Karen Russell on Vampires, Addiction and Literary Tattoos
Karen Russell's fiendishly titled new short-story collection, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," follows her Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut novel, "Swamplandia!," and her first collection, "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," published when she was 25. Hailed as a "Young Lion" by the New York Public Library and named to The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list of authors, Russell confessed to Bookish that her real ambition is to make the "85 Writers Who Are Still Lucid at 85" list.
The stories in "Vampires" are full of war, recovery from addiction, women who've turned into silkworms and, yes, bloodsuckers (but they've gone clean). Here, Russell reveals how "mucking around in the swampy mangrove forest" near her childhood home in Miami and reading everything from Jack London to "The Grapes of Wrath" shaped her as a writer of "magical thinking" fiction. By the way, she's over swamps: She tells us her next novel will be set in a dustbowl "wasteland."
Bookish: Which author or book most profoundly shaped you as a writer? Is there one writer you're guided by as a pole star?
Karen Russell: I always get tongue-tied when I have to choose a single book or author. As a younger reader, I loved Jack London, Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, the Narnia books, "A Wrinkle in Time." I remember reading books like "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" on long car trips, probably understanding only every third word--exactly what I gleaned from those classics is hard for me to pinpoint now in retrospect, but I do remember feeling that my "real" life was my reading life--a secret life, an interior world made in collaboration with these authors, impenetrable to any outside observer. Traveling to Ray Bradbury's Martian cities felt much more memorable than my trips to buy Keds at the Dadeland Mall in Miami.
And, Flannery O'Connor's wickedly wise sensibility is a terrific pole star.
Bookish: In the title story of your new collection, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," Clyde and Magreb are two vampires who have sworn off the red stuff and who soothe their "throbbing fangs" with the juice of lemons. Are we all just vampires in the lemon grove, suppressing our desires?
KR: Ha! Well, I do think there's something to that "noble truth" business…. I think part of the power of the figure of the monster (and of the vampire in particular) is that we can all recognize and relate to the horror of compulsion, of enslavement to craving--the living death of addiction, loneliness and thirst. Even if you don't think of yourself as a vampire in recovery, I'd guess that you have some experience with an ungovernable desire. And I think those lemons were my silly way of representing the bitter relief of a temporary fix for an endless longing.
Bookish: Your story, "Reeling for Empire," is about a group of women in turn-of-the-century Japan who are imprisoned in a silk factory and literally turned into silkworms. How did you come up with the idea of women being forced to grow silk in their bellies?
KR: It's hard for me to reconstruct exactly where that nightmare picture came from. I had been reading David Graeber's "Debt," one section of which discusses female debt slavery; and John Tresch's "The Romantic Machine," which got me thinking about man-machine hybrids. Then, I became fascinated with Meiji-era Japan, a period when the entire country was undergoing a violent metamorphosis from isolated feudalism to its modern form. Model mills imported Western-style technologies, and female workers left their home villages and towns to work as silk and cotton reelers.
I do remember looking at pictures of silkworms and thinking how frightening it would be to have one's selfhood erased by white fur, to become converted from an individual--a human woman with a unique history--into part of the factory machinery.
In this story, Kitsune's silk thread is a greeny-black manifestation of her grief, her regret. I often feel that certain emotions have an almost physical weight, like a rock in the gut. So, it wasn't such a stretch to imagine a memory or an emotion silking through these women's bodies and stiffening into the thread.
Bookish: Many have called your writing "magical realism," but that term can seem lighthearted--there is a death in nearly every story in "Vampires." How do you describe your work?
KR: I think that I am actually getting worse at describing my work. Less and less do I feel like I have the right distance from these recent stories to know exactly how to categorize them. I do agree that "magical realism" might not be quite the right term, since it suggests to me a hard and fast distinction between the "real" world and "magical" zones, a line that is continually effaced in the fiction I best love (Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo, Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Kelly Link, Kevin Brockmeier, etc). In my experience, there is no single, fixed reality--the present moment is always slippery, always filtered through one's own dreams and terrors. Which can imbue even the most "mundane" Tuesday train ride with a supernatural tinge.
Maybe what I'm writing is "magical-thinking" fiction--so many of my characters are lost in some kind of profound blind spot. They struggle to decipher their role in the disasters that befall them, or the mysteries unfolding in their own backyards. In "Swamplandia!," for example, Ava desperately needs the Bird Man to be a Charon-figure, an adult guide to the underworld. Beverly in "The New Veterans" badly wants to be a healer, to feel that she is doing something selfless and noble--to be a powerful agent in Sergeant Zeiger's recovery. And that desire colors her perception of every interaction that she has with him, down to the feeling of the soldier's skin under her hands.
Bookish: Like Ava in your first novel, "Swamplandia!," many of your characters are kids struggling with growing up. How was your development as a writer affected by your own childhood?
KR: I think that a South Florida childhood is great training for a fiction writer. In some ways, you could say that Florida is a magical-realist state--impossible, bizarre things happen everyday. The Miami Seaquarium, with its killer whales and circus dolphins, is a block away from the canned pineapples on special at the Publix grocery store.
And, childhood continues to fascinate me--the passage from childhood to adulthood is such a private, intensely felt, halting and painful and exciting journey. (Even though, like the distinction between fantasy/reality, I think the childhood/adulthood binary is pretty bogus--what adult do you know who does not still have all of her ages rattling inside of her at once, Russian-nested-doll style?). I'm not sure if I can give you an honest and succinct reason here for why I keep returning to that threshold in fiction. I do think that a Miami childhood is one-of-a-kind: So many of my friends and neighbors were first- or second-generation immigrants, and I often felt that we were all navigating a new world together. I was also an anxious kid, a loner, and I spent hours mucking around in the swampy mangrove forest near our house, or riding my bike through the Everglades Lite that is Matheson Hammock, a man-made lagoon near Biscayne Bay in urban Miami.
Miami's weird and watery settings are all well-suited to stories about adolescence, I think. You really couldn't ask for a better landscape to stage a coming-of-age story. I think the central drama of a lot of my fiction revolves around "seeing"--a character, often a child, trying to reconcile contradictions between what they are being told and what they are learning to be true-trying to get their bearings in some swampy subjective territory.
Bookish: You were named to the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" and the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" lists. Is the book world obsessed with youth, like other spheres? What other category of writer would you like to be included in?
KR: You know, those lists really put one in mind of one's own mortality. I'm hoping to make the "85 Writers Who Are Still Lucid at 85" list. I think it's excellent that the National Book Foundation and the New Yorker want to support younger writers--that support came at a crucial time for me, when I was in my mid-20s and wrestling with "Swamplandia!" One of the things I love about the book world, especially as I gallop into my 30s, is that an author's age matters so much less than it does in other industries. We've got at least that leg up on catwalk models and pro athletes.
I do wish that these lists and awards would drop the age cut-offs, which can feel pretty arbitrary. Authors begin their careers at every age. Ben Fountain was a debut author in his late 40s, and a debut novelist at 50. Robin Black published her phenomenal debut story collection, "If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This," in her late 40s, after raising three kids.
Bookish: In your story "The New Veterans," a masseuse working with traumatized soldiers accesses a soldier's pain through the vibrant tattoo on his back. If you got a literary tattoo, what would it be?
KR: My best friends and I just barely avoided getting matching e.e. cummings tattoos in high school. Speaking of age, I think I may have aged out of the possibility of getting a fabulous literary tattoo. Although, I love stories about tattoos--"The Illustrated Man" and "Parker's Back." If Odilon Redon, channeling Poe, had some mobile time-traveling tattoo shop and you could get one of his landscapes on your back, I would go there.
Bookish: Are you working on another novel? Can you give us any hints about what we have to look forward to in your next book?
KR: In my honeymoon phase of writing this new book, I was blabbing about it to strangers on the Megabus, but now I've grown slit-eyed and wary--wary of the jinx. So, it's probably safest not to say too much. It's set during the Dust Bowl drought. I'm trying for a wasteland with some colorful personalities.
Karen Russell, a native of Miami, won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, "Swamplandia!" (2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2012 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" is her most recent book. She lives in Philadelphia.