There once was a man whose wife was dead. She was dead when he fell in love with her, and she was dead for the twelve years they lived together, during which time she bore him three children, all of them dead as well, and at the time of which I am speaking, the time during which her husband began to suspect that she was having an affair, she was still dead.

It has been only in the last two decades that the living have been in the habit of marrying the dead, and it is still not common practice. Divorcing the dead is still less common. More usual is that the living husband—or wife—who regrets a marriage no longer acknowledges the admittedly tenuous presence of his spouse. Bigamy is easily accomplished when one’s first wife is dead. It may not even be bigamy. And yet, where there are children concerned, the dissolution of a mixed marriage becomes stickier. Thirteen years after they first met at a cocktail party in the home of a celebrated medium and matchmaker who had been both profiled in The New Yorker and picketed by conservative religious groups, it was clear to both Alan Robley (living) and Lavvie Tyler (deceased), that there were worse fates than death. Their marriage was as dead as a doorknob.

Kelly Link

Kelly Link is the author of two collections: Stranger Things Happen and the forthcoming Magic for Beginners, which includes the story “The Great Divorce.” Link is also the editor of the anthology Trampoline and she co-edits the zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet with her partner, Gavin J. Grant. Link’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines, including McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Conjunctions, and The Best American Short Stories. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
KL: Several years ago, an editor named Dave Daley was commissioning stories for a McSweeney’s project. The idea was to see what happened when authors gave themselves no more than twenty minutes to write a story. Twenty minutes is so fast that there was something about this that felt like automatic writing. I wrote three pieces this way, and each of them ended up becoming much longer stories. Paul and Popsicle were one of these writing exercises. I was very fond of them as characters (particularly Popsicle, although she really isn’t in the story at all. She’s one of those nice, ordinary people who seem to act like magnets for craziness.) Then, for a long time I didn’t know what to do with them.
HT: How did you come up with the concept of the living marrying the dead?
KL: For the last few years, I’ve been obsessively watching zombie movies, and also writing stories about the ways that the dead haunt the living. (If you want a story about zombies which provides some historical context, try Andy Duncan’s “Zora and the Zombies” or Nalo Hopkinson’s anthology, Mojo: Conjure Stories.) And marriages are great fun to write about as well. What I didn’t write about in this story that I wish I had: the gift registry for the living and the dead; the bachelor party; the wedding ceremony; etc. But of course this is a divorce story. I had the title pretty quickly. And the idea of the marriage counselor. (My dad is a psychologist. He has a pretty strange sense of humor.)
HT: Why did you choose Disneyland as the setting for this story?
KL: Theme parks are just such odd, spooky places, although that’s not how you’re supposed to see them. There’s a great novel by Patricia Geary, Strange Toys, in which the young protagonist gets on a water ride and ends up in a really eerie version of “It’s a Small World”. There’s just something about how supernaturally clean a successful theme park is, and there’s something ritualistic about all the rules you need to follow (“You must be this tall.”). It always feels as if there are things going on just out of the corner of your eye. Rides disappearing into dark corridors. People screaming. Park employees wearing these incredibly bulky, claustrophobic costumes—they’re trapped! There are crowds and crowds of people and yet you can see how quickly things would fall apart if a theme park were abandoned.
HT: What does the anecdote of Paul & Popsicle say about consumption and love, and how does it apply to the dead and the living?
KL: I guess I was thinking of the stupid things people do to prove how much they love someone. The way that loving someone can turn into something like performance art. And how, when someone has died, you are convinced that you’d do anything in the world to make it so that they were still alive. I could also say that the real starting places for this story are the classic children’s book How To Eat Fried Worms and Peter Straub’s short story “Hunger.” (Think of this as a literary mash-up.)
HT: When did you realize that the narrator of this story was a dead person?
KL: Not until I got to the last third of the story. I started to wonder about who was telling it, and whom they were telling it to, and why. This is really a story about three marriages, only you don’t ever find out much about the marriage at the center of the story.
HT: How does “The Great Divorce” fit into your new collection, Magic for Beginners?
KL: It’s not much like most of the other stories, and I was glad about this. It’s great to start a new story and realize that it’s not going to have the same voice and pacing and narrative arc as the last couple of stories. I’m more or less my own editor: Magic for Beginners is published by Small Beer Press, which is me, my partner, Gavin J. Grant, and a handful of interns. So as my own editor, I was extremely relieved to discover that I was about to finish something new. It was the last story I wrote for the collection.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
KL: Well, I wrote the middle part of it several years ago. And then, recently, I started a new story which turned out to be part of the same story. (I love stories in stories in stories.) After I realized that, I had a first draft finished in about three days. Some stories seem to take about a year to finish. Other stories take much less time, and usually I’m fonder of the faster stories.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
KL: The writer Karen Joy Fowler says that writers should lead fairly boring lives, but have friends who lead lives full of melodrama. Or something like that. This seems like an excellent idea to me, although tough on the friends. What I recommend is finding another writer and working together in a public space three or four times a week—a café or a library. This is how I get most of my writing done. It’s an extremely companionable way to work.
HT: What are you working on now?
KL: I’m working on a story about sleeping people, a story about superheroes getting drunk in an abandoned theme park, and also on a couple of young adult short stories. And I’m reading a lot of short fiction for one of my freelance jobs. (I’m one of the editors of the reprint anthology The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.) We probably read around 3,000 stories every year.