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00:00:06
00:00:09>>From the Center for the Study and Teaching of
00:00:10Writing at The Ohio State University, this is
00:00:12Writers Talk.
00:00:13I'm Doug Dangler.
00:00:14Karen Russell earned a B.A.
00:00:16at Northwestern University and an M.F.A.
00:00:18in Creative Writing at Columbia University.
00:00:21Her 2007 collection of short stories, St.
00:00:23Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was named
00:00:27a "Best Book of the Year" by the San Francisco
00:00:29Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago
00:00:32Tribune, and it helped her to be honored as a
00:00:35National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" young
00:00:38writer.
00:00:39She's had three short stories selected for the
00:00:41Best American Short Stories volumes, and is
00:00:43currently writer-in-residence at Bryn Mawr.
00:00:47Welcome to Writers Talk.
00:00:48
00:00:49>>Hi Doug, nice to see you!
00:00:50
00:00:51>>Well it's good to see you.
00:00:52You're joining us as part of the Thurber House
00:00:54series, which I always recommend for anyone who
00:00:56likes reading and authors.
00:00:57And you'll be talking to them.
00:01:00So let's get right into it.
00:01:02In an interview with the Boston Phoenix you
00:01:05said¿that's a very confrontational sort of
00:01:07start¿you said, "after St.
00:01:09Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves came out,
00:01:10I went to work in a veterinarian's office..."
00:01:12
00:01:13>>I did.
00:01:13
00:01:14>>"...because I thought my love of animals would
00:01:16translate to skill of animals.
00:01:18It did not.
00:01:18You can't mistake love for competence.
00:01:20I worked there for two years, they were very
00:01:22kind to me, but by the end I was just bringing
00:01:24the vet clipboards and puppy scrubs.
00:01:26Now I'm teaching at Bryn Mawr." Is that the
00:01:29writer's trajectory?
00:01:30You go from that into the wonderful success
00:01:34you've had at writing?
00:01:35
00:01:36>>I think it's pretty seamless.
00:01:37Faulkner, Melville, they all started out as vet
00:01:39techs.
00:01:40And then they thought bigger.
00:01:43Melville was like, "Now I'll go to sea." He
00:01:44just translated those skills.
00:01:46
00:01:47>>Right, well you started off with guppies or
00:01:48something and then moved to....
00:01:49
00:01:50>>You move up the rungs.
00:01:51
00:01:51>>Right.
00:01:51
00:01:52>>I love that¿that's like a condensed interview
00:01:53and I think it's so funny that they structure it
00:01:53like this hip-hop, like "Now, I teach at Bryn
00:01:54Mawr," it's like some kind of, over the
00:01:56shoulder...
00:01:57
00:01:58>>Well I thought it was a great, well you know I
00:01:59thought that's actually very cool writing because
00:02:00it goes from this, "now I'm just bringing in
00:02:02puppy scrubs," to immediately, "but now I'm at
00:02:04Bryn Mawr."
00:02:05
00:02:06>>Right.
00:02:07No connective tissue, right?
00:02:07It's just it's that easy.
00:02:09
00:02:09>>It's just, puppy scrubs¿Bryn Mawr.
00:02:10
00:02:10>>Well it was a little more gradual I guess.
00:02:13I didn't just like roll up covered in puppy fur
00:02:14and demand a job at Bryn Mawr.
00:02:16I had been teaching and then I decided¿you know
00:02:20it's tough to get that balance¿so then I decided,
00:02:22"You know, I'm spending so much time kind of in
00:02:25the world of my student's stories, probably the
00:02:27thing to do is make a clean break and I'll just
00:02:30work a regular nine-to-five and come home and let
00:02:33the muse take me."
00:02:35
00:02:35>>Although this one is sounding kind of like a 7
00:02:37am to 7 pm¿that's a twelve hour nine-to-five.
00:02:38
00:02:38>>Yeah, but then it turns out that, yeah that
00:02:39was my big...
00:02:40You know how kids all fantasize about being
00:02:41vets, too, because they love animals?
00:02:43But it turns out that, as I said, that doesn't
00:02:45necessarily always...you know it's like way that
00:02:48all kids want to be marine biologists cause they
00:02:50think they get to swim with the dolphins but it
00:02:52turns out there are huge knowledge bases involved
00:02:53that I did not possess in that case.
00:02:56
00:02:57>>So the M.F.A.
00:02:58didn't prepare you?
00:02:59
00:02:59>>The M.F.A.
00:03:00had not prepared me at all to remove a basketball
00:03:04from a dachshund or whatever they were doing
00:03:04there.
00:03:05
00:03:05
00:03:06>>Yeah I read about that¿the surgical removal of
00:03:08a deflated basketball.
00:03:08
00:03:08>>Isn't it amazing?
00:03:09Yeah that was...
00:03:10
00:03:10>>I didn't know a dachshund could do that.
00:03:11
00:03:11>>...that was like our perfect storm.
00:03:12
00:03:12>>That's awesome.
00:03:14Well so I thought about that and I mentioned
00:03:15that because there's the writing maxim to "write
00:03:17what you know."
00:03:18
00:03:19>>Yeah.
00:03:19
00:03:20>>But that seems like it wasn't particularly
00:03:21good advice for you, on one hand, but it was good
00:03:23advice because you've switched onto something
00:03:25like Swamplandia!, where you're writing about
00:03:28alligators, and there are many other animals in
00:03:31the swamp and things like that, and I wondered if
00:03:33there was a bridge that you thought...
00:03:34I read another interviewer ask you whether it was
00:03:37your love of animals that led you to Seth, the
00:03:40alligator, in here.
00:03:41And is that the case?
00:03:42
00:03:42>>Gosh, it's so funny in the St Lucy's stories
00:03:47too there's always like orangutans, or a bunch of
00:03:50seagulls or there's always like flocks of
00:03:52creatures.
00:03:54And in the case of these alligators I'm sure
00:03:56part of it is just that I grew up in south
00:03:58Florida and always thought they were like
00:03:59irreducibly mysterious.
00:04:01There was never a time...you could kind of get
00:04:04in your to...you know dogs or cats or stuff
00:04:06that's surrounding you but I mean there was never
00:04:08a day when I thought that it was ordinary to see
00:04:09an alligator.
00:04:11
00:04:11>>But you didn't see them very often.
00:04:12You were about an hour away from the Everglades,
00:04:13right?
00:04:14
00:04:14>>Yes.
00:04:15
00:04:15>>They don't wander around throughout Florida,
00:04:16right?
00:04:17
00:04:17>>Well they sometimes...that's the kind of weird
00:04:18thing about Florida we've so encroached on, you
00:04:20know, the urban boundary line is sort of we're
00:04:23always pushing into the swamps so like you'll
00:04:25find some gator that's just like, on the golf
00:04:26course or something or...
00:04:28
00:04:29>>Excellent.
00:04:29
00:04:30>>You know, you have, people find gators in
00:04:31their pools and stuff.
00:04:32We didn't have that kind of...
00:04:33
00:04:33>>Is there a stroke penalty for that or you get
00:04:34an add-on for crocodile¿you don't know?
00:04:37
00:04:38>>See, I don't know, I don't know.
00:04:39I trust the caddies.
00:04:41
00:04:41>>So how has all that influenced your
00:04:43relationship, say, going from being a writer,
00:04:46being a writer as your M.F.A., and then teaching,
00:04:49and then taking this job for a couple years¿how
00:04:51do you think that's influenced your relationship
00:04:53to your work or to even considering other kinds
00:04:57of work?
00:04:58
00:04:58>>Just that weird kind of trajectory?
00:05:00
00:05:01>>Yeah the interesting traj¿which I think is not
00:05:02all that unusual for writers, actually.
00:05:03
00:05:03>>I think so too.
00:05:04I think it's rare to find someone who's kind of
00:05:05making a go at it¿writing exclusively.
00:05:07There might be one man and he's Stephen King.
00:05:10I don't know that there's many of us doing that.
00:05:13
00:05:13>>He taught elementary school, too.
00:05:14
00:05:15>>See?
00:05:15And then I think he had a long stint where he
00:05:16did crazy jobs.
00:05:18So I loved the vet job, what was sort of great
00:05:20about it is if you want like the big spectrum of
00:05:26human nature¿I mean it turns out that if you know
00:05:29your pet is sick you get to know people in this
00:05:29sort of vulnerable way and people's different
00:05:32attitudes towards death are on display at the vet
00:05:35it turns out.
00:05:37Some people want to have candles and rituals and
00:05:40some people do not.
00:05:42
00:05:42>>I noticed that in your essay that was I think
00:05:45on Oprah's website where you talked about the
00:05:47different kinds of animals and anthropomorphized
00:05:50a beagle, and I have two beagles so I was very
00:05:53happy to see the beagle getting top billing.
00:05:55
00:05:55>>He looks so mournful, right?
00:05:56I mean it's easy to anthropomorphize them.
00:05:57So I think there's some way in which that job
00:06:00was great because I was in contact with just a
00:06:03range of different kinds of people at sort of
00:06:05this vulnerable moment.
00:06:07Not that I was trying to be an anthropologist
00:06:09but it was just a good exercise in compassion
00:06:12every day.
00:06:13It was good that way.
00:06:14I think the M.F.A.
00:06:17was a wonderful experience for me¿I know people
00:06:20have kind of different takes on it.
00:06:21But I was just reading...George Saunders has
00:06:24this description of an M.F.A.
00:06:26as an accelerator.
00:06:28So you don't have to do one necessarily, at all,
00:06:31you know you could definitely write in the
00:06:34basement of your mom's house or something...or
00:06:35Paris!
00:06:38
00:06:38>>You know, I love the fact that you say "your
00:06:39mom's house" or "Paris" they're the two...
00:06:40
00:06:41>>It just occurred to me there might be a
00:06:43different...right...if you're more cosmopolitan
00:06:44early writer, I don't know.
00:06:48But what was great about that for me was that I
00:06:50just met all of these amazing writers doing kind
00:06:53of crazy different kinds of things.
00:06:55So it really expanded my idea of what fiction
00:06:56could be or do.
00:06:58And I happened to be part of a class that was
00:07:00just quacky, just writing really experimental
00:07:02stuff.
00:07:04
00:07:04>>Have you been saying this publicly about the
00:07:05other people in your class?
00:07:06Is this the first time you've said that:
00:07:08"They're all quacky!"
00:07:09
00:07:09>>No, they all prefer the adjective "quacky."
00:07:10All of them to a one.
00:07:13And so anyways, George Saunders's analogy was
00:07:16just that an M.F.A.
00:07:17is like if you encounter a frozen pond of ice and
00:07:19it just zips you forward.
00:07:20Faster, you know it's a little bit of a
00:07:22shortcut.
00:07:23And I do think that that's how it, it felt like
00:07:25it worked for me.
00:07:26It felt like I learned a lot.
00:07:27
00:07:27>>What are some of the specific things you
00:07:29learned?
00:07:29I'm always interested in what, like, you come
00:07:30out of an M.F.A.
00:07:32program you said "This one, this M.F.A.
00:07:34program, or this experience taught me how to do
00:07:35this one thing..."
00:07:37
00:07:37>>Don't spend money on credit cards, Doug.
00:07:39Careful.
00:07:41
00:07:42>>That's what it taught you?
00:07:43So is that...?
00:07:45
00:07:45>>Yeah, make your coffee at home.
00:07:45
00:07:46>>I was really thinking more along the lines of
00:07:47character development, but "Don't spend money on
00:07:49credit cards..."
00:07:50
00:07:51>>No, no, no, I think it taught me discipline in
00:07:52a way.
00:07:53You know, what was great about it was you have
00:07:55kind of this artificial deadline, I mean, you
00:07:58have to generate on this schedule, so you don't
00:07:59have the luxury of being like, "The muse didn't
00:08:01come.
00:08:02I think I'll have lunch now.
00:08:04It's 10 am."
00:08:04
00:08:05>>Now, because I read about that online you say
00:08:06you start out in the morning, and you spend three
00:08:10to four hours, is this still the case for you?
00:08:12
00:08:13>>Yeah this is true but this is sort of like
00:08:14when you do to the doctor's office and they're
00:08:15like "How much alcohol have you had this week?"
00:08:16And you're like, "One to two glass," you know?
00:08:18
00:08:19>>So there's some more of your writing life
00:08:21there in how many alcohol drinks you had that...
00:08:24So but that's the ideal?
00:08:27You get up and you do three or four hours of
00:08:29work and that's how you work best?
00:08:32
00:08:32>>Yeah.
00:08:33I think, and it's been a little difficult just
00:08:33this year because I've been kind of ping-ponging
00:08:36around, traveling a little bit.
00:08:37And it used to be that I did most of my work at
00:08:40night when I was a younger woman and I could
00:08:42sustain that kind of schedule.
00:08:44
00:08:44>>Yeah, I was going to say, at twenty-eight
00:08:45you've really really gotten...
00:08:46
00:08:47>>I've peaked.
00:08:47
00:08:48>>...yeah, peaked.
00:08:49You've gotten old.
00:08:49
00:08:50>>No, well when I was in graduate school and
00:08:50sort of had the luxury of this monomaniacal focus
00:08:52on writing I liked to do these big benders.
00:08:55But now I find that it's better for me to try to
00:08:57do four solid hours, which is sort of a lot of
00:09:00focused writing time, and then pick it up the
00:09:02next day.
00:09:03
00:09:04>>Ok, now I read that you are also starting to
00:09:08do longhand?
00:09:09Have you actually switched to longhand?
00:09:11
00:09:11>>I have a feeling you found all this.
00:09:12This is like all my doctor's survey.
00:09:13It's like my food pyramid.
00:09:14I'm like, "I ate mostly vegetables..."
00:09:17
00:09:18>>No, I was, I'm always fascinated by somebody
00:09:19who's young and goes to something like longhand,
00:09:21because it changes so much about the physical
00:09:23production.
00:09:25
00:09:26>>Oh man ,well see now I have to confess to
00:09:26being just a delusional liar on my first
00:09:29television experience.
00:09:31Thank you.
00:09:32
00:09:32>>You're welcome.
00:09:33
00:09:33>>I wanted, I really, I heard Jennifer Egan
00:09:34speak, who I admire so much, and she was talking
00:09:36in sort of this beautiful language about her own
00:09:38process which is that it's longhand, she's
00:09:41avoiding the distraction of the internet, and I
00:09:43guess she's having this direct unmediated contact
00:09:46sort of thing, and then she'll transcribe onto
00:09:48the computer.
00:09:50And I've tried to do that a little but I'm not
00:09:51great at it.
00:09:52One of the things that's difficult for me about
00:09:55longhand is just the speed of it.
00:09:57You know I apparently suffer from some kind of
00:10:00like Miss Havisham-hand where I'm just really
00:10:02slow at writing.
00:10:03So there's that and there's also I think that
00:10:06I'm so used to kind of cutting and pasting and
00:10:08moving around on a word processor.
00:10:11
00:10:11>>Right.
00:10:12And it seems like Swamplandia!
00:10:13comes out of a story called "Ava Wrestles the
00:10:17Alligator" in St.
00:10:18Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
00:10:21And I've seen you describe it a couple times as
00:10:23"It was a really long sprawling thing"--you cut
00:10:25the heart out of it, the dramatic part, and made
00:10:28it into a short story.
00:10:31But now you've gone back to that and the heart
00:10:33has become the entire body?
00:10:38I don't where the metaphor goes there.
00:10:38
00:10:40>>No, no, no, my metaphor is always it's like I
00:10:41
00:10:41felt like I was playing an accordion badly
00:10:42because I kept, like, extending it and shrinking
00:10:43it.
00:10:45And yeah I think I'm so glad that I made it out
00:10:48into the world because it was a tricky
00:10:51translation to move from stories to novel.
00:10:53But that is true this is based on a short story,
00:10:57"Ava Wrestles the Alligator" about two sisters
00:10:59who live on this remote island and their family
00:11:03runs an alligator wrestling park¿Swamplandia.
00:11:08And I just, of all the stories that I had
00:11:12written at that time that one always sort of had
00:11:13this kind of refrigerator hum going on, it sort
00:11:16of stayed with me.
00:11:18
00:11:19
00:11:19>>I was a little disappointed on another thing
00:11:22you said that this was the end of this story.
00:11:23You had gotten these characters out and this was
00:11:25going to be it.
00:11:26Because I thought it's, you're operating within
00:11:28sort of the Southern Gothic tradition in a lot of
00:11:30ways, or magical realism, or whatever other terms
00:11:33you want it to it.
00:11:34But there's the almost Faulkneresque, ¿Okay
00:11:37we're going to continue on these characters,
00:11:38we're going to continue on and...Yoknapatawpha
00:11:40County." I've gotten that wrong a number...
00:11:45
00:11:45>>There's like five more syllables.
00:11:46
00:11:46>>Yeah and so I thought that would be a really
00:11:48interesting arc for somebody to, say, alright I'm
00:11:49going to...
00:11:52
00:11:53>>To see the trilogy or something¿Swamp Gothic
00:11:53trilogy.
00:11:54Yeah, maybe someone will write fan fiction about
00:11:55them.
00:11:57
00:11:57>>Sort of, Swamplandia!
00:11:582 or, you know, whatever...
00:11:59
00:12:00>>Yeah, that's when I'm strapped for cash.
00:12:01No, that's so nice to hear you say it because I
00:12:02sort of, for me, you know, I mean I spent so much
00:12:06time with these characters and they definitely
00:12:07have a kind of a continuous life in my head.
00:12:09I think with this particular book I wanted to
00:12:14get them to a certain plateau and that felt like
00:12:16the ending of that narrative hop to me.
00:12:20
00:12:21>>And do you, you're a writer who starts and
00:12:24you're writing but you don't plan out, as I
00:12:26understand it.
00:12:28You don't have that arc where you say, "I know
00:12:30where all these characters are going?"
00:12:31
00:12:32>>Well a little bit, let's see.
00:12:34I guess with this I had a really hazy arc.
00:12:37Like, my thing was that like if you were, if the
00:12:39way that you fly over in a plane, and you're like
00:12:41"Oh, I think that's Columbus." I had sort of a
00:12:43very general, extremely general, sense of sort of
00:12:46like certain points on this timeline.
00:12:50When I started writing and I didn't know the
00:12:52ending but I did know sort of Ava¿there's a hinge
00:12:55in the middle of the book so that was some of the
00:12:58earliest material in the book.
00:13:00I had sort of like an emotional sense of what I
00:13:03wanted to try to do, but there were all kinds of
00:13:06surprises and I got lured down blind alleys by
00:13:08characters that I had to cut.
00:13:11
00:13:12>>So how long did it take you to create this?
00:13:13What was your timeline for the creation of the
00:13:16book?
00:13:16
00:13:17>>Oh let's see.
00:13:18I had in 2008, I had like one of those oxygen
00:13:22deprivation hallucinations where it was like, "I
00:13:24see the light at the end of the tunnel.
00:13:25I'm dying!" You know, and I really believed
00:13:27that.
00:13:28And that was...I had never written a novel
00:13:31before so it was sort of the end of the first
00:13:34draft, and I remember telling people, and I was
00:13:36so excited and seeing all these stony Eastern
00:13:37Island faces...
00:13:39And I was like, "What?
00:13:40I think I'm done." And they were like "Oh, your
00:13:41first draft?
00:13:42Mmm hmm."
00:13:42
00:13:43>>These are great metaphors, by the way.
00:13:43"Eastern Island faces." Yeah that's...very
00:13:45nice.
00:13:47
00:13:47>>You know it's just like, blink...yeah exactly!
00:13:47It's like, "Oh you're not..."
00:13:49
00:13:50>>I can see why you're a writer, right.
00:13:51
00:13:51>>So I think it too, so and then it took a lot,
00:13:52I mean at that point then I think then I did have
00:13:54to sort of outline and get a little more rigorous
00:13:57about the way I wanted¿there are two story lines.
00:13:59So I had to get those to kind of alternate a
00:14:02little more regularly.
00:14:02
00:14:03>>And how much did your editor play in that?
00:14:07Is this something where you're regularly
00:14:09communing with that person or are you more on
00:14:10your own?
00:14:12
00:14:12>>I would sort of try to get it.
00:14:13I would try to get a new draft done and then show
00:14:16her the whole...
00:14:17
00:14:19>>So she has to read the entire thing again?
00:14:20"There's only one word changed!"
00:14:23
00:14:23>>Yeah, mostly as a sadistic measure.
00:14:24
00:14:24>>"Why did you send this?!"
00:14:25
00:14:26>>Yeah it was I was like, "See if you could find
00:14:26the new apostrophe!"
00:14:27
00:14:28>>That's interesting because I look at the way
00:14:29that publishing is changing and that, is that an
00:14:33unusual relationship then?
00:14:35That you're able to have sort of that luxury of
00:14:36saying "Here's a new draft" and sending it off?
00:14:38
00:14:40>>Oh, I think I'm so fortunate with my
00:14:41particular editor who's just incredibly patient.
00:14:44But I do think it's becoming more difficult and
00:14:47there are, you know, editors now have to sort of
00:14:48handle marketing, promotion, acquisition.
00:14:52They have like seventy-two different jobs under
00:14:54that umbrella of "editor." I think whatever kind
00:14:56of romantic notion some people seem to have where
00:15:01you, you know, you call your editor¿exactly
00:15:03that¿and haggle over an apostrophe and, you know,
00:15:06like call each other names and then cry and then
00:15:08get a martini.
00:15:09I think those days are done.
00:15:10
00:15:10>>So what kind of, then, do you send off and she
00:15:13says, "I like this" and has just a few comments?
00:15:15What's that sort of working relationship like?
00:15:18Or is it just like, "This is good" or "This is
00:15:20bad.
00:15:21Change the story art?"
00:15:22
00:15:23>>Well I think it varies depending on the stage
00:15:25that I was at.
00:15:26I mean, in the beginning it was just sort of
00:15:28like "This is what you are doing." I gave a
00:15:30sprawling, hefty bag of leaves, so then we had to
00:15:32talk about...that was when I believed that it was
00:15:36exciting, that it was so long you know I
00:15:39didn't...that was in my early days of playing
00:15:41this accordion.
00:15:43It just depended.
00:15:45Sometimes it'd be sort of more global feedback
00:15:47and then in the last stages, which is sort of my
00:15:49favorite part, we would do line edits and then
00:15:51sort of haggle over.
00:15:51
00:15:54>>That's your favorite part?
00:15:55The line edits?
00:15:56You may be the only author I've ever heard say,
00:15:57"Oh the line edits!
00:15:58Those were great!"
00:15:59
00:16:00>>I love that part.
00:16:00
00:16:00>>Well I think that goes back to...you had said
00:16:02something, "The way I write stories isn't really
00:16:03compatible with novel writing.
00:16:04My favorite part of any kind of writing is
00:16:06always on the sentence level."
00:16:08
00:16:08>>Yeah, that's it.
00:16:09That's why.
00:16:10That's really it.
00:16:11I sort of think so much of my joy is like
00:16:13tinkering with just the way one word kind of
00:16:16gongs off another.
00:16:19
00:16:19>>Why do you think that is?
00:16:20Is it the sound of the sentences to you?
00:16:22What is it that makes that so special for you?
00:16:25
00:16:25>>Yeah, I mean, with that side I'm like super
00:16:27Deepak Chopra, like mystic, or whatever.
00:16:30Put my turban on.
00:16:31
00:16:32>>Oh go ahead, go for the mystic.
00:16:32You've got magical realism.
00:16:33Go for the mystic.
00:16:34
00:16:35>>I think there's a way in which it feels so
00:16:38satisfying if something kind of clicks into
00:16:40meaning the way that you wanted it to.
00:16:41And I was like a big fan of poetry my whole
00:16:43life, and the pleasure there as a reader for me
00:16:47is always sort of like, part of it is the way
00:16:50sound and meaning work together to create this
00:16:52kind of third term thing.
00:16:54You're responding to the literal meaning of the
00:16:57sentence but there's some other extra ineffable
00:16:59thing that can happen.
00:17:03
00:17:03>>Some other mystical quality...
00:17:04
00:17:05>>That sounds so awful.
00:17:06
00:17:07>>It's fine.
00:17:08You know the rest of that sentence, though, is
00:17:09that you said "My favorite part of any kind of
00:17:13writing is always on the sentence level.
00:17:14I would end up writing sections that amounted to
00:17:17a lot of drafting, and I don't really outline, so
00:17:18I only had a rough idea of what I wanted." Which
00:17:22I found really, the sort of, the rough idea, the
00:17:25thousand-foot-level idea of writing a novel seems
00:17:29to be much harder than the thousand-foot view
00:17:32of writing a short story.
00:17:34Were you like, "Here's...this is...way down here
00:17:36but I only have to cover this acre..." or "I have
00:17:38to cover this twelve block area..?"
00:17:42
00:17:42>>This little centipede?
00:17:44Yeah, I think that that's exactly it.
00:17:45That sort of, the energy required too, to
00:17:45sustain multiple worlds; that was new to me
00:17:48because in a story sometimes you can have like a
00:17:51little snow globe, you know you're just sort of
00:17:52trying to, maybe it's one idea or one emotion and
00:17:56here it was exciting.
00:17:58I felt like I learned a lot trying to go along.
00:18:03
00:18:03>>What are some of the specific things when you
00:18:04say that you learned a lot?
00:18:06
00:18:06>>Credit cards again...
00:18:07
00:18:08>>But how did you make that movement from the
00:18:12short stories and how do you sustain that effort?
00:18:14How do you not get tired of the characters?
00:18:17
00:18:18>>Yeah, well that was it because I was with
00:18:19these guys for, you know, off and on like so much
00:18:21of my twenties at certain points I'd be like "I
00:18:23wonder what other people are doing in their
00:18:24twenties?
00:18:25Probably not communing with imaginary alligator
00:18:26wrestlers." You know, just a guess.
00:18:29I think part of it was capitulating in a way.
00:18:38There was a point at which I thought that a
00:18:40novel had to be about, like, medical apartheid or
00:18:43something really serious.
00:18:45And I have these¿I tend to write from an
00:18:47adolescent point of view so I thought, "Oh,
00:18:49that's not going to fly for a novel" and at a
00:18:51certain point I think I just relaxed in a way and
00:18:55could hear this character Ava's voice again.
00:18:57I had written her in the short story and I think
00:19:00that I got kind of very self-conscious trying to
00:19:04write the novel and at a certain point I just
00:19:06sort of let her run the show again.
00:19:07So I guess sort of trusting your own instincts
00:19:11but also believing that there's something
00:19:15worthwhile about following your own
00:19:18preoccupations, your own narrative
00:19:19preoccupations.
00:19:21I think one of the good lessons for me was a
00:19:22novel is capacious and there can be a range of
00:19:26voices.
00:19:27So there's this like virginal, like I don't
00:19:30know, fire-crotched nerd guy who he's sort of an
00:19:35autodidactic who believes he's a genius.
00:19:37That story ended up feeling much more satirical
00:19:41to me.
00:19:42There was a different kind of distance in the
00:19:43point of view.
00:19:44And so I think that that was sort of a really
00:19:48interesting challenge and a lot of fun to me to
00:19:51try to have different voices in operation at
00:19:53once.
00:19:53
00:19:54>>Okay.
00:19:54One of the things that I thought was really
00:19:56interesting that you had said was that, or that
00:20:00you've done is, your writing has been really
00:20:02well-received by the literary establishment,
00:20:04right?
00:20:05You've gotten different things.
00:20:06You've gotten a lot of different acclaim.
00:20:08But you also have, so I was a little surprised,
00:20:10that you've got a story included the Year's Best
00:20:13Fantasy and Horror 2008 with the story called
00:20:17"Vampires In the Lemon Grove" that one reader
00:20:20described as "vampires on the hunt for new,
00:20:23wondrous tastes." And I thought, "What are the
00:20:25boundaries for you?" You come out of an M.F.A.
00:20:27program, and many M.F.A.
00:20:29programs are pretty serious, you know, but you're
00:20:32coming out with fantasy and horror, and magical
00:20:40realism, things like this.
00:20:42How did that go over in the classes?
00:20:44
00:20:45>>I think there's a¿when I said that they were
00:20:46so quacky, right, I mean I think one of the
00:20:48things that I really lucked out, in terms of
00:20:49programs was, my particular program was really
00:20:53encouraging of whatever was idiosyncratic about
00:20:56your own writing.
00:20:58A lot of people in my classes were doing wild
00:21:01things.
00:21:02You were just as likely to have the story about
00:21:04like a homicidal duck as a realist tale of
00:21:07adultery or something.
00:21:08There were just a lot of modes where the people
00:21:10were working in.
00:21:12And I think I sort of was lucky because in that
00:21:18program I got to read a lot of people who were
00:21:20really influential.
00:21:22Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who's like the big
00:21:26granddaddy of magical realism, but also Julio
00:21:27Cortazar¿those stories in Blow up.
00:21:29I loved Denis Johnson, you know there was sort
00:21:35of people doing really interesting things with
00:21:38language.
00:21:39
00:21:40>>But I read that you read Marquez at like
00:21:41sixteen, which as somebody that came to him at
00:21:44twenty-five, or maybe even older, I was stunned.
00:21:48I'm like, really, sixteen?
00:21:49You're reading Marquez at sixteen?
00:21:50
00:21:51>>But see that's because we had this great, Miss
00:21:52Worshing, I don't know, I wish, I hope she sees
00:21:54this in Ohio, we had an amazing AP English
00:21:55teacher who took that on.
00:21:58Because that was like the Mount Everest, we
00:22:01couldn't handle the Scarlet Letter.
00:22:05That was a big day that that came in on the
00:22:08syllabus.
00:22:09
00:22:09>>Ok.
00:22:10Well you also have in PEN America 14: The Good
00:22:11Books, you chose, I believe it's Bragi Olafsson's
00:22:14English language debut, The Ambassador as a book
00:22:17they're calling, you would take to a great global
00:22:21book swap.
00:22:23Since it's about the "situation of a writer."
00:22:26Tell me about it.
00:22:28I'm interested in especially since you've got
00:22:30something like Marquez who's also translated.
00:22:32
00:22:33>>Right.
00:22:34
00:22:34>>What aspects of that resonated with you as a
00:22:35writer and the translated works, what resonates
00:22:39with you on those?
00:22:40
00:22:41
00:22:41>>I think that there's something so kind of
00:22:42off-kilter about this really dark sense of humor
00:22:44in that book.
00:22:45And there's something about the incompatibility
00:22:48of, like, this writer's ego with, you know, his
00:22:50station¿he's at this poetry convention, he
00:22:53doesn't even have, the nicest possession he has
00:22:57is this overcoat, this like high-thread count
00:22:59overcoat.
00:23:00I think so there's something kind of Kafkaesque
00:23:02and absurd about the humor there.
00:23:04And I guess it's just, it I liked it because it
00:23:09is sort of like this goofy dramatization of how
00:23:11high the stakes can feel to you as a writer.
00:23:13You know, when this guy is reading to like two
00:23:16people.
00:23:16
00:23:17>>Do you still feel that?
00:23:19I mean, is that something that haunts you?
00:23:20You feel like, "The stakes are this high for
00:23:23me?" Or are you more comfortable with the
00:23:25stakes?
00:23:25
00:23:26>>I think it's like this really strange sort of
00:23:28balance to work out where I definitely feel like
00:23:31if you're going to spend so much time with a
00:23:32project there has to be something there for you.
00:23:36So it has to really matter to you in a sincere
00:23:38way.
00:23:39
00:23:39>>That the stakes are internally high, not
00:23:41necessarily competitive?
00:23:42
00:23:42>>I think the stakes are maybe internally, I
00:23:43think that's the way to, and I guess they're
00:23:44always you know it's a little tricky if you feel
00:23:47like your paycheck's riding on it or you know.
00:23:49
00:23:51>>But you can always go back to vets.
00:23:52
00:23:53>>Yeah, well I have a fallback plan,
00:23:55fortunately.
00:23:56I can always just accept fecal samples at the
00:24:00vet again.
00:24:00
00:24:01>>You heard it here, ladies and gentlemen!
00:24:02After Swamplandia!, that's the next stop on the
00:24:05trip.
00:24:06
00:24:06>>That's the next stop.
00:24:06No but I mean I think that that sort of, to let
00:24:09go of all the outside noise and just remember
00:24:11what made you want to write in the first place,
00:24:13which I think for most writers is whatever it was
00:24:15that made them want to read.
00:24:17I think that that is, that can be difficult if
00:24:19you're really kind of, one of the reasons why I'm
00:24:23shy about the internet is it seems antithetical
00:24:26in a way to that inner space that you have to
00:24:30kind of protect where you want to make something.
00:24:31
00:24:31
00:24:32>>So how do you protect that inner space with
00:24:33your students?
00:24:34How do you get them to know that's where they
00:24:37should write from?
00:24:38
00:24:39
00:24:39>>It's tricky in a school setting, I think,
00:24:41because they can, some of them can be really
00:24:42grade obsessed.
00:24:43And that is, I guess, the pressure that¿you
00:24:45know, I don't know that any great stories are
00:24:47written for an A+.
00:24:49So I think it's important sort of to talk about
00:24:53that.
00:24:53I just plagiarized badly my favorite professor
00:24:56who kind of threw down the gauntlet on day one
00:24:57and told us good writing has to be surprising and
00:25:00true and it has to matter.
00:25:02You have to have your own reason to put that
00:25:04language on the page.
00:25:05
00:25:06>>I'm going to come back to that¿you said, "No
00:25:08great story is written for an A+." Because
00:25:10you're not trying to please the professor or the
00:25:14instructor.
00:25:15You're just trying to please your inner critic?
00:25:18
00:25:18>>I think or I think there's a way in which if
00:25:20they're trying to do some occult leap into my
00:25:22mind and figure out what it is I want them to
00:25:26write to get a¿you know that weird sort of
00:25:26like...
00:25:27
00:25:27>>I love the fact that you call that, like the
00:25:28psychology of trying to understand your
00:25:30professor, the "occult leap."
00:25:31
00:25:31>>Yeah, well it is it's a weird kind of, it's a
00:25:34very brown-nosers telepathy or something.
00:25:37I think then there's a way that they're¿it's not
00:25:44going to be the story that they're most
00:25:45interested in.
00:25:46I think that almost for better, I think when I
00:25:48was talking about capitulation.
00:25:50That's it, right?
00:25:51You're going to have some obsession or
00:25:53preoccupation.
00:25:53There's something that is resonant or important
00:25:55to you, and maybe it's your job to make it
00:25:58important for the reader, or to open it up in a
00:25:59way.
00:26:01I saw this great interview with Russell Banks
00:26:03when they were like, "What's the deal with school
00:26:04buses?
00:26:06Why does someone need school buses in the
00:26:06fiction?" And I think he had such a good answer,
00:26:09he was saying, "For me as a child, that was part
00:26:10of my symbolic logic.
00:26:11That vehicle was so important to me, so now, in
00:26:14fiction, it's my job to make it as significant
00:26:16for any reader."
00:26:19
00:26:20>>So you've done that with the Florida
00:26:21Everglades in Swamplandia!, but you're moving on
00:26:23to a Dust Bowl novel.
00:26:25So what do you think is going to show up in
00:26:28that?
00:26:29Or why did you choose that?
00:26:30Because that may be against that logic of
00:26:32choosing symbolic value from childhood.
00:26:34
00:26:35>>Right, and every time I talk about this I feel
00:26:37like I'm jinxing it, I should just say.
00:26:40I actually feel like I'm hammering some nail in
00:26:43the coffin of the, you know, it's a spooky thing.
00:26:45But hopefully I will be able to complete this
00:26:47second novel and it's set during the Dust Bowl
00:26:50drought.
00:26:50It's true: I have no real personal understanding
00:26:54of that kind of ecology¿the Great Plains, might
00:27:00as well be the moon to be.
00:27:01But I think that's part of the pleasure of this
00:27:05one is sort of like this is this new place and so
00:27:08it feels sort of like...
00:27:10It's traditionally been a place where America
00:27:12kind of silk-screens all their dreams, so it's
00:27:14nice to be able to get to do that as a writer.
00:27:15And I think, I became so interested in these
00:27:18sort of ecological disasters while I was
00:27:19researching Swamplandia!...
00:27:21
00:27:21>>Right, you called it, "Another whimsical tale
00:27:22of ecological devastation." Nice turn of phrase.
00:27:27
00:27:27>>Yeah, because people were asking if it was
00:27:28going to be magical realism and I was like, "I
00:27:29guess." I mean, what literally happened there is
00:27:32sort of fantastic beyond belief.
00:27:34That there were these apocalyptic clouds of dust
00:27:37that swallowed communities.
00:27:39And if I had to do some dummy, armchair
00:27:42psychology, I'd say we, our family, we lost our
00:27:44house in Hurricane Andrew.
00:27:47Which is sort of my direct contact with the way
00:27:50this impersonal force can really reconfigure a
00:27:54community.
00:27:55I think that's something.
00:27:57
00:27:58>>That's what you're going to explore, then?
00:27:59The havoc wreaked by nature?
00:28:01Which coming from Florida I think you probably
00:28:03have more experience than we do.
00:28:06We had a tiny earthquake earlier this year and
00:28:08then it was big news.
00:28:09Barely moved anyone.
00:28:11
00:28:11>>That was when everyone on the west coast gave
00:28:12you guys a raspberry, right?
00:28:13
00:28:13>>Yeah, or they said "That's not an earthquake,
00:28:16blah blah blah, we just felt our buildings sway a
00:28:18little bit." And that's the Ohio version of a
00:28:20hurricane or something.
00:28:23Although we every now and then get hit with the
00:28:25remnants of hurricane.
00:28:26Well, Karen Russell, I want to thank you very
00:28:27much for being here today.
00:28:28
00:28:29>>Oh thank you Doug, it was a pleasure.
00:28:30
00:28:30>>Thanks.
00:28:31And again the book is Swamplandia!, and then
00:28:32another one¿Drylandia?¿will be coming out.
00:28:34
00:28:35>>Drylandia!
00:28:35
00:28:35>>And from the Center for the Study and Teaching
00:28:38of Writing at The Ohio State University, this is
00:28:41Doug Dangler.
00:28:41Keep writing.
Note : Transcripts are compiled from uncorrected captions