A VAMPIRE IS A FLEXIBLE METAPHOR: AN INTERVIEW WITH KELLY LINK by Meghan McCarron
10/23/2013
 

On a hot, sunny day in Austin, Texas, and a cool, crisp one in Northampton, Massachusetts, Kelly Link and I spoke on the phone about one of the strangest and most violent teen vampire dramas to ever grace the airwaves: The Vampire Diaries. Kelly, who I first met when she taught at the Clarion West workshop in 2004, has laser-sharp insight into television, genre, and story structure, and her esteem for The Vampire Diaries inspired me to start watching, too. As fire ants merrily chewed away at my ankles outside of an East Austin coffee shop, Kelly and I discussed vampires who write in diaries, Netflix binges, fan fiction, writing in response to Species II, and her own plans to write a novel. 

I. "Telling a love story that is also a monster story."

GIGANTIC: For those who have never seen the show, could you attempt a brief summary of The Vampire Diaries?

KELLY LINK: So yes, this is a show about an adolescent girl, her friends, and various vampires. Vampires writing in diaries, vampires attending high school, vampires investigating various mysterious supernatural events, vampires tormenting each other, vampires eavesdropping on each other, and vampires being sarcastic about other vampires' hairstyles. Vampires embracing every possible opportunity to take off their shirts. There are also doppelgänger, witches, and improbable plot twists. There's a love triangle, which could be gooey, except that as the show goes on, you realize that every story in The Vampire Diaries is a tragedy. Especially the love stories.

GIGANTIC: How did you discover the show?

LINK: A friend, the young adult writer Sarah Rees Brennan. At some point we were all working together at the house of another YA writer, Holly Black. As we worked, Sarah made us watch episodes of The Vampire Diaries. (On other occasions we've watched Predator in French, Hemlock Grove, among other shows.) It was a weird show in which many, many dramatic things happened and lots of characters died very suddenly. She could sense, I think, we were not persuaded that we should keep watching it.

And we didn't. Until last year, when I came down with pneumonia and was laid up in bed. I love Sarah dearly, and The Vampire Diaries was on Netflix. So I went to the A.V. Club on theonion.com, and found their list of the ten essential episodes of The Vampire Diaries.

GIGANTIC: Oh my god, I just did the same thing to prep for this interview!

LINK: After watching those, I went back and started the whole series from the beginning. Look: when you watch TV episode by episode, week by week, with a show you don't know well, you regard it with suspicion. You think, "The things this show is trying to do, I've seen them before and know where they will go. These are formulas I recognize. And maybe formulas I think are kind of stupid." 

Then at a certain point with a show that is good or surprising, you think, "Oh wait, I was wrong, I don't recognize the conventions, and suddenly I'm interested because they're breaking with the formula, or they're exploring tropes/patterns in a way that's worth paying attention to." I think the thing that I really, really liked about Vampire Diaries, and what I like about narrative in general is when there is some incongruity between the form and content. Let's say, mixing up the gothic with a coming-of-age narrative. Telling a love story that's also a monster story. Mixing up superhero tropes with your monster tropes. I like category confusion. 

I love any story that incorporates a fantastic element, introduces an element of strangeness, and does so with intelligence or vigor, without shame. I love any show that can surprise me. Look, plot often bores me. I'm not good at it: it's not my strength as a writer. But I'm fairly good (by now) at predicting where a story arc is going to go, which means a lot of television dramas become predictable, at least in broad strokes. 

Add to that, I'm no longer watching television in which middle-aged men figure out how to be men. I'd rather watch shows about teenaged girls figuring out what it means to be a monster. I like coming-of-age stories, ghost stories, horror stories. I love stories about doppelgängers. I didn't realize how much I craved a show that was gothic, over the top, Gormenghast on the CW. 

GIGANTIC: The crazy thing about The Vampire Diaries is how high the body count goes so fast. And how it rubs against the romance plot in really jarring ways. One of the romantic leads, at one point, kills the main character's brother, right? And he comes back to life, so everyone is encouraged to shrug it off. I was talking to a friend about it, and she said that you can't read killing someone as killing someone in The Vampire Diaries. You need to read it more like a bitchy slap. 

LINK: That's why it's gothic. Although that particular scene is so shocking, by the way, that in hardcore The Vampire Diaries fandom, there's a shorthand for it: JNSI: the Jeremy Neck Snapping Incident. In the mythology of the show, vampires function a lot like teenagers with super strength and super healing abilities (superheroes). They're emotionally unstable in that particularly adolescent way, so you get a lot of family arguments in which centuries-old vampire siblings, Stefan and Damon, or later on, Klaus and Rebecca, impale each other on various implements, repeatedly, in order to express strong feelings. 

A vampire is a flexible metaphor. You know, death, sex, change, stagnation, loss of self, loss of agency, having to keep one's real self secret, the possibility of something lasting forever: love, hate, grief. 

I loved Buffy when I watched Buffy. Buffy was about people trying to make the right choices and be heroes. The Vampire Diaries is a different kind of beast. It's about people doing awful, monstrous things and the consequences of those awful things: that's a gothic story. 

II. "There's a kind of cathartic, discomfiting joy—a pain/pleasure—in people behaving badly."

GIGANTIC: So I know you're a ravenous consumer of books. Because you're familiar with so many narrative conventions, do you crave surprise to a greater degree now? Are you looking for a richness there? Can you still be surprised?

LINK: Crave is a good word! Right now I want to be surprised, no matter what the medium is, TV or books or music. Surprised by language, by voice, by a break in the pattern. But there has an underlying coherence to what at first appears to be a break. If the writer hasn't properly set up the new pattern, if it falls apart and it's a mess, then sure, that's a problem. But at this point, I probably value surprise and risk-taking over competency.

Many years ago I listened to the writer Candas Jane Dorsey talking about research she read that tracked changes in the ways musicians listened to music, how their taste in music changed. The longer you spent thinking about music, about how it worked, the more you began to want things in music which might seem perverse or strange or difficult.  

I think I've hit a point with TV shows, maybe less so with books, where as soon as I have an idea of where the show is going, I would rather be doing something else. I'm not really so interested in shows that are realistic, or what passes for realistic depictions of how men are figuring out to be men, if the women are secondary characters: which rules out Mad Men, Breaking Bad 

GIGANTIC: You know, I have no interest in Mad Men or Breaking Bad, and I feel bad about that, but it's so masculine, it's that familiar story.  

So in this series of blog posts you sent me one of them talks about how Elena is in love with death. Can you talk a little more about that? 

LINK: Sure. So, maybe it's of interest, first how I got to those blog posts. I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for many years, with various groups of friends. We spent a lot of time talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The experience of being a fan was part of the pleasure of watching a television show. With The Vampire Diaries, I was on my own. 

And so I went online, to try and find people talking about vampires, whether on LiveJournal, or Tumblr, or whatever. It wasn't so much that I wanted to participate, as it turned out. Turned out I was interested in how fandom operates, whether it was discussions, sharing GIF sets, critical writing from a feminist perspective, or fan fiction. I ended up reading a fair amount of fan fiction. Some good, a lot awful. Mostly I just read the descriptions of what the particular pieces of fan fiction were about. I got very caught up in the gap between what happens on a television show versus what happens in a piece of fiction about the show. Lots more sex, obviously. Lots of things, not just sex, which wouldn't work on television. Character arcs changed, so that the roles of good guys versus bad guys is much more delineated. Less obvious: long conversations between various characters, romantic pairings, where misunderstandings are ironed out, and apologies are offered, depending on whom the writer thinks owes an apology. (Usually the female character owes an apology to somebody for not being emotionally available.) Also so very many stories in which the supernatural component has been stripped out, and the main characters are all doctors or lawyers or high-school students, rather than being vampires. I'm particularly fascinated by this kind of fan fiction, where you take a monster and make that monster a doctor or a housewife, because it's the opposite of whatever makes me want to write. 

But fan fiction: I continue to read a fair amount! And to read other people's very personal takes on what they love or hate or understand about The Vampire Diaries. I'm interested in how people experience narrative. It changes how I experience narrative. It changes how I write, in ways that I find useful. 

We never got to Elena and death, did we? Oh well. 

GIGANTIC: Obviously the first story that comes to my mind when you say that is "Magic for Beginners," which I understand you wrote in part in response to Buffy? 

LINK: I wrote it in response to being a hardcore fan of a particular show. It was written not so much in response to Buffy as in response to loving Buffy, and thinking about why I loved it so much. 

GIGANTIC: What are some other things you write in response to? 

LINK: Often I'm writing in response to books I've read, fairy tales, ghost stories, other writers' short stories. A big part of writing "Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water" was going to see Species II. There's something about really a pulpy story—Species II is not a good movie—but maybe there's something about the underlying metaphor, women as alien, women as monster, that is always going to make me want to write a story.

"The Girl Detective" is a riff on reading certain kinds of formulaic mystery stories. Nancy Drew, girl's own adventure stuff. 

Most recently I've finished two vampire stories. That's after a year working with Holly Black while she wrote the YA novel The Coldest Girl in Coldtown while I was watching The Vampire Diaries, and thinking about why the vampire narrative is so appealing, why adolescent girls are so often paired with eternally youthful-in-appearance monsters. 

GIGANTIC: So are you drawn to this element where vampires are, in some ways, literally just "bad people." Like, they're monsters who look like people who prey on people.

LINK: You get a lot of narrative energy from people who make really big mistakes, who act against their best interests, who do things that turn out to have serious consequences. It's very hard make a story out of people doing the right thing over and over again. Bartleby the Scrivener aside, you can't build a story around characters who don't do things—that's not a very satisfying story. Okay, so you can do both of those things, but I've been in the mood recently to write stories about people impulsively—or otherwise—doing awful things. 

GIGANTIC: The collection you just sold is called Get in Trouble. Were you thinking about characters doing awful things when working on those stories? 

LINK: It wasn't on purpose. After a while, I thought, "Oh man, there's a running theme here, which seems to be people doing stuff that they really probably shouldn't do." Look, think about how gossip works. What are the best stories? When you're telling stories, you're telling stories about people who have made a really poor choice, who do or say the kind of thing we all know you shouldn't. In fiction, at least, there's a kind of cathartic, discomfiting joy—a pain/pleasure—in people behaving badly. 

 III. "If you told me there was a vampire in it, that might change."  

GIGANTIC: You talked earlier about how the more people get to know a certain form, the more they crave a "perversion" of that form. I don't know if I'd describe your work that way exactly, but you're certainly taking a frame or a form and inverting it.

LINK: I find it hard to write a story if I know the pattern too well. I love fairytales—it's always tempting, in fairy tales, to just figure out a way to make the story over in a new and telling way. But for the most part, in order for me to figure out how to tackle a story, there has to be some kind of dissonance at work. I get writerly energy out of the friction between different forms, genres, structures. The comic and the gothic. The romance and the cautionary tale. The character who wrongly thinks he recognizes the kind of story he's in. But you can't just change the pattern, you have to change it in such a way that you're still creating some kind of readerly satisfaction. The reason patterns work is they provide a kind of satisfaction. You have to put something else in there to make it work.

GIGANTIC: You know, it's funny. I don't think of it quite that way, changing the pattern meaningfully. I think, for me, I approach a pattern and look for where the most emotionally powerful, or uncomfortable, place I can take that pattern is.

LINK: Oh sure. In addition figuring out the pattern and what to do with it, you have to figure out what's emotionally compelling to you as writer. You have to do something that feels like it matters. You can do something just to see if it would work, but it's not going to be as satisfying. There needs to be actual weight to the story you write beyond "I wonder what happens if..." What you want, of course, is for a reader to be moved, as well as entertained, or be scared. What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.

GIGANTIC: It's so interesting to hear you talk so much about patterns, because I think one of the most helpful pieces of advice I ever read as a writer was in Samuel R. Delany's On Writing, when he said that you need to read a lot, and read everything, not just the literature of the past thirty years, in order to really absorb the patterns of writing. 

LINK: Well, Delany! You need to read a lot of Delany, too, if you want to write. But yes, you have to figure out as many patterns as possible. There's a lot of really fabulous work from the past thirty years—you should read contemporary work. But you should try Trollope, and Mary Elizabeth Bradford, you should try Saki, and John Collier and Dodie Smith, Edith Wharton's ghost stories. I love short stories: I'm always looking for anthologies from the '30s and '40s and '50s, because a lot of those patterns in those are really, really weird patterns now. The things that these stories—not the good ones, the lasting ones, necessarily—say about some of the basic assumptions about how people ought to live, or gender roles, or what is a happy ending are weirdly disorienting, more than a little jarring; they make you feel strange.

GIGANTIC: I've been reading Walter Tevis lately, and what's striking is reading him is like reading Cheever, or Richard Yates. Like, you realize that everyone was just really drunk and depressed in the '50s and '60s, in a way that is pretty different from how they're drunk and depressed now. It seems like everyone felt like they had a generational responsibility for, like, the atom bomb. It shows up in the most bizarre moments in those narratives.

LINK: As a writer, you always hear about having these fantastic three-martini lunches with your publisher, and then at some point you see the martini glasses of that time period, and they're really tiny! But, yes, if you read the stories, it doesn't translate. The world they describe is not the world we live in. The end of their world isn't necessarily the end of ours.

The idea of the apocalypse has been around for a really long time, and every once in a while there's this kind of shift in the apocalypse we imagine around the corner. There's the pop culture apocalypse of the historic moment. There's also the personal apocalypse, your go-to apocalypse, the one that just belongs to you.

I love Cheever, I love Joan Aiken, I love Dorothy L. Sayers: I used to take particular note when writers worked in advertising. I used to fetishize writers who worked in advertising, because so many of them wrote very smart and engaging, very twisty kind of stories.

Still, I'm not interested in watching Mad Men. If you told me there was a vampire in it, that might change.

GIGANTIC: This brings us back around to something I've seen you discussing on Twitter, that any show can be improved by imagining one of the characters is a secret vampire.

LINK: I urge anyone reading this interview to try this experiment. For example, The Thick of It: Peter Capaldi's character, Malcolm Tucker, is clearly a secret vampire.

GIGANTIC: What do you think TV does that books don't?

LINK: I have spent a year now thinking about this, because part of the pleasure of watching and loving a TV show is that it's so clearly a tightrope act. Serial narrative produced to a particular and grueling schedule, according to a budget, dependent on a collaborative process, and on the other end, subject to ratings, audience feedback. Good god. I take my hat off to anyone who writes for, or works, on a TV show. 

There's also all the tools that a narrative on television has that I don't have when I sit down to write a short story. On The Vampire Diaries, there's a real richness and coherence to visual imagery, a kind of recurring vocabulary of setting-specific imagery, which is never elaborated on, but feels mysterious and true and loaded with metaphor. Light, darkness, fire, water, certain kinds of palettes. Even the way they light particular characters' faces or don't light them from moment to moment does a lot of work to advance the narrative. There's the way in which the score works in counterpoint with—or against—what's on screen.

The other aspect of a television show like The Vampire Diaries is the narrative speed. It's breakneck, not something you can pull off, in the same way, in a short story. It's one of the reasons why I loved American Horror Story, too, that sense of how much narrative had been crammed, in such interesting ways, into such a small space. Okay, so maybe that is something you can do (that I try to do) in a short story.

And lastly, a thing I'm still mulling on and feel really jealous of is there are moments on an episode where you jump from scene to scene, character to character, five, ten, twenty seconds on each scene, where they pause briefly to show you where characters are at emotionally, often with musical cues rather than dialogue.

At the end of one episode, you have one vampire sitting alone in despair beside a tomb, the main character Elena crying and being comforted by her friend Bonnie, the other vampire hurling his diary in disgust at a wall, and then you have a girl named Caroline, sitting and eating a lot of junk food on her bed with a boy named Matt, and they're in love. I am so envious of that kind of dynamic, tonal movement from despair, heartbreak, despair, first love. Can you do that in fiction? In a short story? I've been thinking about ways to replicate it, but you can't replicate it exactly. Maybe in poetry. Maybe in a novel.

GIGANTIC: Yeah, I love novels with a bunch of colliding character storylines like that. I have that going on in the book I'm working on right now, and you totally crave that intercutting moment.

LINK: There's a YA novel that I often reread, Life Is Funny by E. R. Frank. It has multiple points of view, very fractured, and it does have that emotional richness that comes from finding POV characters in very, very different places.

GIGANTIC: I found A Visit from the Goon Squad thrilling for that reason.

LINK: That's a book where you have a bunch of different emotional tones, and a bunch of very different structures at play, and the structures and the emotional richness are tied together. Life Is Funny is also structured unconventionally. It's stream of consciousness, rather than being a very straightforward book.

I've just sold a collection and a novel to an editor at Random House, Noah Eaker, and I'm very happy about it. The collection, Get in Trouble, will come out in 2015, and the novel I will start working on as of any minute now. I think that it will be a coming-of-age story. It will be set in Florida, and I think it will be a haunted house story.

I'm going to go back and reread a lot of novels that had really surprised or really thrilled me, as a kid or an adult. I'm going to reread The Haunting of Hill House again, I'm going to reread Cruddy by Lynda Barry, and I'm also going to reread Flowers in the Attic, and Love Story by Erich Segal. I'm going to reread Toni Morrison's Beloved. The reading part is going to be to be a lot of fun. We'll see how the writing goes.

Addendum by Kelly Link:

There are two excellent vampire novels out at the moment: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King. Here's a list of thirteen other favorite vampire short stories and novels:

"My Dear Emily" by Joanna Russ

"Feesters in the Lake" by Bob Leman

"Luella Miller" by Mary Wilkins Freeman

"Sunbleached"  by Nathan Ballingrud

"Younger Women" by Karen Joy Fowler

"The Autopsy" by Michael Shea

"The Lady of the House of Love" by Angela Carter

"Granny Grinning" by Robert Shearman

The Vampire Tapestry
by Suzy McKee Charnas

The Dragon Waiting
by John M. Ford

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
by Holly Black
Thirsty
by M. T. Anderson

Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality
by Paul Barber


--

Kelly Link is the author of three collections, including
Magic for Beginners. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, will be published by Random House in 2015. Link and her partner Gavin J. Grant run Small Beer Press, and are editors of the forthcoming anthology Monstrous Affections (Candlewick).

Meghan McCarron's fiction has been shortlisted for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, and her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in
Gigantic Worlds, The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Unstuck. In her other life, she is the editor of Eater Austin, a restaurant, bar, and nightlife blog.

Illustrations by Andrew Bulger. Andrew Bulger is the in-house illustrator of Gigantic.
 
 
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