Karen Russell

KAREN RUSSELL is the acclaimed author of Swamplandia!, which was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. It was also long-listed for an Orange Prize, included in The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2011 and won the New York Public Library’s 2012 Young Lions Fiction Award. She was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35″ honoree for her first book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Her new collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, will be published in February 2013.

Karen takes some time in the midst of Thanksgiving bedlam to answer some questions for us on writing, revising and teaching. She is reading at Fiction Addiction with Jim Shepard on November 27, 2012.

How long have you been writing? How much did you write before you were published? Did you have scads of stories that wound up being, essentially, practice stories before the ones that became a part of St. Lucy’s?

I’ve been writing since I could read, practically, five or six. If we’re using a pretty loose definition of “writing.” I used to like rhymes alot. Also alliteration. I’d write these long, humorless, rhyming poems about twilight and palm trees. I remember bringing yellow legal pads to this sad little circle of grass at the end of our street. Lord knows what the neighbors thought I was up to. I’d just be sitting Indian-style in this traffic median, mid-opus. I remember nice Mr. Confalone rolling his car window down to give me a heads up about dog crap.

I did write so, so many malformed stories prior to St. Lucy’s. “City of Shells,” for example, started out as an image in a single paragraph of a much longer, weirder story that didn’t work at all.  I think every writer’s desktop is a shallow story cemetery—you’re always hoping one of these failed or unfinished drafts will decide to dust itself off and walk the earth again, come back to life.

Did your short stories see any revision from their first publication in various magazines to their publication in St. Lucy’s? What about these new stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove?

The St. Lucy’s stories underwent a few rounds of revisions. I revised them with the editors of the various journals and magazines where they were placed, and then I did another round with my editor at Knopf. It was a similar process with Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I am so grateful to and for these editors. I could never have gotten those stories into their final form without their insights and deft cuts and suggestions. With every story I’ve ever tried to write, I’ll reach a stage where I am desperate to know how it’s reading to someone else, how another mind is moving through the text and making sense of it. It’s been a luxury and a pleasure to work with editors who are such extraordinary readers–who can see what a story is striving to be and do and also what might be keeping it from achieving that potential.

Your style and voice are so distinctive, even throughout a single collection and novel. Would you say there is a time when you felt that you had, more or less, “found your voice” as a writer?

Thank you, Christine, I’m glad to know that. Somehow I find that reassuring, as a bag of whirling atoms, to think there’s some consistent quality that gets repeated book to book. Certainly I couldn’t pinpoint a moment on the timeline where I “found my voice”—I always get a little nervous talking about “voice,” to be honest. It always makes me think of “The Little Mermaid” for some reason. Ursula just holding all the writers’ voices in escrow somewhere under the sea. There is so much emphasis on “the original voice” lately, it seems. But every writer has an original voice, a unique way of looking at the world, right? Even if he or she is not writing in wingdings or the italicized second person.

I do think there’s something mysterious and humbling about the way that certain preoccupations and obsessions will continually surface in a person’s work, certain patterns of seeing and saying. But whenever I sit down to write something new, I swear, I always feel like I’m starting from scratch with every aspect of the thing—voice, tone, tense, character, setting, the zillion ineffables.

Do you see yourself ever writing realism? Or do you even really think of writing in these terms?

I sometimes think that I’m sacrificing one kind of realism in order to write a “fantastical” story that has a more resonant emotional realism (for me, anyways, if not for every reader). In the case of the title story in “St. Lucy’s,” for example, I think I wound up going for a kind of raw emotional candor that wouldn’t have been possible for me to access or represent in the sort of story that would traditionally be branded “realist.”

Somehow I suspect the emotional realism about families and education and betrayal in that “St. Lucy’s” story was only possible for me to attempt, given the way I’m wired, because of the wolf-girl premise. It afforded me a linguistic elasticity and permission to use humor and dark woods imagery.

If the characters in “St. Lucy’s” had been, say, regular girls at the Excelsior Boarding School, instead of the daughters of werewolves, I suppose it would have more closely resembled the world that we know in some superficial ways. But I think the heart of the story might have been lost. I loved writing those monster stories in “Vampires” and “St. Lucy’s” because I felt that they gave me an expanded alphabet to represent the pain, beauty, and total lunacy of our human dramas, the ones so universal that we become inured to them—falling in love, growing up.

All that said, I’m excited to be working on a few new stories with adult protagonists in settings that are slightly less foreign, where the magic is toned-down…for me, that feels very experimental.

You have been through an MFA and have taught creative writing yourself. What do you find that your students most need to hear?

I think it varies from student to student, story to story. The best professors I had never imposed their own vision on the work in question. Nor did they kill a first draft dead in the workshop, going after it with a baseball bat of criticism. Instead they’d help me to figure out what the story itself seemed interested in becoming. So that’s what I try to do now for my students—to encourage whatever feels idiosyncratic and alive in their own work.

I also try to give students license to think of themselves as “real” writers, even if they aren’t published yet. I still remember the day when a professor referred to the whacked-out stories I’d been working on as part of my “collection.” Until that moment it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that the stories might ever be published together as a book—it had felt somehow taboo to think like that, arrogant. But that was a real turning point. Those stories were far, far away from publishable, but from that moment forward it was like I had permission to imagine a home for them, this collection.

If you had to pick, what piece of advice has had the biggest impact on your writing?  Well, in my first workshop at Columbia, Stephen O’Connor, a fantastic teacher, gave us a beautifully pared own definition of good writing: that it should be “surprising and true.” Another great piece of advice, for fiction writers: read read read. And specifically, read poetry. I found that really helpful. And, of course, just keep writing. Don’t give up. Cultivate a faith that if what you’re working on is interesting or meaningful for you, it will find is readers. That’s always my hope, anyways.

Last, but not least—Why do you write?

Recently I got to hear Mary Gaitskill answer this same question. I loved her answer, which was something along the lines of,  “I write because it was the only thing I could do.” For me that’s certainly true—it’s not like NASA was calling, begging me to design rockets. Writing is also the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do—truly wanted to do, without regard for whether I in fact had the talent to do it or what other people would think about that decision. In college, I remember walking home from the computer lab at four a.m. in sub-zero temperatures, happier than I had any right to  be, because I was working on some new story.

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