Karen Russell was recently chosen by The New Yorker as one of the “20 under 40” writers to watch. Her new novel, SWAMPLANDIA! will be published in February 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf
Q: “Swamplandia!” is a continuation of the story of the Bigtree Wrestling Dynasty who we first met in “Ava Wrestles the Alligator”, a story that appeared in your debut story collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”. Where did you originally get the idea for this family?
A: These folks have been around for years now—since I was 22. In the very first draft of this place that I wrote, Ava was a murderous boy named Hector and I believe my very wise, very kind professor actually sighed out loud after reading it and said, “Oh Karen—I just do not know what you are doing here.” And this was a bummer, because neither did I! All I knew was that, unlike my other characters, who generally left me alone after I ‘”finished” and published or abandoned a story, these Bigtrees kept rattling around inside my head. Their world, “Swamplandia!” was a place I could really see in full color behind my eyelids, which doesn’t always happen. I’m going to resist my inner list towards a terrible pun now (their world “sucked me in!” I was “swamped!” etc).
And the world of the novel really is, in kilometers, pretty close to home. I grew up in South Florida and our family’s trips to the Everglades and to Key West probably form the literal bedrock of the Bigtrees’ strange world. We took field trips to the Shark River Valley, and to a Seminole reservation.
Alligators have always fascinated me, too. They were always a rumored presence in Florida bodies of water–this primordial monster grinning its way across a Miami Springs golf course, or swimming with this reptilian insouciance through the canal behind a grade school..
Q: Do you have a favorite library or librarian from your past?
A: I have a favorite English teacher, this patron saint of grammar, Miss Madeleine Timmis, who gave me Michael Crichton and John Grisham books on the sly and without whose encouragement I would never have become a writer, I’m convinced. And I still remember the whole-body thrill I felt at age seven when our grade school librarian, Sister Patricia, gave me “special access” to the grown up kid books early on, which was maybe the best compliment of my life to date—to get to exit the patronizingly carpeted “bean bag” area of our very tiny library and freely touch the spines of the “adult” (read: Nancy Drew) books. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t cite the library as their favorite childhood place—I remember it as a nerd’s Valhalla.
Q: Are you the type of author that spends a good amount of time on research? Or do you just jump in?
A: Oh, I love to procrastinate with “research,” especially the lazy kind you can do on the internet! I can spend an hour researching some lame question like, “can a manatee do long division?” or whatever. But I don’t recommend this approach. I do think it’s a good idea to read enough that you feel like you have earned the authority to make a big imaginative leap. To import the sorts of sturdy lumber—literal, concrete details—to build your imaginary world.
Q: If you were to write in a library book (a horrible, horrible idea) which book would it be and what would you write?
A: What! I’m offended that you even asked me this! I would never do that—next you’ll be asking me, “to what tempo would you shake a baby?” (Answer: Bossa Nova). No, seriously, I think I would write inside of a George Saunders or a Kelly Link book, “READER OF THE FUTURE/ANTHROPOLOGIST OF THE YEAR 3003—YOU MUST READ THIS EXCELLENT ARTIFACT! IT IS SOME OF THE BEST OUR CULTURE HAS TO OFFER” or some kind of Ozymandias-style compliment.
Q: How do you like Washington Heights? Does your residence or sense of place tend to dissolve into your writing?
A: Well, my best friend jokes that we live “above the Daddy Yankee line”—which means that our heart beats are synced to the rhythms of reggaeton. I love my neighborhood—there’s always a party going on, and then ten blocks above me we have the weird Manhattan Narnia of Fort Tryon park and the Cloisters. New York hasn’t really filtered into my writing yet; on those rare occasions when the writing is going well, I do tend to go deeply into whatever swampy or whacked-out world I’ve got going on the page.
Q: Are there any books from this year that you’ve really liked or are excited to read?
A: “The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton.” Wells Tower’s collection, which is amazing. “The Anthologist,” by Nicholson Baker. “Swimming” by Nicole Keegan. “The Perfect Reader” by Maggie Pouncey. “The Ask” by Sam Lipsyte. “Lit” by Mary Karr. I’m sure I’m forgetting more!
Q: Your writing is so magical and whimsical. Who are your literary inspirations?
A: As a kid /I loved Oz worlds, imaginary castles, the Ohio/Mars fusion of Ray Bradbury’s stories, the evil clown towns of Stephen King, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and John Wyndham’s triffid apocalypse, “Watership Down” with its psychic rabbits–the weirder the better, basically. I was lucky enough to read George Saunders, Kelly Link, Katherine Dunne, Ben Marcus, good old Franz Kafka, Denis Johnson, Junot Diaz, Isaac Babel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Flannery O’Connor all in the same blissed-out two or three year period, and my dome was blown. They are still teaching me how to write, every time I reread one of their fine books.
About Karen Russell:
Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in both The New Yorker‘s debut fiction issue and New York magazine’s list of twenty-five people to watch under the age of twenty-six. Most recently she was named one of The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40”, a list of writers they describe as “twenty young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction”. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program and is the 2005 recipient of the Transatlantic Review/Henfield Foundation Award; her fiction has recently appeared in Conjunctions, Granta, Zoetrope, Oxford American, and The New Yorker. Twenty-eight years old, she lives in New York City.