The acclaimed novelist on the secrets, dreams, and myths that fuel her storytelling.
Image by Michael Lionstar
Karen Russell writes as a process of discovery, not explanation. In person, she sometimes gives the impression of being surprised by her own work, as if startled awake by a dream. It’s a guilelessness you wouldn’t expect from someone who won a MacArthur “genius” award in 2013, was chosen as one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” writers, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for her debut novel Swamplandia!.
Since 2006, when the Florida-born Russell published her first book, fabulist and fantastical literature has moved from the fringes of graduate writing programs to the forefront of contemporary fiction. It’s hard not to surmise that Russell is leading the movement. In her fiction, she favors the unknowable over the empirical, the unresolved over the resolved. Her earlier work, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) and Swamplandia! (2011), tends to be more enclosed and allegorical, in the style of Kafka or early Coetzee; her more recent books, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013) and Sleep Donation (2014) have moved outward, exploring political subjects like silk factory workers in Meiji Japan, soldiers returning from Iraq, and bioterrorism.
But what’s constant throughout is a sensibility more readily found in poets: Russell creates fiction that makes you feel something strongly before you begin to comprehend what it means.
In her most compelling stories, the core of the narrative revolves around an essential unknown. Where do the seagulls come from in Vampires in the Lemon Grove’s “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979”? In the same collection, who exactly is the menacing stranger whom Miles meets at the end of “Proving Up”? We don’t know, and we aren’t supposed to know. Russell keeps these protagonists, as well as her readers, suspended in the electricity of the unknown—both in the strangeness of the external world and in the depths of the subconscious.
I spoke with Russell both in person and on the phone over the past year. We talked about dark romanticism and how the act of writing can illuminate what an author herself might not see.
—Geoff Mak for Guernica
Guernica: When your stories first began coming out, fantastical literature was nowhere near as mainstream as it is now. Did you start out writing in this genre?
Karen Russell: I did, but I wouldn’t have known to call it that. My first story for our college workshop was about a tooth artist who painted miniature landscapes on his teeth and worked at a crab shack with some burlesque crustacean woman named “Leona the Lobstar.” Which I guess could be classified as fantastical literature, but could just as easily be a Wednesday afternoon in South Florida.
When I was younger I went to this big Miami public high school. I was an avid reader of what some people refer to as genre books—Stephen King and Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham and the Dune series. But that was social death, and I basically hid these books from my friends the way that other kids were hiding their tribal tattoos from their parents. We were assigned Sophocles’s Antigone and One Hundred Years of Solitude during our senior year, which I loved, but I remember agreeing with a bunch of eye-rolling stoners that Sophocles was mad boring.
When I read Flannery O’Connor, she really took the lid off my skull.
That kind of cowardice didn’t fall away until college, when I discovered Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Angela Carter. I could not believe these writers existed. Then when I read Flannery O’Connor, she really took the lid off my skull. Her blending of the grotesque and the comic as well as her reverence for mystery really affected me.
Guernica: Did you ever feel pressure to write more traditional, straightforward, realistic stories?
Karen Russell: I did. It was a fiasco! Northwestern University has a terrific undergraduate writing program, and I was worried that I would not be admitted into the fiction concentration. One of the professors very kindly read a story of mine about two young friends and an albino parrot or something like that. I think the only convincing character in it was the parrot. “Write about fully adult characters,” I was advised. But then my grownup characters all felt like Flat Stanley. And this just felt like a capitulation, to write about some stockbroker having an affair. Now, I think I had to write in a whacked-out register in order to be honest. It’s like what Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth is not distorted here, but rather, a certain distortion is used to get at the truth.”
Guernica: Your first story, “Haunting Olivia,” came out in The New Yorker as part of the now-defunct Debut Fiction series. It took work from unpublished writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Nell Freudenberger, and ZZ Packer, and basically launched their careers. Who was the editor at the time, and what was that like for you?
Karen Russell: Carin Besser found my story, and then edited it for that issue. I had nothing published at that point. I was twenty-three and just about to graduate from my MFA program in fiction. That issue absolutely did launch my career. This remains one of the most unbelievable things that’s happened to me.
So much of it was lucky timing. The New Yorker was about to close that issue, and they were looking for a third story. My agent happened to have sent a few of my stories over on a whim. I had no idea that they were interested in my work until she called me with the news that “Haunting Olivia” had been accepted by The New Yorker. I mean, this happened almost a decade ago, but it still feels shockingly lucky to me.
Guernica: Did you feel at the time that there were other writers doing the same thing as you?
Karen Russell: Back at Northwestern, I was fortunate enough to meet the excellent writer Dan Chaon, who came and talked to our writing class. I remember turning in a story to him that was way too long, some twenty-two-page mess about a lady who had a huge starfish and could see the future. I think the character was abducted by these two brothers—I don’t know, I’ve repressed the rest of it.
But Dan was so kind to me about this story, and he told me I should be reading Kelly Link, George Saunders, Kevin Brockmeier. He alerted me to these contemporary writers who were writing weird, inventive stuff. They were New Wave Fabulists, he said.
And I owe them a huge debt; I went on to become a blood-sworn fan of those writers. I felt a sort of tail-wagging joy, you know, reading these story collections. A recognition. It was like Dan rode through town and handed me a literary family tree.
Guernica: What do you think the line is, if any, between literary fiction and fantasy sci-fi?
Karen Russell: I know, where is that line? You have so-called literary people like Colson Whitehead writing beautiful sentences about zombies, and then Kelly Link is braiding together every genre. There’s a spectrum, I suppose.
For me, the term “literary fiction” means there’s always attention paid to language, and linguistic experimentation, sophistication. But I’ve read beautifully written and profound books that people shelve as fantasy. Peter S. Beagle is a fantasy author whose writing, I think, is of an extraordinary quality.
I want a real encounter with something true and disconcerting about peoples’ natures.
So much of the way books get classified has to do with marketing decisions. I think it’s more useful to think of literary books and sci-fi/fantasy books as existing on a continuum. To oppose them, to suggest that one category excludes the other, always feels bogus to me. Do you know that great Leonard Michaels line, “I wanted proximity to darkness, strangeness”? That’s what I’d say I want from a book, regardless of where it falls on the fantastical spectrum—that suspense connected to a particular human character, rather than just some mechanized plot. I want a real encounter with something true and disconcerting about peoples’ natures. Maybe the ambition for anything that aspires to be literature is to provide—this is an old-fashioned word—wisdom.
Guernica: The term “magical realism” refers to a specific movement in Latin American literature, though it’s now used to encompass a range of writers, from Rushdie to Díaz, Kafka to Aimee Bender. To what extent have magical realist writers influenced you? Do you see yourself in that tradition?
Karen Russell: It’s funny, for a long time I would go watermelon-red and deny that I was a magical realist. It felt imprecise to me, a misrepresentation. Because, as you say, that term refers to a very specific historical moment and movement in Latin American literature. Now, of course, you see the term “magical realist” applied to basically any story told with a little shimmer on the lens.
I still get shy about applying the term “magical realism” to my own work. But I would not be writing the way I do today had I not fallen in love with Borges, Rulfo, Márquez. I was hugely excited to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Rulfo, and Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up: And Other Stories and Hopscotch. European fabulists like Calvino and Kafka and American dark romantic weirdos like Poe also expanded my ideas of what fiction could be, and could do.
Guernica: What about your childhood in Florida conditioned you to see the world fantastically or supernaturally? For instance, I read that you lived through Hurricane Andrew. Were you constantly just waiting for the apocalypse?
Karen Russell: Ask any native how they acquired a fantastical or supernatural shading on their view of reality and they will tell you, “That’s the view from my window.” I love Miami, and I also love the Florida Keys and the Everglades and these vast, implacable pockets of non-human nature you can still find leafing out down there, abutting the condominiums and the retail hells we’ve made. It’s so much more beautiful than the rap videos suggest, Geoff! It’s the southernmost part of the country, at a true geographic and cultural frontier.
I’m probably a lot closer than perhaps the contents of my early fiction suggest to a jaded Denny’s waitress with smoker’s-lung-black humor than a ghost hunter.
It’s one of the most heterogeneous cities on the planet. I don’t know if this primed me to see the world supernaturally, exactly. I think, in my day to day, I tend to be pretty grounded. I’m probably a lot closer than perhaps the contents of my early fiction suggest to a jaded Denny’s waitress with smoker’s-lung-black humor than a ghost hunter. But I do think that I have a more flexible view of the interactions between people, and between human and non-human protagonists, humans and their landscapes.
That certainly is a great gift of Miami. There, you were always aware, just exiting your house into the humidity, that you were connected to other species by this membrane of air and water. And our city is teeming with an immigrant population that is in a state of continual flux. So there’s an elasticity at every level: the literal tides are continually revising our coastlines, and the population of Miami is always changing, always evolving. There’s a syncretic mix of religions, Catholicism, Santería, Virgin Mary statuary beaming out at you from people’s living rooms, goats occasionally wandering around the highway.
Growing up, our Catholic church really was such an incubator for my imagination, because all of those mysteries felt embedded in this insanely green, tropical landscape: the ocean nearby, the giant banyan trees. It all felt part of one seamless mystery to me. I didn’t speak Spanish, either, which is the true language of Miami, and lacking that native fluency tuned me up to different frequencies. I had to lean in and listen, really pay a different kind of attention. I often felt myself to be an outsider, which is great training for all writers.
But you asked about Hurricane Andrew. This was the category five hurricane that leveled Dade and Broward County in August 1992. It was a real “before” and “after” for our family, and of course for the entire region. Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless; it set all kinds of records in the US, in terms of costly natural disasters. Our own home in Coconut Grove was destroyed. I was going into sixth grade, and I remember quite vividly watching the poinciana tree outside my grandfather’s window bend completely backward, like a ballerina dancer.
We didn’t evacuate and instead rode out the storm with our grandfather in his small Miami Springs house. This is one of my favorite memories now—the whole family waiting together in my grandfather’s bathroom. We walked outside, during the eye of the storm, and I’ll never forget that feeling. The following morning, there were reports of boats on rooftops, thousands of acres of mangroves uprooted; a colony of escaped parrots from the Parrot Jungle theme park took up residence in our neighborhood.
And none of this is adequate as a description of that hurricane.
Guernica: In your novella Sleep Donation, set during an insomnia epidemic, Trish works to recruit sleep donors by recounting the story of her sister’s death by insomnia. Later, she learns of the anonymous Donor Y, who is responsible for donating sleep infected with nightmares, which spreads globally like a contagious disease. At first, Trish suspects Donor Y of purposely sharing his nightmare, because she herself has been spreading the trauma of her sister’s death to as many people who will listen. Yet at the end of the book, she learns that Donor Y was completely oblivious of his contagion, which ultimately leaves Trish alone, just as she was in the beginning of the book.
Karen Russell: She is really alone, isn’t she? I think you’re absolutely right; Donor Y does hold up a cracked mirror to Trish. Staring into it, her murkier motives begin to come into focus, and she starts to wake up. I think that’s the real horror story for me, how little you can ever really know about your own motivations. How in the dark we all are about the concerns and the contents of our minds. There’s a complexity to what Trish is doing, and an element of blind compulsion. She’s been caught in this traumatic repetition, looping one story, which is kind of a perverse solace. In the final line, I wanted readers to feel how much she relishes the thought that she infected some new body with her sister Dori’s ghost, her memory, even now.
Guernica: What you say about traumatic repetition actually reminds me a lot of Freud, where he compares dreams to groping around in a dark room, looking for the light switch, but running into the same piece of furniture over and over again.
Karen Russell: I do really think that sounds like Trish’s learning curve—bumping into the furniture again and again, unable to escape this cycle of grief. That analogy feels intuitively true to me. But there’s something reassuring about bumping into the furniture, right? Because it locates you in space.
I handed out Freud’s “The Uncanny” at the beginning of the semester [at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop]. That’s about what I can bring to the table.
Guernica: I thought about that essay a lot while reading Sleep Donation because Freud deals so explicitly with dreams. What Freud says is that for something to be uncanny—an uncomfortable truth—it’s not enough for it to be dreamlike. It has to be something that we really wish we didn’t know. That seems to be a note you continually hit with your fiction.
Karen Russell: Yeah! That’s a key distinction, right? I love how that essay digs into why surprise and familiarity are necessary to provoke a true experience of the uncanny. Something that’s magical in a shallow way doesn’t provoke identification. To fill you with that specific margarita mix of dread and wonder, it’s got to be an encounter with something that you feel should have remained hidden, something you never wanted to admit to your conscious awareness.
When I’m drafting, I suppose it’s an intuitive process—figuring out when something just has a surreal glaze on it and when it grapples with something that could threaten a character’s day-to-day reality. And how they might meet that force in waking life because some strategy of containment has failed.
For Trish, there is something uncanny about Donor Y—not the modest, acned human we meet at the end but the phantasm that appears in her mind. I think Donor Y more or less instantiates the blind spot. You could also say the unconscious. He haunts Trish. She wants to turn him into her double, so he does in fact become a funhouse mirror for her. He gives her a way to read her murkier motives and interpret what she’s doing as possibly damaging to herself and other people.
Guernica: Isn’t that kind of like writing in general? Creating characters as doubles?
Karen Russell: [laughs] Speaking of an uncomfortable recognition, right? I mean, it’s humbling to write about a character who can’t—or won’t—assimilate a certain knowledge into her body. Then for me as a writer to see that as an emerging pattern in a lot of the work I’ve written… What’s to be done about that?
Sometimes, when you’re writing sentence by sentence, you’re not really sure what footprints you’re going to fall into, or what ghosts might appear.
It’s funny to think about the uncanny reflexively, as an author who is perhaps gradually becoming aware of my own hidden secrets. Accessing that shadowy territory really requires the physical act of writing. That’s what makes it so frightening and exhilarating. Sometimes, when you’re writing sentence by sentence, you’re not really sure what footprints you’re going to fall into, or what ghosts might appear. At book events, an audience member always asks, “Where do you get your ideas?” But I think people are so interested in that question because it’s a real question.
Guernica: One of the things that interested me about Sleep Donation is your use of the journalistic vernacular. You use this newsy voice but satirize it by describing fantastical events as if they were taking place in Nicaragua.
Karen Russell: Ha! And who’s to say they’re not? I actually loved writing the headlines that appear in Sleep Donation, really hamming it up. I think the distance between satirizing that newsy voice and simply deploying it is almost nil. I mean, so many headlines read like parodies of themselves, ripped from the pages of The Onion. The naked terror of certain headlines, the tyranny of it, can feel like a bad joke. In a way, I think we all want to look to that journalistic voice as a kind of global omniscience, a big eye to correct for our own limited purview: “Here’s a realistic accounting of the world in which we live.” But our media have a financial incentive to exaggerate and to distort, to keep consumers glued to their screens.
I think a lot of the satire in Sleep Donation grew out of my own recent fatigue from the frenzy of the 24/7 news cycle. Serious journalism is alive and well, but there are days when I turn on the TV and it feels like a fear machine. Like what passes for news is just morbid speculation or cartoonish screaming, followed by diaper commercials.
Guernica: Your work often makes literary references to Greek mythology and nineteenth-century Romantic literature. Do you feel a kinship with those traditions?
Karen Russell: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was just reading an essay about Anne Carson. She wrote one of my favorite books, Autobiography of Red. She borrows a character from the myth of Heracles, this little red-winged dragon Geryon, and gives him a new life in America. And the essay on Carson had a great line about how the mythological is in the marrow of all contemporary society.
I think that’s true. Mythology is a really beautiful vocabulary passed down through centuries that helps us understand the perennial parts of our nature. I think we’re seeing a resurging interest in Greek myths. Myth continues to be a valuable way to understand parts of our nature that we can’t quantify.
And about Romantic literature, this semester I’m auditing an amazing Moby Dick seminar taught by Marilynne Robinson. She talked about the hyperbolic claims of transcendentalism, and, like Marilynne, I have to say that, in my heart of hearts, I don’t find them hyperbolic [laughs].
With Sleep Donation, I think I was trying to achieve something like Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief. The parts that were the most fun for me to write were about the drop-off from wakefulness into dreams, the sea at the base of the cliffs, you know? Where the coastline crumbles into some vast, black sea of the dreaming self. These parts of ourselves that we fail to acknowledge, our inability to predict or control those dreaming tides.
That is uncanny, right? Every night, you drop in on this incredibly private conversation. You watch your dreams unfold and host these imaginary scenes in your body. And you don’t feel that you are playing a draftsman’s role in whatever is arising before your inner eye, kaleidoscoping through your consciousness.
I mean, whenever someone asks me about fantasy versus realism, I’m like, “I don’t know, guys. Did we not all just descend into some underworld, watch strangers from our past kaleidoscope through us according to some pattern that is both illogical and has its own strange melting truth, and then wake up and have a Pop-Tart?” Why are we talking about fantasy and reality like they’re opposed?
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