Karen Russell was just out of Columbia’s MFA program and entering her mid-twenties when her short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves debuted. Replete with ancient images such as a Minotaur, Yeti, and numerous ghosts, each tale speaks of the heartbreak of adolescence in language beautiful and true. She sets many of them in her native South Florida, on small keys, surrounded by the seemingly endless Everglades.
Russell returns to the Everglades – and to characters from one of her short stories, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” – for her first novel, Swamplandia! The book tells the story of the Bigtree family, who run a theme park – the titular Swamplandia – on one of Florida’s keys. Their star attraction is the family matriarch, Hilola Bigtree, who dives nightly into a pool of alligators until her untimely death from ovarian cancer.
With the park left destitute, Hilola’s eldest son, Kiwi, takes a job at a rival theme park with dreams of saving the family by one day going to college. Part of the novel follows Kiwi, but the lion’s (or should I say alligator’s?) share of the story is given to Ava, the youngest daughter. Left alone on the island, surrounded by swamp, Ava and her older sister Ossie become enmeshed in a world of séances and ghosts.
I had the opportunity to talk with Russell recently by phone, and I asked about the influences on her work.
The Millions: You’ve received a lot of attention because your sentences are highly literary, musical constructions, but the content of the stories is often genre based, pulling on fantasy and science-fiction. And the emotional lives of the characters feel very real though the specifics of the dilemmas are fantastical. Where does the impulse to mash disparate elements together in your fiction come from?
Karen Russell: The people I loved reading the best in college were total mash-up artists. Like Junot Diaz, who has this voice-driven, wisecracking, going-to-curse-at-you prose and then he has these lyrical, gorgeous descriptions. Or George Saunders – I owe him a great debt because he showed me you can have really moral, moving stories that are partly a function of how insane and absurd the setting is. That was always what got me most powerfully as a reader: these incongruous pairings.
It’s also just fun! I had a lot of fun writing Swamplandia! because it felt like I could juggle different kinds of worlds. And I feel like in life we’re all sort of operating in different registers all the time.
TM: How so?
KR: I find myself always writing from this young adolescent point of view because that’s the threshold where you really are straddling worlds. That was my experience of it anyway. Ava, the protagonist of Swamplandia!, was a good, fun age to write from, because she’s a very innocent thirteen and so still has access to the private, child world of fantasy and comic books, but she’s also alive to grittier, more adult realities. She’s tying to figure out the death of her mom and the insolvency of the park – a lot of childhood myths are crumbling around her. As an adolescent you move registers, you switch lenses. You have a sorceress’s magical lens but are also beginning to see the world through adult eyes.
But just in the course of a day I think everyone shuffles a bit. And what happens in my stories is just an expanded vocabulary to talk about a way that everybody feels. To paraphrase Etgar Keret: if I have some guy levitate out of his chair then maybe he’s in love and inside feels like he’s flying.
TM: It sounds like you’re very aware of the writers you admire and have learned from, but how does that work for you in concrete terms? Do you go back to any authors in particular when you’re stuck to crib technique or pointers?
KR: You learn what a story is by reading. There are some stories and novels that leave a big stamp, that virally inhabit your consciousness.
When writing Swamplandia! I ended up teaching Geek Love, this amazing novel by Katherine Dunn that I picked up in high school. It’s a dark carnival tale about a family of actual freaks – it’s just nightmarish, I’ve never read anything like it. I’m positive that if I hadn’t read that book, Kelly Link’s short story collection (Pretty Monsters) and George Saunders, that I wouldn’t feel free enough as I do to write weird. They expanded my idea that you can have a literary book, a book that’s interested in sentences and the poetry of language, and it can also have Arty the Flipper Boy or a Civil War ghost.
When writing the Kiwi sections of Swamplandia!, if I ever felt like the tone was off I would read Saunders because he always makes me want to write. He reads like he’s having such a good time and I love his humor so much. I think you write better if you’re reading good people.
Swamplandia! also owes a big debt to Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I think that’s one of the most beautiful books. For King it’s pretty quiet, about this nine year old girl wandering around the woods in Appalachia. It’s weird to me that King is as popular as he is, you know? Because of the places he goes. That’s an acknowledgement of how weird we all must be, and how we love the dark. I feel like he’s some organ, doing extrasensory processing for all of us!
TM: Do you see Swamplandia! as a coming of age story?
KR: I heard Antonya Nelson say that all stories are coming of age stories, which I really like, because people hear coming of age and think To Kill A Mockingbird or whatever we all read in seventh grade. But Nelson’s idea was that coming of age means you’re getting new information, there’s a new challenge or event and you’re going to have to expand as a character – at whatever age you’re at – and you’re going to become something new as you move through the experience.
The story that felt at the heart of Swamplandia! was Ava’s story, and that is about this kid trying to wrestle with her grief. She does grow up over the course of the book, but the novel also tackles the whole family in grief, so it’s kind of a collective coming of age.
TM: As Swamplandia! progresses, the history of Floridian ecology and land-use come to the fore. Was this material that you knew from your childhood, or did you do a lot of research?
KR: I did too much research. I wanted to know the real history of the state. I think the Bigtree story is a local version of the bigger story. I felt that the death of the mother that’s the catalyzing event in Swamplandia! deeply resonated with how we diked up and drained the swamp. It used to cover the whole state, this floating prairie that extended down from Lake Okeechobee, and now it’s cut off from its headwaters and it’s fractured and really in crisis, a quarter of its original size.
While writing I would look at these aerial pictures, and you can see exactly over time the shrinking territory and how cut up it is. That felt true for this family too, the members of which end up being partitioned and cut off from one another.
TM: One thing that comes up frequently in MFA workshops is consistency – sticking with a point of view or tense or pattern. Yet in so many fantastic books there are surprising changes, elements that make a work really exciting. Like the first 65 pages of Swamplandia! are written in the first person from Ava’s point of view, and then the narrative voice switches to third person, following Kiwi as he heads off on his own and gets a job at The World of Darkness, a rival theme-park. Were you worried this wouldn’t work?
KR: I had the same fear, because you internalize the voice of the collective workshop saying, “You can’t do that! We need to know where this narrative voice is coming from!”
But in a workshop at Columbia, novelist Ben Marcus once said something along the lines of “readers won’t be distracted if it’s written well.”
You want these abrupt narrative changes to be deliberate, to have a rationale. Swamplandia! is not just Ava’s story, it’s the whole Bigtree family’s. I envisioned Hilola Bigtree’s death like a pool ball break, this traumatic event happens and they all spiral off into their own pocket. Ava’s sister Ossie is on her own mystery tour, and Kiwi wanted to save the family in his own way, a more conventional get-a-job, go-to-college way.
TM: Ossie journeys into the swamp, following a spirit she’s fallen in love with, the story of which is left largely to the reader’s imagination. Were you ever tempted to follow her?
KR: No, I knew that for the gravities to work Ossie’s story has to be the dark matter. So much of the power would be lost if we saw what really happened to her, I thought that was an important thing to leave to the reader.
And I wanted Kiwi and Ava to be on parallel tracks, each in their own hell. Kiwi’s is a minimum wage theme-park hell, a mainstream USA kind of hell, while Ava is off in the swamp. In the original conception of this, I thought it looked so beautiful, like a helical DNA strand. Ava’s story is fantastical and Kiwi’s is more realistic, but in the end they both are pretty deranged.