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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Karen Russell: The Interview

In 2006, Karen Russell's marvelous collection of stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, charmed critics and readers alike, and was a great favorite among Powell's employees, too. Entertainment Weekly raved, "Weird, wonderful....These stories are part Flannery O'Connor, part Gabriel García Márquez, and entirely her own. (Grade: A)"

Adding to the hype was the fact that Russell was, at the time, only 25 years old. She's swept the "young writers" lists — the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35," and now the New Yorker's "20 under 40."

Swamplandia!, Russell's new novel, is the fantastical story of the Bigtrees, an alligator-wrestling family, living in and running the theme park Swamplandia! on an island in the swamps of southern Florida. Ava Bigtree is a remarkable 13-year-old who's struggling to hold her family, and the theme park, together after her mother dies. Her brother, Kiwi, has left home for the mainland and is working at the World of Darkness (a competing, and hilarious, theme park) to bring in some money, and her sister, Ossie, is being possessed by the spirits of her dead lovers. In a starred review, Booklist praised, "Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell's archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air." A luminous and enchanting exploration of grief, love, and family, Swamplandia! is an original and gorgeous read from an incredibly talented young author.

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Jill Owens: Swamplandia! is an expansion of the short story "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," which is a story in your collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. What made you decide to turn the story into a novel?

Karen Russell: I think it was decided for me. I was in graduate school at Columbia, and I'd written this short story that just kept going. It was like kudzu. It ended up being 40 pages long, which is way too long for a short story. I had been having novel-envy of my classmates who were writing longer pieces, and it seemed so nice to settle into a world for a while.I had been having novel-envy of my classmates who were writing longer pieces, and it seemed so nice to settle into a world for a while.

Some of the stories in St. Lucy's are set on glaciers, or in the distant West, but the setting in "Ava" and Swamplandia! is close to home. A lot of the raw material came out of what it felt like to grow up in south Florida. Somehow I think it was that combo: a world that felt really personal and real to me, and the characters from "Ava Wrestles the Alligator." When I got to the end of the story, I didn't really feel like it was over. I wasn't content to leave the characters frozen there.

It's always had a weird trajectory. My editor helped me cut it down to story size, because, in the beginning, it was too long to be a short story. And then it was blowing the short story up into a novel. It was like some sort of strange accordion-thing for a long time. [Laughter] Like something from Alice in Wonderland, where I kept trying to figure out what scale was right.

Jill: Did the novel end up going in similar directions as the original 40-page story?

Russell: I haven't read the story in awhile — it's like a yearbook photo. I can't go back and read that stuff. [Laughter] But I think that whatever is at the heart of the novel is also at the heart of the story. Whatever animating force made me want to write that story, it was the same engine for the novel. Something about the sisters' relationship, and their relationship to place, and their particular hauntings. I think that the seeds of it were probably present in the story.

Plot-wise, a lot surprised me. I had no idea that the World of Darkness was going to crop up. I didn't have Kiwi in mind, and he ends up being the comic-relief aspect of the novel. But the mother's absence is a big presence in the story, and her absence ended up being the catalyzing grief of the novel, too — the sense that their mother is dead and their world is in decline.

Emotionally, there's a big through line, and plot-wise, it was very exciting to see what shook down. The World of Darkness theme park is sort of like a dark Disney, and I loved that, because I'm a big goon.The World of Darkness theme park is sort of like a dark Disney, and I loved that, because I'm a big goon. It was a nice counterpoint to the Ava story, which I thought would be the more fantastic story, and in some ways the more nightmarish, dark thread. I had a lot of that in mind as I was writing, but I didn't know other things. Certainly the ending surprised me, too, so there were a lot of surprises along the way.

Jill: In the novel, you do a great job of emphasizing the foreignness of the outside, mainland world to the Bigtree family — Kiwi's first experience with night school is one great example. The story is entirely set on the island, so that contrast isn't there, and their world feels almost entirely self-contained and enclosed.

Russell: It was fun to send an astronaut Bigtree out into a world that feels closer to our real world. I had imagined a ratio of the real to the fantastic, and in my head it looked beautiful. It was going to be this helical, Watson-and-Crick-type ladder, a gorgeous DNA structure. Ava was going to be on the more fantastic track and Kiwi's track would be more straightforward. It was exciting, because I didn't have that much experience writing on any kind of realistic mainland. It would be a little closer to our shared consensus of reality.

But then, as I was writing Kiwi's section, I thought, my God! This is just as insane, or more insane, than anything that's happening in the world of Swamplandia! It was in more of a comic register, and it was definitely exaggerated, but not by much! You should go to south Florida. [Laughter]

It was fun to play with those ratios. I had an image of it as a more straightforward Kansas/Oz dichotomy, but then, as I was writing, it was really fun to play with those ratios and think, for someone who had such an outsider's view, how truly crazy some of those things were, like going to night school or trying to navigate this adolescent world of minimum-wage employees at a theme park. All of his struggles ended up feeling epic and ridiculous at the same time.

Jill: Southern Florida itself is so surreal, it's hard to know what's real and what's imaginary in the story. I grew up in the south, which I still think is a bit more surreal in general than the rest of the country, but then added to that is this incredibly bizarre tropical environment, which amplifies it considerably. I kept thinking, does that really exist? Are there really bird men who get rid of the buzzards?

Russell: Oh, I'm glad it reads like that. That's a huge pleasure of writing for me. One of the nicest compliments I got after St. Lucy's came out was when this woman came up to me after a reading and said, "I've been looking everywhere for the crab sleds. Where do I find the crab sleds?" She was referring to the crab sleds in my story, which are sleds made out of the shell of a Pleistocene giant crab — which don't exist! I don't know why that made me so happy. Possibly she'd just walked out of an asylum. [Laughter] Fortunately, the interaction ended at that point, so I could never verify. Maybe she asked the next man if he was the president.

Jill: The setting seems so fecund and so rife with possibility that I think, sure, there could be giant crabs somewhere down in the swamps. I wouldn't rule that out.

Russell: I think it speaks to how totally batshit that environment feels, the true strangeness of that place. Why shouldn't there be bird men? One of my favorite things I discovered while researching the book were these Calusa shell mounds. They're fantastic; they're whole islands. There are communities built up on what are essentially islands created by whelk and oysters and other things, and no one really knows why they're there. There's a lot of speculation. Some people think that they're middens, that the Indians had big seafood feasts and then threw the shells away. Some people think that they're for ritual purposes. But they are haunted islands, made of shells from the distant past, on which now there's a bait-and-tackle store. So it really is just in the bedrock down there.

Jill: How much research did you have to do — into alligators or theme parks or the ecology of Florida's swamps, for example? How much of that information did you just grow up with?

Russell: It turns out I knew very little about Florida history.It turns out I knew very little about Florida history. It was very humbling. I read this excellent book by Michael Grunwald, The Swamp, which was a big primary source. All that stuff was essentially in my backyard, and I knew very little about it. I had not heard until now about the Indian Wars — is that possible? I didn't know much about how the Seminoles wound up in the Everglades. I was really stunned by a lot of that.

I think one reason I didn't know much about my state's history is that it's a pretty recent document. It really was like the blank part of the map for a lot of the country's early history. Nobody was really living in south Florida. It was really sparsely populated. So that was all new to me.

As for the alligators — I swear to God, if an alligator walked into this apartment right now, I really think I could incapacitate it. [Laughter] I'm forgetting it now, the way you forget information after a test, but there was a period where I really believed I could do it. I was like, "Let there be an alligator that crawls out of the sewer, and I'll save everybody. I will stop that alligator so fast!" [Laughter]

I was watching a lot of disturbing alligator videos on Youtube. None of this made it into the book. This was just wasted time. I watched some poor man lose his hand at a Chinese zoo, and I was like, "Well, that's not going to help me at all to write this literary novel, but now I'm responsible for one of the four million views." [Laughter]

Jill: After reading the book, I have faith in you. I'd totally trust you to subdue an alligator.

Russell: My editor, thank God, was like, "You need to take some of this alligator stuff out. It's fine for you to know this, but..."My editor, thank God, was like, "You need to take some of this alligator stuff out. It's fine for you to know this, but..." I think I did need to know it, to make me feel like I could have license to imagine some things fully, but at a certain point, I was making all these terrible emotional metaphors based on alligator anatomy. "It was like the nictitating membrane." [Laughter] My editor said, "Yeah, that's got to go. Sorry."

There was a really intense scene where Ava was looking for a wedding ring inside an alligator, the alligator had swallowed it, and my editor said, "Hmm. I think readers might get a little distracted by the HORRIFYING GORE." [Laughter]

But for a while, I was convinced that I could do large-animal veterinary medicine. I hope someone certifies me.

I fought to keep in the gastroliths. Gastroliths are amazing metaphorically. They're stones that alligators swallow, like chickens swallow grit, to help them with digestion, and they also have some hydrostatic functions, so they help the alligators with buoyancy. And I only ever want to use science for dumb metaphoric purposes, so I did in that scene. But they only let me save that one little bit. [Laughter] Imagine much, much more of that. I kept saying, "You don't think this will amaze readers?" and my editor would say, "Ehhh..."

Jill: I thought that gastrolith scene was really beautiful, actually.

Russell: Oh, my God, you're my target demographic. Yes! [Laughter] This book is for you. I'm going to send you all the pages about herpetology that I excised.

Jill: Since you brought it up, how do you think about your prose in terms of image and metaphor?

Russell: I don't know if it's a problem, like there's just a lot of associative tissue in my brain or what, but I really have to try to be a little disciplined about metaphor. As a writer, it's such a pleasure for me — and as a reader, too. I love the way Virginia Woolf will just throw metaphors at you like Frisbees. What can be difficult about it for me is that it's tough to balance that with the fact that readers want to know what's going to happen. They want to feel like the book is moving forward.

I love having child narrators like Ava, because I think that kid logic is still really alive for meI love having child narrators like Ava, because I think that kid logic is still really alive for me, and so much of it is associative. So much of it is trying to understand the world of adults in your own terms, which, for kids, references whatever they're drawing on. Ava's a very weird kid, but I think, for all kids, there's some animist logic, there are comic books, fairy tales, etc. The logic of the book works in this metaphoric way for Ava, because she's trying to understand what's happened to the family in the terms of her private, child's-eye world. A lot of that ends up being by analogy.

And also, I don't know if it works, but I was thinking a lot about how the Everglades is the perfect physical setting to stage a novel about grief. There are huge tracts of it that feel very monotone, and it feels endless. It's like a sawgrass prairie — grass that has actual teeth and seems to go on forever. I can't imagine a better physical analogue in the real world for what moving through grief feels like emotionally.

When I was researching this book, there was an amazing picture of one of the early explorers' expeditions, and it showed a quote from this man — I'm paraphrasing now: "It's three o'clock. The swamp goes on limitlessly, endlessly. It looks the same in every direction. Henry started crying from the fear of it." It's the idea of these men, in the afternoon, looking out, and there's no horizon line. It's all the same. I like the idea that there could be a story set in the real world with real consequences, but the setting lines up with grief. That's been my experience with grief, anyway, moving through that kind of landscape.

Jill: The Spiritist's Telegraph isn't a real book, is it?

Russell: No, it's not. I was reading Nicole Krauss's amazing The History of Love, and Borges does it, too; I love it when writers reference a secret book inside the book. And The Spiritist's Telegraph is the perfect one, because I only give little excerpts of it. I like the book within the book to be a perfect mystery. I wanted to do that more. I really loved doing it.

Jill: Did you play with Ouiji boards and things like that when you were a kid?

Russell: Oh, yeah. It's such a weird split, where boys are getting up to whatever trouble they're getting up to, and then you've got these preteen girls who are like, "Let's talk to the dead! Doesn't that seem like a fine game for a slumber party?"It's such a weird split, where boys are getting up to whatever trouble they're getting up to, and then you've got these preteen girls who are like, "Let's talk to the dead! Doesn't that seem like a fine game for a slumber party?" Isn't that awfully weird? Milton-Bradley's made this game, so go talk to the dead, girls! Popcorn's in the den. [Laughter]

And everyone just accepts it as a matter of course. While the boys kill men in video games, you girls go talk to Bloody Mary in the mirror. [Laughter] It's super bizarre. It looks weirder and weirder the older I get. Like that's the way the girls are. Let's get some dead people on the horn! Now it's time to break for snacks.

Jill: And afterward, we'll watch a Molly Ringwald movie!

Russell: Exactly! [Laughter]

Jill: In an interview with Tin House, you said, "When you're a kid you do have this sense that the whole world is haunted — well, or maybe I was just a very weird kid!"

Russell: You know, it's funny. I'm reading Room now, and I really love it. I think Emma Donoghue gets that voice so correct. I don't know if you've read it, but the child protagonist has this intense animist relationship with all of these objects. He's like, "Now it's time to put Cup on Saucer." I mean, he might not be a typical boy because he's locked in a room, but I've talked to other people who also have striking memories, like, "I thought the number eight was a woman." When you're a child, you invest everything in your world with these qualities.

So there's that weird period — which hasn't ended, for some cultures — where everything feels alive. Organic and inorganic — those distinctions aren't really clear, and you're just spraying everything with consciousness and relating to it in a very intimate way.

I grew up near the water, and I was a little bit of a loner, and there was this mangrove — a sort of mucky — area, and I loved going there. It was always exciting because new stuff would come in on the tide. It was like an eternal Christmas, where stuff was always washing up, and it was beautiful. It was as beautiful as the natural world that Ava inhabits. And now, it feels dumb to say it, somehow, but I really did feel a love for that place that felt very personal.

Jill: I don't think that's dumb at all.

Russell: I know. But I don't want people who are reading the book to think I'm crazy. [Laughter] I did an interview with this German magazine where they asked, "What is in your apartment? Do you have an alligator skull?" I thought, oh my God, everyone thinks I'm insane. I looked sane; I was wearing a Gap anorak. And I said, "No, I have a microwave oven." [Laughter]

So, just so you know, it's not like I'm talking to the dead myself all the time. It's not like I've ever seen a ghost, or had any kind of paranormal lovers.It's not like I've ever seen a ghost, or had any kind of paranormal lovers. [Laughter]

Jill: In an older interview, I found what you called your first story in its entirety, which I loved: "Once upon the time there was a forest of peaceful unicorns. Then there was a flood!" [Laughter] You were talking about how writing might be connected to anxiety and loss. Do you still think those concerns apply to your writing?

Russell: I definitely think that's the case. This seems sort of reductive, but I think it would be hard to find a writer or any artist who's not trying to take the raw stream of experience and capture something and construct something there. Why I love to read is that I feel like you have this little plateau. You have another place that you can exist in and reflect on — how cheesy to say — what it means to be a person, what it means to be alive.

Definitely, with this book, a lot of it grew out of this really weird secondhand nostalgia I have for the place that Florida was. That's come down to me through the stories of my parents and my grandparents. So it's not a place where I could ever physically exist in this life. Like the Dredgeman's Revelation in the middle of the book — I loved writing that so much because it really did feel like, for a little while, I was in a world that's vanished but that gave rise to the place I call home. That was great. It felt like a really spooky pleasure to be able to do that.

Jill: This is kind of an odd question to ask such a young writer, but how do you think your writing has changed?

Russell: It was really exciting to try this novel because it felt like a big stretch, for a lot of reasons. A lot of the stories in St. Lucy's have a first-person narrator and have some other similarities. I think I had a kind of gravitational thing going, where I was writing about some of the same things. Then I thought about it in both directions, like if something was good, I wanted to be able to do it again, but I don't want to just plagiarize myself, and I also I want to grow up — you know? It's the same as life, just in writing terms.

For better or for worse, things lately have been a little darker, and as I mentioned with the Dredgeman's Revelation, it was very exciting for me to try the third person in something that felt fantastical and also historical. That was different. In St. Lucy's, the only experience I had like that was when the Minotaur pulled his family west in a wagon.

I always love to have something — I worry about the word magical because every time I use it I feel like I'm putting a doofus-y wizard's hat covered in stars on my head. [Laughter] But I do think it's going to be exciting to keep playing with the ratio of fantasy and reality. I'm reading The Illumination right now by Kevin Brockmeier, which is totally great, and it's so inspiring to see what he's doing on the sentence level, but also the way he's using the fantastical premise to reveal something that feels central about our nature. Nothing about it feels whimsical and light. It's a really profound book. George Saunders is somebody else who is writing stories of incredibly moral force, and what permits him to do so is the way he's writing these parables for our time. They're really wild and crazy. So it's exciting. I find people like that really inspiring, and I hope I can do something as ambitious as their projects.

I would love to try to do adult relationships. That's sort of green terrain for me. We'll see how that goes. I would love to be able to get an adult romantic relationship among equals. It's a brave challenge. [Laughter]

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I spoke to Karen Russell by phone on January 18, 2011.

Books mentioned in this post

One Response to "Karen Russell: The Interview"

    David Martin January 26th, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I should have known alligators have gastroliths (my roommate for a while was a young world expert on crocodilians, soon to be on his way to Papua New Guinea). But Russell has me wondering. How do alligators find suitable gastroliths in rock-free parts of Florida like the Everglades? If I set out a pile of egg rocks from Home Depot on an Everglades tree island, would gators come to choose nice ones?

    And if Florida's bad for stones, how about all-mud southern Louisiana?

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