’s the same way that I work with short stories.

That’s something that I was going to ask you, whether you knew what you wanted the end to be.
Yeah, I had a notebook and about seven years ago, I wrote down a great deal of the very, very end of this novel. And that helps me. It helps me to have a sense that there is actually an ending. It helps me think about some of the things that I want to do along the way to that ending. And then it feels enormously pleasurable to get to the point where I’m typing the ending in and think I’m going to make some minor adjustments, but the last line is still here. A lot of those sentences are the right sentences.

I guess it’s not a universal way of going about it. I mean, everyone goes about it differently, but I’ve heard people say before that if they know the ending, they find themselves bored in the middle and beginning.
For me, the middle is the place where I have lots of moments of discovery or I get to think about things that I don’t already have in my head, that’s the entire middle space.

The other thing that I’m realizing when other writers say, “Well, I would be really bored if I knew the ending” — I am bored a lot of the time that I’m writing. I get tired of the sound of my own voice in the sense of the things I’m putting on the page. I’m tired of the characters. It’s not as if I find writing super pleasurable a lot of the time, but part of writing is sticking with it even when you’re bored. I find that if I can just keep on going, then eventually there’s liveliness to it again.

So many of the characters in The Book of Love are teenagers. How do you channel the teenage psyche?
Adolescence is such a fabulous liminal space if you’re a writer. The stakes feel super high. There’s a lot of things that somebody is encountering for the first time or sort of forming their opinion of. You attach strongly to other people, to music, even the possibilities of language feel so much fresher. These characters are fairly sarcastic. We have a teenager in the house now, and the way that you make language your own thing when you’re adolescent feels kind of exhilarating.

All readers at some point in their lives went through adolescence and they were miserable and they had moments of joy and everything felt supercharged. And so I like the idea that sometimes part of the reading experience is reconnecting with that adolescent version of you. And for a reader, it’s one of the parts of yourself that you’re reconnecting with. It’s the way that certain kinds of books made you feel. And so I kind of hope that people who are my age or different ages, that the book has a little bit of that feeling in terms of the connections to books, to music and how you can make those a part of your life.

As you were talking about those sort of heightened adolescent experiences, I was thinking that a lot of what you just said is literalized for these characters. I mean, for them the stakes are very high: life or death. Was that dramatization of ordinary adolescent experience a deliberate choice on your part?
It was. When I was first thinking about this project, I thought about these characters and if I could make them older and the kinds of things that I would gain or lose from that. And I thought it just did not work in the same way if I was writing about characters whose connection to the world was more established and who had both more and less to lose in different ways. This felt like a book that needed to take place around high school.

I think what always discouraged me from writing about magic when I’ve tried to write fiction was just that I couldn’t figure out the rules. How do you establish what the rules for the magic are going to be ahead of time as you plan a novel like this? Or do you make them up as you go along or retroactively as you revise?
If you’re writing a book and there’s some fantastic elements to it, you have to juggle a bunch of things. You have to, one, think, How does the fantastic operate as a metaphor? What are the various metaphors here? Are these metaphorical readings that I want the fantastic elements to have? And if not, how do I navigate away from those kinds of readings? Anything with the fantastic in it, you have to think, How does this change the world? Is this something that everybody knows about? Is it hidden for most people? And with magic simply as magic, where somebody can do things that are magic, you have to think, How does this relate to capitalism? How much is magic a one-to-one swap for just having access to a lot of money, because that makes for a super boring read. But it’s tricky.

I’ve never written a short story. The form itself kind of scares me, there’s no room for an aside or spare word. It really feels like you’re walking a tightrope, I think.
I think for short stories the trick instead is to think of them as opportunities for excess, but within certain kinds of rules. So when I write a short story, I am often thinking, Well, is there a structure that I want or are there some constraints that would make it interesting to try and make the story work within them? And then within that space thinking, All right, what’s the really fun stuff and the maximalist excessive things that I can do given the set of constraints that I’ve picked, whatever they are? I was just reading one of the pieces from, I think a collection coming out by Sheila Heti where every sentence begins with the word B, and it’s fabulous. And I thought it’s such a great structure, because it limits you in terms of what space you have for a story. But within that space, she went wild.

How do you structure your days when you’re working on a project like this, because I know you do so much other stuff as well? I mean, you have a bookstore, you are running a small press, you have a life, you meet with your writer friends. Do you have a big desk that is shaped like a stack of books like Danielle Steel and a quill pen?
Oh, I wish. All this really shifted over the pandemic because everything and everybody’s lives shifted dramatically. But I actually am much happier when I have a period of time that I can devote to the bookstore, followed by a period of time when I’m concentrating on something like teaching, and then a period where I get to do a lot of writing all at once. And so for two decades now I have been pretty heavily dependent on the company of other writers. For a long time, pre-pandemic, Monday through Friday, I would go meet up with two other writers, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, and we would work for six hours. We would all sit at a table together and write with headphones on.

But right now, I’m not writing much, because I’m teaching. The bookstore is a lot of work at the moment. But I am thinking what I need now is at least a couple of weeks so I can finish a new book and maybe make a start on the next one. What I really love is to have a week to a month in which all I am doing is writing. I’m not cooking, I’m not cleaning, I’m not feeding my chickens. I can really just focus on writing and also on reading.

It sounds like you really take a lot of pleasure in your work. I mean, six hours at a stretch sounds like a lot to me. I feel like my brain dies after about 1,500 to 2,000 words.
It takes me about six hours to get between 1,500 and 4,000, and that’s during the periods when I am really just focusing on writing. But for a sustained period of time, a week to a month, I can do some reading in the morning, answer email, and then from about 3 p.m. until 1 a.m., just really write if I know that there’s nothing else that I’m going to have to do. I like a lot of distraction when I write. I like there to be people around. I like to have headphones on with music on. I like to be checking Twitter, to write a sentence and then go look at something while the back of my brain is sort of continuing to work on the next sentence. I actually function much, much better as a writer when there are a lot of other things that keep the part of my brain that doesn’t like writing distracted.

That sounds totally doable and healthy. I sort of thought that you had to do it Jonathan Franzen style, put on your noise-canceling headphones and lock yourself in your white-walled stark writing cell.
I want to be aware that even if I am stuck behind the keyboard, other people are doing stuff and there’s people out in the world who are not me, not having to write, eating lunch, being mad at somebody, all of that. I’m like, Oh, thank God. I’m going to bask in all of the other stuff that people are doing while I sit here and type some sentences.

Your book has love in the title and came out on Valentine’s Day. The characters do experience love or what seems like love in various ways. But what aspect of love did you want to capture in a book called The Book of Love?
Well, the thing about the title is the title came last of all. I didn’t have a title until after I had a very, very solid first draft and was sending it to my editor. But when I began, one of the minor characters in the book is a romance novelist, and I spent a lot of my 20s and on as a fan of the romance genre. I went to grad school, talked about Raymond Carver in workshop, and then came home and read romance novels. So once I knew that in some way this book, at the heart of this book was the idea of the romance novel, that I started thinking about different kinds of love stories and also thinking about kinds of love stories that are not romantic, like familial love, community love. Friends who love each other, siblings who hate and love each other, all of that stuff.

And as you are thinking about the people who are going to be in a book, one of the big questions is always who do they care about? What kinds of relationships do they have that extend maybe slightly past even the parameters of the main story? And so that was one of the pleasures of writing a really big sprawling book with a lot of points of view. I got to write about not just the relationships of the main characters with other main characters, but I got to write about the people who are important to the people who are our point of view characters in the book.

And this is a book about people who come back from the dead. They may not manage to stay in the world of the living. And I really wanted to do as much as I could to suggest the kinds of things that keep us anchored here. If you are not sure if you’re going to be living for that much longer, or if you have a question about whether or not it’s right for you to be alive, what are the things that keep you anchored to the world? And when you have gone through this enormous loss of self, what are the things that you come back to? And how does it feel to be immersed in your life again?

Having one romantic love overarching plot arc could feel really limiting, right?
This is one of the enormous pleasures of the romance novel, it’s one epic great love, one love that sort of shapes everything around it. This is a love letter to the romance genre, but it is not, specifically speaking, a romance novel. I don’t know that I would be great at writing a romance novel, in part because I am not fully committed to the happy ending. But also because I wanted to allow, in the genre in which I was actually working, for the possibility that love doesn’t always last or that love may be complex, or that even if this person is not the love of your life, that does not mean that the connection that you have with them at a point in your life is not meaningful and changes you.

That seems like a very, very mature thought to put into the experience of some very young people.
Well, and I think like all young people, they are really smart about some stuff. Some stuff they haven’t figured out, some stuff they’re wrong about, but I’m not sure that’s only specific actually now to being a teenager. I think some of that just stays with you.

How Kelly Link Wrote a Very Good First Novel