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Monstrous Affections panel interview

monstrous affections panelists

Kelly Link, Sarah Rees Brennan, and M. T. Anderson

When you meet an author you admire and he says, “Hi, I’m Tobin,” it might be best not to say, “I know! …Sorry, that’s probably creepy.” Luckily for me, M. T. Anderson and his Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales colleagues — author/editors Kelly Link and Gavin Grant (who also own the mostly adult indie publishing house Small Beer Press) plus contributor Sarah Rees Brennan — are extremely gracious as well as extremely talented. And, obviously, they have an affection for the creepy. Fellow Horn Booker Shoshana Flax and I sat down to chat with the four writers prior to their Brookline Booksmith panel event on Wednesday, October 22nd.

Shoshana: I notice that in the acknowledgements you credit Cassandra Clare and Holly Black with inspiring the collection. How exactly did that came about?

Kelly: I think we were all in a car coming back from an event and we were talking about vampire stories. Cassie said it did not make a ton of sense to her that a very old vampire would want to hang out with a bunch of teenagers. In fact, she felt that it was much more likely that a vampire would want to hang out with people who were old and of his own generation. It seemed like such a melancholy riff on the vampire story, and we thought it would be great to ask people for other kinds of monster stories.

Katie: Did certain authors immediately come to mind?

sarah rees brennan

Sarah reads from “Wings in the Morning.” One of my favorite audience questions (from a very serious tween boy): “What about harpies makes you think they would make good lovers?”

Kelly: Yes. Tobin and Sarah were at the top of the list. We sent out queries and Sarah wrote back and said, “I am going to write a story about a boy harpy for you!” [“Wings in the Morning”] I thought, This is not a story that I knew I wanted, but I do! Almost everybody we asked had a monster story they wanted to write.

Shoshana: So there was no comparing of notes among the authors? Everybody had distinct ideas?

Gavin: We didn’t have to say to anyone, “No, we’ve got a boy harpy story. (Or a monster hill story.) Sorry, we’ve got two leviathans.”

Katie: Tobin, the monster in your story — the monstrous hill Gavin mentioned — is so… unusual. How did that come from the prompt? And Kelly and Gavin, what exactly did you say in your query?

Gavin and Kelly [together]: Not much.

Tobin: You originally said that you wanted it to be specifically about love and a monster, in any permutation.

Gavin: We wanted their relationships, right.

Tobin: I had read a story a few years before in The Fortean Times about a kid in India who had to marry a hill to save his village — from drought, in that case. And I’d been reading a lot about WWII and the home front, so I thought, Combine the two things, and there you go: love for a hill!

Katie: There are monsters in this collection who are so human, and then there humans who are monstrous. What do monsters teach us about being human?

Sarah: There is a poem that starts “When is a monster not a monster?” and the answer is “Oh, when you love it.” Which, of course, encapsulates this collection’s title very nicely! I think monsters teach us about being human through not seeming human to us. Ariel in the sea was a totally normal person, but she realized that she would be a monster to the person she wanted to get with. So she realized that she had to undergo a terrifying transformation. The moment when we realize we don’t need to undergo a terrifying transformation for love, or when we realize we already have — through loving someone — gone through a terrible transformation, that’s the moment when everyone becomes the opposite of monstrous.

Katie: Which monsters — either from the collection or elsewhere — do you feel the most affection for?

Tobin: I really love the Dover Demon, who is one of our local monsters. 1970s Dover, Massachusetts: kids are driving down the street and their headlights pick out this very frail little body with a giant watermelon head. Several other people saw him the same night, and it’s never been explained. I love the idea of something without much of a mythology to it, but at the same time it’s kind of an unexplained and unexpected guest.

Sarah: Particular-gendered monsters, like the banshee (obviously, because Irish pride) and mermaids — and harpies, in fact — allow me to talk about gender. The idealized form is this form; what happens when you find out your form isn’t the ideal form? It led me to spin off to other fantasy species and talk about their various ways of approaching gender, which meant I had a running joke about misandrist elves.

link and grant_monstrous affectionsShoshana: We loved the pop quiz in the book’s introduction. What would you do if you saw something move in the dark of the storm drain?

Kelly: I would book it! I’m a huge coward.

Gavin: Close the door. Go back in the house.

Tobin: I have a belief that nothing interesting ever really happens, so I quite frequently do stupid things because I assume that nothing exciting will happen as a result. I’m sure that I would walk right toward the thing moving in the drain — while, in fact, the audience on the other side of the screen yelled, “You fucking idiot!”

Gavin: You were actually replaced by a monster a couple years ago. We saw the video.

Katie: You just never noticed.

Tobin: That’s right! I forgot about that.

Gavin: You were walking around in a forest and you disappeared. So we don’t know what you are!

Kelly: I think people or characters are either plot-averse or drawn toward plot. Tobin is clearly drawn toward plot; I’m plot-averse.

Sarah: You always try to pick a protagonist who’s drawn toward plot, and then sometimes you wind up with a plot-averse protagonist and you’re dragging against each other: “I have good reasons for this!”

Kelly: See, I suspect plot is everywhere.

Katie: Maybe the secret to making interesting things happen is to pretend they never will.

Sarah: Be the skeptical friend!

Kelly: Be like, “Surely nothing bad will happen now.”

Tobin: You mean, be Scully? But then you find out you’re weirdly pregnant with a monster.

Sarah: But Scully — you know, her unbelief proved things that were true. Mulder was just sitting in his office for years being like, “This paperclip could be an alien,” and then she arrived and everything started to snowball.

Katie: Do you have favorite scary short stories that aren’t in the collection?

Sarah: I’m thinking of those one-line, super-scary short stories on Creepypasta. There’s that one where the child asks his father to check under the bed, and then he sees the child under the bed, saying “There’s someone in my bed!”

Tobin: That’s a good one.

Kelly: There’s a pretty misogynistic short story called “How Love Came to Professor Guildea.” It’s the same era as M.R. James. It’s about a guy who teaches at Oxford or Cambridge and does not believe in anything spiritual at all. But something follows him home and begins to distress him. And he has a parrot, and the parrot begins to repeat things to him, begins to say “I love you” and things like that. Finally he flees on a boat and is pursued by what is clearly a brainless, loving entity which he can’t see but which is clinging to him.

Sarah: I’ve just remembered Roald Dahl’s short stories and how they terrified the marrow out of me. They’re just… not right. That baby being fed royal jelly.

Tobin: Oh, that’s a great story. There are a huge number of horror stories that I love. After reading Nathan Ballingrud’s story [“The Diabolist”] in this collection, I went out and got his short story collection North American Lake Monsters and absolutely loved it. The neat thing is that they are supernatural stories without being horror, necessarily — unless the horror is just the way we interact anyway. I found them moving and sad more than frightening. But I think that at my age you can’t really go for fear or else you’re likely to have an infarction.

Sarah: It is true that after the Creepypasta stories I have to sleep with the nightlight on. I’m thirty-one years old and this is what it’s come to!

Katie: Were there any stories that weren’t written specifically for the collection but were anthologized from another source?

Gavin: They’re all published here for the first time, but somebody did drop out, and Kelly got one of the stories from someone who was in one of her writing classes.

Kelly: I think there were two stories that we ended up taking from workshops: Greg Purcell’s “The Mercurials” and Nik Houser’s “Son of Abyss.”

Gavin: And they add such a range because they’re so different.

Kelly: This entire book is basically an occasion for us to ask people to write us scary stories. And occasionally when I teach someone writes a scary story, so we asked if we could see [students’ stories] for the anthology, too.

Sarah: I bet they were all a decent size too. So sorry again! My story ran long.

Tobin: Oh, yeah. Mine did too.

Kelly: It’s not like you wrote a novel!

Sarah: I was like, “Kelly, it’s thirty thousand words; what should I do?”

Tobin: Add another three thousand and call it a novel!

Kelly: I assume you guys know that Sarah wrote an entire novel that goes with her story.

Sarah: It’s a free novel. Well, the world kept niggling me after the thirty-thousand-word debacle. (Kelly and Gavin very kindly and very adroitly cut the story down for me but it’s still scandalously long.) I thought, “I’ll just write a little short story [on my blog] and promote the anthology. Well. I didn’t know my blog had word limits. Cool. Ok, it will come in a couple of parts.” Yeah, twelve parts. Over a hundred thousand words. It’s a problem.

Katie: And it’s all on your blog?

Sarah: Yeah, it’s just on my blog!

Tobin: Jeez, is it a continuation of the story?

Kelly and Sarah [together]: It’s a prequel!

Katie: This is your second anthology with Candlewick; the first one was Steampunk!:  An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. What’s coming next?

Kelly: We would love to do a third anthology with Candlewick. We have some ideas and we’ve talked some with [editor] Deb Noyes about them.

Gavin: So we hope that will work out.

Kelly: We would really like to do that.

Tobin: Are you just being cagey so you don’t have to ask us for stories?

Kelly: No, no!

Katie: Actually, you guys need to commit right now.

Kelly: We would really like you guys to write a story for a collection that we have not sold yet.

Gavin: Oh, that always goes well with writers.

Kelly: First invitations!

Sarah: And there’s your own collection, Kelly…

Kelly: Sarah has a novel [Unmade] that has just come out…

Sarah: No, I said your own collection, Kelly!

Kelly: I have a collection that will come out in February, an adult collection.

Tobin: And what is it called?

Kelly: Get in Trouble.

Brookline Booksmith staff member: There are at least two copies on the shelf directly behind you, in galley form.

Katie: Ooh, can I have one?

Tobin: Is it a Small Beer publication?

Kelly: No, it’s Random House. And you have a book that Candlewick is bringing out?

Tobin: It’s next year.

Gavin: Sometime.

Tobin: Sometime!

Kelly: We all work really hard.

Sarah: Constantly nose to the grindstone.

Gavin: Cocktails after this?

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.



  1. Lauren Adams says:

    Great interview, Katie and Shoshana! What a fun group. Looking forward to Monstrous Affections.
    p.s. Hope you got to those cocktails.

  2. I was tempted into buying the anthology after being linked to Sarah Rees Brennan’s aforementioned prequel novel on Tumblr, and I could not be more glad! It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed a short story collection so much and this interview, too, was a treat!

  3. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    We didn’t! But Kelly is coming back to the Booksmith in a few weeks so maybe we can talk her into it then. 😉

  4. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    So glad you liked the interview, Jess! It was such fun to do.

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