[(essay date March/April 2011) In the following essay, Loeb outlines the aspects of Russell's personal life that have affected her fiction and notes her increasing interest in incorporating historical elements into her future work.]
"I feel like one of those Russian nesting dolls," Karen Russell says, reflecting on why children and adolescents are so often at the center of her stories. "I really think I must still be a kid in some fundamental way." Underneath all the layers of maturity and achievement, she insists, "[I'm] still fourteen every day."
Her accomplishments are nothing to sniff at: two books published before the age of thirty--the story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) and the new novel Swamplandia!, both published by Knopf--inclusion in the New Yorker's vaunted list of twenty writers under the age of forty who "capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction," along with numerous other "best" lists and awards. But if Russell's relatively fast, smooth road to publication is the stuff of dreams for many aspiring writers, it also clashes rather appealingly with the twisty strangeness of her fiction, work that is rife with characters whose experiences are anything but straightforward.
Russell, twenty-nine, is most intrigued by the times in people's lives when their ideas are just being formed, or are changing radically. "Those are interesting thresholds to me," she explains, "ages when you really have access to different ways of being in the world. You're not so far removed from your kid-friendly, magical narrative, but you're becoming awake to new stuff and often lack the vocabulary for it."
Born and raised in Miami, Florida, where she lived until moving to the Chicago area to attend college at Northwestern University, Russell's fascination with her home state's striking scenery seeps into much of her writing. Some readers have been quick to classify her stories as magical realism, but Russell says that writing in that style was never her intent. To her, a "dilation of reality" felt like an accurate way to capture the slippery border between the man-made and natural worlds that characterize the landscape of her native state. With theme parks butting up against the Everglades, she says, Florida's environment "totally distorts your sense of what reality can even be." Her early taste in reading, which tended toward horror, science fiction, and fantasy--along with the work of the Brontës--also inspired her fictional fixations. "I suspect I may have been a weird kid--I was certainly an anxious one," she says. For Russell, books became fantastical escapes. "They were like new skins you could zip into."
Fittingly, Russell's own stories have the same effect, full of sentences that have a pulse of their own. A father's voice is "like a shell with something oozing and alive inside it." A boy looks like "a living dimple." A sister is "like an aquarium when it [comes] to other people's secrets." Her new book, the deeply sad, darkly funny Swamplandia!, is an ambitious novel that evolved from the short story "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," published in Russell's debut collection. In the story, twelve-year-old Ava Bigtree and her sixteen-year-old sister, Ossie, are left to their own devices in the ramshackle home-cum-tourist-attraction from which the novel gets its name (they boast that Swamplandia! is "the island's #1 Gator Theme Park and Swamp Café"), while their father attends to some unspecified business on the mainland. Their mother died not long ago, and in their father's absence Ava worries about Ossie, who is being possessed by a parade of ghost boyfriends. The ghosts "steal over her, silking into her ears and mouth and lungs, stealthy and pervasive, like sickness or swallowed water," Ava narrates with Russell's unnervingly sentient prose. "I watch her metamorphosis in guilty, greedy increments."
Russell began writing about the Bigtree family and their low-rent alligator-wrestling dynasty when she was a twenty-two-year-old MFA student at Columbia University in New York City. At the time, "I'm sure it was just as doofy as any of my other ideas," she says. It was a story that kept growing, "doing a lateral sprawl--not even a linear one--sending out shoots." Even after completing the short story that appeared in St. Lucy's [St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves] a few years later, Russell found she couldn't shake the eccentric, emotionally scarred Bigtrees and their swampy setting. In particular, "something about the sisters' relationship really got under my skin," she says. After spending so much time writing short stories that felt like "brief romances," she was excited to recognize a world she could inhabit longer and develop in more detail.
In the novel, Russell introduces a third, male sibling to the mix--eighteen-year-old Kiwi, whip smart and the only member of the family concerned about Swamplandia!'s dubious business plan. And though she's only mentioned in passing in the short story, the mother looms large here. Hilola Bigtree's death (of cancer rather than alligator mauling, to the disappointment of the few lingering tourists) precipitated the decline of the park, at which she was the star attraction. The memory of her as a nurturing presence, as well as a famously fierce one--who plunged from a high diving board into water thick with alligators and calmly swam among them as the crowd gasped--haunts her children.
With no real outlet for their grief, Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi can all feel their lives starting to change and are determined to take control of the process in their own ways. Dreamy Ossie runs away with her latest "boyfriend," the ghost of a young man named Louis Thanksgiving, who perished while working on a dredge in the 1930s and has vowed to marry her if she'll join him in the underworld. Ava gives chase through the swamp, guided on her search by a mysterious and uncertainly sinister Bird Man (a sort of ragtag avian shepherd). Kiwi, trying to be sensible, moves to the mainland to work at Swamplandia!'s ostensible competition, an ominous corporate theme park called the World of Darkness, where he hopes to earn money he can send home to his family.
Russell first conceived of the alligator theme park as a sort of joke, "a total redneck myth of what a noble Indian place would be," run by a family whose members can't claim a single drop of tribal blood but milk the association because even fake authenticity is good for business. Complicating the joke is the real danger at the center of it, in the form of the toothy alligators. It's clear pretty early on, though, that these "monsters" are among the least dangerous creatures in a swamp full of shadowy threats. With no sense of how to distinguish between what's an illusion and what they just haven't seen yet, the Bigtree siblings' imaginations are what really put them at risk. Set against all that's unknown, the gators are oddly soothing, their presence synonymous with normal life. "They're sort of like mute witnesses to the terrible things the people in the novel are doing to one another," Russell says.
As she describes it, the process of writing the book was also a little like navigating a vast, mazelike swamp. "That first draft was the scariest kind of writing I ever had to do," she says. "I was telling my editor [Jordan Pavlin], 'This is like spelunking in a big cave! Where is the bottom of the cave?' You truly don't know. Or if there is a bottom, or if you're going to give up and try some other direction." She wrote hundreds of pages that don't appear in the book, scenes she cooked up out of any particular order as she tried to figure out what was happening in the story, and where it all might lead. The narrative changed shape many times on the way to its final form, and the process required a kind of pragmatism that proved to be a little at odds with Russell's usual approach to writing.
"I'm not great at structure," she says matter-of-factly. "The fun part for me is the generative stage, where you're just putting a lot of stuff on paper. It becomes difficult when you have to figure out a way to pare down and organize it so a reader can make it through." Ultimately, she reflects, "a lot of the choices feel like capitulations to what you can do. Sometimes I'll read other writers talking about why they chose a particular thing, and I'm like, I don't know, I was all tied up in different directions and this is what worked."
That's a little ironic, since her stories tend to work best when they break rules and confound expectations. But as much as she wants to push "what's possible when it comes to what people will read and take seriously," she's realistic about how much she can ask of her readers all at once.
Though she's the oldest of three children and has always felt close to her brother and sister, Russell says the Bigtrees could never be confused with anyone in her family--not least of all, she notes, because "if we saw a gator, we would scream and call Animal Control." Still, she says, her storytelling is informed by her understanding of "the complicated closeness of siblings, growing up separately and as a tribe," lending her new novel an "emotionally autobiographical" element.
Russell knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a writer, having determined that she loved reading and "was not so great at other stuff." As a kid, she filled a notebook with stories about unicorns--"The plots were always identical setups: Once upon a time there was a forest of beautiful enchanted unicorns ... and then there was a flood. Then there was a cyclone!" And she tried to replicate the tone of some daunting classics. "I'd read Bram Stoker's Dracula, and then I'd write eight pages about a vine," she recalls of one experiment that put her otherwise supportive father to sleep when she read it aloud.
As an undergraduate at Northwestern, Russell majored in creative writing and Spanish. After she graduated in 2003, she found there was nothing she wanted to do more than write stories, and so she applied and was accepted to Columbia's MFA program. There she started working seriously on several of the stories that would eventually become part of St. Lucy's and found much support and inspiration in the community fostered by the program. "Other students were writing incredibly funny and weird things, taking big risks, and I think that helped me to get brave," she says.
As much as she relished the intensity of the workshop model, Russell found that its emphasis on continuous revision could make it hard to take the next step--publication. "You start to believe the work is endless--that you will never finish a story," she says. "When, in fact, you could probably revise until the end times and still not get it quite right." During her first year in the program, she didn't submit any of her stories anywhere, believing that she "had years and years to go" before they, and she, were ready. Then, during her second (and final) year of the program, a professor recommended that she send some stories to his own agent, Denise Shannon of the Denise Shannon Literary Agency. "That vote of confidence meant a great deal to me," she says, preferring to leave the professor unnamed. "Were it up to me, I think I might have continued fiddling with them for eons before feeling confident or desperate enough to send them out."
She sent Shannon "a grab bag of drafts" of several stories that would later appear in St. Lucy's, along with what she describes in retrospect as a rather cluelessly self-defeating cover letter. It took the urging of Russell's professor to get Shannon to read the stories. Once she did, the agent says she found "a sophistication in [Russell's] work that certainly belied her young age. ... The stories were vivid, unusual, and very atmospheric; clearly they were born of a fertile imagination. They also had something to say about the nature of families and the disenfranchised."
After agreeing to represent Russell, Shannon sent two of the stories to Carin Besser at the New Yorker, even though hardly anyone outside the bubble of Russell's graduate workshop had ever read anything she'd written. And so when Shannon called, on the day Russell and her classmates were giving their graduate thesis readings, to tell her that her very first story was going to be published, Russell was elated even before she knew where it was going to appear. "She could have said, 'in my husband's newsletter,' and I would have been thrilled," she says. Instead, "Haunting Olivia" appeared in the New Yorker's 2005 Debut Fiction Issue, after which her unfinished short story collection sold to Knopf (in a two-book deal) and was published the next year. This success felt both sudden and surreal. "I remember feeling a little slack jawed in the rain," Russell says, describing herself during the month when all the pieces started to come together. And the accolades and honors continued to pile up: In 2007 Granta included her in its Best of Young American Novelists 2 Issue (despite the fact that her novel wasn't finished yet), and she was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 in 2009. That same year, she was named a fellow at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers (alongside Joseph O'Neill, Nicole Krauss, and Russell's friend Rivka Galchen). She began this year as the writer-in-residence at Bard College, having been awarded the 2011 Bard Fiction Prize.
Still, her growing list of achievements doesn't make the writing any easier. When asked what kind of stories she's currently writing, she laughs and cheerfully says, "Terrible ones!" mentioning stories about a veteran with a "troublesome, problematic tattoo" ("I'm sure it's some Ray Bradbury knockoff") and another about a kraken who lives in a painting. "I thought that about all the St. Lucy's ones, too," she admits when pressed about what makes these stories so awful. "I think it's just the stage they're in. And that when you tell people the premise, it sounds so totally ridiculous that they look at you with eyes full of pity."
It's true that quick summaries of some of her stories' premises--an overnight camp for kids with sleep disorders, a city of giant shells that serves as a popular field trip destination, nuns trying to civilize a pack of girls who were raised by wolf parents--leave out the subtle details and striking language that make them crackle with life. But for Russell, it's reassuring to offer these kind of cursory sketches as a way of poking fun at the bizarre places her imagination takes her. "It's helpful to choose an idea that seems foredoomed, because then whatever you come up with feels like a success," she says. "When I wrote the story about a minotaur ['from Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,' included in St. Lucy's], I was like, this will be terrible! No way will this end well. I'm writing about a minotaur wearing pants. So that was one pressure off."
Such self-deprecation might raise an eyebrow coming from a writer who has experienced such rare and unequivocal success, especially so early in her career. But as it tumbles out over coffee, it just feels like Russell's honest way of gauging her stories' strangeness quotient, which, in the tales' early stages, perhaps she herself hasn't fully committed to. It may also be a way of guarding against the high expectations that come with being included on so many laudatory lists. "With the first list I felt this weird Little League pressure; you just want to make good on this nice vote of confidence," she says. "But I've had to let a lot of that go, because it turns out it's actually impossible--it's just such a victory to finish something."
As Russell's writing evolves, she's experimenting with different ways to arrive at those victories. While facts have rarely been more than a starting place for her work, during her fellowship at the Cullman Center she became increasingly interested in rooting her stories in specific historical eras. She spent most of the fellowship working on her next book, a novel that takes place during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. With the library's bounty at her fingertips, she read histories of the period, looked at Dorothea Lange's Farm Security Administration photographs, and paged through diaries of "people processing, in real time, an actual apocalypse." Not surprisingly, her favorite was that of a twelve-year-old girl named Anne-Marie Low, who lived in Nebraska. "Her descriptions of the landscape were just stunning," Russell says. "She was sort of having to make up her own story about what was happening and why." Without any agricultural explanations, all that people understood at the time, she marvels, was that "they've been pioneers--models of American industry--and now the world has turned against them."
"It was really exciting for me to see that I could use this bedrock of fact to innovate out of," she continues. "What sort of concrete literal details can you give to ground something really fantastic so it doesn't feel either just gimmicky-whimsical or bat-shit insane? If you can create the past credibly, then maybe you can fiddle with the rules." While this might at first seem to be a major change in focus, it's really just a fine-tuning of the curiosity and exactitude that brought to life the wild, eerily recognizable worlds of the Bigtree family and their St. Lucy's brethren: characters on the verge, struggling to reconcile the facts of their lives with the allure and terror of the unknown.
But the novel-in-progress does offer a shift in climate that Russell finds refreshing. Her Dust Bowl book, she says, is "a supreme overcorrection for Swamplandia! It's the driest land I could find."