Karen Russell’s Un-Realities
Karen Russell’s stories live in a space between the everyday and the surreal.
Karen Russell is a celebrated fiction writer known for her feverish blends of the supernatural and everyday. Her accolades include a Pulitzer nomination, a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Russel was raised in South Florida, the setting of her 2011 novel Swamplandia!, a Pulitzer-nominated story about a family of alligator wrestlers. The novel grew out of a short story in Russel’s debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006), written while completing her MFA at Columbia University. She has since released two more collections: Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013) and Orange World and Other Stories (2019). Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Granta, and The New Yorker, among other places.
Russels’s work straddles genres, spanning fantasy, science fiction, horror, and literary fiction, as in her novella Sleep Donation (2014), which presents a nightmarish version of America where sleep deprivation has become a national epidemic. She teaches creative writing at Texas State University and lives in Oregon.
Karen Russell is most at home in made up places.
Karen Russell: I feel so much more comfortable in fiction. I feel like that’s the only place where I can be honest about certain things. I’m like, okay from the point of view of a horse on the moon, now we can talk. I have to go quite a distance, I think, from my own perspective.
And Russell’s imagination has taken her far. Her debut novels, Swamplandia! about a family of alligator wrestlers in the Florida Everglades put her in a three-way tie for the 2012 Pulitzer. The next year, she won a MacArthur genius award. Russell is celebrated for her ability to make the strange seem inevitable in stories about everyday life. An epidemic of nightmares that create an entire society of insomniacs. A support group for new mothers who’ve agreed to nurse a demon. A pack of children brought up by wild animals who were taught civility by nuns. Even mythological creatures lurking among citrus trees.
(Excerpt from Vampires in the Lemon Grove)
When we first landed in Sorrento, I was skeptical. The pitcher of lemonade we ordered looked cloudy and adulterated. Sugar clumped at the bottom. I took a gulp and a whole small lemon lodged in my mouth. There is no word sufficiently lovely for the first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial pickling, a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums, a soothing blankness traveled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain. These lemons are a vampire’s analgesic.
Though it might seem that being a novelist would offer some great vacation from reality, for Russell, even the most outlandish stories come from a deeply personal place.
Russell: I often think sometimes that fiction is more frighteningly revealing to somebody about somebody than nonfiction, ’cause if you’re writing under the spell of your own name and like let’s say it’s an op-ed or something, you’re sort of, I’m gonna stake out this position, I’m gonna defend it. In a story where anything can happen, it is a little bit like being in a dream, and in the same way that dreams will reveal things that you’re maybe uncomfortable knowing, because you’re just the hostage inside your own body and you’re having this very honest communication that you’re not really mediating in any way, frighteningly, it can feel like that. I just find like, particularly with stories, I’ll be like, this is gonna be a totally different story. I’ve never written anything in this landscape. Different point of view, new characters, whole new people, and then you’re sort of like, oh this again.
AJC: Here I am again.
Russell: Here I find myself, right.
One recurring theme in Russell’s work is how the supernatural strides almost imperceptibly in step with the seemingly mundane. It’s a gift she traces back to her childhood, set in the unpredictable environment of southern Florida.
Russell: Speaking of an incubator for an imagination, I mean, I think the weather plays such a role there and nature, the humidity is part of it but there’s no way to think of your life as separate from this animal world because it’s just embracing you. You’re sweating into it, you know, it’s just the membrane that you’re moving through is reminding you that you’re in the tropics, really. And the weather’s always changing, I mean that’s something really unique about South Florida. You’re always in peril too, there’s like a cheerful amnesia for most of the year and then it’s hurricane season and everybody remembers that they’ve chosen to live on sand at the edge of the continent. And where there are lizards in your bathtub and none of that seems so unusual if you’re a kid, but then maybe later, in retrospect, you’re like, that’s interesting.
Karen Russell is now experiencing another childhood. This time, set in Portland, Oregon where she and her husband are raising their growing family. Her latest collection, 2019’s Orange World is named for a short story about the overwhelming worry that accompanies parenthood.
(Excerpt from Orange World)
“Orange World,” the New Parent’s Educator says, “is where most of us live.” She shows a slide, a smiling baby with a magenta birthmark hooping her eye. No, a burn mark. The slides jump back in time to the irreversible error. Here is the sleepy father holding a teapot. Orange World is a nest of tangled electrical cords and open drawers filled with steak knives. It’s a baby’s fat hand hovering over the blushing coils of a toaster oven. It’s a crib purchased used. “We all make certain compromises, of course. We do things we know to be unsafe. You take a shower with your baby and suddenly…” The educator knocks her fist on the table to mimic the gavel rap of an infant’s skull on marble. Her voice lowers to a whisper to relate the final crime. “You fall asleep together on the sofa. Only one of you wakes up.” Don’t fall asleep, Rae dutifully takes down. Orange World.
But for all the anxiety that motherhood has brought with it, Russell says her son has also added a delightful new kind of strangeness to her life.
Russell: Time moves in such a different way now, it’s really uncanny. He really changes every second in a way that makes me very aware that I’m living in the present. And sometimes, if I’m with him there are not as many rooms to go to. I just feel like I have to be present with him and that’s a real gift because not since my own childhood have I felt so kind of riveted to my skin and in my body and in this world, with him. You know, I think a lot of my adult life, obviously has been spent in sort of imaginary realms, but also just in like the boring places we all go. And sometimes it can feel very claustrophobic not to have this space to kind of reminisce and daydream and whatever. There’s something about just like blowing bubbles on the floor in real time that reminds me so much of being a child myself, when everything had that sort of heightened reality because that was it. This is like the first tree you know, so you’re really attending to it. I mean, we have been taking birds for granted, for example. We have to greet every bird in the sky. It does restore a kind of wonder. You have permission again or something to, yeah, you remember a little bit.
Karen Russell chooses to see what so many of us habitually ignore. The weird, the fantastical in the everyday and her stories invite us to see the world that way too.