Tales from the dark side
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.