The following interview with Karen Russell was conducted in 2013 by Mason Henderson as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.
In your story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” your main character Clyde states, “There is a loneliness that must be particular to monsters.” As an author, you seem remarkably willing to focus on the brilliant, sometimes tragic humanity that runs through each character. How do you maintain a balance between the humanity of your characters and their fantastic traits?
I think that the figure of the monster tends to function as a funhouse mirror for human nature, those facets of ourselves that we cannot admit to our conscious awareness—that’s how I explain my own attraction and repulsion to monster-tales, anyhow. Monsters are often slaves to ungovernable appetites and desires, they are powerless over their own impulses, they are brutally violent. And also exiled from love and community, hunted and hated, etc. So to narrate a story from within a monster’s skin—it’s a chance to consider how the terror originates from within and spills outward. With those vampires, I really did want to try to think through our mortal commitments to one another from the perspective of an eternal being—what would “’til death do us part” look like from the everlasting vantage of a vampire?
But at the same time, I wanted to emphasize that in many ways Clyde and Magreb face the same challenges as any long-married human couple. It can feel tricky to achieve the right balance—when I’m drafting, I’m always trying to tap into genuine human emotions, no matter how fantastic the setting, character, or situation of the story. My goal for the title story was that it feel both comic and consequential. I think a statement like the one you cite above, for example, articulates a pretty universal human feeling, a loneliness that is not so rare in our world—the monster’s conviction of his terminal uniqueness, his ugliness, that dread of an unspeakably private, unshared future. Certainly, monsters aren’t the only ones subject to that kind of terror. I think that line could also be spoken by any lonely drunk in West Texas, or widower in Spokane, or frightened cancer patient in Florida, or a lost teenager, or fill-in-the-blank. So this is all to say that with these monster tales, I do find that I’m often trying to strike that balance, to use the fantastic elements as an opportunity to draw forth and think through some of the more frightening and troubling aspects of our human nature—the ways we deal with or deny and fail to deal with our “monstrous” longings.
Swamplandia! is set in Florida, where you grew up, but the stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove are set in locations all across the world. How do you decide what setting you use, and what do such settings offer you and your characters?
After my first story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and Swamplandia!, I felt excited to hop continents and centuries. In some cases, the settings of these stories have a real world analogue—for example, the title story was inspired by a tiny, tan grandfather who I glimpsed sucking on a lemon in a grove outside of Sorrento. My brother and my sister and I were on a “Cruise of the Ancient World” with our own elderly grandfather (see New York Times Magazine article by Karen Russell: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/magazine/01lives-t.html). I had never been to Italy before, and this trip gave me the raw materials to fashion a vampire-tenanted lemon grove. I think that for a story like “Vampires . . . ” grounding the setting in concrete, earthy, recognizable details helps to lend poignancy to Clyde and Magreb’s crisis—for me, there was an immediate spine-tingle when I entered the grove. I was drawn to the dark humor and the sorrow of that tableau: a vampire couple who is married for eternity, imprisoned in an endless Italian honeymoon, and falling swiftly out of love. This totally pleasant setting, a green and blue and sunburst yellow mecca for tourists, a paradise, felt somehow like the appropriately perverse backdrop for the monsters’ ongoing hungers, their undead longing. And the bittersweet consolation of lemonade felt right to me, too, for these bloodsuckers who are off the sauce—so a real world setting like Sorrento can offer you these readymade props that develop figurative weight as the story rolls onward.
In other stories, like “Reeling for the Empire” or “Proving Up,” I was excited to imaginatively travel to settings that are now foreclosed to us—unless they get that Hot Tub Time Machine working, you know, we probably won’t be able to personally visit Meiji-era Japan or the late nineteenth-century Nebraska grasslands. My goal when it comes to setting is to create a world that feels solid and coherent to readers, no matter how superficially bizarre its rules might seem to be. I’ve been really enjoying experimenting with fantastical-historical fiction, magical-historical alternate histories—importing lumber from the real world and using it to try and construct imaginary places. Peter Carey has a lovely quote about how historical fiction often feels to him like writing “science-fiction of the past.” Increasingly I’ve been excited by the narrative possibilities of incorporating fantastic or supernatural elements into a more or less realist take on setting, like the Everglades during the Army Corps’ Dredge and Fill project, or the Nebraska prairie during the homesteading craze, or the textile factories in Meiji Japan. To me, “the fantastic” functions almost like a spotlight, something that draws out new shadows and transforms the way we see the past—helps us to see its properties freshly. It’s then possible to dilate some aspect of our history that has been forgotten or occluded—”Reeling for the Empire” is inspired by real accounts of factory women who rebelled against the miserable conditions of early textile mills. I’m always looking to Flannery O’Connor for my bumper sticker slogans on this front: “The truth is not distorted here,” she writes, of the literature of the fantastic, “but rather a certain distortion is used to get at truth.” So for me, grounding a fantastic tale in a real world setting can become a way to achieve a heightened emotional realism, or to represent and engage with something unresolved in the past that is “haunting” the present.
Once you’ve created or even spoken through a character, is it hard to let them go?
That really depends—I still miss the Bigtree family, for example. But man, at the same time, it’s a relief to move on—stories are wonderfully liberating in that sense. With a short story, instead of staying zipped up inside some character’s monstrous body for three hundred pages, you get to take a relatively short tour through their worlds and lives and perspectives, and then blink free of them. The first-person point of view can get pretty hot and claustrophobic come year three of drafting, you know? Ava—as much as I miss that character, I was elated to try on new skins in this new collection. Although there, too, it was wonderful to delve deeply into these monsters and sometimes just as wonderful to tunnel out again. The ending of “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” for example—that’s one case where I was glad to parachute out of Larry Rubio’s agonized conscience and go hang out in the sunshine with some actual, nonfictional human friends.
There’s something about a character like Kitsune in “Reeling for the Empire” that reminds me of Ava Bigtree in Swamplandia!—both are actively haunted by the past and seem to struggle against a world falling apart a moment at a time. Is that conflict something that you feel resonates in your characters?
Oh, thank you so much for this question, I’m really happy to know you saw a connection—it’s funny, I wound up feeling like those two young women had some significant overlap, too. They are separated by an ocean and a century, but their core motivations are in some ways very similar: Kitsune, like so many of the Japanese dekasegi workers, wants to get her family out of debt; Ava Bigtree dreams of saving her bankrupt island theme park. I think the ferocity of that desire, their determination to help their families, and the economic pressures on the young women, contribute to the creation of a real blindspot in each case—these are two characters who wind up feeling like the dupes of their own dreams, who sign onto the wrong future. Which is of course a familiar story, throughout history! I don’t hold the patent on that one. But the conflict you mention—characters who are haunted by the past, and trying to figure out a new way to tell their story, so that they can move forward into the present—I do find that’s a preoccupation for me. I told a friend it feels like “blood rising to a cut.” It’s a funny kind of mimesis, in its way—over here I’ll sit down to write what I believe is a “new” story and discover that once again I’m drawn to write about a character who is haunted by her past, and trying to navigate a disintegrating present. . .
You often punctuate the overarching sadness of a story with humor. How do these moments arise for you as you write, and are they cathartic? Epiphanic?
Some of my favorite writers, like Jim Shepard and George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte and Rivka Galchen, can make me cry and laugh in the span of a single sentence. As a reader, I’m always dynamited by that one-two. Italo Calvino is another great example of a writer who can use humor to create both cathartic and epiphanic effects—he will disarm and charm his readers with a wild premise and then, just when you’ve let your guard down and have permitted yourself to identify fully with one of his whimsical narrators, a dinosaur narrator or a chatty wave of light or what have you, he’ll blindside you with an emotion or insight that is almost unbearably acute. I do think it can be difficult to achieve this balance—often I’ll need an editor’s help to determine where the humor is working to make a character’s distress more poignant, or to counterbalance a moment that would otherwise feel altogether too raw or too portentous, melodramatic. Lyricism without humor sometimes feels dishonest to me—there is so much comedy in this life. I was reading a Jim Shepard story recently, and I love the way he juxtaposes moments of earnest beauty and sorrow with jokes, not to reduce his characters to jokes but to hilariously underscore the real anguish of their predicaments. When something is outrageous, enraging, totally discomfiting, shocking and miraculous in all of these cases, we often respond with laughter. So I really believe that humor and sorrow are the obverse/reverse of the same coin, and that humor can create a community of fellow sufferers. When I laugh at a punch line in fiction, it often does feel epiphanic—something has just been revealed to me, an assumption has been blasted to the surface and either overturned or confirmed. Often we’re laughing to acknowledge an absurdity or injustice that is, again, almost unbearable. Sam Lipsyte is the master of that funny-sad ratio—in his work, the humor can redeem the most godawful gut-wrenching tragedies by reminding us that the joke’s on us, that we’re all inside the joke together on this weird spinning rock. But you know, whenever people ask about humor in literature, I’ll hear myself giving these dreadfully unfunny replies! So maybe in lieu of this wordy response we can upload a YouTube video of a cat in a tutu or something.
Karen Russell is a novelist and short story writer. Her comedic genius and mesmerizing talent for creating outlandish predicaments that uncannily mirror our inner lives is on full display in her most recent book, Orange World and Other Stories. Russell’s debut novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Among other awards, she has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the “5 under 35” prize from the National Book Foundation. She currently holds the Endowed Chair at Texas State University’s MFA Program.