Monday, April 29, 2013

Generally Horrible Questions: Karen Russell

Holy freakin' God, Karen Russell! Pulitzer Prize finalist. One of the best young writers in America. Did we convince Karen Russell to answer our horrible questions? Yes we did. You know what turns Monday into Funday? Receiving an email from Karen Russell. Yeah, I'm going to keep saying her name. Karen Russell. Karen Russell!

Karen Russell
My new best friend
Karen Russell is the author of three books: the much lauded debut story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, the Pulitzer Prize finalist novel Swamplandia! (which was one of our favorite books of the year for 2011), and the recently released short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Russell is known for her imaginative characters and plots, and she's fearless in blending fantasy, horror, folklore, and general oddity into her brand of literary fiction. No one is writing like Karen Russell. In Vampires in the Lemon Grove, for example, one story is about former Presidents of the United States who have been reincarnated as barnyard horses. Rutherford B. Hayes thinks he wants to seduce a sheep, but it's okay because he thinks the sheep may be his wife. You know you want to read this story.

A couple of months ago, Russell spent a day in the Random House warehouse in Maryland signing a bunch of copies of Vampires. My pals in the telephone sales department facilitated the signing, and several of them posted about it on Facebook. I responded to their Facebook posts because I was petty and jealous. Someone read my envious remarks to Russell, and she somehow remembered that I'd posted the first reader review for Swamplandia! on Goodreads. She graciously agreed to answer our generally horrible questions even though the telephone sales reps told her all about me.

What follows is going to be my favorite blog post pretty much ever. Karen Russell!

Generally Horrible Questions: Karen Russell

1. Describe your literary odyssey--how did you become a writer?
My Poets by Maureen McLane
I like “literary odyssey,” which has such an epic ring to it! Basically I was a terrified child who lived inside of books, and early on I wanted to apprentice myself to these architects of imaginary places, to make a world of my own on the page, a place that did not exist and yet that readers could nonetheless inhabit. To draw breaths and die and get reborn inside of books--when I was a kid and today, I thought this reading business was real magic. As dorkily earnest as that sounds, forgive me. But I am still amazed and relieved that we humans are creatures who have access to these alternate, placeless spaces, which are made out of language but which become so real inside of us, and which we can always revisit, via re-reading. What a piece of luck, you know, that we get to read. It’s a spooky intimacy that binds readers to characters in books, and their authors. My friend Maureen McLane, in her amazing book, My Poets, has a quote that I find myself thinking about at least once a day, about how certain poems and stories provide us with “deep seas in which to swim and make a self.”

But wait a sec, that’s a long tangent--basically, my route to becoming a writer was a pretty land-locked odyssey. As I mentioned, I was an anxious kid, a reader. What Joan Didion calls in her great essay, “a private keeper of notebooks.” I liked to bike around the mangroves near our house. I sucked at many things: sports, math. I loved language with a feverish intensity. I took phenomenal writing classes at Northwestern University and in Columbia’s MFA program. I got really, really, unaccountably lucky, relatively early-on. I wound up with a really excellent agent and a phenomenal editor, at Knopf, where everybody genuinely loves making books. I’m still trying to make good on all the help and encouragement I’ve received.
[For the record, writing for this blog doesn't really help pay off that debt. Actually, you might owe more. Penance for a lack of taste. Everything else about this answer is gold, though.]

2. Gianna lived in the Miami area for several years while in her twenties; she calls these her drinking years. Which of the following cultural hot spots did she get kicked out of?

A) Weeki Wachee Springs?
B) Monkey Jungle?
C) Busch Gardens?
D) The Holy Land Experience (Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like)?
E) All of the above? Remember, these were her drinking years.

The Holy Land Experience.
Watch out for drunk Gianna
I really want to go with E, ladies! I’m going to say Monkey Jungle? Only because that’s right in Miami, and the others are a drive, and I guess that even retrospectively I hate to imagine an intoxicated Gianna bounced from, say, “The Holy Land Experience,” driving drunk without a seat belt...buckle up, Gianna in the past! Wait a sec, I’ll call you a cab! Gianna! Come back, your toga from the Holy Land Experience is on backwards... 

3. I've never read Ulysses (not a word!) and I'm so ashamed.
Been hearing some good buzz about that one. 

4. I've read The Rules and I'm so ashamed. (Be advised: we mock Twilight fairly regularly.)
Note: This was a gift from my father, purchased for $1.50 from a used bookstore in Miami, when I was in high school. I truly think he thought it was some kind of self-help type inspirational book. I’m sure he would be horrified to know he gave me the world’s most sexist dating manual. [...Yet you still read it. Huh. This is
Gianna's favorite book, I think.]

5. One of our favorite KR (we call you KR) stories is "Z.Z.'s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers," (from St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves). Liz has a sleep disorder; it's very annoying. Which cabin should we put her in?
Hey, I love to be KR! There are a lot of Karens out there. Some days I feel more like a Russell than a Karen, for whatever that’s worth. Maybe I have a name disorder. Gianna, Liz I’m so sorry to hear about your sleep disorders. I have your run of the mill insomnia and some vivid nightmares, but my brother is an occasional sleepwalker with legitimate and alarming night terrors. He sleeps with a baseball bat next to his bed, because nearly every night he wakes up to the sensation that there is a malevolent presence in his bedroom. (I share this only because he himself is sharing his sleep troubles publicly, in an amazing profile of Tom Savini, zombie special effects artist, that will appear in Tin House soon...).

I think that we would probably all be in the “Others” cabin--see my thoughts on Liz’s “Miscellaneous” qualities below. I’m no REM-expert, but I’m going out on a limb here to say that whatever Liz and Gianna have might be gloriously undiagnosable. [I'm pretty sure that what Gianna has is contagious, though.]

6. You can disown one person from this impressive list of Floridians: William H. Macy, Victoria Jackson,
Sidney Poitier, 2 Live Crew, or Hulk Hogan. Who doesn't make the cut? Why? Show your work.
Ha! This might be one of my all-time favorite interview questions. 2 Live Crew! I had the "Pop That Coochie (Clean)" Cassingle from Specs. And a bad crush on Luke. And Sidney Poitier is from Miami? I’m so ashamed not to have known that! Who would disown Mister Tibbs?? Hulk Hogan, Victoria Jackson, that noble bloodhound-looking, careworn superstar, William H. Macy: all Miami native sons and daughters. I think this is a trick question, you guys. Like when God told Abraham he had to sacrifice his firstborn. I think Florida’s strangeness is capacious enough for everyone on this eclectic list. And how could I disown even one of these people, given my familiarity with my own weirdness? Glass houses, Hulk Hogan! [With "Pop That Coochie" appearing on this blog, I anticipate many, many more Google porn searches landing here. Sigh. Also, Karen, did you consider Hulk Hogan's sex tape? I think that's reason enough to cut that one loose.]

7. You're known for taking quirky, often fantastical characters and having them confront themes facing more ordinary people these days. In SWAMPLANDIA!, alligator wrestling and the homogenization of American entertainment and culture square off against each other. In the title story of VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE, aging vampires deal with the struggle of maintaining a relationship long term as they age and grow apart. How did you come to find your voice in this mixture of worlds/genres? Did you have an imaginary friend as a child?
Ah, well, I suppose one answer is that I grew up in Florida, where there are so many overlapping worlds: artificial fantasy parks and real swamps and everything in between. Then, too, I have some great role models, folks like Italo Calvino, Juan Rulfo, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, with highly lyrical and idiosyncratic literary voices. Writers with a sweeping, syncretic vision, whose skill with language gives them the ability to fuse many different tones and atmospheres into a single cohesive work. ["Syncretic" is such a great word.] They are real mix-masters, these authors; the single arbiters of the worlds which they create, regardless of whether they are set on the moon or under the sea or under the flame-red skies of Georgia. And then there are contemporary authors--Rivka Galchen, Ben Marcus, Heidi Julavitz, to name just a very few--who are genre mash-up artists, and create fictional universes that are irrigated by many diverse aquifers, both the classics of literature and detective stories, science fiction, philosophy, children’s parables.

I think part of the reason why I like monster stories and hybridized styles has a lot to do with the homogenization that you cite, Liz. As a writer and a reader, I’m drawn to books that defy categorization. I watched South Florida overrun by strip malls, franchises, inundated with “processed food” fantasies dictated to everybody by corporations, so much of the indigenous color draining into a dreadful sameness. Monsters, emblems of difference, skulking around the margins of the dominant culture, have a real appeal in literature and film right now, and I’d guess it’s because we’re all drawn to the freakish freedom they embody. 

8. Consider the 50 states. Where does Florida rank on a spectrum of eccentricity?
I want to say, with pride and love, “the most eccentric.” Do you read the news coming out of that isthmus?
Seriously, don't molest the gators. Bad idea. Weirdo.
Do you see the prehistoric looking plants and birds and lizards that we’ve got down there, right next to Adventureland and the Pleasure Emporium? More proof: remember when that megalithic blue eyeball washed up recently, in Pompano Beach, FL? Now, was the eyeball magnetized to, say, Cape Cod? Of course not! That homeless deep sea peeper followed some vibrational gravity ashore, to its rightful home in Florida.

But you know, my experience of other places is limited; I wouldn’t doubt that states like Texas or Louisiana or even a dark horse like Ohio might give us a run for our counterfeit Day-Glo Florida money. I spent 18 years at the bottom of that peninsula so my own bias has deep roots. My brother says “Florida is our Australia.” Sometimes I meet people from states I’ve never visited, like Alaska or Nevada, and I feel an immediate kinship with them. We recognize each other as survivors of a deeply strange atmosphere and culture...although I guess “strange” is an overused descriptor and certainly very relative. Because what would constitute an “ordinary” state, Connecticut? Look what happened there! It’s Stepford Wife country! Those placid green lawns and standard suburban facades turned out to be the breeding ground for some wild dysfunction! 

9. Liz or Gianna? (This is a question we ask everyone. There is a correct answer.)
Liz AND Gianna. In bathroom graffiti, I believe, the transcription is: LIZ AND GIANNA 4EVA!!! [Really? REALLY? The correct answer is ALWAYS Liz!] 

10. Since you don't mind channeling Liz, what's wrong with her?
This is just a guess, where I extrapolate from my own often-dysfunctional echo chamber to yours, Liz:
The greatest thing ever:
Karen Russell wearing my nametag
from sales conference. Which,
apparently, was hanging on the
telephone sales dept's Wall of Shame.
Liz, to Liz: Liz, you are such a harsh critic of Liz! And this Liz-on-Liz self critique is just tightening the noose-knots! Holy smokes, how can we Lizes turn this stranglehold into a sisterly embrace? Augh! Liz, I am not interested in hearing that long-ass “To-Do” list right now, I just freaking opened my eyes on the pillow! It’s Sunday morning, call off your dogs, Liz! You don’t even own dogs, Liz, you have a cat! Let's go back to bed and try this conversation again in a few hours...

Also, another educated guess, based on the data I acquired several months ago in the RH offices:
I’m guessing that whatever a limited person might label “wrong” about Liz is in fact what makes Liz so deeply right, a true original. Just based on what I heard around the RH offices. Like, do you sometimes fall asleep with your boots on, or eschew underwear, or invent new curse words in family restaurants, or read Murakami stories about cats to your cat? People who know you speak of your wild streak with awe and tremendous affection. Just so you know that folks are talking good about you behind your back, I always like hearing that. 

11. What books/writers make you giddy? What book(s) is/are woefully under-read?
Kevin Brockmeier’s stuff I think is skin-tinglingly beautiful and deserves a wider readership (The Illumination is his most recent), and Kelly Link has a humongous rabid fan base but I’m shocked when folks haven’t heard of her, given the potency of her literary sorcery. Jim Shepard is another brilliant and prolific writer to whom the same applies...but if I start on the “woefully under-read” category, I’d wind up with an endless list. I read some staggering statistic that 50% of Americans did not read a single book last year. But I don’t like to join the doomsday chorus--I think a small but significant group of us self-selecting weirdos will always be ravening for fiction. I used to evangelize for George Saunders and I’m so happy to see him getting this overdue and hugely deserved tsunami of new readers. 

One book I love to recommend is by a young woman who attended graduate school with me, Affinity Konar. It’s called The Illustrated Version of Things and was put out by a small press, FC 2, that publishes sound-barrier breaking (and, thus, noncommercial and woefully under-read) fiction. Here’s what another ferociously funny and brilliant writer, Lydia Millet, has to say about it: 

“Affinity Konar has invented a language. It’s sonorous, brilliant, and at least half insane; its word substitutions and trickery are both charming and maddening, reminding us of the thoughts we almost but never quite had. Like Samuel Beckett, this is literature for the superhuman: reading it makes us greater than we are.” 
[SOLD. I'm ordering a copy as soon as I post this blog.]

12. We've blogged about gorgeous book covers in the past, and have of course mentioned the jacket for Swamplandia!. As sales reps we hear a lot (probably more than we would like) about covers, but we also understand how important it is. What kind of input do you have regarding the cover art that will represent your books? And if we wallpapered our offices with dust jackets from your books, would that be A) creepy, or B) awesome?

C) All of the above! Right? I mean, I think it would be creepy if I wallpapered my living space that way, but I’d be very flattered/disquieted if you guys chose to do that. Both things.

Man, I have been so lucky with covers. I cannot claim the smallest portion of the credit--my input is usually just to say “Yes!” while pumping my fist in the air after downloading the attachment image. And, I supposed, writing the stories in the first place. Carol Devine is the designer and she has an uncanny knack for visually translating the spirit of each book into cover art. In every case, I have been elated. With Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I did request that she maybe put a hint of green on the cover, just because I thought that would be refreshing, a zap of green. And she did me one better and added that lovely candy-bright stripe of color on the spine, which I love. I feel a real affinity with that bat, too. He looks a little like a gleeful flasher, doesn’t he, opening his trenchcoat like that? Scandalizing everybody with the stark outline of his winged skeleton? There is something both goofy and genuinely frightening about him to me. I had a similar reaction to the red-eyed wolf on the cover of St. Lucy’s, and the alligator on the hardcover of Swamplandia!

In fact, in one of those stranger-than-fiction coincidences, I recently learned that the cover image of Swamplandia! comes from an extremely rare nineteenth-century children’s book by Luther Bradley. His great-great-descendant called me while I was doing a radio show in D.C. to tell me. Now Swamplandia!’s cover hangs in his one-hundred year old mother’s bedroom. So that illustrated alligator has gone swimming through some labyrinthine channels, down the decades.

Thank you Karen Russell! Some day we will meet in real life, probably over a drink, probably with Gianna still dressed in her toga from the Holy Land Experience, and we'll pinky swear eternal friendship and loyalty and talk books for hours on end.


  1. Replies
    1. Don't know why this called me Mom. I am one, but this was creepy.

  2. Heh. Yeah, that's weird. But I'm glad you liked it.