Karen Russell is a writer and native of Miami, Florida. Her most recent book, Swamplandia!, was featured on countless critics 10-best lists at the end of 2011, was short-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction, and is currently being adapted for television by HBO and producer Scott Rudin.
Russell was named one of the New Yorker‘s 20 best writers under 40 and one of Granta‘s Best Young American Novelists. Her short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published in 2006 to great acclaim. Three of her stories have been selected for Best American Short Stories volumes. She has taught at Columbia, Bard, Williams, and Bryn Mawr Colleges, and is the current recipient of the Mary Ellen von der Heyden Berlin Prize and Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin.
She laughs sincerely and often and is as humble as anyone. She spoke to the Days of Yore from Berlin through the miracle of Skype.
Have you been traveling around Europe at all? Any EasyJets to Prague or Budapest or somewhere nearby?
EasyJet, yes! You’ll remember this conversation when you hear that someone died after paying one dollar for a flight to Bucharest.
How’s the fellowship going?
I think I’ve bamboozled them. Everyone else are these really serious policy fellows, writing about international law or women’s work camps or revisionist history things, and then I’m like, “I would like to write a story about the moon!” Seems like a Make a Wish or something.
Have you been learning German?
A little. Not too much. It’s one of those things where I really hope the postman comes so I can use this great dialogue I’ve learned.
So. You grew up in South Florida. Did you stay in the same house growing up?
We did, we stayed in the same place in Miami in Coconut Grove. A nice spot by the water. I was there till eighteen.
What did your parents do?
My mom is a lawyer and my dad was a father.
A stay-at-home dad.
Yeah, it was a little role-reversal where…Honestly, they’re a little horrified of this career I’ve chosen sometimes, just because they’re private people. They always want me to remind people that my work is fiction, which is understandable.
What did they think of Swamplandia!? Were they worried about it?
I don’t think they’ve read it, actually. They’re really happy and supportive but I think it’s tough. I might be the same, too, if my mom started writing books about moms and daughters. Very personal stuff.
Were they supportive of you writing when you were younger?
I wouldn’t say we were an extremely literary family or anything, but they’d make it clear that school was important. They both put themselves through college and didn’t have much. And they were big proponents of me reading.
Were you already writing in elementary school?
I was writing, yeah, but nothing spectacular. I had some unicorn notebook, and all of my stories were the same. And it’s funny because I actually think it’s the same plot I still use. Like, “Once upon a time a bunch of magical forest creatures lived in peace!” “And then,” new paragraph, “there was a flood!” [Laughs.] It’s really all the same.
Did you have a book you read a million times?
My mom would take me to the library and she was sort of distrustful of sci-fi books with, like, some dinosaur standing on Pluto on the cover. She just thought, “‘Magic with a J’ will not get you into good schools.” So I could get a “Magic with a J” book but then I’d have to read Jane Eyre. I was on a really weird diet where I could get Ray Bradbury, which I loved, but then I would have to read The Count of Monte Cristo or something way above grade level.
I guess I gravitated toward weirder stuff — all those books that play to kids’ egotism. Like, “There’s these four British kids and it turns out they’re kings and queens!” Your suspicions are correct: you can save the world. I really liked any kind of apocalyptic kids’ stories. Like Hatchet…
I loved Hatchet!
Yeah or Island of the Blue Dolphins. Why do teachers always choose age ten for these kinds of books? It’s like, “Now you’re ready to mourn!”
I remember Bridge to Terabithia killing me.
Oh, God, yeah. That one.
So what kind of kid were you in high school?
I was a fearful person in high school. I think I just sort of went way underground or something. I was sort of vanilla. I would crack jokes every now and then. But my school in Miami was this huge public school where it was easy to be anonymous if I wanted to be. And I was such a coward. I would read books and pretend they were for school.
I had a double life. You know, in my mind I had my nerdy friends and my “ordinary” friends. So I’m sure my “ordinary” friends were like, “Oh, here comes that nerdy one.”
“We have to hang out with this one nerdy kid.”
And then you went to Northwestern. Did you know going into college that you wanted to be a writer?
Yeah, I did. It’s funny, when I’m teaching now I get these kids who are so self-identified, so excited to be writers. And in retrospect I was, too. I thought, at eighteen, that this was my big vocation. I don’t know why I did, but I knew I wanted it.
George Saunders talked about how he tried for so many years to write what he thought was an “important” novel, and it took him a long time to trust his own instincts. Your writing shares a lot in common with his, I think. Did you have a similar experience when you first started out?
It’s so funny you mention [Saunders]. In a way, it’s probably frightening to him at this point– I’ve tried to actually stop talking about him in interviews, because I think if he ever sees one he’ll freak out. I thank him in the back of [Swamplandia!].
He was one of those writers — he just opened doors and doors for me. Before, I was writing terrible stories, and the ones that were the worst were strictly realist. They were like lyrical, hysterical Virginia Woolf parodies; gushing feeling and images that didn’t connect for me.
One of my first writing professors said, “Please write a story about adult characters.” But I couldn’t do it. I felt this anxiety to get the facts right. It was terrible, rigid, it read really self-conscious. But then we had this one class where we read Junot Diaz, I think, and it was very voice-driven, he was toggling between high and low vernaculars really easily, and it was funny, wise-cracking, but would have these lyrical boosts too, rat-a-tat rhythmic. That was so exciting for me.
Was there an early teacher that inspired you to trust yourself?
Dan Chaon. He taught at Northwestern, and he wrote these stories we all loved, and he had come through the Northwestern program, so he was our returning major leaguer. And you would meet with him one on one — a Yoda-like conference with the master — and I had given him this weird story that everyone was confused and horrified by. I think it was about somebody who used a starfish to tell the future. Something terrible. Some kind of marine psychic. And it was so long. Like a thirty page story about a marine psychic. And I couldn’t believe this man read the whole thing!
But he was like, “You need to read Kelley Link and George Saunders.” He just extended my horizons a lot. I read George…like a horse? I can’t think of the phrase I want. Like…
Like an endless horse. Running through the field.
I don’t know the phrase I’m looking for. Not like a horse.
But he taught me that it’s okay to play it straight, too. Because [Saunders] is actually very genuine. The emotion is very genuine. He taught me about the ratio of having this sort of fantastic architecture around it — you can do new things.
After Northwestern, did you go straight to the Columbia MFA program?
I did, I did. It’s so funny ‘cause now I give really hypocritical advice like, “Everyone should take time off!”
Do you regret not having taken time off?
I think I was a weird case where I really felt…I don’t really understand it now. It just seems so goofy pretentious to be like, twenty, and to think I would die with these stories inside me. Like, “I need to share these with the world!”
You had to purge yourself. You entered Columbia and said, “I’m ready to purge.”
Right! I was so excited about it. So excited to be writing. And I didn’t have a lot of other offers. It’s not like I was being asked to copy-edit math textbooks or something. I wanted to be in New York, and it seemed like an Emerald City place for me.
I think when I got there I felt very young. And that’s sort of why I wrote about early adolescence so much, because that’s what I felt like I understood. If I had waited to go to school, I might have had a different interest.
Were early workshops a rude awakening at all? Did you feel as though the stuff you loved of yours was received well?
It’s amazing. I seem to have a limitless capacity to manufacture insecurity, so I’m basically always sure that what I’m putting up is doomed and sucky. I find this works well as a defensive strategy.
If people liked something I’d written I was always like, “Wow!” And then if people were like, [in an Eastern European accent] “I just don’t understand what you are doing,” I’d be like, “Me neither!”
All those angry Russian kids never understand!
Yeah! So I was always right either way. And also, you know, Rivka Galchen was in my class. Reif Larson came through. These great writers. Affinity Konar, I think everyone should know about her. She would write these sentences that would radiate us, people would have to wear wrap-around shades to read her language.
Your classmates had incredible names.
How were you paying the bills during this time?
I worked at the Stay Well Center, on 49th street. I don’t know why I got that job, maybe they just saw MFA and got confused and thought it said MSW? Like I really shouldn’t have had this job. I would go into homes of elderly, largely Hispanic, residents in this kind of government-funded building.
It was a great introduction to New York. I met Grandpa Huxtable! For a long time that was my New York celebrity sighting. I would be like, “Hey, Ethan Hawke on the subway? I just met Grandpa Huxtable.”
That’s a great celebrity sighting.
I’d have these checklists for them. I’d ask, “Do you have visual problems? How about neurological problems?” And sometimes it would be in my terrible Spanish, so I’d have to just write, “General pain. She’s in pain.” And sometimes I had to say, if people had a problem and were railing against me, “I’m sorry that you feel that way.” But it felt good. I liked it a lot. If I had done nothing in my workshops — you know, I erased three bad metaphors or something — at least I got guardrails for Freddy so now she can take a shower! And that felt really good.
So, you did that a few days a week?
I had to stop because I wasn’t writing enough. But then I got a teaching fellowship at Columbia. Teaching Composition which I thought I was quite bad at, actually. It felt a little like Halloween, I felt so grateful that they would go along with the ruse that I was their instructor.
Was that paying for your life at the time?
I had also taken out massive loans to live in New York. Somehow I hadn’t thought that through. I was like, “Citibank will never ask for this back! It’s for my dream!”
Were your parents supportive during these years?
They were really supportive, but I think it was a little baffling to them. They thought it was good I had this teaching fellowship – a teacher was something that sounded more viable. My mom at one point was like, “I’m worried about your economic future.” I remember when my brother — he’s a writer now — announced that he wanted to be a Russian and Journalism double major, my dad was like, “Fantastic! You can get a job in the 1940s!”
That’s when they gave up their dream of, you know, a beach house.
You could still have a beach house.
Maybe like a cabana that we occupy.
But you sold your first short story collection right out of graduate school, so that must have been a good sign…
It was a really lucky strike. My agent sent out a story to The New Yorker and they took it for their debut fiction issue. And I don’t know how that happened. To this day it remains the greatest phone call I’ve ever received, because I had not been published anywhere.
After the initial excitement of all that, though, did nerves kick in? Did you wonder if you could ever top it?
I was raised Catholic and always have this weird guilt hovering somewhere above me. Like I’m waiting to be eaten by a shark on land, or something.
Did The New Yorker acceptance kick-start everything?
Yeah. Originally, my agent was like, “Nobody’s going to publish this wack-tastic story collection.” And I had a bunch of pages I was calling “Swamplandia!” Which wasn’t actually Swamplandia! [her later book]. Lots of science. Basically, I just thought everyone needed a crash course in herpetology. I learned it, and you should, too! It’s sort of like grandmas showing slideshows.
Did Swamplandia! come out of another, shorter story?
When I was in graduate school, everybody else was writing a novel and I was writing these weird short stories, and I would write these epic, too long story drafts. And I kept thinking one would, on its own accord, take root and flourish in my brain. And I guess this thing sort of did. It wasn’t a straightforward flourishing. It was swamp sprawl. But it felt different than the other stories. And that was my starry-eyed honeymoon phase, thinking it would be done tomorrow.
What was your day job around this time?
When the first [story] collection came out, I was working at Symphony Vet on 96th street. The best veterinary clinic in New York!
Were you an assistant there?
I was a vet tech and then I was kind of demoted or…I was a receptionist, mostly. It turned out my love of animals didn’t translate into skill with animals. By the end days I would just wear scrubs and bring a clipboard to the back. Just wear polka scrubs and be like, [calling an imaginary pet] “Waffles!”
Was that your last side job before going full time into writing and teaching?
For a little while I was working at Symphony Vet and also teaching an adjunct class at Columbia. I would just lint brush myself and ride the train uptown. Like, “Who wants to talk about Beckett?” reeking of Chinchilla.
And you were working on Swamplandia! all this time?
Yeah, that was a hard time, I think. Because the stories: it was all bewildering grace. It was the sum of what I’d ever written in my lifetime. But I had a two-book deal, and I felt shady about it. The stories were the most joyful drafting because I expected nothing and I figured maybe eight people would read them. But then I wanted to do a great job for the publisher, you don’t want to be this dud bet. I had some very Little League feelings about it.
Were there points when you stopped being excited by idea of writing?
I think the toughest for me was I sort of…this is a Saunders moment…where I felt like a novel couldn’t be about adolescence and was going to have to be about something serious, or epic, or The War.
I had a bunch of jokey spoofs [of Swamplandia!] And the one I liked was Cormac McCarthy Ava. Like, “I’m gonna bring you in, Ossie.” Or no dialogue at all. “I reckon I’ll have to kill you.”
You should publish that.
Ava as a general on a boat during wartime.
How many drafts do you think you had over the years?
Oh, it would horrify everyone. Like, “This is the result of that many drafts?”
So during those periods of struggle, how do you keep going? How do you keep faith?
It was…really hard. I was pretty convinced it was doomed. And I felt like such a fool ‘cause I’d been given this amazing opportunity. I was getting a lot of help and encouragement and I thought I’d be this big choke artist. I’d listen to the 8 Mile Soundtrack. [Laughs.] I’m completely serious.
What other motivational things did you do for yourself?
I think at a certain point I just kind of capitulated. I started hearing Ava’s voice again and I took the pressure out of writing the Great American Novel and just remembered…this is the voice of the character that I know. It’s going to be about these kids, they really are the focus. The goal was no longer to write the Great American Novel. It became…just write a novel. Even if reviewers say it’s the worst book they’ve ever read, if they call it a “book.” That’s all. Just a book.
[At this point, someone else in Ms. Russell's building enters and asks her to be a bit quieter. Because we were being kind of loud.]
[To the person at the door:] Oh, I’m so sorry.
[To me] Apparently I’m screaming so loud that everyone in the Academy can hear me.
Tell them it’s all for art.
Oh, man. I’m sorry, I’ve been having too much fun.
I’ll just ask the last question. What final advice would you have for the younger you? Like, how do you keep going when you’re down? How do you sustain the energy?
This sounds like an amazing segue to a song I sing you now.
That would be good.
Just some Sting lyrics I now sing to you.
I guess I would say…it seems like every single time you start something you hit reset and have to teach yourself to make that new thing.
In terms of attitude, I’ve learned that despair…you don’t really have to respond to it. You can feel like the thing you’re working on is doomed and then just keep working. It doesn’t mean you should abandon all hope.
And also just…it takes time. Real time. There were points in 2008 where I was just like, “Take this cup from my lips, I can’t write about alligators any more!” But the kindest thing that ever happened was when an editor said, “No, this isn’t ready yet.” And as painful as that was, sometimes it was extraordinarily good news. You want someone to say no, this can be better.
Sometimes you need to figure that out for yourself. I wanted some editor or outside reader to tell me exactly what to do. It can be difficult when you just hope there’s this doctor on the outside who can cure what ails your story.
But he doesn’t exist.
No. You have to figure out a way to manufacture the medicine from within.
Interview by Lucas Kavner
Photo by Annete Hornischer