In March 2011, Poets & Writers ran a profile of Karen Russell which included a little robin’s egg of an excerpt from her then-new novel Swamplandia!. I read it while on an exercise bike and had to stop pedaling. A few months later, I retweeted a publicity tweet from her publisher, Vintage Anchor, and won a copy of the book I’d glimpsed in P&W. I devoured it like one of the alligators central to its plot might devour a squirrel, then bought her previous short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and gulped that one down, too. In both books, Russell conducted a sort of marvelous flirtation with speculative fiction, placing her characters—mostly kids and teenagers—in bewildering, semi-magical situations perfectly calibrated to open the cocoon of adolescence and drag them into pain and knowledge and growth.
Her new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, embraces speculative fiction wholeheartedly (and cocoons, too, for that matter). From the titular immortal citrus-suckers to a portentous flock of seagulls to the unnerving appearance of what Russell calls an “urban scarecrow,” the surreal phenomena in these stories break your heart but leave your suspension of disbelief completely intact.
Russell was superlatively friendly and easy with a laugh as we talked over the phone about humor, sentence-level craftwork, and, of course, US presidents reincarnated as horses.
The Rumpus: After writing such a brilliant and well-received novel, you returned to short fiction. What was that like? Is there sort of an itch short fiction scratches that long fiction doesn’t and vice versa?
Karen Russell: I think there is an itch that’s only scratchable with a story—although that sounds like something from a medical textbook and I’m just speaking in some weird euphemism. I definitely think that there’s a pleasure really specific to the short story form. For readers too, for reading and writing. It’s funny because I didn’t actually think that I liked short stories until I got to college, basically in the way you preemptively decide you don’t like something because you’ve never tried it. The first collections that I read were, I think, Flannery O’Connor and Junot Díaz and George Saunders.
Just something about the range that’s possible in a story collection. I think they’re sort of narrow and deep in this way. You can really come at some of the same themes and preoccupations from different angles, sort of like turning the facets of a little jewel. And then you can also hop bodies and continents, so there’s sort of this pinwheeling freedom, but there’s also this way you can maybe achieve a composite portrait of something that’s different than what you can do with a novel. You can occupy these really different points of view from story to story.
I missed it! I loved writing that novel, too, I really loved it, but I spent maybe half a decade of my life inside of it, so…whatever that energy is when the Incredible Hulk just sheds all his workaday clothes. I think I had some kind of sidesplitting need to just try on different skins again and move around a little.
Rumpus: And you’re working on another novel now, right?
Russell: Yes. I am. Very slowly.
Rumpus: Your voice just dropped like an octave.
Russell: I know! I became a baritone man! It’s a tricky thing at this particular moment because I’ve been talking about the story collection so much, and now I have some kind of false and disgusting wistfulness because that book is done. I’m so happy to celebrate something that is finished, that made it out of my brain and has an ISBN number. I sort of forgot about the chronic panic that comes with working with something where you just pray to god that it develops into, you know, a book that others can live in. There’s no guarantee of that. The funny thing about a story versus a novel is that with a story, I have so many stillborn story drafts or ideas that never really developed. They’re just in carnival jars of formaldehyde somewhere. That loss is acute, but I don’t think it’s as acute as throwing out a hundred pages of a novel, or the possibility that the novel’s not going to pan out at all. It’s just a different investment of your resources. I sort of think there’s a way I can take more risks in a short story sometimes, just setting up wilder premises, because if it doesn’t work out, it’s not like you forfeited two years of your life.
Rumpus: You’ve talked a lot in interviews about how you’re drawn to adolescent characters, and most of the characters in this book are around adolescence. But I was interested to see that there are not a lot of relationships with siblings portrayed, which is something that is sort of expected of adolescence—with the exception of Nal and Samson, who don’t have the greatest relationship. Instead, you kind of have these stand-ins for sibling relationships, like the soldiers in the tattoo story, the teenage clique in the Eric Mutis story, or the sports fans in the tailgating story. Is that something that was in your head, or did it just sort of happen that way?
Russell: That’s really interesting. I think in both Swamplandia! and my first short-story collection, sibling relationships tended to be at the heart of many of those stories. I’m really close to my own siblings, so I think that’s sort of just my template for the really elastic, really resilient love that you can have with siblings. There’s also this sense of twin selves or alternate reality versions of oneself.
I know that I very consciously didn’t want to keep repeating. I was interested in having different kinds of relationships at the fore in these stories. I thought the biggest stretch for me in some ways was “The New Veterans,” that relationship between this older woman and this young sergeant. But I do think that’s true. I wonder if that’s just generally the case, that you can look back at the family and read that template and see the way the characters are always recreating that dynamic. So soldiers as brothers, or definitely I think there’s a sisterhood in that textile mill in the “Reeling for the Empire” story. I’ll have to think about that some more. I’m not sure that was anything I was consciously aware of doing, to have kind of substitution relationships.
Rumpus: I feel like it’s really difficult to eliminate all autobiography from fiction, and I was wondering if that’s true for you, and if so, how does that work inside speculative fiction?
Russell: I think that’s a really smart question. I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate autobiography. On one level, I’m always sort of suspicious when I hear writers say, “Oh, there’s not a shred of autobiography in there,” because I’m never sure…do they just find a moon rock and make their story out of that? I think you’re always drawing on your lived experience and your emotions to imagine. You’re always imagining out of your own lived experience—what other set of references do you have?
I don’t think I’ve ever used material from my own life that directly, because I need to find a way to recast it. I think so much of the pleasure for me is creating a whole world or getting out of my small self and moving into a new territory or trying out a new voice. Only then do I feel capable of writing anything that feels remotely emotionally true. If I was writing as myself in Philadelphia, it would be the most boring story in the world—and probably false. I think I would be too self-conscious and hyperaware to really say something that felt true or meaningful.
I think a good example of doing sort of a body hop is [writing about] not just presidents, but presidents as reincarnated in the bodies of horses [in “The Barn at the End of our Term”]. That doesn’t feel like memoir—hopefully—but I think there is some emotional autobiography in that story to the extent that it’s about bafflement and these larger metaphysical questions and the idea of letting go of a pet delusion, letting go of a beautiful fantasy and confronting loss in a really painfully direct way. Which is what the horse has to do with the sheep, which sounds kind of ridiculous out loud, but I think it wouldn’t have pulled my interest or mattered to me if I hadn’t found some way to use that. There’s always going to be some emotional autobiography in there, and for me it’s a question of transposition or maybe an octave shift.
You just have a different metaphoric alphabet if you have access to both fantastic and “realistic” registers.
Rumpus: It’s funny that you mentioned the sheep, because that was actually my next question. Your stories have an amazing sense of humor, but the humor always seems to be paired with something tragic or terrifying, and the blind sheep, to me, was the ultimate example of that in this book.
Russell: I’m glad that that was terrifying—thank you! I also think that’s really deeply awful! In the beginning, when I set out to write a story, I almost always thought it was going to be just a straight comedy. I just thought it would be something absurd and really funny. In life, I’m always telling bad jokes, too, and I just didn’t see myself as a writer of tragedy. If the story worked at all, it was only because I had invented some comic premise and then something shifted, or there was some way my subconscious sneaked a weightier story into the package that I had created.
I really have no idea when that sheep trotted into the story. I can’t remember now, but I guess I must have had some sort of intuition that of course everybody’s fantasy of the afterlife is that they’ll be reunited with their loved ones. In this world or in any other, that just seems like one of the most painful illusions to be divested of. I guess what’s comic about that image is the same thing that makes it so tragic. It’s like coming at that idea from different angles or with different intonations. So it’s really funny that this powerful man has been reborn as a horse and is trying to seduce a sheep into admitting she’s his wife in heaven, but the degree to which that reality is so, so far from any kind of heaven anyone would want to occupy, and the frantic way that we’ll still chase our original theory, the amount of evidence that we can be confronted with before we’ll let go of that theory—I think that’s what’s comic and tragic about it.
Rumpus: It almost seemed to me like the humor arose naturally from the scary or sad parts. I mean, what is humor but a coping mechanism for difficult things in your life?
Russell: Right, right. Or a way to acknowledge something through laughter that would be almost unbearable to admit to your conscious awareness. Also, I should just say that I don’t think that story works for everybody. I find in stories and in life that my own sense of humor, my siblings say, “You’re going for a 30:70 ratio, you just throw stuff out there.” Maybe thirty percent of it will land. But with people that I really love like Calvino or Kafka, who are getting at these really universal absurdities and limitations and just how blinkered our vision is, laughing is a way you can acknowledge that as a community. I sort of love that. If everybody is laughing at something, you know that you’re all engaging with some kind of fundamental absurdity or injustice together in a way that is rarely ever possible in speech or polite conversation. Sometimes I think it can be an oblique way to get at some pretty monstrous truths.
Rumpus: I know it’s kind of boring to ask about your influences, but you mentioned Flannery O’Connor at the beginning of the interview, and I saw her all over this book. Is that fair?
Russell: Yay! I’m always afraid that if I claim her as an influence, she’ll come back and kick my ass. She’s such a powerful, ferocious woman. I think I would have to apply to Flannery in her own afterlife for permission to claim her as an influence. I feel the same way about a lot of these women like Carson McCullers or Katherine Dunn, who wrote Geek Love. They’re just ferociously intelligent, powerful writers, and that makes me shy about saying, “Oh, for sure!” It’s like claiming Shakespeare or the Bible as your influence or something. But I do really love her stories, and I think there’s something about her vision of the world that I felt a great kinship with the first time I read her. She’s such a weirdo, too!
Rumpus: I feel like you both have a lot of images that are really symbolic, but the reader doesn’t even recognize them as symbols because they’re so multivalent and come so naturally from the story. You just absorb them and understand them.
Russell: I’m glad to hear that. Basically, my teaching involves just quoting Flannery O’Connor to students, and George Saunders. Just badly paraphrasing them. She has a wonderful essay where she talks about how if you want to say the wooden leg is a wooden leg in “Good Country People.”…She’s talking about her own drafting process, and I think somebody is asking her about how she inserts symbols into her stories, and she says, “If you want to call the wooden leg a symbol, it is that, but it was a wooden leg first.” It had a literal, concrete importance to the story. It arose naturally from the landscape of the story, and there’s nothing “inserted.” It feels absolutely essential to the story’s plot, and then it accretes meaning as the story rolls forward.
I’ve never had much success if I decide early on, “Oh, I think I’ve found my scarlet letter!” Usually the story will present something that then, on its own, develops a deeper meaning or keeps getting complicated.
Rumpus: I’ve seen you say in interviews that you take a lot of joy in writing at the sentence level, and I think that comes across very clearly to the reader. What, in your opinion, makes a good sentence? What sort of sentences do you aspire to write, and how do you know when you’ve succeeded?
Russell: Some parts of [writing] really are so mysterious, like the forensics of how a story came to be. It’s just such a funny labor. I feel like I understand sentences sometimes in a way that’s more intuitive. I’m finicky about them.
This was a while ago—I wrote about bullfighters for GQ, and I was trying to get these ancient Spanish bull breeders to explain to me how you knew what a noble bull was. They all kept saying, “The noble bull, the Iberian bull,” and they would give me these tautological answers. They would pause for a moment and then be like, “Well, the noble bull is the bull that does noble things.” “It’s the one that looks noble.” Which was not helpful, it turns out, when I was trying to tell what made a really excellent bull from just a mediocre bull! But that’s me: “You know a good sentence when you see one. You know it when you hear it.”
Some of the most excellent sentence writers I know are Denis Johnson, Flannery O’Connor certainly, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Toni Morrison…I think if you want to memorize a sentence, that’s a good sign. If there’s some way that sound and meaning are working in harmony. For me, a lot of it is the music of the sentence, that there’s some musicality and that there’s a logic that comes out of the sound, that grows out of the way the sentence is tuned up. “A good sentence is hard to find!”
Rumpus: Yes, perfect! Is there a way that writing sentences lets you into structuring or building character or things like that?
Russell: That’s a fantastic question. This is cool, because I very rarely get to talk about sentences, and it’s funny because that’s the building block of the whole cathedral. It’s a hard thing to teach. I often get frustrated when I’m teaching, because the workshop is really well-suited, often, to talking about character and the arc of the thing and the overall shapeliness of a story or novel. Sort of thematic questions. But sometimes it’s hard to really get at sentence-level stuff and what a difference it can make if you ditch a clause that’s dragging your balloon earthward, or what a difference it can make if you use “scarlet” instead of “red.”
I know there are some writers who can forge ahead and write something, kind of sketch it out and go back and fill in and embroider. But I’m a slave to this demonic process where I don’t even know what I’m writing about. I don’t even know why it matters to me or where I’m headed. It would be like if you could fly in a plane over a vast territory and take in the panorama, versus [being] on your belly looking at grass blades, just shimmying forward. Obviously, the smart way is to get an aerial view and then descend to the jungle, but I’m always on my belly, feeling my way. Maybe that’ll change, but that’s how it’s been so far.
Doesn’t it feel like somehow there’s a way that sound is not just window dressing, like you’re creating this logic as you go? Virginia Woolf is so great. I used to bring a paragraph from The Waves because you can hear her writing through this rhythm, a galloping rhythm, and you see her sort of digging through the turf. It’s like these claws of images coming at you. It’s really beautiful, and she’s sort of inventing a syntax that can contain these really seemingly disparate images together. She’s, by force of her syntax, yoking really dissimilar images together and making this implicit argument just by the way she’s ordering color and language. It’s beautiful. I think sometimes she’s going at such a breakneck speed it’s really thrilling. It’s like feeling someone making meaning out of the ether.
And it’s so particular! I have friends that just love a really clean, spare sentence and staccato rhythms. It’s funny how revealing it can be about a person, what they prefer stylistically. I do really think that it’s false to talk about style as if it was something independent from the substance of what you’re writing.
Rumpus: Do you get a bunch of hyperventilating fans at readings? Do people stop you on the street? Because when I mentioned I was interviewing Karen Russell—which I was extremely excited to do—all my friends were gasping and fainting.
Russell: I don’t believe you, you kind liar! Maybe your friends all have asthma, did you think about that? Maybe they’re all asthmatics and really needed their inhalers, and it was just weird timing! That’s so kind, and crazy. What feels sort of miraculous to me is going to readings and people will bring the story collection I wrote six years ago or something. There are some charitable people out there who have now read these three books that I wrote, and that’s amazing. I’m really grateful for that. They come out of the woodwork and show up at readings. I wish I had little Subway sandwich cards you could punch, you know? It’s like five, six, seven sandwiches, get a free one. I just want to give these people something, because they’ve really stuck it out with me for a lot of weird loop-de-loops. If I manage to ever write this second novel, I’m going to put a little punch card in there.
Rumpus: What was it like when the Pulitzer that clearly should have gone to you went to nobody?
Russell: I don’t have a great answer for that yet, isn’t that sad? That’s a question where you know it’s going to be on the test, so why not just figure out what your answer is? It’s open-book, and I still keep fudging it. I basically feel really grateful to the three nominating jurors. I think that that is a vote of confidence beyond what I ever would have expected was possible, to be on that shortlist. The shock and joy of that has really carried me through any of the more negative, controversial stuff. I don’t have any better answer than that, than just that it really was unbelievable to me that Michael Cunningham and Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson, who were the nominating jurors, would put me up for that honor. I just hope that I can make good on that vote of confidence. I hope I can continue to grow and improve. I think I have sort of a Little League attitude toward it, where I feel like they put me in the game, so I want to do them proud now.
Photograph of Karen Russell © 2013 by Michael Lionstar.