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Interview: Karen Russell

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Karen Russell’s debut collection of short stories St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised by Wolves was published to great acclaim in 2006 in the US, introducing readers to a fresh voice that would, in turn, earn her a place in Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists 2, in 2008. The novel that followed, Swamplandia!, grew from one of the stories in this first collection, expanding on the lives of the Bigtree family and their plight to save their business, the eponymously named alligator-wrestling theme park, from being eradicated by a new competitor: The World of Darkness. She talked to Patrick Ryan about the joys and difficulties of writing in the fantastic and what would scare the bejesus out of the Brontës.

PR: Swamplandia! is rich in imaginative detail; it’s fantastical, and yet the story encompasses the very real human dramas of loss and economic hardship. Do you find that the imaginative feeds off the real, or vice-versa? Or both? On a personal note, I ask that because I’ve found in my own writing that one can derail – or take over – the other.

KR: I know exactly what you mean about the tension between the imaginative and the real. I guess the way I try to keep one from overloading the other, is by always trying to write characters who feel true and dimensioned, no matter how weird the world (or body, in the case of the werewolf children in St. Lucy’s) they inhabit. To try and write a story with a genuine emotional core, so that the fantasy feels in the service of something larger than the line-to-line pleasure of ‘hey, isn’t that crazy!’ My favourite writers, like Kelly Link and Italo Calvino and George Saunders, seem to operate from a Wild West that is by no means totally lawless My favourite writers, like Kelly Link and Italo Calvino and George Saunders, seem to operate from a Wild West that is by no means totally lawless – it’s rule-bound, there are consequences – but perhaps they aren’t so rigidly bound to the laws you see represented in so-called ‘realist’ fiction (whatever that is – I find myself getting sweaty palms whenever I’m asked about realist versus speculative fiction. I was about to say you’re more likely to find a Subaru in the former and a dragon in the latter, but then I remembered that alligators are real dragons, and a Subaru, well, that would surely have seemed like a fantastic machine a few centuries ago. It would have scared the bejesus out of the Brontës).

So you don’t lean more toward one or the other?

Well, in daily life, I think it’s impossible to draw a hard and fast line between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy.’ So much of our mental lives are spent in fantasy lands, either in the future or in memory. Kids in particular have this beautiful, terrifying ability to hold many contradictory ideas in their head at once (although I’m not convinced that’s something we necessarily ever outgrow). One reason I think I like to write from adolescent points of view is because of that kid-elasticity – at that age you can really straddle two worlds, a childhood realm that’s coloured by games and fairy tales and an adult reality.

What experiences did you draw on for this book? Have you ever worked in a terrible theme park like the World of Darkness you describe, or did you draw from what you’d observed as a visitor to such places? Having grown up in Florida in the 60s and 70s, I saw plenty of them myself – and saw them come and go. It was heartbreaking to read the news that GatorLand had burned down.

It makes me so happy to know that you are processing your Floridian childhood through fiction, too. And I love that you were heartbroken about GatorLand – that fire broke out maybe a month after I visited the park with my brother on a ‘research trip’ where we fed frozen drumsticks to the alligators. But like a phoenix from the ashes, GatorLand has risen: they even rebuilt the big concrete gator mouth that you walk through to get to the gift shop. I just read that they have white, leucistic alligators with sapphire eyes on display right now. I never worked at a theme park. But one of the humbling things about growing up in South Florida was that now nothing I can come up with in a story holds a candle to the true weirdness of that place. I never worked at a theme park. But one of the humbling things about growing up in South Florida was that now nothing I can come up with in a story holds a candle to the true weirdness of that place. Fantasy is the big industry, the tourist lure, and I think Swamplandia! grew directly out of the many hours I logged in places like Disney World (the model for the World of Darkness), as well as the mom-and-pop outfits. Like any kid, I enjoyed the Orlando superparks, but I felt an underdog allegiance with the crappier places, the shabby tiki huts. I bet you have vivid memories of the Miami Seaquarium, the Coral Castle, Shark River Valley, Parrot Jungle, Monkey Jungle.

The story of Louis Thanksgiving is a haunting tale that has stood on its own as a short story. It is also embedded in the greater canvas of Swamplandia! Was the novel born of this story, or did you have the greater picture in mind from the get-go?

Louis’ chapter, ‘The Dredgeman’s Revelation’, did get excerpted and tailored a bit, but to be honest it was never intended to live outside of the novel – it grew very organically out of one of Ossie’s paranormal escapades. I’ve always loved stories-within-the-story, and I hoped that the Louis Thanksgiving chapter, which is a radical departure from the material that precedes and follows it, might function as a kind of mirror, a place where readers could see a few things in superimposition – Osceola’s grief and horror at her mother’s abrupt, early death; her hunger, which manifests as a stillborn romance with this dead kid; also the Bigtrees’ connection to early Florida history; and – I hate to mislabel it man vs. nature, but let’s say, the violent collision between human settlers with profit motives and the primordial, inhumanly beautiful swamp.

I think all of the seeds of Swamplandia! are contained in a short story I wrote way back in 2005, ‘Ava Wrestles the Alligator’, about two sisters on a swamp island mourning the death of their mother. In that story, Ava watches helplessly as her sixteen-year old sister, Osceola, begins to have romances with ghosts. When I started this novel,When I started out, if I tried to picture the book as a whole, I felt like I was flying over the greater story in a plane – I couldn't see grass blades, just blurry green swaths. I did have a Big Picture, but it was an extremely fuzzy one – I felt sort of like Cassandra without her reading glasses. I knew that Hilola Bigtree had died of ovarian cancer, and that Osceola would elope with a ghost. And I was committed to writing as honestly as I could about what happens between Ava and the Bird Man. But when I started out, if I tried to picture the book as a whole, I felt like I was flying over the greater story in a plane – I couldn't see grass blades, just blurry green swaths. All of the fine print of the Bigtrees’ story got worked out during the actual drafting, and that was where I met Louis Thanksgiving.

So Swamplandia! wasn’t born out of the Louis Thanksgiving story?

No, but that chapter came to feel like the novel’s secret heart to me. Louis Thanksgiving showed up when I was doing research for the book, reading these diaries of Florida pioneers in the early twentieth century. I read the word ‘dredgeman’ and got a little chill. Dredges, I discovered, were barges with cranes and dippers used to dig canals and roads through Florida’s impenetrably swampy interior. Land barons like Hamilton Disston purchased millions of acres of Florida swampland, with the goal of draining the entire swamp to expose the arable soil of ‘An American Eden’. Not long after reading this, a haunted dredge barge crashed into the novel.

As for the horror that befalls Louis Thanksgiving and the dredgemen – I came to see that story as silhouetted against a larger narrative, a horror story about delusion, a very American, uncritical faith in an ecologically-devastating idea of ‘progress’, driven by a bottomless hunger for land and profit without any real knowledge of or respect for the lanscape.

Why did you choose to write in the first person, as 13-year-old Ava? One can imagine many different ways in which this novel might be narrated, and you chose to anchor the narrative voice to Ava. Were you comfortable in allowing yourself some liberties along the way? Some of the background knowledge, evocative imagery, and sensibilities seem to come from a more an omniscient perspective than that of a young girl.

I always struggle with the point of view issue. At one point I was switching Ava’s voice from first to third, past to present, etc. until I had just about given myself trichotrillomania. But once I returned to her voice in the first-person, something clicked in and I felt that I couldn’t tell her story any other way – because she is, at core, an unreliable narrator, and all of the novel’s thematic preoccupations, not to mention its plot, really require that the reader be totally merged with Ava. What happens to Ava later in the book is such a shock to her, and I wanted readers to understand the exact nature of that shock, to experience that particular pain with her. Not to sort of pity her from a distance, you know, but to feel it with her. So much of Ava’s journey involves her moving from a deep blind spot into the light, really grappling with some bad truths. I don’t think the novel would have worked if Ava wasn’t recreating, in her own voice, the events of that summer – but that said, I was sure glad to have the Kiwi storyline in there, with a more satiric, distanced viewpoint, in part because I think it can start to feel a little claustrophobic inside of Ava’s head. That’s a danger of the first person, I think. Much less so in a twelve page story than a four-hundred page novel.

As for taking liberties, I never felt like I was doing anything too egregious, I guess because I think Ava really would know quite a bit about the history and ecology of Swamplandia! I always saw the novel as being told retrospectively, by an adult Ava who is time-traveling back into her thirteen-year old body; telling the story with access to some adult vocabulary but really trying to be true to the spirit of that age, her grief and her goofiness, her almost complete ignorance of the mainland.

Rumour has it you’re working on short stories and / or a novel based in the dust bowl drought. How has the experience of writing this novel influenced your approach to your next one?

Right now I’m trying to complete a few stories and revise others for a second story collection, tentatively titled Vampires in the Lemon Grove. And I’m working on my second novel, which is set in an imaginary town during the Dust Bowl drought. Every day I’m shocked to rediscover that it’s just as hard, maybe even harder this second time around. I do think that the experience of writing Swamplandia! has changed my approach – it’s made me much more patient, for sure. Every day I’m shocked to rediscover that it’s just as hard, maybe even harder this second time around. I thought it might feel like repeating a grade – like, your reward for being a dunce the first time around is that now you’re the huge hairy savvy kid, smoking in the eighth grade – but so far I’m still the duncey one. It’s an entirely new set of challenges.

The big change is that I think I’m a little more comfortable with uncertainty now. It took so many years and drafts before Swamplandia! came together in its final form that I now have this simpleton’s faith that if I stick with it, more will be revealed. Periodically I’ll feel that the new stuff is doomed, as I did with this novel. But I guess I’m learning to let those emotions bleat in the background, the way you’d ignore a car alarm. ■

You can also read her story, ‘The Barn at the End of Our Term’, which featured in the Best of Young American Novelists, here.

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