Karen Russell is the author of the story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and the novel Swamplandia!, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and one of the New York Times’ Top 5 Fiction Books of 2011. Her new story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, was released by Knopf in February 2013.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
First of all, your first novel, Swamplandia!, was optioned by HBO, so what’s the current status of that project?
In development, still in development. And I’m not even sure if that’s the industry lingo. I think they have a writer who’s working on it. The writer’s not me. I’m a consultant. And what those duties are are kind of fuzzy to me. So I think we’ll just have to see. I’m trying to be guardedly optimistic. I think a lot has to go right for something that gets optioned to actually make it on-screen, so I’m not promising my out-of-work friends jobs on the set holding the boom, or whatever, just yet.
So what sort of changes do you expect them to make to the story?
One of the big ones, I think, is just the idea of having a world vast enough to sustain seasons of TV, you know? Right now I think it’s the microcosm of this family in the novel they really focus on. And I think the novel turns pretty tragic. There’s sort of a funnier storyline with the brother, but the heart of the story for me was this little girl Ava who gets really lost in a very literal kind of a hell, the swamps. Somehow I think that will be, maybe, less of a focus of a TV series, and I think the show will shift, I think it will be weighted more toward comedy than tragedy.
So what sort of consulting have you done? Have you seen any scripts?
I have not even seen any scripts yet. I was in Berlin for ten months last year, so I was completely out of the loop. We had a couple of conversations about the palette of the show and the format and the degree to which South Florida would be, kind of, would it be more fictionalized? Would there be some kind of way to retain a couple different kinds of worlds, you know? Osceola sort of has this very dreamy surreal quality of those sections of the novel, so is there a way to juxtapose that with the grittier, tackier, goofier parts of South Florida? So that was the sort of consulting I did, sort of about tone and about how we might broaden some of the story lines and character arcs so that you could really sustain drama over time.
What were you doing in Berlin?
I was at the American Academy in Berlin, which is this sort of fabulous place. I was their lone fiction writer. It tends to be, they have fellows come—you apply for these fellowships to do your project. They consider your projects and they sort of wine and dine you and you get to live in this kind of academic hostel, I guess. It’s this beautiful house on the Wannsee. It almost felt too good. It felt a little Hansel and Gretel, they were taking such good care of us. There’s a composer, we had a visual artist, a social scientist, historians of science, you know, political scientists. It was good, it was a little like being in college again, or something, you know, a multi-generational college.
What was the literary scene there like, particularly as regards sort of surreal kind of fiction?
I think they were into it! I felt, I don’t know what it is in the water. I think there are a couple of precedents. You know, the Grimm Brothers come from that country. So they’re steeped in some pretty . . . they seemed receptive to some fairy tale-infused surreal tales. I felt pretty surprisingly, happily understood. And you know, that’s not a given. I feel like the stuff I write is pretty whacked out. I felt like, for whatever historical and cultural reason, that there was a good reception for that kind of thing there.
What do you guys say about that? When people ask about spec fiction and bring up fairy tales, how do you guys class that? I never know.
I would certainly consider fairy tales to be fantasy stories. A lot of fantasy is actually just appropriating the elements of fairy tales, but treating them in a more modern context.
Right. Right. I completely agree. And I’ve been reading Dune, which, I love that book so much, and I had forgotten that they had, as epigraphs scattered throughout the book, there are these kind of like a child’s history, you know, these fairy tales for kids about the contemporary history of this imaginary planet. Which, to route a fictional history of an imaginary place into a future, it’s sort of like he’s imagining a fairy tale of the future that is contending with something that has already passed from history into myth, but it’s all in this imaginary world. It’s just so exciting to see that kind of mirror of the function that fairy tales play here.
What inspired you to go back and re-read Dune?
You know you go on the road with books and then everyone wants to know about your influences and I was just thinking about how much I love that book. Something, too, it’s such an ecological novel and I feel like I’ve been reading so much about climate change and oil, energy crisis and this and that. And all of that is in Dune. It’s a really prescient book in that way.
Do you ever think you might write a big, sprawling futuristic epic like Dune?
Man, I just think that’s the dream. It’s sort of like, you have to be extra brilliant to write a book about that. To set up an entire, you know, sociopolitical, to do the work of reinventing all of these human systems in the future on a different planet. I would love to be able to, I mean, you see the scale I’m working at would be short stories, and that takes me forever. And so, I’m not sure the way my imagination works is quite matched by the scope of something like Dune. But it would be exciting to try.
You know, John and I, the first time we met you was at the New York Review science fiction reading series.
At that time you said that you were working on this novel about a family of alligator wrestlers and that it was a total mess, you didn’t know if you would ever finish it. So I thought it was funny to see what a massive success that book has gone on to be, given how despondent you were.
How despondent I was at that moment! Oh my god, I’m so glad, so glad that you guys remember that, because I would say that was probably—when was that, 2007 or something?—that would have been my valley of the shadow with Swamplandia!. I was like, whatever, the subway ads were looking really tempting where you can be a masseuse in six months. I was like, six months is soon and then I’ll have a career! I was having a hard time making the story-to-novel transition. Novels are scary, I think, because there’s just no guarantee that you’ll ever get to the end, and they’re just so demanding. I’m trying to work on a second one now and I’m horrified that it seems even harder. That doesn’t seem just.
I understand the new novel is called The Land: It’s Just Not That Into You.
[Laughter] Did I say that? That’s funny. I—
You definitely said that.
I shouldn’t laugh at my own jokes. [Laughter.] That’s the worst characteristic of a person. I’m sorry to be such an asshole. The other joke I made too many times, which wasn’t really that funny, was that I was gonna call it Drylandia, and my sister said it was like my rebound book where I was going to go deep into the dustiest part of the past to escape the limbo space of Swamplandia!. Yeah, and I think that in a weird way, I mean it’s not, I guess it wouldn’t really be classified as science fiction but it definitely feels like writing science fiction of the past to me, or kind of having these magical interventions in America’s actual past. But I mean, what Dune does, I think is by order of magnitude is more exciting than what I’m trying to do, because I still have a lot of bedrock that’s in place to work with and I’m really working with diaries and kind of the actual literal history of the dustbowl. So I’m not sort of moving from the ground up to set up a whole cosmos that functions with its own government and its own customs and its own literature that I’m citing throughout. It’s not quite at that level. But I really do think that there’s this way that writing historical fiction, writing science fiction is not so different.
A lot of your stories seem to involve pioneers and farmers and . . .
I know. I have this total farm fetish; I think it’s because I grew up in the mall culture of south Florida. I think the first husband I imagined for myself was, I wanted to marry Charlie Brown and live on a farm. That was the saddest fantasy.
Were you really into Little House on the Prairie or something?
I fricking love that stuff. I love that stuff! Anything about Laura Ingalls Wilder. You know, part of it too, I think is the way kids love orphan tales, generally. There’s something about being on a frontier. There’s a kind of, you crave autonomy so much when you’re that age. You know how kids just naturally love animal stories and geek out over different creatures, and somehow I think for me the farm represented both self-sufficiency and autonomy. Kids are always pretty big protagonists in those books, because that’s why they had kids then. They were like, “Thank god, as soon you can suit up we need you to do some labor on this farm.”
You mentioned that you kind of write whacked-out stuff, and I guess, for people who haven’t read your short stories, do you want to just talk about those frontier stories and how you put this weird spin on them?
Oh sure. I guess, the first time I tried to do this I picked up [a book] at some discard table [called] Women’s History of the Westward Migration. [The stories] would be hilarious if they weren’t so depressing, like Wile E. Coyote or something. Because they were just really stoic accounts of suffering that shocked me, you know? These women lost everything. They lost all their children. They lost their sisters to snake bites. They say goodbye to their families in the east for the rest of their lives, and went on to Oklahoma, went out in the covered wagons. I’m reading these diaries and was thinking about, I had also been re-reading that Borges story about the minotaur, and so I had this idea to write about a minotaur father. He’s sort of a legend gone to seed. In my mind he was just this mythical figure. He’s sort of, he’s got a belly, he’s robust now. He’s retired from his rodeo days as this kind of American myth and he wants to pull his family west. So I just thought that would be one way to kind of combine two myths, to have this mythic figure that everyone relates to, the minotaur, and then really think about the myth of the west. Why that remains so seductive, you know? And also what’s dangerous to have this uncritical faith in your own abilities without any respect for your own limits or nature’s limits. And it has a kid having to contend with that. So it’s told from this kid’s point of view. I think, originally, it was told from the minotaur’s point of view. The minotaur was named Jack in some drafts. It could have gone way wrong, I think. Even wronger than it arguably did.
I really love that story and I think that it would appeal a lot to fantasy and science fiction fans. Do you have any sense to what extent fantasy and science fiction fans have found your work?
A little bit. io9 has been really supportive. I was so excited to get to do that reading series that you guys had me out, where we saw each other. [Laughter] I’ll start thanking you guys for more and more things you didn’t do as the show goes on. Like, that birthday party you all threw for me, I loved it. I really, sort of, love folks who are, like Kelly Link who is kind of claimed by both camps, you know, literary camps, if there’s such a thing, if those distinctions aren’t totally just a phase, at this moment anyway. I was such a sci-fi/fantasy kid. I was so excited to be asked to do this with you guys. I think those dreams really feed my work as much or more than Virginia Woolf or people who are more, who tend to be associated with the canon or whatever.
I saw you say in an interview that you had a public/private reading split as a kid, where you would read Austin and the Brontes in public, and R.L. Stine and Frank Herbert in private.
Yeah, yeah. Isn’t that a shame? I mean, I was the kind of nerd that wasn’t even courageous. I couldn’t even courageously claim my identity as a nerd. That’s probably even a little bit of a stretch. I’m sure that I was super private about everything I read, but especially, I remember I loved this Stephen R. Donaldson book. What was this book called? The Mirror of Her Dream? It was like a two book series. It’s this woman, I forgot the verb. He had some amazing verbs for it, but she uses mirrors to see other worlds, and then she can enter those other worlds, which is basically, you know, a lot like writing. Sort of this really concrete way to think about creation and just art as creation. And she was this mild-mannered brunette woman who could then travel to these worlds that she saw. And so for whatever reason that struck a chord with me at the time. But I remember having to hide it from, just being so embarrassed, just hot in the face embarrassed when somebody saw that I was reading that. There is some stigma. I don’t know if you guys experienced that. In Miami, there’s a stigma if you’re reading generally. That was suspicious enough. But certain of those covers, they’re not doing you any favors, you know, there’s a buxom woman in front of a dragon on the cover of your book. I think that had certain connotations, at least in my Miami high school, that I was eager to avoid.
David: John grew up in Florida. John, what do you think about that? Is there more of that in Florida than elsewhere?
John: I can’t speak to whether there was more anywhere else because all I knew was growing up in Florida. And I mean, I never really felt like I had to hide the sort of genre literature that I was reading, but on the other hand, I had also, sort of, I had no choice but to embrace my nerdiness right from the get-go, because I was hopeless. There was no way of getting around it.
Well, yeah, see. If I had capitulated with that kind of wholeheartedness, then it kind of rebounds and you become cool, you know? Because you own your aesthetic and your taste, but I wasn’t there yet, just wasn’t there yet.
Were you always writing the sort of surreal, weird stuff, and did people try to force you to write more realistic fiction?
Yes and yes. I wrote, sort of, really terrible, earnest . . . it’s high school. I wrote like the song lyric writing we were all writing then, where it’s just like this spill of shapeless emotion, where it’s not even clear if there are characters or a setting. It’s just an undiluted emotion that just goes spilling onto the page, so I did a lot of that. And then I went to Northwestern. I remember my first fiction class. I wrote this story about these two boys and some albino parrot named Rufus, I don’t even remember. I remember that I kept misspelling “canon” and also that the professor encouraged me to try writing a story about fully-fledged adults, and that was the comment. It was funny, because actually that story was probably realism for South Florida. Nothing wild happened. It was just like two kids went to a parrot theme park, which you could easily do today in Miami.
I’m sorry, did you say albino parrot?
Yeah, well, this— Yeah.
I thought you said albino carrot at first, and then you said that was realism. I was like, “Whoa, Florida’s weirder than I thought.”
That’s kind of a beautiful image. Let’s never eat one if we see it.
Aren’t those called parsnips?
Did you guys read Bunnicula? Do you remember that great Bunnicula joke about the minion and the little kid was like, “What’s a minion?” And they thought it was a miniature onion. I think I like, I think I tried to use that. I tried to deploy that in some fiction of my own, embarrassingly recently, until I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s that joke from Bunnicula. I’m so glad I’m plagiarizing Bunnicula at age 31.”
So you were encouraged to write more realistic fiction. I mean, a fair amount of your output is fairly realistic.
I think all of it is. I mean, arguably, it’s a really weird distinction for me to try and talk about because I think often, it’s not even, I don’t know what to call it. It doesn’t feel, when I’m writing it, like magical realism. Certainly, I always associate that with a real particular moment in Latin American literature anyhow. I also don’t think it’s magical thinking literature, you know. Like, magical thinking or wishful thinking, or often, if it’s fantasy, it’s some fantasy come to life. I have this one story, another farm frontier story set in Nebraska in this new collection, and the monster, or whatever, I just imagine there’s this zombie homesteader who’s been trying to prove up his land for, we don’t even know how long, in various forms for centuries possibly, and I was thinking that this is kind of like an animated hope that has, sort of, outlived or outlasted any possibility of its fulfillment, right? So I guess that’s spec fiction, because it’s not often you see an undead homesteader in some spooky woods or whatever. I guess the one thing I’ve started saying—you guys tell me how this sounds, because I never know how to talk about it in a way that feels true to how I think about it myself as I’m writing these stories. So one kind of realism you sacrifice, not that because you’re going to write something that’s so extraordinarily untrue or different than life as we experience it on this planet, it’s that you’re going to sacrifice a memetic representational realism to tell another kind of truth that’s normally obscured, or we’re inured to it on a regular Tuesday that we can’t see it. And that’s how I feel about people that I really love, like Kelly Link’s stories: impossible things happen in them, but it’s always a way, it’s like it’s an optical trick to let you see something that was invisible before you read the story. You know, something about our nature that you might not be aware of if you were reading about the same plot set in a mall in New Jersey or whatever.
You mentioned that you have this collection out; it’s called Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Do you see it as different? Do you see your stories changing in any way between your first collection and this one?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t know that I’m even the best person to really weigh in on that, in some ways, right? Because I’m stuck in my own dumb perspective, and I never feel—that’s kind of the sad thing about writing, right? As my friend was saying, it’s sort of like you build a house and then lock yourself out of it. So then you’re like, “Hey, how was it in the house?” You can’t experience it as a reader, exactly. I left Florida, so that felt like a conscious kind of striking out. And I think that was important in a way, because if left to my own devices, my imagination lists back to South Florida. For better or for worse, the voice that I always feel comfortable channeling is some completely bewildered adolescent.
You mention that you sort of left Florida for this. For example, you went to Meiji-era Japan. There’s so much detail in a lot of these settings. What sort of research process do you use when you’re writing about some faraway real place and time?
I guess that’s another, that was a big difference from the first collection called, Saint Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. I can’t say that I really hit the stacks to research that collection. A lot of them really deal with adolescence and with [that] particular threshold. And a lot of them are set in some kind of whacked-out Florida, and I know that’s a landscape that I know pretty well. A lot of those stories are contemporary, so it wasn’t as big of a time traveling leap. I think that’s why it felt like writing science fiction, because it is sort of, you’re doing this weird time travel to get back there. So with that book I just read about the Meiji era in Japan. There’s a book called Factory Girls [by Leslie T. Chang]. It was about this really strange moment when, after two hundred years of isolation, Matthew Perry shows up and they sign unequal treaties with Japan, basically force them to trade, and they’re sort of shunted into the world of Western-style capitalism. Blue-eyed foreigners flood their ports and suddenly there’s this really violent seismic period of industrialization where Japan is trying to catch up with the rest of the world, basically, and compete with them. David Graper had this book about debt, and there’s sort of a horrifying section about female debt slavery. And there was some reference, a short reference, to these silkworm workers in Meiji era Japan.
What were the real silkworm workers? I assume they’re not like in your story.
So in my story there are these girls that drink a toxic tea, and they’re converted into these hybrid silkworm/women creatures. That’s sort of, that sounds so insane, but that’s basically the trajectory for these actual girls. They were often recruited from rural areas—rural areas where they were the daughters of these tenant farmers who are in terrible debt—and they were called female dekasegi workers. You left your home and you went to these factories that were touted as these incredible places where the daughters of samurai and aristocrats also worked. And you would learn a trade and you would be working on these Western-style machines, you would be trained in these new technologies. And the conditions were miserable in these factories. There’s an argument that the birth of feminist consciousness in Japan begins at this moment, because these women bind together to revolt against these conditions. They sort of do factory protests, completely female factory protests. These places were riddled with tuberculosis. They basically held the women hostage. They were essentially slaves in many cases, and they worked 10-hour days, 11. And the scary thing is that this isn’t some human rights horror story from the distant past that isn’t ongoing, that’s the situation still today for a lot of textile workers. So it’s a real horror story, and I think to do that conversion and make it about some kind of monster metamorphosis where the women become these hybridized animal-machines, I think that in a way, was a way for me to think through what that must have felt like, when production gets mechanized and suddenly time ceases to function the way it did before. The factory workday is in place and these women’s bodies became cogs in this larger machine.
This kind of feels like a horror story, and you mentioned your story “Proving Up,” about the zombie homesteader, kind of has a horror feel to it. Also, your story “The Graveless Dolls of Eric Mutis” almost reminds me of Stephen King’s “The Body.”
Oh, thank you, what a compliment!
Do you see these stories as horror stories? Was that something you were trying to experiment with?
Yeah, I think in some ways . . . with “Reeling for the Empire,” one of the things that felt like a big risk or just a change for me was that story is not funny at all. Maybe there’s one half of a joke in that story. And I think a lot of the St. Lucy stories and also Swamplandia!, you know, sometimes I think it’s so great to have comedy in there because it’s a kind of humility or it’s a relief or whatever. So, tonally, that was interesting, to really commit to horror as a tone, and to try to work a story where there’s suspense, but the suspense that drives it is psychological, but also maybe there’s genre elements, too. That was a goal. I wonder if I could find a way to make something that’s genuinely scary on one level, and also engages with these real life historical horror stories. To me, one of the reasons I’m writing about the Dust Bowl drought now and one of the reasons that I love, well, love is the wrong verb, but that it’s interesting to me is the horror story of how could you lose so much? How could they bear it? What was it that made them stay in this place? What made them commit to this particular future? When did their optimism turn into delusion, you know? So for “The Graveless Dolls of Eric Mutis,” for me, I was just thinking about the way a haunting works. That’s a pretty shallow burial. There’s a group of bullies, and one day they find a scarecrow tied to a tree in a park, like an urban scarecrow. And there’s something familiar about it, but they can’t quite put their finger on it and someone remembers, “Oh, that’s Eric Mutis. He’s this kid that we bullied and we had forgotten him so completely.” And I just think, that’s when the ghost comes back, right? When there needs to be a reckoning with the past, or when there’s something to be done, or there’s a really shallow burial that didn’t function.
You mentioned “Reeling for the Empire.” Are you making any kind of political statement in that or any of your other stories?
I don’t think I ever sit down to write a story with a clear agenda in mind. I think if you have a statement you can excise from your story, then maybe it should have been an op-ed. Or maybe a story is not the form for it if it’s just didactic, or if there’s one statement. But I guess, with that one, I was thinking a little bit about, you could argue that those girls, they have kind of their class-consciousness moment. There’s this real resolve there where they alter the machine so they can, I don’t want to give it away, but there’s a sort of revolutionary energy, I hope, to the end. And I guess, if there’s a political statement, I think it’s also connected to a statement about the character in that particular story, it’s that she kind of finds a way to become an agent. She’s been sort of a passive victim and she’s part of a machine for most of the story, and then she kind of recovers a sense of herself as a creator and an agent and revolts. But I don’t know that that’s my Occupy Wall Street story, or whatever.
Well, the story that you read when John and I went to the New York Review of Science Fiction reading series was “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” which is about US presidents being resurrected as horses. I mean, it’s about the US presidents; is there any politics in that at all?
No, and that one especially not, I think. It’s funny. I wish that I could say that I had written it during this election cycle and that it’s a great allegory about Romney and Barack or something. I think I was really just thinking about how everyone sort of assumes that when we die, we’re going to get an answer one way or the other? Well, there will be something or there will be nothing. That’s when many people have just kind of like really sweet naive faith that then things will make sense. Or that, one way or the other, that we’ll get some kind of answer. And I read Kevin Brockmeir, do you guys know him? I love his stuff. And he wrote that gorgeous spec fiction book, A Brief History of the Dead, and what I liked about it was that everybody dies and goes to this kind of antechamber world where they’re just scratching their heads and they’re even more confused what the nature of reality is, what they’re doing there, how their histories are going to affect the future in this weird place, so I think that was sort of the impulse. I was thinking about what a demotion it would feel like to someone who was a president to find themselves in this weird stable in some Kentucky afterlife, and the really human impulse, I think, to take your past, whatever it is, and try to use that to make sense of your present, and just the failure of that project in this particular afterlife.
When you read that story, I thought it was really funny. You said that when it was published, you felt like you had shown up to a party and you were the only one wearing a costume.
Yeah, I really did. I still do a little bit. But that appeared in the Granta anthology for the Best of Young American Novelists. And I will say that’s a pretty scary ante, isn’t it? They were like, this is what we’re going to call the collection, so give us a story. That’s the scariest ante in the world.
You weren’t even technically a novelist at that point.
No, I wasn’t even a novelist. You guys met me at—that was when I felt the most like the Bernie Madoff of fiction, was at that moment when we met. I was like, well, I’ve defrauded everyone, I’m not even a novelist, the story that’s going forward that’s going to represent me to the world is this one about a bunch of presidents reincarnated as horses. That was a shameful time.
Most of the time when people meet us, that’s basically the lowest point in their lives.
[Laughter] Is that your True Hollywood story, everything in black and white? David and John are always in black and white. There’s always a really sad minor key chord being played when they’re around.
So are there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories about how you came up with any of the pieces in the book?
So there’s one, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979.” I don’t even know if this is so interesting, but I had read this essay by André Aciman called “Arbitrage” and I was just thinking about that feeling that I think is, I hope, pretty universal, that your life has been knocked off the rails, or that there’s sort of an incremental but widening gap between where you are and where you think you ought to be. That terrible kind of inertia where you’re like, I got knocked a little off course and I can’t correct for it, and I’m not going to be able to realign with the path that I thought was my life, kind of a feeling. For whatever reason, the way my brain chose to . . . the image that it found for this was this boy who’s haunted by the notion that there’s this flock of seagulls—I was probably listening to that terrible band; well, they’re not that terrible, the Flock of Seagulls—they’re these cosmic scavengers and they fly into the future and they’re just willy-nilly stealing little bits of people’s futures and brining them back to feather this nest in the present. I was thinking, just the way he would pull a vertebrae out of a spine or something and then one kind of your future changes shape, or it’s deformed. Sort of that butterfly in Africa, where it’s deformed in a way that’s irrecoverable. So I thought that was kind of a scary idea. I was talking to my brother and telling him the idea for this story and I was like, what could the seagulls bring back from the future that would really—or what would the boy imagine they’re bringing back from the future that would alter a life permanently in a really catastrophic way? He was like, “Hmm, ladies’ birth control pills.” And I was like, “I don’t think that’s gonna go.” The one that I think I like the best, remember when Three 6 Mafia won the Grammy? He was like, “What if they bring Three 6 Mafia’s Grammy?” Sometimes I wish you could write the parody of whatever you’re writing. It’d probably be better in some ways, you know?
So it sounds like maybe other people are a big part of your creative process, that you bounce ideas off your friends and siblings and stuff like that?
I just like to tell people what I’m up to so I can watch their faces change and then hear them be like, “I’ll buy you a beer.” I think my siblings are, because they veto stuff all the time. I had a good friend who helped me with a lot of the stories in this collection on this go-around. But I sort of try to keep it tight for awhile, because I think, do you guys find that?, that there’s usually a vulnerable stage where it can be harmful to, you know, sometimes I think if you let people read stuff too early, that can deform the thing that you’re making in some ways.
Speaking of vetoing ideas, I swear, were you the one who told this story where you had this great idea for a story and you described it to friends and they said, “Karen. That’s the plot of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”?
That happens all the time. That’s like when I plagiarized Bunnicula in my own book. That happens all the time. It’s really scary. That was my mom. I was like, “What if there was a kidnapper but they’re holding a dog hostage?” She was like, “that is definitely, definitely a Jim Carrey movie.” My brother also made me really mad once. I was telling him about Swamplandia! and these two story lines and how they were going to intersect. And without looking up from his sandwich, he’s like, “Yeah, that’s like Big Bird Goes Home. Remember it’s like half on Sesame Street and half in the real world?” And I was like, “Fuck you, dude.” It hit really close to home. Did I just borrow the narrative model of Big Bird Goes Home? And arguably, I did.
What do you think about endings? Some of the Amazon reviews, they feel like your endings aren’t resolved to their satisfaction. Is that something that you think about?
Can I tell you a funny story about endings really fast? I had this story in The New Yorker about these boys who land on a glacier and my grandfather read this story of mine and then he called me and he was like, “Pretty good story. Pretty crazy. And those sneaky bastards, you gotta buy the magazine to find out how it ends.” And I was like, “No, Poppa, that is the end.” There was this long silence and he was like, “What kind of ending is that?” So I can sympathize with those reviewers. I can understand the frustration where sometimes you want a different kind of answer. I try to find an image that gathers up some of the questions in the story. I think that’s always more interesting than to pretend: Is he gonna kiss the girl? Did they find the gold? Whatever the animating questions were, if you hit on a turn of phrase or an image where you can strike those resonances, that’s when I feel most comfortable about exiting a story, kind of on a plateau. For whatever reason, I really do love ambivalent endings. I was just talking about this with a friend. She does these paintings and she always has “Untitled” and then she’ll put a title in parentheses, which I was telling her was kind of passive aggressive. And she’s like “Yeah, it is.” But in her argument, it’s similar to why I think that feels often like the right place to exit a story. Because she doesn’t like it when a viewer sees her painting and reads the title and decides that they got it, that they got it and they can just move on. That they’re like, “OK, so that was the message.” Or like you were saying, “That was the political statement, so check!”, check on the box. She was like, “I really want them to be haunted, or I want it to have a life in their body that continues even when they’ve moved on, when they’re not standing in front of it anymore.” And I would sort of agree. I think some of my favorite endings, nothing is resolved, but there’s a feeling that things are opening out. Or that something has been gonged inside of you. You are now going to be haunted by those same questions or that character’s state or whatever.
I took a creative writing class at USC with T.C. Boyle, and he has this story I love called “Tooth and Claw” where in the very last scene, a character steps into a room that may or may not contain a dangerous feline. So you don’t know if he dies and he said he went to an elementary school and they had read the story and they all complained about the ending. And he said, “If you don’t like that ending, you can just add one sentence: ‘And then I died.’”
I sort of love that. I teach too, and I’ll get student manuscripts that are Hunter S. Thompson style, where the scale is weird. We’ve got three pages of a dinner and then on the last page the house catches ablaze in one paragraph, or it’s like triple homicide. I’m like, “My goodness!” I think that’s not the real ending, right? That isn’t actually the resolution.
I can think of one story of yours that has a very definite conclusion. You have a story that goes, “Once there were a bunch of unicorns, and a flood came.”
I must have said that at some point, that those were the first stories I wrote. It would always be some stable, peaceful context, some, like, valley of magical bears or something, and then a comet would hit them. I really don’t think it’s gotten so much more sophisticated. It’s sad. It’s so funny that you bring that up because I was just having lunch with a friend. She has a nine-year-old niece and we were talking about this nine-year-old’s idea of a plot. I was like, “Gosh, I should borrow a page from her playbook,” because it sounded so clear. She was like, “Let’s play ‘writer.’ Do you wanna do ‘princess marries prince?’ Do you wanna do ‘rich person falls in love with poor person?’ Do you wanna do ‘war?’” I do want to do all of those plots. It sounds so liberating. One of the nice things about literary writers doing genre sometimes. If there are genre conventions, it’s so fun, like what you were asking about horror. Like the scarecrow story, it was so fun for me to write that particular story because you know how the rules work. In a horror story, there’s going to be something gone awry, it’s mysterious, someone is complicit. In this case, it’s one bully who has been scapegoated by his friends and he sort of becomes the scarecrow and the strange substitution. But also there’s a trajectory of escalating dread. You can follow that. You can hold on to that. You have an exoskeleton. Genre can give you, well, a skeleton, it doesn’t even have to be an exoskeleton.
Since we’re science fiction fans, we like exoskeletons.
That was such a good cartoon. Did you guys ever see that? Exosquad?
It’s fine if you didn’t! It’s fine if you didn’t. I went even further and you guys didn’t follow me there. It’s sad. That’s why I had to keep it quiet in high school.
This is an important question: You said in an interview that you had done so much research on alligator wrestling that you felt like you could take on an actual alligator; so, if an alligator were to attack right now, how would you fight it?
Oh, what would I do? Oh my god. Well, I think I lied when I said that. I would scream. I would scream like a woman and stand on the table. The trick is that if you can get their jaws closed, the musculature of their jaw, by some weird evolutionary fluke, can come down with the force of a guillotine but they can’t open it again. So you can hold it shut with a scrunchie. What if we get all these lawsuits by people who say, “That’s not true”?
“Karen Russell fan mauled in freak alligator-wrestling accident.”
They just have a Goody elastic [hair-tie] and they’re like, “It didn’t work, though.” Their horror as the gator easily opens its jaw and bites their hand. Yeah, I wonder what I would do if it came in right now. See? Remember when you would study so hard for your European AP exam and then, who knows what any of those battles were? I think that’s how I feel about alligator wrestling.
A while back you mentioned humor in your stories. A lot of your stories, they do have really funny lines in them. And I guess I was just wondering, are you sort of laughing to yourself as you’re writing the stories?
Wouldn’t that be terrifying? No, of course not. How scary would that be if I was just sitting alone laughing in a room? [Laughing] That’s the path of madness. Nobody wants that. I heard that Flannery O’Connor cracked herself up, which I like to picture too. It’s funny, you know, I don’t think—somehow I think the new collection is a little more sedate in some ways, humor-wise, I think just because some of the stories commit to darkness in a different way. There’s a lot more earnest darkness here maybe.
You do also have “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating.”
I was glad to have that one in there. Even though I think it’s a story about underdogs, and I’m sure it’s the underdog of the collection. It’s truly such a ridiculous story. You know when I did laugh? The end line is something like, “We munch and munch and da da da da da.” I was just laughing with my friend. He was like, “that’s the end line of the story, we munch and munch? The most extraneous kind of thought.” I used to love those kinds of epics, too, like Antarctic epics. Ken Sharp is a writer who I love a lot and he’ll do a very straight kind of a version of this tale. Where some explorers motivated by ego, and whatever hubristic forces motivated those explorers, in addition to a kind of hope to discover new territories etc., etc. That kind of willful blindness that led them to be drinking tea on the ice floes. And I was just thinking about the men in my family and their love of these underdog sports teams. Like if they love a team, my brother is a hockey fan in Miami and he loves the Panthers. The perversity of that, I just think that says a lot about my brother, this perverse and really undying loyalty. There’s so many kinds of dark looks at that in this collection, that kind of optimism. Like this is going to be our team’s season. Or this is going to be the year that we have a bumper crop of wheat on our Nebraska farm. Or I’m going to be a hero in these ways. I just thought it would be nice to have a lighter—the density of that story is a little lighter than some of the other ones.
The premise, I guess, we should say just for people who haven’t read it, is that they are fans who go down to the South Pole to root for different kinds of marine life and the main character roots for the krill. And the krill never win this contest against the baleen whales.
No, they never will. Yeah, it’s the Food Chain Games. But you know, there are franchises that are just not going to win for you. I just liked that idea of putting yourself at incredible personal risk, just casting your lot with this microscopic loser creature, that’s just like the world’s oldest loser.
I really think I’m not that funny of a person. I go for a 70/30 ratio. I just keep throwing stuff out there. 70/30, that’s pretty good. And in writing, I think, even less so. It’s really hard. Have you guys had that experience? Sometimes if you read someone who’s really trying to be funny, it feels like being tickled. It feels violent and kind of aggressive.
Okay, well, I wasn’t going to bring this up, but we asked for questions online, questions we should ask you. And somebody on Twitter wanted us to ask you if you’re ticklish.
I am really ticklish. Are you guys going to attack me outside of the building? Is there gonna . . . I swear to god, if some masked tickler tickles me now I’ll be so upset. If some man in a dirty Elmo costume comes up in the atrium and tries to tickle me, I’ll be like, “Fuck you, John. God damn it.”
That was the one question.
That was the only question anybody asked?
Yeah. Is that a reference to anything or is that just totally random?
No, I’m telling you, that’s what’s going to happen. Someone’s plotting a cruel attack. No, I’m super ticklish. It’s really embarrassing at those airport checkpoints. Everyone is just, “Go ahead. Just fricking go ahead. You’re scaring us.” I can’t believe that’s the only question. I’m sad. Nobody wanted to know about the ratio of fantastic to naturalistic detail, or . . . ?
To be fair, we don’t actually get all that many responses when we say, “Hey we’re going to interview so and so. What questions do you want us to ask?” We don’t get a whole lot of people offering up questions. Or certainly not good ones. It’s very infrequently that they actually make it on to the show. One thing I wanted to ask you about was, just trying to research you, I couldn’t find any website or blog or twitter or anything like that. Do you have any online presence?
Nope. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m sort of so socially anxious generally that the idea of maintaining a twitter anything, I can’t. I’m also like 90 years old secretly, so I can’t even use that language. Did anyone tweet or retweet about me? I just don’t even really know what’s going on over there.
Is there a way for people to send you fan mail? Do you get fan mail?
If you send it to Random House, then you can. But don’t; people don’t have to do that. They’ve got better things going. They should write their real moms or something.
So, Karen, thanks for giving us so much time for the interview.
Thank you, it was so fun. I can’t wait to see you at another critically low moment in my confidence in life. Really, thank you. This was super fun.
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