Karen Russell on childhood, natural disasters and 'America's fantasy capital' — aka Florida

Karen Russell, the renowned author of "Swanplandia" and short-story collections such as "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," will speak at Abe and Jake's Landing, 8 E. Sixth St., Thursday evening. Russell is this year's featured author in the Lawrence Public Library's Ross and Marianna Beach Author Series.

Karen Russell, the renowned author of "Swanplandia" and short-story collections such as "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," will speak at Abe and Jake's Landing, 8 E. Sixth St., Thursday evening. Russell is this year's featured author in the Lawrence Public Library's Ross and Marianna Beach Author Series.

Surrealist writer Karen Russell has built a career for herself crafting bizarre tales of alligator wrestlers in Florida, an elderly vampire couple trying to tame their thirst for blood and U.S. presidents reincarnated as horses living on a farm, among other oddities.

On Thursday, Russell will visit Lawrence as part of the Lawrence Public Library's Ross and Marianna Beach Author Series. She'll share stories and offer insight into the creation of her magical worlds in a talk dubbed "Literary, Geographic and Ghostly Influences."

The author behind 2011's "Swamplandia!" and short story collections such as "St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" and "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," says she's excited for her trip to Kansas.

She'll be a little nervous, too. Evidently, Russell's a big fan of last year's Beach guest, National Book Award winner James McBride.

"I heard that he came with a band, and now I’m thinking, 'Oh my god, what am I going to do?'" Russell jokes. "I’m going to have to get some pyrotechnics and light up the fireworks. I don’t know, I’ll have to brainstorm."

Russell recently spoke with the Journal-World in a phone interview about her childhood in Florida, the "somber joy" of natural disasters and how she feels about getting older — "it's a bit of a relief."

Here are excerpts from that conversation:

JH: You’ve set many of your stories in Florida, where you grew up. What is it about your home state that lends itself to these magical themes in your work?

KR: It’s such a fun state to write about, because I think everybody has a connection — either your elderly relatives migrated there or you’ve been there because of America’s fantasy capital.

When you’re a kid, you just receive everything in a matter-of-fact register. You don’t know how to distinguish between the insane and nightmarish and just like, the grocery store on a Tuesday. So, Florida is somewhere that I feel like is a state within the magical realist register…I always felt like geography was my first influence, and then I was drawn to people like (Gabriel García) Márquez or (Italo) Calvino later, because it echoed back something I had just experienced growing up in South Florida, which is this sort of matter-of-fact strangeness, you know?

Hurricanes are always (sweeping over) the coastlines and tides of people from different cultures are always sweeping over the peninsula, so it’s a place that’s always in flux.

"Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell

"Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell

JH: I read that your family lost its home in Hurricane Andrew back in the early 1990s. How did that disaster shape your formative years and your writing?

KR: There’s this book that I love by Rebecca Solnit called “A Paradise Built in Hell,” and she does these sort of case study investigations of hurricanes, of earthquakes or fires. And she talks about how we don’t have a good vocabulary for the sort of somber joy that can come in the wake of natural disasters, where people self-organize and normal hierarchies are suspended and people really are able to be their best selves and really help each other. I remember that, too.

That was a pretty powerful experience to have early on, where suddenly everyone… you’re bringing ice to your neighbors or you’re rebuilding together. In a way, nobody wants a hurricane to destroy their home. It was early contact to some pretty powerful stuff — people being their best selves and also just the colossal force of nature and what it can do. Even with all the power we do exert over the environment, we’re still pretty vulnerable as a species.

JH: Your younger brother, Kent Russell, is also a writer. I read an interview where he said that after the hurricane he had to share a bed with you and your sister…

KR: Oh, no (laughs). That’s a funny image for people. Nobody wants to picture that.

If you go

What: An Evening with Karen Russell: "Literary, Geographic and Ghostly Influences"

Where: Abe and Jake's Landing, 8 E. Sixth St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Cost: Tickets are free and distributed at the Lawrence Public Library's Welcome Desk, 707 Vermont St.

JH: He was talking about how your dad would spin these crazy yarns for you kids while you were all sharing a bed. What kinds of stories was he telling? Did that storytelling give you some comfort in the wake of the hurricane?

KR: I think it was just the three of us. It was on an air mattress, which I remember as being really fun because I had always wanted a water bed in the way that like, when you’re a kid, that seems like the wealthy or the elite had water beds (laughs). I think that’s one of the reasons I’m really close with my siblings. We had a somewhat traumatic thing happen and then we’re all really close. And, as you mentioned, physically close, too.

My dad is a great storyteller. He’s a strange poet. He has such an ear for strangeness. He’s a real, genuine weirdo, in the best way. Such a super imaginative guy, hilarious. He’d end on a cliffhanger and pick it up the next night. I’m sure that was an influence, too.

JH: So, you count your dad as a literary influence?

KR: Yeah, absolutely. He takes so much pleasure in weird slang and '60s jargon. He uses language in such an idiosyncratic way, I guess, so maybe that was our earliest understanding of language being a medium through which you can transmit your personality and your vision. My dad has a very particular vision of the world.

We weren’t really a literary family. We were just sort of omnivores. We’d go to the library and bring back just a haul of everything — Ray Bradbury and strange paperbacks.

JH: What were some of your literary influences growing up, and also, what made you decide to pursue writing? I know you started at a pretty young age.

KR: Yeah, I did. Isn’t that boring? I didn’t even flirt with the idea of being an astronaut or anything like that. I think I had a healthy sense of my limitations, too. I was a pretty anxious kid, so I think books were like these doors to other worlds. It really felt like a true sanctuary. And also the stakes are reduced in a way, with a book, where it’s suddenly safe to feel and think in ways that maybe are too threatening in your ordinary day-to-day.

I always felt when I was a kid that I was doing my real living in books, and that school was just an interruption, that dinner was just an interruption. I read whatever I could get my hands on. I think I read books that were way above my grade level to impress my teachers, understanding little. Just toting “Moby Dick” around in fourth grade…

JH: It sounds like you were the real-life Matilda (from Roald Dahl’s book about a child genius with telekinetic powers), in some ways.

KR: Oh, I wish. Wasn’t that a beautiful book? Remember when all children secretly believed that they could set fires with their minds? (laughs) I think that was a special time, too. You know how kids are drawn to books about other kids saving the world and such?

JH: A lot of your stories are told from the perspective of children or adolescents, and oftentimes, they’re left without a lot of parental supervision. What is it about the childhood experience that keeps drawing you back to it in your work?

KR: I was just thinking that some of the stuff that I’ve been writing recently, the characters have inched up in age, but not that much. But there is some kind of lag. When I first started writing, I was very interested in very young children, so it may be that I’ve finally had the distance from childhood to see it.

I would think about how private adolescence is to everybody. The solitude of childhood was really interesting to me. That amphibious ability to cross back and forth between that private world and the more public concept of reality — kids can do that in this way that I think; it does somewhat close as you get older..

"Vampires in the Lemon Grove" by Karen Russell

"Vampires in the Lemon Grove" by Karen Russell

JH: You published a short story, “The Prospectors,” in the New Yorker a few months ago. In it, the main characters leave Florida for Oregon during the Great Depression in the hope that they might find a better life there. Was that story inspired in any way by your move to Oregon about a year ago?

KR: I was thinking originally that I really wanted to set a story there. I thought that might be a way to make the state feel more like my home. To sort of try to put stakes down fictionally. I really felt like I couldn’t get into that story until I wrote the section where these young women start out in Florida — who knows why, you know? But somehow starting out on a coastline that was familiar to me before trying to imagine this mountain terrain that is still pretty exotic to me... It still feels like this lunar landscape a little bit.

JH: You were 25 when your first collection of short stories was published almost a decade ago. And you’ve received quite a few accolades since: a “5 under 35” young-writer honor from the National Book Foundation in 2009, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2013, among others. How did you feel receiving all that attention focused on your talent as a young writer? Do you feel like you’ve gotten used to it at this point?

KR: It’s incredible to me that it’s been 10 years. Joy Williams has a story collection out where she says, “Time lunges around like a poisoned, damaged thing.” That’s kind of how I feel, too. It doesn’t feel quite linear. I was so fortunate and so grateful for that support early in my career. That meant so much to me, and I don’t know how I would have written those books without that help. But it is a bit of a relief not to be a debut author, and it’s sort of exciting to strike out for new territory fictionally and try writing different landscapes and different voices.

I think when “Swamplandia!” came out, I was 28 or 29, and I wasn’t feeling so young anymore, so it felt a little disingenuous to wear my hair in braids and be this young author when actually, I felt old and hoarse and kind of exhausted. So maybe it feels a little more honest to move into the mid-30s. I’m always interested in watching other authors as their voices change over time. So, I guess I would say that I felt really grateful but always kind of embarrassed, because I never really felt quite young enough to warrant that (attention). You know, if I had been 12 or something… I mean, I was already using age-defying moisturizer (laughs).

I think one of the dangers of the focus placed on age, maybe, is you can be a debut author at any age. There are some author friends of mine whose first books came out while they were in their late 40s. You still need help at the start of a career. In some ways, age isn’t maybe the right way to think about debut authors anymore.

Author Karen Russell, pictured Feb. 11, 2013, in her Philadelphia apartment, has "a tough, enveloping, exhilarating voice that cannot be equaled," one review said. Her novel "Swamplandia!" was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Author Karen Russell, pictured Feb. 11, 2013, in her Philadelphia apartment, has "a tough, enveloping, exhilarating voice that cannot be equaled," one review said. Her novel "Swamplandia!" was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

JH: So, what advice would you give to young writers or someone just starting out?

KR: I always think to read omnivorously. It’s not really original advice. To read outside the genre and to maybe try writing outside the genre you identify with. The stakes feel a bit different and you take risks a bit differently. You’re not working in your primary genre, so you can flirt with a different voice on the page.

And also, besides reading omnivorously, to let yourself play. To let yourself take risks on the page. It can really be a little paralyzing, especially if you’re a student and you’ve taken out loans, and there’s such a machine and there’s such a pressure of wanting to get an agent and get published. But all the joy is in the making of the thing. So, give yourself some time and give yourself the freedom to play around. Patience, I guess.

JH: What’s next for you?

KR: I’ve been working on new stories set outside of Florida. You know in the same way that people come home later in life, I’m hoping later in my career I can come back to the peninsula as some sort of fictional homecoming or something. I’m excited to come out to Kansas because off and on, I’ve been working on this novel set in sort of a mythic version of the Great Plains. It’ll be set during the Dust Bowl drought. I feel shy talking about it. I went through a honeymoon phase where it was all I could talk about, but now I’m feeling a little more reticent.

JH: Do you know when we might see that?

KR: Oh, man. I’m a superstitious thinker and leery of the jinx, so I’m just going to throw some dry ice down and say, hopefully soon. Hopefully in the next couple of years.


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