"In the real world, in the non-book world, there are lots of pieces of information that are mysterious or missing or just not there," Link says, afternoon sunlight upon her round, open face. "It can be boring and predictable, but that's maybe 15 percent of the time. Eighty-five percent of the time, it's bewildering, unfathomable."
She believes and doesn't believe, is inspired by the unseen without expecting to find a witch in her garden. Her one "supernatural" experience has been a heat-induced hallucination in graduate school, but on paper she is your friendly guide to the lives (and afterlives) of many a witch, ghost and zombie.
Readers send her mail, often illustrated, and critics compare her to everyone from Raymond Chandler to H.P. Lovecraft. Her debut collection, "Stranger Things Happen," was named by The Village Voice and Salon as among the best books of 2001. "Magic for Beginners" was a near-finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and cited by Time magazine as one of the best fiction works of 2005, ranked ahead of Ian McEwan's "Saturday" and E.L. Doctorow's "March."
"I get a lot of treats that fantasy writers don't usually get," she says.
The 37-year-old Link's success is also notable because she self-published her books through Small Beer Press (British slang, husband Gavin J. Grant says, for "small business"), located most conveniently in the back of her house and co-managed by the author and her husband. This fall, Link could reach a wider audience when Harcourt issues a paperback edition of "Magic for Beginners" with a first printing of 15,000 copies and a tour in at least 10 cities.
Her editor at Harcourt, Tina Pohlman, said she first heard of the author a few years ago when Pohlman's then-roommate recommended "Stranger Things Happen." Pohlman kept track of Link's work, and, after reading "Magic for Beginners," she met with the author and reached an agreement on distributing the paperback.
"I had lunch with my old roommate a couple of weeks after that," Pohlman noted with a laugh, "and she walked into the restaurant carrying 'Magic for Beginners' under her arm."
Link had always assumed she would have a career in books, expecting to become a librarian or store clerk. But reading books made her want to write them, and in the mid-1990s, her stories began appearing in a variety of small publications, including Century and Event Horizon. She soon won over such fellow authors as Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold and Jonathan Lethem.
"I can't think of another writer in the last five to 10 years who has given me such pleasure to read," says Chabon, whose novels include "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
"Beyond the fantasy and the science fiction and the creepiness she's so good at, she's just such a good writer. She has this strange combination of naiveté and sophistication mixed with a huge gift for language."
Born in Miami, Link is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who dropped out of the church and became a psychologist. (Link's religious faith is essentially limited to an aesthetic appreciation of the Book of Revelation.) Although her family moved around often, and her parents divorced when she was a teenager, Link has fond memories of her childhood and says the dislocation only deepened her appreciation of books.
"A lot of writers I know moved around when they were kids," she says. "It means you are liable to become attached to fiction, to stories you go back to. Books are portable. They don't change when you go back to them. You may read them differently, but the stories are the same."
Science fiction and fantasy were part of her reading early on, and the supernatural in her work seems no more unusual than a long-lost coat. "Think of the underworld as the back of your closet, behind all those racks of clothes that you don't wear anymore," she writes in "The Girl Detective," from her first book.
The story "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" begins with a husband composing a letter to his wife; the husband, we soon learn, happens to be dead. The theme is similar in "The Great Divorce," a tale of strife between the living and the nonliving. "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" is a boy-meets-girl story in which the anticipation of zombies becomes a rite of courtship.
Her fiction is often personal, if not autobiographical, a chance to cross the boundaries of the material world. Her television watching helped inspire the title piece from "Magic for Beginners," which features a surreal TV show and a cast of performers who regularly change roles.
"I was part of a close circle of friends who used to get together and watch 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' I was interested in the way television is a more communal experience than fiction in certain ways," Link says. "I also wanted to write a piece of fiction which did some of the things that television can't do."
She has well established her gifts for short stories, but has yet to write, and may never write, the kind of book that quickens the path to literary stardom: a novel. Links says she's tried longer pieces, but found the process "quite boring," and a distraction from her other work.
"I don't like what I'm doing at longer length; I'm forgetting how to leave stuff out. I feel I have to beat a retreat to short stories, so if I do write novels I don't forget how to write short stories," she says.
Writing of any kind has been difficult over the past year. She spent the spring teaching at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C.; travels often; and keeps busy with the Small Beer Press, which publishes books, chapbooks and the zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. She longs to read, watch "bad" movies and "sleep to the point where I become myself again."
"I feel as if they (her stories) are becoming too much the same. The better you get at doing certain things, the more careful you have to be about doing those things. You have to give up the stuff you're good at and move away," she says.
"Right now, I feel like I'm sort of stuck between the stuff I know how to do and the things I want to do next."