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Tuesday, March 28

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Author Fri Feb 28 2014

A Few Very Important Facts About Author Karen Russell



Within minutes of our first conversation, Karen Russell was describing the antics of a hypothetical sentient mustache. It would hail a cab and hop a flight around the world, she decided, sneaking away from its given face in the dark the night. We agreed it seemed a very mustacherly thing to do. "The mustache is not, like, paying its taxes."


Russell's first two books, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Swamplandia! skim along the murky waters of the Florida Everglades. Her latest short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, leaves the Swamp for a wider array of worlds. "It was fun to hop around like a weird divorceé, just jumping into different situations" she elaborated to Time Out Chicago reporter Laura Pearson at a Chicago Humanities Festival talk-back earlier this month-- one of many exciting events in the festival's winter line-up.

Russell says of the switch to short fiction, "It felt like such a vacation of the mind to get to put down stakes for twelve pages and then go someplace new. I love stories for that... Like for example this mustache romp we're sketching out, it might be hard to make a trilogy about that one mustache, but I bet we could do it for fourteen pages."

Thumbnail image for vampires.jpegWhile I disagree that we couldn't fill volumes with wacky facial hairjinx, I do agree that the short story format allows for much more absurdism and abstraction. "You can go deeper, vertically," she continues. This change in depth is palpable; where her novel asks readers to wade into alligator-infested waters, each story in Vampires feels as though you're taking a plunge. On one page we are thrown into a 19th-century Japan textile factory populated by silkworm-women hybrids; on the next page, a community aspires to ownership in Homestead era Nebraska-turned-Hades. No premise is expected, yet no world unbelievable. The work feels less like magical realism than like magical reality.

I mention to Karen the confidence with which she creates these worlds. "Writers are lucky," she laughs, "There's very little difference between what we create and actual madness."


Speaking with Karen it's evident that there isn't any special secret to her creativity; no Phantom Tollbooth she escapes through in search of new ideas; no tried-and-true formula for concocting those stories that universally leave reviewers wondering, "Where did she come up with that?" The answer, quite simply-- the Where to Where-She-Came-Up-With-It -- is her brain. She was, after all, recently proclaimed a genius.

Off the page, Russell's words are as earnest, funny, and carefully selected as they are in her work. Watching her CHF talk-back you can't help but notice that the author's yarns are ever spinning.

Karen Russell (c) Michael Lionstar.JPG"I think I have a thousand bad ideas every day," Russell says of this creative output, "My laptop is just, like, a cemetery of terrible ideas." Those stories that survive are the ones that surprise her. "The best feeling, and sort of the rarest, is when I also don't know what's gonna happen." She goes on to reference Flannery O'Connor's story "Good Country People," in which O'Connor herself was surprised by one of her own characters stealing a wooden leg: "That shock is always fresh every time I read that story, and I think it's because she transmitted the shock of its composition to us."


"My brother was saying, 'you go for a 30/70 ratio', and that's basically true," Karen says of the sense of humor that permeates her narratives. This may be because her wit often coils itself into the stories' darker fibers; jokes nestled in moments of despair or fear.

"I think the best jokes, or the funniest jokes are sometimes the darkest or the scariest," she says of the careful balance between humor and horror, "It's tricky to figure out how to keep the coin flipping so readers can see what's really funny about what's tragic or terrible. I think my favorite writers know how to do that, so the humor is always kind of in the service of some lunging darkness... And I think that's true of life. I think life is happening in so many registers, so it's weird to me, sometimes, to read something that's only lyrical. Completely humorless. Because when is any day ever like that?"

It's true of Vampires that the stories take something of a darker turn, but that makes the experience of reading them more full; more true to the vast range of human experience. "The one that was the most fun was the 'Dougbert' story... I thought that was a real pleasure to play with, just play. And 'The Barn at the End of Our Term' was fun in much the same way." But even in the darker tales, that sense of play is still present. "I'm always self-conscious about sounding like some kind of sadist, like 'Oh it was so fun to destroy the lives of imaginary people!'"

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 7.13.58 PM.png"I'm gonna read something upsetting, but it'll last just three minutes," she quipped before delving into a passage from short story 'Reeling for the Empire' at the CHF talk-back. That story in particular, which follows Japanese women-turned-silkworms trapped in a textile factory, embodies Russell's talent for finding buoyant moments within horror. Kitsune's face is covered in white fur, her belly swollen with thread, but she can use her new face to lie and say she was once beautiful.

The theme that seems to run throughout these heavier stories is that of memory and regret. "I don't know why I'm fascinated by that except that... it seems that it seems like we all should be," she says of the recurring theme. "How do we live with our own ghosts you know? I also, in all of the stories, was really interested in the sort of dueling impulses. One is to just forget and and indulge a kind of amnesia, and another is sort of to get stuck in traumatic repetition."

"In craft, if it's like 'blood rising to the cut,' if it's that compulsion, I think you want to be the hydraulic engineer of the blood; of whatever that material is."


It's almost hard to believe that so many of Russell's stories are born from a passing images-- "corner-of-the-eye stories," she calls them-- because they convey messages so seemingly intentional as to resemble parable. This effect may emerge from the frequency with which Vampires plays with the line between human and animal. A reader can station him or herself close enough to the titular vampire to sympathize, but far enough away that character flaws are easily recognizable. A vampire's fangs are its addiction; a veteran's transforming tattoo his trauma; a silkworm's regrets blacken her thread's hue.

"Monsters are sort of wearing the symbols of those parts of ourselves that we don't care to look at, or exercise, or exile," Russell explains, "Just the assemblage of all those really uncomfortable aspects of our nature stitched together and then sent to live in a cave somewhere."


Because you feel bad for vampires. Because you too would root for the krill over the whales. Because you always knew seagulls could traverse time-space and it's about time somebody brought it up. Because Millard Fillmore does not make cameo appearances in nearly enough books. Because you seek sentences that demand underlining. Because you crave pleasant surprises.

Because you want to believe in magic, even just for a moment.

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