Karen Russell: All fiction is autobiographical

The "Swamplandia" author on young narrators, editors' heroism and the challenges of her newest novel

Published June 6, 2013 3:22PM (EDT)

      (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This article originally appeared in Full Stop.

Full Stop With some writers, it hardly matters what they’re writing about — what’s compelling is the distinctive way they consider and then order the world on the page. Those are the kinds of authors that Karen Russell admires (she cites Flannery O’Connor and Virginia Woolf among them), and it’s the kind of writer she happens to be.

Russell has been hailed for her “original voice” ever since she published her first book of short stories, St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves, in 2006. It’s a term she finds puzzling (“I never really know what people mean by that,” she confesses) but it’s apt: her new collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, demonstrates the way a writer’s point of view can unify a collection of extraordinary range. Vampires in the Lemon Grove hops from Italian citrus farms to 19th century frontier territory to the Iraq War without feeling strained. Sometimes the protagonists are regular teenagers, sometimes they’re horses, sometimes they’re the undead, but who cares? You just want to see what Russell will do with them.

Full Stop first sat down with Russell after the release of her first novel, Swamplandia, which was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. We caught up with her recently in Philadelphia, where she’s working on her next novel, to chat about monsters, her process, and why scarecrows are so frightening.

Jordan Kisner: You’ve alternated from a short story collection to a novel and now a second book of short stories. Did you come to this book with different goals or hopes?

Karen Russell: It wasn’t quite linear in the sense that I didn’t finish Swamplandia and then launch into the collection — the two were coevolving. About half of those stories were published in the long valley of the shadow when I was drafting that novel and half came after. But even while I was writing the novel, I think that my ambitions for this book were more conscious than they were for St. Lucy’s. I knew in a conscious way that I wanted to deviate from Florida, which is where I’d been spending most of my imaginative time. Most of the stuff in St. Lucy’s and in Swamplandia was set in swamps or mucky places or the territory that I grew up in. One of the first stories I wrote for this new collection was “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” and I remember desperately wanting to write a story that was not from the point of view of an adolescent boy, because it had felt like that was exclusively what I had been doing. So that was a giant overcorrection, because it’s from the perspective of horses. And likewise with the vampire story [“Vampires in the Lemon Grove”] I was like “I want to write an adult love story, I’ve never tried that.” And again, it just came out kind of funky. Basically in every case with the new one there would be ways that I wanted to stretch, either geographically or to try an adult narrator.

Was deviating from young narrators scary or fun?

Both, I think it was both. It’s kind of funny to confront your defaults. With St. Lucy’s I remember a couple times trying to switch the point of view. There’s a story about a minotaur, and originally it was from the point of view of this 50-something pater familias minotaur, and it just didn’t work at all. I just couldn’t hear the story, which sounds mystic and goofy, but [switching to a young narrator] was less a choice than a capitulation to the fact that I knew how to tell the story from this other point of view, from the point of view of a son watching his father deteriorate. It’s still a tricky thing for me. I think, if given my druthers, everything I write would have everyone be like 13 to 15 in some kind of island morass, or some B horror movie Swiss Family Robinson situation. That just seems to be where I live, narratively.

I read something you said once, which is that you like adolescent narrators to function as these sci-fi alien observers that are the ultimate outsiders.

Oh, good. I’m glad I said that. I’m glad it wasn’t, like, a rant against the Samoans or something that you found.

When I went back through this book, I found that there’s an extent to which all the narrators or protagonists are disaffected or set apart, and they’re watching something. Is that just the way you like to think about people, or is that a conscious —

Well, most of the writers I know were those watchful kids at some point, not to overgeneralize. And I do think that there’s an . . . “innocence” isn’t the right word, but there’s a sort of matter-of-factness in the way that kids receive the world. Because you don’t have perspective yet, your references are really quite limited. I think there’s something about that eerie calm that a child will receive the world with that is just attractive for narrative purposes. It’s almost like you get a first person and a third person in one. You can have a really clear-eyed but distanced view of what adult behavior looks like.

In the case of the title story, that someone isn’t a child but is still set apart.

Right, a monster. Oh, that’s the power of the monster. That’s why I really adore reading monster stories, too. They embody everything that’s discomfiting about ourselves and our natures. They externalize all of that. All the ideas that people don’t want to admit to their conscious thought, they’re just wearing around in the sun, like that’s their skin. And to exist on the margins that way is, for point of view purposes, interesting. You see different shadows. It’s almost like, spatially, similar to trying to find fresh language for something that’s become a cliché.

It’s interesting that you brought up the word “spatial,” as though human experience were a space that you can approach from different directions and angles.

I always think it’s crazy that so many of our analogies are spatial, like “the moral high ground,” or a “descent into the abyss.” We’re thinking about reality as some vertical horizontal plane.

I remember being self-conscious in Sam Lipsyte’s grad workshop at one point that so many of the stories in my first collection had to do with childhood and coming of age. Now there’s a cliché! You say that and everyone thinks pimples, or tampons. And he said, “No, the joy of a story collection is that you can do exactly that, you can keep tweaking something and considering it from different angles so what you get is the composite of the thing.” It’s tricky to do, though. I actually wish that I was bolder with point of view. I was reading Bolaño’s book which has about 2700 narrators. My god.

There’s an undercurrent of horror running through this book, and in “Proving Up” and several other stories there’s a specific object that takes on a supernatural or horrific element. Reading through I was thinking about The Picture of Dorian Gray, Borges’ “The Zahir,” Kafka, this long lineage. Were you consciously in dialogue with that history and those influences? Are you writing forward and backwards at the same time, as it were?

I think, sort of, I am. It’s not like I would dedicate this story to Edgar Allen Poe, but I’ve loved that as a reader and read a lot of that and I’ve probably just assimilated it and it’s happening without too much intention on my part. I love so many scary stories.

I was just thinking, when you were talking, about how Borges was terrified of mirrors. And the window in “Proving Up” — part of what was interesting about it to me is that you can see in and out. The permeability of the glass makes it this portal that this kid is carrying around. Reflections are terrifying in general, right? Doppelgangers, infinite doppelgangers, that’s uncanny, right? No one likes that.

But it makes sense to have some material that fear and desire can kind of hub around in a story — I like ghosts for that reason too, or monsters, as we discussed — inside a story, to have some externalization of these internal forces, these unseen forces that drive everybody. Here you have an object that can represent that, stand in for that, like a fetish. The window is all of the hopes of the community and its history of violence, too, so it’s representing both the optimism of the people who moved there and then the violence, too. I like having a way to physically maneuver that through the story.

It’s interesting to think of a character or an object as a device for expressing an id, or something unspeakable. Particularly because in the final story, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” there’s this swirling uncertainty about what the scarecrow, the central object, is. It’s same with the tattoo in “The New Veterans”: the object in question is tangible and physical and a manifestation, but the reader can’t quite grasp it.

We were talking about the first person, and to maintain that uncanny hesitation throughout the story in first person is often a good choice. That’s another reason I’m drawn to it: you can really prolong that uncertainty because you [as the reader] are always aware that you’re getting information through a biased and cloudy lens. It’s the Henry James double optic, where you’re never quite certain.

And what’s exciting about writing is that when I sat down to write that window story I wasn’t thinking about the symbolic import of the window. That must have come later. Do you know that great Flannery O’Connor quote, “If you want to say the wooden leg is a symbol, fine, but it was a wooden leg first and as a wooden leg it was absolutely essential to the plot of the story”? I love that.

You touched on something I wanted to ask you about—

Is it why scarecrows are so fucking terrifying?

Yes, it’s absolutely why scarecrows are so fucking terrifying.

They really are, aren’t they?

Particularly because that story opens on a scarecrow where he’s not supposed to be.

Ah, an urban scarecrow.

The narrator feels like the scarecrow is out of its own context which makes it more terrifying, because it’s not where it’s supposed to be: in a field, in an “I” state.

What would be an analogous, that if you saw it in Iowa — nothing, right? A fire hydrant, or something super urban.

A London phone booth —

Yeah, a London phone booth!

In the middle of a field. Spooky. To entirely change subject, I wanted to ask you about process. I’m wondering how you revise.

I will tell you, but I always feel disingenuous answering questions about process because — it’s like if I were giving advice about parallel parking when I knew in my heart that what I’d done to get the car in that spot was not parallel parking, you know?

I’m also really susceptible to other writers’ advice on process. I’m always like, “That’s how I’ll do it from now on!” Because the way that I revise is kind of goony. I’ll have to cut paragraphs that I labored on for a demented length of time. I have a friend who says he’s more like a cathedral builder, or he’ll just lay down tracks for the contour of a story and then go back and embroider. But with that scarecrow story [“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”] I spent a lot of time on the first few paragraphs to get the rhythms right and then when I felt like I had that I knew the rest would just come — not really knowing where the story was going, except that the general arc of the story would have to do with these boys who are haunted by an apparition of their former victim, and then that apparition disappearing again in a systematic way; this thing arising from their collective memory and then disappearing again, sort of like a second vanishing. At some point I’m sure I had an excess of 19,000 words. That story got really huge.

About halfway through a draft, I’ll wake up to what it might be about, or what tension might be structuring it, or what’s actually interesting to me. With the window story [“Proving Up”] I’ll be like “Oh, duh, maybe this is why I invited a window into this story,” and a lot of my revision process will be cutting back whatever kudzu grew around the actual dramatic material.

David Shields talks about “shooting a lot of film.”

I love that, yeah. That’s excellent. That’s a lot of what I do. In the generative stage, I’ll make a big mess just trying to figure out what’s interesting. Even just writing around plot, just atmospheric, trying to get a sense for who these characters are, and then maybe some of that doesn’t belong, but there was no way to skip that [part of drafting]. I don’t think it’s wasted work if you’re getting to know these little human engines of your story.

How do you know when you’re done?

Usually I come to terms with the limits of my own patience and intelligence. (Laughs.) I often don’t know. I usually have to show it to somebody and get a reading from the outside, which is always humbling because things that seems so obvious to you, like really basic, before you even get to the nuance — it’s like how I used to read Don Quixote in my Spanish classes and before I could even get to anything I’d be saying “Is he meeting Sancho? Did somebody die?” It’s the first draft problem.

I’m so pleased when I can order things in time, when there’s a chronology and another brain can move through the story and make sense of it from beginning to an end. Often it’s still not done yet, but that’s when I’ll need another reader to tell me how the arc feels, what’s not satisfying yet, or what’s not fully worked out. I never know when something’s done, though usually I know when it’s done enough to send to an editor or my agent.

I think my favorite thing in the world is working with magazine editors or book editors, because I think a lot of work gets done at that stage, when something becomes so much better or clearer. It’s a joy to be in collaboration with another mind, who can sort of vet the choices that you’re making and tell you what doesn’t belong or what’s getting in the way. A huge thing for me is knowing what to make more explicit, and where you can have productive ambiguity. It’s so wonderful to have someone to kind of mirror back how the story’s reading, and to give you an outside view of the questions that belong inside the story that you should not answer, the mystery that you want to leave humming in the story and then the questions that really do need to e answered. For me, structure is always a challenge, so that’s frequently a huge help to me — to have an editor who’s unafraid to take a machete to the draft I’ve sent, and really reorder things. That’s the heroism of the editor.

Something I hear being talked about a lot these days is the ever-shifting delineation between fiction and nonfiction. A lot of nonfiction writers flirt with the boundary, and a lot of fiction writers are in some way writing semi-disguised versions of things that happened to them. And when you read a story where that’s going on that’s something you can feel, but I don’t sense that in your writing so much. I don’t read and think “Oh, this is some thinly disguised—”

Yeah, like that one time I beat the shit out of that kid and found a scarecrow. Damn! That again?

But of course an author is always lurking somewhere in everything she writes, so I’m wondering — excuse the metaphysics — where you are in these stories.

That’s a good question, a tricky one to answer. I’m often suspicious of people who say, “None of this is autobiographical.” Then where did it come from? They’ve just been wandering the earth accumulating sensations and memories and that’s what they’re using to make the thing, so I do think that there’s some kind of autobiographical dimension to any created thing.

For me, Swamplandia was the closest to any kind of emotional autobiography. Not specifically — I mean, my mom shops at the Gap and doesn’t dive into monster pits, and I have two siblings who are always like, “Please tell people those kids aren’t us. Please stop writing about siblings, we are begging you” — but that kind of family arrangement and all the love and complexity of a family, a lot of that’s my stuff. A lot of my adolescent protagonists are in some ways caricatures or exaggerated versions, but are not disconnected from the kid that I was. I promise I wasn’t an effeminate snorkeler or a weird bully, or whatever, but I guess it’s something about the sensibility.

We talked about spatial positioning, and voice too, so if I’m in those stories it’s something to do with — “worldview” is such an annoying word, but vantage. A lot of my favorite writers — like Flannery O’Connor, book to book it’s just the way she’s thinking of the world, her attitude. You feel a posture and a speech, you feel how she’s positioning herself to what she’s observing.

With my favorite writers, there’s an extent to which I just want to live inside their head a little bit. And whatever it is they choose to cast their eye on, it’s okay with me.

Yeah, that’s the kind of reader I am, too. I was just reading Rachel Kushner’s book The Flame Throwers, which I adore, and I would read that voice on any continent. Heidi Julavits, too — that keen intelligence, you just want to watch and see where it’s locating humor, where its locating sorrow. The really vigorous activity of that mind making sense of things, that’s exciting. That’s where the drama is, for me. Plot is something else, less interesting to me. Virginia Woolf is another one. Send that woman to a party, send her to buy some flowers, put her on a jet, who cares. It’s wonderful to travel inside of her consciousness.

That’s a very strange thing to try to talk about, how you are trying to position yourself in relation to a reader. I was thinking about the generosity and openness of the books I love — you just sense that there’s a friendliness. George Saunders is one writer where the posture is always one of total friendliness to the reader. It’s always inviting, and it’s a very intimate exchange.

So you’re working on a novel now?

I am. I’m trying to get back in, and it’s weird. It’s like coming back to a house you haven’t lived in for a while, and it’s like, “Why does it smell so weird? Who bought all this weird stuff? None of the stuff in the fridge is good anymore, so that’s got to go.”

In terms of the habits required for something novel-length? Or the material itself?

Yeah, and I think I’ve changed a lot, too. I was working on this novel in earnest and then I decided to focus on stories for a little while, so now I hope to get back into it, but oh, my goodness. It’s difficult. And then there are always a bunch of doomed-feeling stories sitting on my desktop in various stages of abandonment, so periodically I’ll go back there to check on them, 6th grade science fair-style: “Did one of you manage to grow, by a miracle that had nothing to do with me?” But the novel — we’ll see. I don’t know. Wish me luck!


By Jordan Kinser

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Full Stop Karen Russell Pulitzer Swamplandia Vampires In Lemon Grove