We were very excited to have Karen Russell join us at Library Journal’s The Digital Shift: Libraries, Ebooks and Beyond virtual conference. Karen chatted with librarians about her new collection of stories Vampires in the Lemon Grove, that releases in February, and her instant New York Times bestseller Swamplandia! (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize).
In the collection’s marvelous title story, two aging vampires in a sun-drenched Italian lemon grove find their hundred-year marriage tested when one of them develops a fear of flying. In “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” a dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left in a seagull’s nest. “Proving Up” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”-stories of children left to fend for themselves in dire predicaments-find Russell veering into more sinister territory, and ultimately crossing the line into full-scale horror. In “The New Veterans,” a massage therapist working with a tattooed war veteran discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the images on his body. In all, these wondrous new pieces display a young writer of superlative originality and invention coming into the full range and scale of her powers.
KAREN RUSSELL CHAT
RH Jen: Hi Karen! Welcome to the RH booth!
RH Jen: We’re so glad to have you here with us.
Karen Russell: Hi guys!
Rocco: Excited to be part of this presentation with Karen Russell.
RH Jen: We are too!
RH Jen: I have some questions for Karen, but anyone can feel free to jump in with questions.
RH Jen: Can you share some of your favorite authors/novels, especially ones that have influenced your writing
Karen Russell: Oh, too many to count–when I was a kid, my mother had this strict book-diet she put me on. I was drawn to sci-fi and horror, and this concerned her, so for every Stephen King or Ray Bradbury book I checked out, I had to get a “classic”–Wuthering Heights, The Count of Monte Cristo, that sort of thing…
RH Jen: In Barbara Hoffertís pre-pub review of Vampires, she says a few stories ìlike those about abandoned childrenÖgo all dark.î What inspired you to move into the horror territory here?
Karen Russell: Well, I think many of the St. Lucy’s stories, and certainly Swamplandia!, are really committed to engaging with darkness…and I think some of the new stories push further in that direction, tonally they are less of a tragicomic mix, I wanted to see if I could create different effects…suspense, certainly.
RH Jen: Some of the characters in Swamplandia! first appeared in the story ìAva Wrestles the Alligatorî in your collection, St. Lucyís Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Are there any characters in Vampires in the Lemon Grove that you could see bringing to a new novel?
Karen Russell: As I mentioned, I loved horror novels as a kid, largely because they were a form that treated violence and the uncanny; so many YA books that were school-approved felt somehow sterile to me, I think children have antennae out for all kinds of darkness long before they have the perspective or vocabulary to deal with those forces…
Anne: Children love the “dark” books.
Karen Russell: It’s true! I think it can be a relief to find a space where darkness is treated candidly, acknowledged…so many adults, God Bless them, try to protect kids by pretending that there is no horror in life, and kids are wise to life’s undertow almost immediately, don’t you find?
Anne: Yes, I wonder if reading about it resolves an inate fear we all have of the unknown.
Rocco: Kids can handle much more than many adults realize
Karen Russell: I do! Ok, yikes, this is very Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, I’m clickety-clacking over here….let me do Jen’s question real quick…I am actually working on a novel set during the Dust Bowl drought right now, and I wonder if Miles’ family might wind up there in some form, but th stories in VAMPIRES all felt pretty self-contained to me, I don’t think they will rear to life and kudzu-grow the way the “Ava” story did…but who knows…
RH Jen: Your fingers will definitely get a workout this morning!
Karen Russell: I agree, I think that kid-resilience is remarkable, and now that adolescence is a great distance away in my own rearview, I find that I have to continually remind myself of how deep children go, how smart your average eight or nine year old really is, what they have to see and deal with on a daily basis…and the “dark” books are a space where they can do that work, I think, sort through their own reactions to cruelty, the unknown…
Karen Russell: Ha! Does that count as cardiovascular? I was just talking about “cookies” so much with the tech-support people, got me excited for lunch…
RH Jen: LOL
Rocco: Do you have any favorite YA authors?
Karen Russell: For YA authors, I really adored “The Wind in the Door” series, and “Watership Down” was an all-time favorite…I love to think that a generation of kids are still reading “The Phantom Tollbooth,” those Narnia books…Tolkien, of course…
Karen Russell: Oh, God! Remember “The Island of the Blue Dolphins”? And I am sure I owe “Julie of the Wolves” and Jack London’s “Son of the Wolf” and “White Fang” a great debt, so much of my symbolic language comes from the books I read pre-high school, I always felt my “real” life was lived between those covers, truly…
Elysha: “Island of the Blue Dolphins”!!! LOVE!
RH Jen: We heard that Swamplandia! is being made into an HBO mini-series. Do you have input into the creation? What are your thoughts?
Karen Russell: Well, my fingers are crossed for the HBO adaptation, I think they do the most “novelistic” shows on TV…
Karen Russell: But at the same time, so much has to go right for a book to make it onto TV, it’s a weird odyssey, I think…I know some writers adapt their own material but I confess that I would be terrible at that!
Karen Russell: I’m listed as a “consultant,” which I hope means I get a little chair on a set someday…but likely means I just say “sounds good! Cast Ossie as Dakota Fanning, please!”
Kelly: I have to say, I loved Swamplandia! Didn’t want to leave those characters behind…
Kelly: Wondering if you have siblings that you drew the experience from like the “eccentric older sister?”
Karen Russell: Oh, thank you, Kelly. I was just telling Erica that librarians, the ultimate readers, your support is like a jolt of the purest encouragement…
Karen Russell: Oh, I’m glad to have an opportunity to say that Ossie is not my actual sister, Lauren. In fact we have had many conversations where she is like, “Jesus, please, please, stop writing about sisters”
Karen Russell: Ghost-sisters, necrophiliac schizophrenic sisters, wolf-sisters…I can see to where she wants me to set the record straight, that this is not autobiographical
Karen Russell: But of course, that feels a little disingenuous, because in a sense I’m sure everything I write is autobiographical…or drawn from my lived experience of the world, because what other well would fiction come from?
Karen Russell: So the parts that feel most emotionally autobiographical to me are the complicated closeness of these siblings…in life, my brother and my sister and I are ferociously close. I think it freaks some people out.
Kelly: I don’t blame her! I just think Ossie was just such a typical older sister– acted like she had it all together and then one day she follows a ghost boyfriend through the dangerous swamps!
Kelly: (my own sister only ran off to California with her “ghost”)
Karen Russell: Ha! Yes, I’m glad that dynamic felt familiar…I also really love how younger siblings will so matter-of-factly accept whatever their older brothers or sisters tell them as “truth,” how wide-eyed willing they are to get on board with the new regime, whatever that may be–carnival darwinism, ghosts….
Karen Russell: Oh, Kelly! don’t get me started on elopement scares 🙂
RH Jen: I’m the older sister, and I’m sure my baby sis would agree with you two!
Kelly: Lol!! And that is exactly what I was thinking, only a younger sister would have this trust- my younger sister let me cut her hair because I told her I had been practicing!
Karen Russell: I told my sister she was a robot, and that if she didn’t play with me I would turn her off. Big sisters, what tyrants.
RH Jen: Haha. I told my little sister soap that looked liked candy.She ate it.
Karen Russell: Mwah! I am always fascinated by the way birth order shapes personalities, you know? who is “the responsible one,” “the clown,” “the credulous one”.
RH Jen: Any last questions?
Rocco: Do u social media?
Karen Russell: Rocco, I am so socially anxious in life that the idea of maintaining a Facebook page, I’m just not there yet!
Karen Russell: But this chat situation with librarians, this I could do every day.
Rocco: Thanks for being here.
RH Jen: Thanks so much for coming to chat with us Karen!
Anne: Yes, it was great geting to know you.
Karen Russell: It was a pleasure!! I hope you guys have a fantastic conference. Thanks so much for reading that whack-a-gator book.
Elysha: Thanks for chatting, Karen!
RH Jen: Reminder to everyone to get an egallley of Karen’s new book VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE at edelweiss [through this link]!
Karen Russell: Thanks, Jen–And Happy Halloween, you guys. Vampires and discounted candy corn, ho!
RH Jen: Thanks again!