Love! Magic! Zombies! A blog post in bullet points #writersandreadersnz

Blogging about Writers & Readers: Kelly Link, Denise Mina and Robert Shearman: Comics, Fantasy & Popular Culture.
Chaired by Dylan Horrocks.
Wednesday 14 March. 3.30pm, The Embassy

This was my favourite of the three events I’ve been to see so far this year. Dylan Horrocks in conversation with Kelly Link (short story writer and editor of anthologies,) Robert Sherman (writer of books with subjects diverse as the entire history of human civilization, a man who falls in love with the talking ghost of Hitler’s childhood pet dog, and critical essays on the X-files,) and Denise Mina, author of detective novels and writer of Hellblazer for a year. Like any good panel discussion, the conversation jumped all over the place, so I’m writing a blog post in bullet points to save myself the difficulty of having to tie it up neatly. So, in no order of importance:

– Robert Shearman talked about the fact that whatever he did in his writing career, he would still never do anything more famous than Dr Who. He is doomed to be haunted by it all his life, and says when he dies they’ll probably put a Dalek on his headstone. “Robert Shearman. He was exterminated,” says Dylan Horrocks. But Robert Shearman says it’s humbling to be part of something with such an enormous history.

– As a child, Kelly Link had a pet boa constrictor called Baby she used to bring to school, wrapped around one leg. It usually didn’t escape.

– Denise Mina said she had only had her website up for a day when she was approached to write Hellblazer. She sent DC comics back an e-mail telling them to fuck off because she thought it was a joke.

She says writing comics feels like a physically different experience to writing fiction, and that she thinks the paneling restrictions of a syndicated comic make the experience of writing somewhat similar to that of a haiku or a sonnet. She said a lot of fans were unhappy with a woman writing Hellblazer, because they thought she’d change the character (“and make him drink herbal tea,” says Mina.)

– Robert Sherman talked about writing fantasy, (or ‘the fantastic,’) and described a story he had written where Luxembourg suddenly vanishes overnight. Nobody cares, except for a woman whose husband has gone there on a business trip. He says that he likes to write stories with a reverse twist – to start out with the fantastic and work backwards from there. Rather than ending with a twist, he thinks it’s more startling to begin with an improbable situation, and them slowly narrow in. This way, you can start with some good jokes at the expense of Luxembourg, but then you can add emotional depth, which makes for a much stranger and more compelling story.

– Denise Mina is often told that her work ‘transcends genre,’ which makes her mad. She said that it’s all part of that low/high art distinction, and when people tell her that her books ‘transcend’ crime fiction, it’s the literary equivalent of someone saying ‘you’re not that ugly.’

She always makes a point of saying she writes comics and detective books, not graphic novels or thrillers. Kelly things that ‘transcending genre,’ is a way of people trying to ‘dignify’ the fact they enjoyed reading a piece of genre fiction. But she also says that snobbery goes both ways, and she’s been told by genre writers that her work doesn’t belong in sci fi. She says it’s important to remember that genre is first and foremost a marketing tool.

– A member of the audience asked Robert Shearman (who was an obsessive fan of Dr Who since childhood) whether he considers himself to be a fan-fic writer. He said that did, but he thought that fan fiction was an intelligent and creative solution to any issues an audience might have with an episode of a show they loved (he mentioned sexism and representation.)

There was lots of other amazing stuff discussed, but it’s disappeared into the black hole of my brain. Denise Mina told a hilarious story about the most irritating man she’s ever met on the plane, (who claimed to be a writer and first introduced himself to her by saying ‘an Irish lass was she,’) but I’ve never been a good joke teller, and if I try to put it down on paper it will bomb. I got my book signed by Kelly Link and she drew a picture of what’s either a dinosaur, or a spiky wolf. Here it is:

by Hera Bird, Administrator at Booksellers NZ and poet.

Kelly Link: Fantasy and Magic Realism #writersandreadersnz

Blogging about Writers & Readers:  Fantasy and Magic Realism
Monday 12 March 12.30pm,  The Embassy

If you’ve ever read anything by Kelly Link before, you’ll know she’s interested in the business of being dead. I don’t know what percentage of her stories feature some kind of reanimated corpse, but it’s definitely high.

At the Writers & Readers session Kelly Link read an excerpt from one of her stories about a boy who digs up the corpse of his girlfriend, who is pissed off at being exhumed and follows him around for the rest of the story. When asked why she had so much interest in the undead, Kelly Link said she had a friend who’s job it was to clear out the houses of dead people for a living. These people were usually hoarders, and it was his job to sift through their rubbish. At this point, I was pretty sure her story was going to involve one of the aforementioned dead people coming back from the grave to avenge the disposal of all their stuff, but it turned out her friend just salvaged a lot of old zombie movies, which they watched together. (Do old people really hoard zombie movies?)

She also said she read a lot of ghost stories as a kid, which terrified her. Her parents eventually gave her an ultimatum. Either she had to stop waking them up in the middle of the night, or she had to stop reading the stories. No prizes for guessing which she chose.

But Kelly Link says she’s always careful not to reveal too much about the dead. She talked about her experience teaching a class of college kids who weren’t into reading. She said that the thing that the kids were most interested to find out was whether the characters in their books were good people or bad people, and whether good things or bad things happen to them at the end. She said this was frustrating for her, and one of the things she now tries to do is write stories where that question is never easy to answer, but the stories are so entertaining that people have to keep reading them regardless.

In describing Kelly Link, people often start by talking about genre. Her Wikipedia page describes her work as “slipstream or magic realism: a combination of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery and realism.” I’d personally add a bit of fairy tale and black comedy to that list.

I usually don’t like talking about genre because it’s pretty unhelpful most of the time (unless you’re trying to shelve something,) but Kelly Link is totally untroubled by being categorized – after working in a bookstore for years she understands the importance of finding the right readers, and she said she’s learned to enjoy the experience. She’s even hilariously had calls from people who have discovered her book “Magic for Beginners” in the non fiction/ occult section of their local bookstore.

But one of the perks of being so hard to pin down is that nobody knows exactly what to expect from your books.

All the usual expectations of genre are out the window. I like Kelly’s work because it’s surprising and funny and she’s never afraid to take risks, or throw a couple of werewolves into the mix.

Even her writing style is unorthodox. She talked about how she often writes sitting at a table with Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, (two famous YA/fantasy authors,) and when any of them get stuck, they just pass their laptop over, and someone else will work on it instead. She said the key to being a good editor is not to try and turn someone else’s work into your own, but to really think about what they’re trying to achieve, and go from there.That’s one of the things I like about Kelly Link. She works collaboratively with her writing community.

Before she was widely published, she created a zine with her husband called “Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet,” publishing work by writers that kind of fell between the cracks of genre. She’s also currently involved in republishing novels by favourite science fiction and fantasy authors that have been out of print for years. One of her first books, ‘Magic for Beginners,” is available as an –e-book for free download on her website:

by Hera Bird, Administrator at Booksellers NZ and poet

IMAGE: Kelly Link from the Writers & Readers website