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Powell’s Q&A: Karen Russell

Describe your latest book.
My latest book is a short story collection called Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Many of the stories are about monstrous metamorphoses — teenaged bullies in New Jersey, captive Japanese women converted into factory machinery, vampires in recovery. Human subjects converted into objects by violence.

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
I'd like to date Bone from Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone. Provided that I, too, were 14 years old — it would be a little Mary Kay Letourneau to date him now, at age 31. Maybe Russell Banks will write a sequel where Bone is an adult man on a Jamaican schooner and suitable as an imaginary love interest? Because I love that character. His put-on swagger and his anger and his complete vulnerability.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
For several years I worked as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic in New York City, a job I really loved and repeatedly failed at. At first I'd considered training as a vet tech, before it was revealed to me that none of my love for animals was translating into skill with animals or knowledge of their organ systems. "Don't feed your rabbit for 12 hours before the surgery," I'd blithely tell our clients, and then, remembering that this instruction was for cats, not rabbits, and that in fact I'd just given life-endangering instructions to the owner of Mister Flopper, I'd have to immediately call back.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
This is a passage that I particularly love from Joy Williams's story collection, Honored Guest. Who can't relate to the bewilderment of those cows? Or to Dennis, for whom daily experience has become mystifying and psychically indigestible? There was a season of my life when I'd catch myself reciting that last line a dozen times a day.

I don't even know how you'd look at someone, at anything, with your whole heart. Why, you'd wear yourself out. You'd become nothing but a cinder. Life would become intolerable in no time. Now, it sounds as though you had a very fortunate childhood until you didn't. It's what I always think when I see cows grazing in the fields or standing in those pleasant little streams that wind through the fields or finding shade beneath the occasional tree, that they have a very nice life until they don't. An extreme analogy, perhaps — well, yes, forget that analogy, but you have to move on, Dennis. Your life's not assimilating your days and that's not good, Dennis.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I sure have. It was a compulsory pilgrimage. I was in Paris for the first time, for the publication of Swamplandia!, and some rogue photographer who I believed was affiliated with my publisher but who was, in fact, some mercenary dude, met me in my hotel lobby and walked me over to Samuel Beckett's grave in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Which is a beautiful cemetery, a real city of the dead, with slums and tenements and high-rise graves made out of opulent green stones. Then he had me sit on Beckett's grave, in a thunder shower, and pose for the world's least flattering pictures. "Beauty is very serious!" the photographer kept screaming and screaming at me, while lightning forked through the sky over Beckett's grave and all the attractive French mourners fled this boneyard. So it was a combo pilgrimage/photographic abduction. I did feel a charge, sitting on Beckett's grave, although again, there was a lot of heat lightning that afternoon. If I'd known what was coming, I would have brought a banana to peel amid the tombstones or a beloved walking stick, or I would have dreamt up a fictional mother to curse, to pay true homage to the man.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
Kelvin, right? Duh! Kelvin sounds like a hermaphrodite foreign-exchange student from another planet. I'm picturing a redhead in a calf-length skirt and glasses. But this might actually be revealing a troubling lapse in my public-school education. Is Kelvin a way to measure temperature? Or conductivity or something? Ductility? Well, ignorantly, I stand by my preference.

Talk about your vision of the ideal life.
My vision of an ideal life is so boring. I'd love to have children one day. To have a permanent address where mail can come, and a Virginia Woolf–style Room of One's Own where I could keep on writing books, stories, and novels. To achieve some relatively serene ratio of teaching:writing:traveling. A dog — can I have a dog in my ideal life? A rescue dog that sort of prefers me to other people, even though, you know, she's really friendly? I've been moving around so much in the past several years that I think it would be heaven to have a small, quiet life where I can read for pleasure and visit green spaces. Maybe a life where I get to see my friends in a relaxed way and go swimming in the summers and see ridiculous movies in the theater. Impossibly, it would be so lovely to be a short commute from my friends and family. I'd love to play H-O-R-S-E on Sundays with my best friends and my brother and sister and their future offspring. Basketball utopia. Oh! There is also legal street parking in my ideal life. Actually, maybe buses take you everywhere. I'm in Philly at the moment and driving again for the first time in over a decade, and I'm terrified of vehicular manslaughter.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Turtles! For reasons unnervingly similar to my dating rationale above: turtles are as tough and old as the world but also so basically helpless and vulnerable. I'm sure I'd be the owner in the sad pet-store urban legend, though, whose gigantic, slow-moving turtle ran away.

Five extraordinary recent story collections:
After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh
The Uninnocent by Bradford Morrow
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black
Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell
You Think That's Bad by Jim Shepard

÷ ÷ ÷

Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in the New Yorker's debut fiction issue and the magazine's 20 Under 40 list, and was chosen as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Three of her short stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories volumes. Her novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program and a 2012 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is her second short story collection.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  2. Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories
    Used Hardcover $10.50
  3. Rule of the Bone: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  4. Honored Guest
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  5. A Room of One's Own Used Trade Paper $3.95
  6. Blueprints for Building Better... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  7. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You...
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  8. The Uninnocent
    New Hardcover $25.00
  9. After the Apocalypse: Stories New Trade Paper $16.00
  10. You Think That's Bad: Stories
    Used Hardcover $8.95

Karen Russell is the author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories

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