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In my grad writing program, we read a novel a week. Aside from writing exercises, this had the biggest impact on me. Immersing myself in quality writing from a range of genres and then deconstructing these books in class improved my own writing immensely. Reading frequently and performing close readings helps you get a feel for the rhythm and flow of effective writing. Here I dive into “The Summer People” by Kelly Link, author of several short story collections. This story comes from Get in Trouble, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist.
Kelly Link’s Short Stories: Blending the Mundane With the Weird
Link’s writing is best defined as magical realism, where she injects relatable characters into surreal landscapes. She’s an expert wordsmith, building evocative worlds out of concise sentences.
My close reading of “The Summer People” will focus on description and character development, starting with the opening lines.
Fran’s daddy woke her up wielding a mister. “Fran,” he said, spritzing her like a wilted houseplant. “Fran, honey. Wakey wakey.”
First, the story immediately hooks you with its unusual comparison. The question arises: Why is her father spraying her with water to wake her up? The alliteration of the “w” creates a pleasing cadence, forcing us to savor each word. Even the juxtaposition of “wielding”—a verb typically reserved for weapons—and the benign “mister” compels us to continue reading.
Turning the Dial on the Narrative Universe
Link begins with a familiar scenario but sprinkles in odd details.
Fran had the flu, except it was more like the flu had Fran. In consequence of this, she’d laid out of school for three days in a row. The previous night, she taken four NyQuil caplets and gone to sleep on the couch while a man on the TV threw knives. Her head was stuffed with boiled wool and watered-down plant food. “Hold up,” she croaked. “I’m awake!” She began to cough, so hard she had to hold her sides.
The line “it was more like the flu had Fran” shows how a sickness can take our body captive. The phrase “boiled wool” is vivid and odd yet appropriate.
This passage represents the power of Link’s writing. She takes a familiar topic, twisting the dial regulating her narrative universe ever so slightly until you notice something is off but can’t place it. By the time her stories veer off into all-out weird territory, you’ve become so immersed in the characters that the progression feels natural.
The phrase “gone to sleep on the couch while a man on the TV threw knives” is dynamic because it involves simultaneous actions on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Subtly Weaving in Suspense
Her daddy was a dark shape in a room full of dark shapes. The bulk of him augured trouble.
Here Link integrates suspense. Why would the “dark shape” of Fran’s father suggest “trouble?”
As the story unfolds, we learn more about Fran’s father. He’s an alcoholic infamous for his bootleg liquor, the “sweetest in town.” Occasionally the voice of God intervenes, compelling him to abruptly destroy all the liquor before delivering it to his clients. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t make them pleased.
Whether it’s to escape the wrath of his clients or to repair his conscience, he often leaves town for religious conventions. That’s where he’s headed now. Never mind that his teenage daughter has the flu. We learn all this in a few succinct sentences:
When he wasn’t getting right with God, Fran’s daddy got up to all kinds of trouble. Fran’s best guess was that, in this particular situation, he’d promised to supply something that God was not now going to let him deliver.
Rather than take us out of the narrative with a long backstory about her father’s troubled past, Link gets right to the point.
Building Character Bit by Bit
A master at character building, Link uses a few carefully selected details to reveal relationships and motives.
We learn that Fran has a lifetime obligation to the mysterious (and needy) “summer people.” Since their sole form of communication is through voices in her head, it’s hard for her to put off these obligations for long.
With her dad gone, she asks the rich, shy Ophelia to help her out by giving her a ride, knowing the eager-to-please Ophelia will say yes.
…somewhere between the school lockers and the Robertses’ master bedroom, Ophelia seemed to have decided that the ice was broken. She talked about a TV show, about the party neither of them would go to on Saturday night. Fran began to suspect that Ophelia had had friends once, down in Lynchburg. She complained about calculus homework and talked about the sweater she was knitting.
One interesting thing about this passage is Link’s decision to reveal their conversation through paraphrase rather than direct quotes. It makes the exchange move quickly on the page. We learn that Ophelia and Fran are not super close, that neither of them are popular, and that Ophelia is so lonely that given the chance to converse with someone, the words pour out of her with reckless fervor.
Integrating Backstory Without Getting Bogged Down In Exposition
When Ophelia drives up to Fran’s house, Fran reveals her home’s backstory:
“It’s old,” Fran said. “Needs a new roof. My great-granddaddy ordered it out of the Sears catalog. Men brought it up the side of the mountain in pieces, and all the Cherokee who hadn’t gone away yet came and watched.” She was amazed at herself: next thing she would be asking Ophelia to come for a sleepover.
The last sentence provides crucial information about Fran’s character as well as a key shift in her relationship with Ophelia. Normally guarded, with a disdain for Ophelia’s sugary sweetness, Fran finally opens up to Ophelia. This suggests a burgeoning friendship. It also hints that Fran craves companionship just as much as Ophelia does.
An Epic Journey Doesn’t Have to Be an Epic Length
Finally, after Ophelia undergoes a dangerous mission for Fran, braving the house of the summer people (who hold war re-enactments with real guns and cannons and have a mysterious room that, in the tradition of “Bluebeard,” must never be entered) to retrieve flu medicine for Fran, their friendship is solidified:
“I think I’m going to be much better,” Fran said. “Which is something you’ve done for me. You were brave and a true friend, and I’ll have to think how I can pay you back.”
In just a few pages, then, we have a complete character arc and a classic hero’s journey.
Applying Kelly Link’s Style to Your Own Writing
By deconstructing Link’s language, dialogue, and decisions on what information to reveal (and not to reveal), we can learn how to make our own writing more intriguing and captivate our readers.
Again, you can accomplish this with:
- an attention-grabbing opening
- gradual introduction of off-kilter elements
- subtle foreshadowing
- revealing character through carefully-chosen details
- concisely integrating backstory
Kelly Link is one of my biggest inspirations. She has a lightness to her writing that keeps you turning the pages and is always taking you in unexpected directions. You can order Get In Trouble below.
Tell Me: How has reading improved your writing? Which authors have influenced you the most?