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Karen Russell's Fantastical World

The "Swamplandia!" author on vampires, python plagues, and nearly winning a Pulitzer.

| Thu Feb. 7, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Karen Russell

Women who morph into furred silkworms enslaved by the Japanese empire; vampires that rely on the "soothing blankness" of lemons to blot out their bloodlust; hoarder seagulls that stash scraps from the future in trees. Such are the strange creatures in Karen Russell's suspenseful new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which comes out next week.

Russell, 31, first made waves with the short-story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, unleashed in 2006 as she graduated from Columbia's MFA program. Her 2011 novel Swamplandia!, about a family running a threadbare alligator theme park in the Everglades, was a Pulitzer finalist last year (though no book received enough votes to win). And as her new collection hits bookstore shelves, Russell is already hard at work on her next novel, set in the Dust Bowl era. Though she was pretty tight-lipped about it, her story "Proving Up" in Vampires hints at the spooky Americana she's capable of.

In our early morning chat, Russell recalled Flannery O'Connor's reading of Kafka's Metamorphosis: "The truth is not distorted here, but rather a certain distortion is used to get to the truth." O'Connor may as well have been talking about Russell, whose tales flirt with the fantastical, but are rooted in darker realities—loss of innocence, PTSD, all-consuming ambition. Even as she transforms the everyday into a wriggling bestiary, replete with colorful hallucinations and ghosts, her most haunting bits rely on the depiction of human impulses. I asked a "coffee'd up" Russell about the wellspring of her imagination, her swampy backyard, and breaking into the literary treehouse.

Mother Jones: When did you start to think seriously about writing fiction?

Karen Russell: I took a fiction-writing workshop my sophomore year at Northwestern, and I hadn't yet read Junot Díaz or George Saunders, Flannery O'Connor. There was something so attractive about those voices. I heard about an [MFA program], and it just sounded like this magic thing, fairy-tale style—that there was a school you could go to exclusively for the thing you loved. I moved to New York with the derangement of love. I was writing all these terrible stories, but I had never been happier.

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MJ: So getting an MFA was worthwhile?

KR: Almost because it was such a weird, controversial decision. Financially, it's not a wise decision; I think most people in my MFA felt that. They became really serious about it because they had gone and done this crazy thing.

MJ: You've talked about being a slow writer, getting fixated at the sentence level. How do you know, then, when to scrap a story?

KR: I have friends who are capable of writing a very rough draft and then going back and embroidering—they're sort of the cathedral builders of fiction. I never really know what I'm doing, and all my pleasure's on the level of the line. It's a weird way to move forward. It's kind of like a way to caterpillar your way through these great woods. The best ones, whatever I feel like I'm writing about, some other secret thing will begin to come into focus.

"If you're gonna do something weird, just have one thing be weird."

MJ: You have a knack for making the everyday seem remarkable or surreal. Did your instructors try to rein in your wilder instincts?

KR: Yes. That was a big struggle, trying to get those ratios right. The first stories I was writing had a deranged lumberjack named Flapjack, or I had albino parrots. I remember getting advice, which for me as a young writer was maybe the wrong advice:, one of my Northwestern professors said, "Why don't you try to have some adult characters?" Any story I tried to write at that point in a realist mode or a mock Carver mode was so terrible, overly lyrical.

I got one good piece of advice from [author and associate professor] Ben Marcus in one of my Columbia workshops: If you're gonna do something weird, just have one thing be weird. Like a version of "blue doesn't show on blue." You want to have it feel real enough to a reader so that they care about what's happening within the confines of that story—you don't want the surreal elements to totally remove the story from the world of consequence.

MJ: So, how do feed your imagination?

KR: [Laughs.] Pharmaceuticals!

MJ: Because when you're a kid, it's bubbling out all the time, but as we get older a lot of things come in the way. So I'm curious how you keep yours so alive.

KR: The folks I read as a kid really set me up. I owe a huge debt to Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L'Engle. And Florida, I mean, you don't have to look far. It's like Carl Hiaasen, a writer I like a lot—he's always talking about how the headlines are so much stranger than anything you could come up with. I was just down there and there were all these posters all over Miami that say, "Wanted: Giant African Snail." Or there was like a plague of pythons loose. Why even bother writing fiction? My backyard was replete with madness, it just grew indigenously in South Florida.

MJ: What do you think poses the biggest threat to our imaginations?

KR: People really get myopic as they get older. We're not a culture that encourages dreaming or distraction. We're not ever good at just being. I remember reading some Adrienne Rich quote where she talks about how important it was just to watch bubbles rise in a glass.

I think there's this horrible image of the artist as this complete ego monster dreamer. I even find that with like artist residencies, you know? They're like, "Oh, you've got to remove yourself to the magic mountain." I do think there's something when you have an unbroken day, and it feels like you and your attention can just be together like birds again and you can actually think and dream a little.

MJ: Swamplandia! takes place in the Everglades, near where you grew up, but many of the subjects in Vampires in the Lemon Grove seem very otherworldly. How were they spawned of your experiences?

"My backyard was replete with madness, it just grew indigenously in South Florida."

KR: Even some of the wilder stories, like the story about this tailgater in the Antarctic—what felt familiar to me is that my own brother was a huge hockey fan in Miami. I can't even tell you all the ways that it's perverse, sort of like the Jamaican bobsled team, and the optimism and delusion involved. I've loved those narratives of survival and the doomed quest. Even, gosh, the presidents reincarnated as horses, that's definitely not autobiographical in any sense, but sometimes they just start out as these really dumb ideas. I was thinking: Why should the afterlife make any more sense than this life?

MJ: Why horses?

KR: Exactly! How totally absurd. What a tumble, from the White House to a Kentucky stable. I wanted something completely baffling, to them as well. A mystery that wasn't going to resolve.

MJ: Did you spend any of the past election year imagining how the politicians on TV might reincarnate?

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