Karen Russell: Baring Fangs

Karen Russell: Baring Fangs

Vampires in the Lemon Grove book coverGenre-bending Pulitzer Prize nominee Karen Russell discusses her new short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove and reveals details about her next book—including why it depresses her family.

Zola: What made you decide to publish a collection of short stories again after your Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Swamplandia!?

Karen Russell: A lot of it was written while I was writing the novel. I wanted to write stories again. Before writing Swamplandia! the longest story I had ever written was 12 pages, but I don’t really have a complete ease with one or the other. I feel rocky and unnatural doing both, but I really take pleasure in taking risks and being able to work with the short story on a closer level. I enjoy the shorter form because you can really take a look at the piece on the sentence level, each one like a micropulse. The shorter form tends to work like a poem with sound and images and is more compatible for that kind of focus.

Zola: Your first short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, included a precursor to Swamplandia!—“Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” Is there any chance that a story from Vampires in the Lemon Grove will become its own novel?

KR: Absolutely not! I think each of these stories have run their course and are all self-contained. I don’t really see a need to expand on any of them. Although, I have been working on another novel for some time now that I’ve set during the Dust Bowl drought. The short story “Proving Up” [from Vampires in the Lemon Grove] really helped with trying to get an idea of how to form that landscape and look at the themes for the novel. With that story I really looked into what compels people to stay in a situation. I wanted to look at blind hope and when does that hope become excruciating? When do your blinders become dangerous? The next book is a sort of real world Book of Job situation.

Zola: You’re beloved by the literary fiction set, having received a Pulitzer nomination and inclusion in The New Yorker’s prestigious “20 Under 40” list. You’re also a favorite of the sci-fi/fantasy crowd, as evidenced by i09 naming Vampires in the Lemon Grove one of its most anticipated reads for 2013. Do you hope your work appeals to one group over the other? How would you classify your writing?

KR: If a dog taught itself to read and could read my stories, I’d be thrilled! Anyone who wants to look at my work is welcome. Any response and surprise to my work is great. I’m always a little worried that it will come off as off-putting or bizarre, but growing up I was a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy books. I was enamored with old school Russians and Jane Eyre. Genre-wise I’ve never really felt like an authority on my work. I just love playing with the horror-genre structure, and I’m not really thinking exactly what age group it will go to.

There seems to be this debate between fantasy vs. realism but I like to use the fantasy genre and people’s notions of the horror genre to subvert these structures. I like to write fantasy with some supernatural elements to help people see something political or historical. I like to broaden the definition of fantasy to help expose or think through certain ideas.

Zola: Any authors who inspire you in your creation of these imaginary worlds?

KR: Yeah, I love Joy Williams, George Saunders, and Ben Marcus. Joy Williams is hilarious and darkly funny. She’s very plugged into the everyday. George Saunders is great at creating this American dystopia and sort of blue-collar sci-fi setting. I find Ben Marcus ferociously original. He puts up this funhouse mirror to our country, and you’re exposed to certain truths you weren’t aware of. I really like to see what they’re doing with sci-fi and fantasy. Each one is so different than the others in their writing.

Zola: What are your thoughts on Twilight and why people are so obsessed with vampires these days?

KR: Twilight had quite a spread. With all the attention and response to the vampire scene, I’m glad people still gave my book a chance. I still stand by the choice to have the titular story related to vampires. There is a theme of appetite and hunger in the stories. When my relatives heard about it they just asked if I was going to write about vampires why I couldn’t go ahead and make millions. They suggested I throw something sexy in there and make some Hollywood megabucks. They find the Dust Bowl setting of my next novel a bit depressing since I’ve gone from writing about swamps to a depression. “Why not set it in Cancun?”

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.