Conversation: Karen Russell, Author of ‘Swamplandia!’
Karen Russell’s novel, “Swamplandia!” tells the story of the Bigtree family, which runs an amusement park in the Florida Everglades. But this isn’t a Disney-style park — alligator wrestling is the major draw — and the Bigtrees are no average family.
The main narrator is 13-year-old Ava, older sister Ossie communicates with ghosts, and brother Kiwi escapes to the mainland but ends up in his own bizarre “world of darkness.”
Russell’s novel is part fantasy and part youthful coming of age tale. Some critics have referred to it as magical realism. There’s also some social and ecological commentary thrown in.
Russell has been featured in the New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and on the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. She’s currently writer-in-residence at Bard College.
I spoke to her last week about her work:
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown, and joining me today is Karen Russell to talk about her novel, “Swamplandia!” It is about the Bigtree family that runs an amusement park in the Florida Everglades. But it is not a Disney-style amusement park. This is about alligator wrestling, one the major draws, and it’s certainly not an average family. The book focuses on the three children: 13-year-old Ava, her oldest sister, Aussie, who is communing and romancing ghosts — and I think we’ll explain — and their brother, Kiwi, who escapes to the mainland but ends up in his own world of darkness, so to speak. Welcome to you.
KAREN RUSSELL: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is a wonderful mix of high literature, fantasy, coming of age. Tell me what you thought you were writing here.
KAREN RUSSELL: I grew up reading a lot of these super weird, genre-bending Southern gothic writers. I think I thought of it a sort of a mash up, that I really wanted it to be a suspenseful story, but I’m always sort of interested in, you know, flowering up the language.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you like the idea of mixing the genres?
KAREN RUSSELL: I think so, yeah. I really wanted it to have kind of a Huck Finn on the river underworld tale, which I guess is a lot mashed in.
JEFFREY BROWN: I guess so. There were models like that? Huck Finn and other models?
KAREN RUSSELL: I don’t know that I could think a model for what happened with this particular book, but I do love a book that was huge influence on me was Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love,” which also tells the tale of this sort of carnival family where all kinds of weird domestic rights are inverted. They have this sort fabulous…a family of freaks, so I think that was one proto model.
JEFFREY BROWN: Family of freaks. You’re from southern Florida, this takes place in another part of southern Florida, is there any…
KAREN RUSSELL: I like to say a mythic Florida to avoid litigation. I like to say like a fictional Florida.
JEFFREY BROWN: Good idea, but where did the idea come from, because it’s not your background.
KAREN RUSSELL: Well, my own family is very clear about me going on air and saying that it’s not a memoire, so they’re kind sane people. I grew up going to more malls than wrestling alligators. But it is sort of the fictionalized version of my home. I mean, we did live about an hour from the Everglades, and I always thought that the was most alien, fantastic place on the planet, so I think probably more so than any literature, the model is this geologic, ancient swamp in our backyard was probably the model for this thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting you mention Huck Finn. At its heart, it’s a sort of story of lost children, right? The mother dies early on, even though she’s a heroic figure and champion alligator wrestler, the father can’t deal with what’s happening, and then it’s about children.
KAREN RUSSELL: I think that that is expedient for narrative purposes to get those authority figures out of the way. You know, what if they had very protective authoritarian parents? Nothing would happen in the book. They would all apply for college and go off. I do, joking aside, think that it’s those pockets of neglect where really interesting things start to happen for children often, it’s when they’re not under anyone surveillance — and the swamp is scary place to be alone.
JEFFREY BROWN: And part of it is narrated by 13-year-old Ava, and the other is the story of the brother, told in the third person, which I thought was interesting.
KAREN RUSSELL: You know, I tried that in the first person at one point and it just felt too close to Ava’s voice, and then also that section I sort of thought as like the — if you think of it as like a musical or something. Ava’s story is the much more serious nightmarish one and his kind of the dee-dee-dee comic relief story, and if felt sort of like third person, to get this much larger world and have a satirical view I thought was the way to go.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, you know, thinking again about the genre mixing, because there are parts of it that are about ecology, about the local history. It must have taken some research as well.
KAREN RUSSELL: Yeah, it did. This was different for me because I had a collection of short stories come out and all the research I did for that was just, you know, in my own crazy brain or really lazy Google searches, so it was different to really read some first person accounts of — they had these dredge men that sort had the insane project of draining the swamp. There’s a lot that I didn’t know. I read about the Indian wars. I had always sort of thought that the Seminole Indians were indigenous Indians, meaning that they had been there since time immemorial. Somehow in our school we weren’t given the information that they were chased down there from Georgia during the Indian wars, so all of this was interesting to me. As a resident of Florida, I hadn’t known any of it.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned the short story collection. This grew out of a short story, right?
KAREN RUSSELL: It did. These people have been around for the majority of my 20s. I couldn’t shake them. It’s so nice that the book is published and now I can move on from the swamp.
JEFFREY BROWN: But before you move on, though, did you always conceive that there was a novel here? Or did you, you wrote the short story first and then later think I’ve got to stay with these people.
KAREN RUSSELL: I was writing these stories in graduate school, and I had this one — the Ava wrestles the alligator story — all of the other stories I had been content to sort of say, Check, please, and move on. I just felt very haunted by those characters. And it had never really quite been a short story. It had always been this giant, sort of like a swamp, this big sprawl, you know. I had generated all this material about this place Swamplandia and just couldn’t stop thinking about it.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean you cut it way down to make the short story.
KAREN RUSSELL: Well, it’s been like playing an accordion to write this thing, because I cut it way down to do the short story, we did sort of an ice-cream scoop of the most dramatic part, but I still had so much material and all the characters felt really alive to me and really in trouble. The short story ends where these two sisters are just alone in the swamp with all this danger humming around them, so it seemed sort of cruel to leave them there. It seemed like there was sort of the DNA of a longer work.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this is a first novel. What were the challenges or difficulties of building something?
KAREN RUSSELL: Making it huge again. It was sort of like — I think everyone uses that sprint to marathon analogy, but it did feel a little bit like that. I sort of think it would be like if you were just singing in the shower or something and then someone was like now do it for three hours in front all these people, you know? And so that was challenging to kind of sustain the world and the energy of the world over time and to have multiple worlds going. I thought one of the big challenges of the book is that I really wanted it to be about sort of a portrait of the Everglades but also kind of contemporary south Florida. So it wasn’t just going to be the micro-society of one family; there was going to be this macro view that the brother gives you, but that looks so beautiful visually in my head and then trying to get all those—
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean turn into — like the storytelling aspect of it, at length.
KAREN RUSSELL: Yeah, to do it at length and have sort of multiple worlds going at once. So to have Ava’s world, which is sort of lush and dreamy and weird and takes place —
JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s the magical part of well — ok, not exactly
KAREN RUSSELL: Exactly. It feels like the more fantastical part and then Kiwi’s world is more sort of like the hell we all recognize. It’s just the hell of like being an adolescent, you know?
JEFFREY BROWN: He’s working a dead-end job.
KAREN RUSSELL: Working a crappy job and going to night school, so that’s a more familiar hell I think to most readers.
JEFFREY BROWN: I told you before we started that I read about this and then put it aside and then only recently came back to it and sort of forgotten what I was getting into. I mean, with all the —
KAREN RUSSELL: I did that a few times myself.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there you go. But I was interested because I was looking at some reviews last night and one said that you have style in spades. And I thought that’s for sure. I mean, style in spades.
KAREN RUSSELL: Oh, thank you. That’s very kind.
JEFFREY BROWN: But I wonder, do you have to worry about the style getting in the way almost or overpowering the story, because of you do have, well, you do have style in spades.
KAREN RUSSELL: I love that blurb, but only because in actual life and like in fashion terms, I’m always like wearing overalls or something, so it’s nice. That was a particularly nice one, I thought. I am really conscious of that and with the story-to-novel transition, one of the things that was a new challenge was thinking about how to keep the momentum of a plot moving forward and not embroidering every single bush or something. But I’ve always sort of loved —
JEFFREY BROWN: Because embroidering, it could become too poetic —
KAREN RUSSELL: Yeah, it bogs it down.
JEFFREY BROWN: It could become too cute at times. In that childish voice or the adolescent voice.
KAREN RUSSELL: Right, I think that’s very, and I mean, lord knows that’s still a challenge for me, is you don’t want it to become too precious or too knowing. And then readers want to know what’s going to happen. So that’s always a struggle for me to balance your own pleasure as a writer, saying, look at those clouds, here’s 14 analogies for them, and saying, you know, there’s real suspense pushing you. But I have to say, you know, my own authors are always tend to be the ones — Virginia Wolff or Joy Williams or folks who really do pay a lot of attention on the sentence level. I never was a big Carver minimalist.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you worry about it but not over-worry.
KAREN RUSSELL: I worry about it, but I think I know, too, that I’m never going to have sort of spare, you know, deadpan — there’s probably always going to be like some monkey jimmying around in the background.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so have you put these people behind you now? What is next?
KAREN RUSSELL: Yes, isn’t that great? I’m so happy that they’re out in the world. I can’t even tell you. I’m so happy that readers have access to them now and they made it out of that swam of my mind.
JEFFREY BROWN: What are you working on?
KAREN RUSSELL: My sister says it’s a total over correction for this book. It’s a second novel set during the Dustbowl drought.
JEFFREY BROWN: Whoah.
KAREN RUSSELL: I know. She says I should call it Drylandia. That’s her big joke.
JEFFREY BROWN: With a question mark this time? All right well this book is called “Swamplandia!” with an explanation point. Karen Russell, nice to talk to you.
KAREN RUSSELL: Really nice to talk to you.
JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.