A Very Precarious Moment: Talking with Karen Russell


I encountered Karen Russell’s work years ago while attending my first fiction workshop. Russell had come to the class as a visiting speaker and by the end of the class my decision was cemented, and my doubts were cast aside: I wanted to be a writer.

Reading Swamplandia! and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, I was fascinated and inspired by the ease with which Russell bent the rules of reality. She creates worlds that refuse to conform to the natural order of our own. Her style is reminiscent of fantasy and fairytales, myths and magical realism, but it doesn’t fall so succinctly into any category that already exists. Russell forges her own path in the literary world by taking the conventions of typical genres and playing with them until they fit into a genre all to her own.

A native of Miami, Russell’s debut novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She is a 2011 Gugenheim Fellow, a 2012 Fellow at the American Academy of Berlin, and a recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Grant. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon and her latest collection, Orange World and Other Stories, was released in May 2019.

I was fortunate enough to talk recently with Russell about Orange World and Other Stories. We spoke about love, loss, motherhood, and the dark hope we can glean from living in a fiery, uncertain world.


The Rumpus: My first question is about your writing style, which doesn’t seem to fall into any preexisting category. If you were to label or categorize your writing style into a genre, what would it be called?

Karen Russell: I think very few writers I know are doing that taxonomy as they’re writing, you know? But that’s not always true, I was just reading this beautiful conversation with Ursula K. Le Guin. She talks about how when she’s writing science fiction, she is very clear that that’s the genre she’s working in, those are the authors that she’s in dialogue with, and those are the conventions that she is deploying. And when she’s writing fantasy, it’s a different ballgame. So, I do think that it can be helpful. With this new collection, for example, I was conscious with the prospectors that I wanted to take a ghost story and see if I could do something new within the conventions of that genre. You know, see if I could tell a new kind of ghost story. In terms of where on the spectrum of realism to fantasy I would place these books? I don’t have a great answer.

Rumpus: Are there other books or authors that inspire this genre-bending?

Russell: The writers that I really love, there’s something totally un-categorizable about them. In recent years, Carmen Maria Machado’s collection, Her Body and Other Parties, blew me away. It seemed sort of gleefully slippery. Kelly Link, I’ve been a longtime fan of hers. And George Saunders. You know I think I started writing some of these stories in a golden age of fabulist faction. Kevin Brockmeier is a writer who I love, and I think he should be so much better known. He, too, even when he’s writing memoirs, he’s using conventions from science fiction and fantasy. And to see it happening in that medium was so inspiring for me because I was thinking, you know, you can just use all the tools, whatever tools you have at your disposal, to tell the truth. He has this amazing memoir, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade. It’s a memoir of his seventh-grade year. I mention it because I think we tend to think of these boundaries as firm and then in the middle of this book something impossible and unprecedented happens that actually lets him get to an emotional truth about being that age in Little Rock, Arkansas. And I found it so liberating. I think I really sought out, as a reader, writers that have a very flexible approach to genre.

Rumpus: Let’s get to your new book, Orange World and Other Stories. Most of the stories deal with the subject of death, but the final, titular story explores birth and motherhood, which seemed to be a hopeful conclusion. Could you talk about this particular story? How deliberate was the choice to end the collection of stories with a birth?

Russell: There was something exciting to me about landing on a hopeful note. You know, in my past collections, children tend to end up stranded on glaciers or just drowning in grief. “Orange World” felt right as the last story in this collection because the central metaphor of red, orange, and green worlds can be seen in all of the stories. I borrowed this metaphor from a class that I went to when I was pregnant with my first son in 2016. A couple people have asked me about our current administration and what role that played in the title. The answer is none, except that the world does feel fiery and uncertain right now. More so than it did even a few years ago. Everyone, no matter where you come down politically, everyone shares that sense that we are living in a very precarious moment.

And the metaphor that the educator gave us was that there is this green world, this fantasy of infinite attention and perfect security for our children. And then there is this red world, where a few people are living right now, right? I mean, someone is sitting in an ICE detention center now, somebody is trying to cross the border. The relativity of where you find yourself has never felt so pronounced to me. But the idea of orange world is that it is the world where most of us conduct our lives, in the overlap between these states of impossible heaven and real hell. And so, I think that this, as an awning for all the stories, was appropriate. I found myself wanting, even with all of them dealing with death, grief, and anxiety, I just wanted there to be a note of hope and some feeling that even if the green world feels impossibly remote right now, even that is a place that we can all imagine ourselves into. Everybody was nodding when this woman wrote this on the board during the class, it wasn’t like anyone was wondering what she was talking about. And that’s kind of amazing to me because this green world was nothing that any of us had personally experienced, but it was what we all wanted for one another and for these kids.

Rumpus: The story “Bog Girl: A Romance” has really stuck with me. Each character in Orange World has a peculiar connection with death, but the protagonist in “Bog Girl” literally has a relationship with death. I would love to know about the genesis of this particular story.

Russell: It’s true; I think that’s an excellent reading. That story has a long and strange gestation. I went to Dublin for this writer’s festival and I was traveling by myself. And you know how when you travel alone, you’re just riveted to your skin in this different way? You know, I just feel like when I’m traveling alone, I pay better attention. And time stretches out like taffy. It’s such a strange experience. And I went to the museum to see the bog people. I had read and loved Seamus Heaney’s poem about violence in Ireland and these bog bodies connecting this buried but undead violence to contemporary violence. So that was all humming in the background and I was so unexpectedly moved by the sight of these bog bodies. And there is something humbling, how you often have these lofty thoughts about death, and then you’re confronted with these crumpled bodies that seem so vulnerable and tender and not different at all from my own grandfather’s face. I was very haunted in the best way by that visit. And this was years and years ago.

I honestly am not sure how I got from Irish haunting to “Bog Girl.” But I also remember being simultaneously perturbed by this really bad romantic comedy that indulged in all the tropes, you know how boy meets girl and then love is this total projection. I was thinking a little about that, too, the violence that we do when we project our own fantasies and stories onto real bodies. Something about those two different images come together in this story.

And the final thing, I think, is that I was reading all about climate change and this thaw that was occurring throughout the world. Just projections about what is going to come to light as we profoundly revise the world and the atmosphere. So, those are some of the ideas that were bouncing around… And there is something about first love, that I think is connected in my mind to the first time, as a young person, you cut your teeth on death and loss.

Rumpus: That’s very true. When we fall in love, we become completely and utterly vulnerable. When we fall in love for the first time, we begin to understand what it is to fear losing someone.

Russell: I think for this particular character, part of the appeal of falling of love with a bog body is that they weren’t going to have any fights, or real precarity, or unwanted pregnancies. He thinks it will be this perfect love where nothing can go wrong. He thinks, You’re already dead, I can’t lose you again. Anyone listening to this will think that I wrote about a schizophrenic necrophile, but I think this is a really relatable desire—not to have to lose someone and still get to have a great big love story with them.

Rumpus: You mentioned climate change earlier, and I want to swing back to that. A few of the stories, particularly “The Gondoliers” and “The Tornado Auction” seem to touch on humanity’s failings in regard to the environment. The unnamed man in the former knows that his generation ruined the world for the next generation, and yet seems not to carry much guilt about that fact. The father in the latter story feels that he has a right to toy with nature in a very drastic way. Is there meant to be a message about climate change in Orange World and Other Stories?

Russell: I’m not sure that when I set out to write either of those, I had any kind of real agenda beyond just following these people and seeing what they would do in their various predicaments. But it was striking to me that that was a note that kept repeating itself in these stories. That was something that I kept learning about my own preoccupations. I really loved that tornado farmer; I identify with him in some ways. He really has this monomaniacal pursuit and he does seem, at times, able to understand the damage that he’s caused to his family. And also, his rationalization falls apart and he can feel, however briefly, that he is putting his world at risk. There’s that bit in the beginning where he admits that the climate is changing, that no one is unaware of that, but he doesn’t really see how he is complicit relative to these other corporate outfits. I am guilty as he is at finding ways to defend what is indefensible. You know, I raced home in my gas-guzzling car to have this interview.

We all know ourselves to be complicit and that is part of the horror of this feeling of being trapped; on the one hand, we have this increasing understanding of what is happening at the most alarming rate and on the other hand, we’re locked into these lifestyles. I feel no different from the farmer. At some point, he just says that this is the only thing he knows how to do.

As for “The Gondoliers,” I grew up in South Florida and I have been reading article after article about sea level rise and looking at topographical maps of our home underwater in the not too distant future. And I think Florida is a real frontier when they think about climate change and the devastation that seems imminent. I was thinking about that idea of how we’re going to have to learn another way. I thought if we could adapt the world in these dark ways, there’s a sort of dark optimism embedded into this knowledge of the future. Reality is profoundly malleable, and our own natures are probably malleable. I love the idea that in their own lifetimes, the sisters in “The Gondoliers” are going to evolve one another into some bigger “we.”

Rumpus: We can attempt to predict the future as much as we want, but ultimately, we don’t know what will happen. We can’t say for certain that we won’t survive the changing climate.

Russell: Yeah, I was just reading the introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale and Margaret Atwood was saying that nothing in that book is lacking in historical precedent. You know, you can look at the Crusades and the Salem Witch Trials. She has all of these examples of these ghastly abuses in our pasts. But I was thinking that yes, that’s true, but that can be a real error, making future predictions based exclusively on evidence from the past. I mean, it’s looking pretty grim for the planet but there are movements happening that give me hope that there’s a future that we need to imagine, and it might not look anything like the past. It seems like a lot of dystopian cinema and television and fiction is built out of the past, extrapolated from the past; there is less of a sense of some unborn world emerging.

Rumpus: David Hume claims that we have little or no understanding of the chain of causes and effects. Just because the sun has risen every day for as far back as we can remember, we cannot know that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

Russell: I love that, and I think that goes perfectly with this idea in “The Tornado Auction.” There’s this old man who feels some guilt, but it also seems bound up in a dark egotism. He had this role in the failure of the world and I think there’s something consoling about the apocalyptic ideas in a weird and sly way, I think maybe they sink up with the idea that this world won’t continue without us. You know, it’s easy to say, “I’m dying, obviously, but maybe this whole world is going to go up in flames, too.” There’s something about a really dark and miserable prediction that has its own seduction, to be able to say that we’re doomed.

Rumpus: Right, it’s easier to just submit to it.

Russell: It lets us off the hook in a way of undertaking some utopian project… I’ll have to call you tomorrow when the sun doesn’t come up. 

Rumpus: Or you can call David Hume; he’ll be the one to blame.

Something that comes up throughout your stories is the feeling of being stuck in one profession. In “Black Corfu,” the doctor believes that he cannot do anything else but the trade to which he has committed his life. In “The Tornado Auction,” the protagonist believes that tending to tornados is his only skill and therefore the only thing he can do with his life. Could you speak to this idea a little more? Do you believe that everyone has just one calling?

Russell: That was another surprise to me. I felt like I was writing very different stories with “Black Corfu” and “Tornado Auction.” One is set in 1620 in a dark reimagining of Croatia, and one is about a contemporary Nebraskan father. But really there is a lot of overlap. I think you articulated it beautifully, that they both seem to feel this is my one vocation, this is my one skill, I completely identify with it in such a way that the idea of doing anything else would be total annihilation. I think the tragedy of “Black Corfu” is of a different order. It’s about a man that has never had the opportunity to fully exercise his gift in the sunlight or to enjoy a fraction of the prosperity that other people on this island enjoy. There is less flexibility for that doctor in terms of re-conceiving himself and that feels like a very different kind of tragedy to me. A friend of mine, a sociologist, Avery Gordon, has a beautiful phrase; “The pain of being born into a contest which we did not design.” I think that’s probably true for all people. But there are different gradations of that. People have different kinds of agencies to write their own stories. I don’t think the doctor had much agency. I think the tornado farmer had and has a better shot at discovering some new way of existing. But in both of those cases the involution of that hope that makes them into monsters, and they both do become monsters in different ways.

Rumpus: I was wondering if there are any characters in Orange World and Other Stories to whom you relate more than the other?

Russell: I think the mother in Orange World, because it is the first story that I ever wrote that was so close in time to something that I was experiencing. She is a very differently ordered person than I am, but I’ve just never done that before. I’ve never tried to describe an experience as it was happening to me. And in that way, it felt like a more direct umbilicus… I don’t know…I really feel for the Joshua Tree spirit. That’s a weird answer, but I feel for that spirit. It’s just hard to be trapped in the cul-de-sac of a body. I can relate to that, you know?


Photograph of Karen Russell by Dan Hawk.

Frances Yackel studied philosophy and creative writing at New York University, where she learned how to pretend she was going somewhere important. The countryside of Vermont, or more recently the mountains of New Zealand, are as much her home as the Classics section of the nearest independent bookstore. More from this author →