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February 23, 2011

An Interview with Karen Russell, Author of SWAMPLANDIA!

Posted by Stephen

Karen Russell captured the book world's attention with her story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, when it was published while still in her early 20s. Now she returns with her long-awaited novel, Swamplandia! (in stores now). In this interview she talks about her inspirations, the expectations set upon her by the literary world and a fateful trip to the Everglades that inspired Swamplandia! Click here for more.

swamp.JPGQ: Swamplandia! and your story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, are both set in a sort of enchanted, Lewis Carroll-like version of North America. What draws you to these worlds and how do you create them? 

A: Well, I think I owe a big debt to Lewis Carroll himself, probably, and other folks who I read as a kid like Ray Bradbury and Peter S. Beagle and Stephen King and Madeleine L'Engle. My favorite books were always the ones where I felt like an alternate world had been created in some star cradle by the author and, in an amazing feat of compression, shrunken down into a 200-page book (or, in the case of Ray Bradbury, a three-page story about a country uncle with green wings).  I think I wanted to create strange but familiar snow-globe worlds almost as soon as I started reading these books
I also think I'm drawn to imaginary places because it's an architecture that any reading consciousness can enter --- as a kid I used to love talking to other readers who had visited the same nonexistent places as me --- you know, Oz, Watership Down, Derry, Macondo. This kind of travel, to an invisible place created by the author, felt both exquisitely personal and also communal; anybody who could make it through the book could get from Kansas to Oz. At a time when nobody could drive and we were all child-hostages of our houses, when we could not even get to school by our own power, it made me so happy whenever I discovered that another kid and I had both gone to a wonderland or a dystopian England, and that, even more insanely, we'd done this inside of the same skin, merged with the same character. It still strikes me as an amazing thing to have in common with someone. Much better than discovering that you both bought jeans at the same GAP or ate shrimp flautas at the Chili's near the airport.
The world of Swamplandia! has been around since I first drafted “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” in graduate school, when I was 22. I can't pinpoint where exactly the idea came from, but it probably owes a great debt to my school's field trips to the Miccosukee Indian Village in the Everglades. I think these are still happening --- a bunch of ten-year olds from “the mainland” of Miami stuff their ears with cotton balls and board an airboat; then, in my experience at least, you eat pinkish hamburgers with mayonnaise and watch a sweaty man in jeans perform a gator-wrestling demonstration. I remember feeling confused about who to root for in this battle --- the man was more or less sitting on the alligator. My Ikea sofa puts up more of a fight than the alligator did that day. For reasons I can't perfectly explain, this day has become one of my favorite memories. It didn't start out that way, but it has stealthily crept up in the rankings. Now I think that gator wrestling demonstration, which I sort of snoozed through at the time, must have made a more lasting and dramatic impression than I realized.
I don't think it's a coincidence that so many authors are drawn to South Florida (Carl Hiaasen, Peter Matthiessen, Joy Williams). There is something absolutely haunting about the swamp. If you go to the Everglades, it does feel as if you're standing in a mythic and a real space at once. I wanted to explore the extreme, alien beauty of the Everglades --- and also its extreme devastation, which we've managed to accomplish in just a few generations of Floridian settlement, from the plume-hunting of the nineteenth century to the more recent dyking and drainage and Big Sugar's phosphorus pollution.
Q: Speaking of Lewis Carroll, your book’s epigraph is a quote from his Through the Looking-Glass:
“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish that I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone.  “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!  Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
Why did you choose this particular quote?  Does it hold special significance for you?

A: That epigraph is seared into my brain now --- I think it performed a sort of lighthouse-function for me. Whenever I felt lost during the drafting process, I'd return to it. I love it because it so succinctly contains one of the central questions of the book --- how can we find one another, how can we truly “see” one another, when so much of our lives are spent straining after phantoms?   
To me, this bit of dialogue is hilarious and sad, and hope-filled, too, in its wry way; it  acknowledges the extreme difficulty of seeing real people --- seeing yourself, seeing anybody clearly. Finding the clean lines of another person, in spite of the warped glass of need and desire and terror and projection/fantasy that can fog up our lenses.
So much of the story of Swamplandia! is taken up with the girls’ quest to find the ghost of their mother. Grief is a very private affair for these characters, and each member of the Bigtree family is so focused on the ghosts of the past, and their doomed, miraculous visions of the future, that they keep missing one another in the present.
It gets right to the heart of the problem; That's why I love that epigraph.
Q: You’ve been featured in The New Yorker’s “20 under 40 Fiction Issue”, New York magazine’s list of t25 people to watch under the age of 26, Granta’s “Best of Young American Novelists” issue, and named a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” young writer nominee. How do you feel about all this attention and awe surrounding your talent at such a young age?

I feel extremely grateful and weirdly embarrassed, too. Very aware of my own mortality, thanks to all the emphasis on age. I'm buying those Oil of Olay products, ok, I have crow's feet!! What I mean to say is that I don't feel quite young enough to merit any fuss, and I certainly don't feel like any kind of “Best Of” author, either, so these honors, while greatly appreciated, are also a little disorienting --- you know, when my big writing victory of the day is deleting a louche joke about a starfish, it can be tough to feel like I'm making good on these votes of confidence from the New Yorker and Granta and the National Book Foundation.
That said, I cannot overstate how much that encouragement has meant to me, especially at this stage --- it makes me want to write better, and has helped me to push on through big walls of self-doubt. I hope very much that I go on to write many more novels and stories, and that I can honor those lists. At the very least, I want to avoid the “Mistakes Were Made: 1 over 50 We Got Wrong” list!