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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 6:06 AM EST

KR: I can easily imagine Mitt Romney in that stable, actually. For me, whatever humor there is in that story came from the contrast between the high oratorical, self-important speech-making impulse, and being stuck in this animal body. Just this fly-covered, sweaty, form.

MJ: What kind of horse would Mitt be?

KR: Don't you think he'd be some kind of thoroughbred with a really fancy lineage that he would trot out a lot? He'd have racehorse ancestors going back to the revolutionary days that he would find some way to keep mentioning. (Russell emails me later to suggest a Shetland pony.)

MJ: The frontier figures pretty prominently in your writing—the Great Plains, the homesteading era, unexplored parts of the Everglades, the Antarctic. Where have you personally confronted the frontier?

"You enter this strip mall, faceless, Burger King world, and then you're in the swamp."

KR: People will say the Everglades are like a curated, museum version of what they were, but that place feels genuinely ancient and foreign to me every time I go. And it's such a stark frontier, because you enter this strip mall, faceless, Burger King world, and then you're in the swamp. The frontier narratives are so interesting because they push humans into the frontiers of their personalities, you know? I think it really is true that strange things happen in frontiers that far out.

MJ: You seem kind of concerned with how events can morph into myths upon the recounting and how those myths later affect people's realities. Your vampire character Clyde thinks at one point, "You small mortals don't realize the power of your stories." Can you talk about this?

KR: I was thinking about how things pass from present time into history into memory, and then into myth—and the afterlife of an event in a body, which can be lifelong. That must be a personal obsession, because it kind of kept driving along the stories in this new collection. Like these hauntings. In, "The New Veteran," the veteran hasn't figured out a way to tell the story of what happened to him abroad and is really haunted by the loss of his friend.

In a really different way, I thought about the movement in Swamplandia! as being of that same trajectory. So this kid gets completely enmeshed with all of her family myths. She's like, "We're alligator wrestlers. We live in an Edenic park. My mom is the most famous and most beautiful. My sister talks to ghosts." There all these things she accepts really uncritically. It's not like you can do without stories, right? She just figures out a way to get herself out of the swamp by really consciously telling another kind of story.

MO: Do you find yourself distrusting history texts, or the media? I get a sense of that.

KR: So much trouble is created by a completely uncritical faith. In even really beautiful myths, the underdog can triumph. Certainly that's true sometimes, but to tell the story where the underdog is the victor, sometimes you exclude other kinds of structural injustices, or you put all the emphasis on the individual and you're not really looking at the forces that create underdogs. So I guess that's a way of saying thank goodness we have historians and official histories, but you know, definitely it's good to kind of look around corners and see who's excluded or omitted. And I'm pretty pessimistic that you could ever tell a complete story. People are always operating in a blind spot. It's a pretty partial vision that we have of our own motivations.

"I'm pretty pessimistic that you could ever tell a complete story... It's a pretty partial vision that we have of our own motivations."

MO: How do you plan to do research for your next novel, set in the Dust Bowl era?

KR: I probably will just have to fly out to Oklahoma at some point and beg some ancient man named Wendell who's in his nineties to ride me around his property.

MO: As a Pulitzer finalist last year, did you feel like you had been duped when they didn't award the prize for fiction?

KR: There's some part of me that's still processing that situation like a boa constrictor, at a really slow rate. But there's just no way for me not to be grateful to those nominating jurors; there's something wonderfully validating about getting to be on a shortlist that includes David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson. And I loathe and avoid controversy. So it was kind of interesting to briefly feel wrapped up in, you know, a controversy.

MO: I'm curious what being named a New Yorker "20 under 40" writer does for your career.

KR: Oh man, it's all been amazing since then. Gold flooded in, celebrities started taking me out to lunch. It was all five star. My financial worries are done! No, you know, it's funny, lists are always completely subjective, and fluke-y and strange, but I was really honored because I loved so many of the other writers on that first list that they did, like Junot Díaz and George Saunders and Antonya Nelson. That's all kinda neat to get to be invited to that treehouse club. I mean it's still a big struggle. You still deal with rejection and doubt, and none of that's changed at all. One concrete difference is that now that when I go home for the holidays, my relatives seem relieved.

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