Tales from the dark side

Pasatiempo - - News - Karen Rus­sell

a Karen Rus­sell story, read­ers might find them­selves at an overnight camp for dis­or­dered sleep­ers, in a feu­dal Ja­panese silk fac­tory, or on cliffs perched high above an Ital­ian le­mon grove. Her first novel, 2011’s Swamp­lan­dia!, takes place at a fam­ily-run gator theme park on an is­land off the Florida coast. But while the set­tings for Rus­sell’s nar­ra­tives are var­ied and ex­otic, to list them does lit­tle to con­vey the won­der­ful pe­cu­liar­ity of her worlds and char­ac­ters. Her sto­ries have cer­tain el­e­ments in common, like a propen­sity for child and ado­les­cent pro­tag­o­nists and a spe­cific bent to­ward the fan­tas­tic that is Rus­sell’s own, but each stands alone as a cu­ri­ous jewel.

In Vam­pires in the Le­mon Grove ( Vin­tage Books/ Ran­dom House), Rus­sell’s most re­cent col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, the vam­pires in the ti­tle story sub­sist on le­mons in­stead of blood and change from hu­man form into bats who sleep in the cliffs at night, but their ar­gu­ments with one another are those of an or­di­nary, long-suf­fer­ing mar­ried cou­ple. Rus­sell deals in fable and imag­i­na­tion, but her sto­ries are un­fail­ingly true in the emo­tional sense. On Wed­nes­day, Jan. 28, Rus­sell ap­pears in a Lannan Lit­er­ary se­ries event at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter in con­ver­sa­tion with au­thor Porochista Khakpour (whose most re­cent novel is 2014’s The Last Il­lu­sion).

Pasatiempo: You’ve pub­lished one novel and many short sto­ries, in col­lec­tions and on their own. What do you like about each form, and how is writ­ing sto­ries dif­fer­ent from writ­ing nov­els? Karen Rus­sell: It’s funny, I’ve only man­aged to write the one novel, so I feel like I’m not a qual­i­fied ex­pert — it’s not re­ally a skill that gen­er­al­izes. Writ­ing Swamp­lan­dia!, I was grow­ing up along with the char­ac­ters, and my ideas were chang­ing along with them. I got to jug­gle mul­ti­ple worlds in this one book, and it had echoes and res­o­nances that de­pended on the longevity of my re­la­tion­ships with the char­ac­ters. In short sto­ries, the com­pres­sion of the form lends it­self to a fre­netic imag­i­na­tion; it’s like you hop­scotch be­tween a lot of dif­fer­ent car­ni­val tents, and you can range across bod­ies and con­ti­nents. Pasa: The char­ac­ters and world of Swamp­lan­dia! ap­pear in a story in your first col­lec­tion, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Did you al­ways know that story would be some­thing longer? Rus­sell: No. There’s almost a nec­es­sary am­ne­sia that hap­pens; oth­er­wise, you’d never take on a novel. My friend just be­came a mom, and it’s a lit­tle like that: It couldn’t be a decision made in noon light — you have to si­dle into it. Writ­ing sto­ries feels like that, like you need to make it into a game or a joke. You need to cre­ate a para­dox where writ­ing feels play­ful and aim­less. With ev­ery other story in that first col­lec­tion, I felt like I’d ex­hausted what I wanted to say or like I had the right end­ing, but I kept think­ing about th­ese weird gator girls. Pasa: Is there a ten­sion be­tween writ­ing about what you know well and tak­ing big imag­i­na­tive leaps? Much of your work is set in fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory, like swampy Florida, but you’re equally adept at cre­at­ing monsters and myths. Rus­sell: I think we’re im­pli­cated in many dif­fer­ent kinds of re­al­i­ties. I grew up in Florida, which is al­ready larger than life, on a lit­eral pe­riph­ery with the sea, and there’s a penin­su­lar magic about it, a con­stant flux of peo­ple: grifters, out­siders, refugees. Florida has a mal­leabil­ity that ex­ists in con­trast to all its crappy strip-mall de­vel­op­ments and con­crete and stucco; th­ese man­u­fac­tured fan­tasies are on top of some­thing un­con­trolled and wild and strange. I don’t see [the real world and fan­tasy] as be­ing in ten­sion; we live so much of our lives in fan­tasy realms. There’s this Flan­nery O’Con­nor quote, “The truth is not dis­torted here, but rather a dis­tor­tion is used to get at truth.” Pasa: When I was read­ing Sleep Do­na­tion, your e-novella pub­lished last Fe­bru­ary, it res­onated with me in part be­cause I had a ter­ri­ble bout of in­som­nia as a kid, and so I “re­lated” to the ma­te­rial. This is a weird, con­tem­po­rary idea that I’ve seen a lot lately — that we’re sup­posed to some­how see our­selves in the en­ter­tain­ment we con­sume. Rus­sell: It’s tricky. With a character like Tr­ish in Sleep Do­na­tion, it’s dif­fi­cult to em­pathize with her, even as the writer, be­cause she’s brit­tle and shut down. But some of my fa­vorite books have char­ac­ters and nar­ra­tors that are rep­re­hen­si­ble or cer­tainly com­plex. They don’t have the po­tent charm of George Clooney or a dol­phin, where ev­ery­one on earth is happy to suc­cumb to it. I think of a character like Nabokov’s Pnin or Hum­bert Hum­bert. Books rep­re­sent com­plex­i­ties, like how dif­fi­cult it is to trans­late good in­ten­tions into ac­tion. There’s no other art that can do that, that gives you con­tact with the real messi­ness of be­ing alive. I write about ac­tual monsters, and it’s a big­ger ask to say, Hey reader, come into this night­mare with me, into art that’s not go­ing to soothe you but in­stead rile you up. Pasa: Is it dif­fi­cult or scary to write that stuff? Rus­sell: Swamp­lan­dia! was pretty un­com­fort­able the whole way through. The ma­te­rial is gushy and raw. Some­times when I meet read­ers, I get the im­pres­sion that they think I’m like the Mar­quis de Sade — some kind of sadist. But writ­ing never feels that way, even if it’s un­com­fort­able. What I love most as a reader is that if you’re riled up and dis­com­fited, the easy, or­di­nary way you see the world is loose, and it’s pos­si­ble to see a new truth, maybe not a pleas­ant one, but one that en­larges what you think is pos­si­ble. Pasa: Sleep Do­na­tion was pub­lished as a Kin­dle sin­gle and only in dig­i­tal form. I read that part of the rea­son you wanted to do that is be­cause of its length — longer than a short story but not quite a novel. Were there other rea­sons? Rus­sell: It never felt like a novel to me — more a kind of ex­per­i­ment. What ex­cited me is that the plat­form is per­verse in the right way for a story about an in­som­nia cri­sis caused by global changes, like star­ing at screens. Pasa: Oh, def­i­nitely. I read my Kin­dle in bed ev­ery night, even though look­ing at the screen sup­pos­edly makes it hard for you to sleep. Rus­sell: Right. It’s about our re­ac­tion to how quickly things change, and ac­cel­er­ated con­nec­tiv­ity was part of the con­tent of the story, like it was de­signed for that medium. I had fun with the idea of a net­work of minds read­ing glow­ing screens and get­ting in­fected by sto­ries.

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