An Interview with Karen Russell

Tessa Agurcia ’14, an intern in the Winter With the Writers program, talks with writer Karen Russell about folklore, Florida, and the writing process.

Carol Frost, director of Winter With the Writers, asks Karen Russell questions after her reading at the Knowles Memorial Chapel on February 14, 2013. (Photo by Amanda Miley) Carol Frost, director of Winter With the Writers, asks Karen Russell questions after her reading at the Knowles Memorial Chapel on February 14, 2013. (Photo by Amanda Miley)

Karen Russell, a Florida native, spoke at Rollins as part of Winter With the Writers Festival, A Literary Festival of the Arts. Born in 1981, Russell has already published two collections of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) and Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013). Her debut novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

Within Swamplandia! there are many elements of folklore. Specifically, what is the purpose of Louis Thanksgiving and Mama Weeds, two of the characters in the book?

Well, Louis Thanksgiving is the ghost of the dredge man, which Osceola (one of the main characters) falls in love with. I think that was Osceola’s way to cope with her loneliness in the wake of her mother’s death. I often think, if a ghost comes onto the scene; there’s something to be done, there’s an equilibrium that needs to be satisfied. She’s personally haunted by the death of her mom, and that reminds me of the way that all of Florida is haunted by these folkloric stories, similar to that of Louis Thanksgiving’s. It’s something that, as a native Floridian, I did not know about. That there was this notion that the swamps were a waste, and that these machines, these dredges, would fix it. It’s like science fiction of the past. Land owners decided that they would buy these miles of swamp and drain it. So Louis Thanksgiving was a way of reckoning with Florida’s history.

As for Mama Weeds, I’ve always loved fairy tales, and Florida is a relatively new state, compared to other places. The swamp feels to me like some primordial soup, like a collective unconsciousness. It’s a territory where anything could happen. With Mama Weeds, I just had the idea that she was the witch of the swamp, an image that explained why the swamp was so terrifying.

What is your least favorite part of the writing process?

My least favorite part is the stage where I’m not really sure if something is going to come to life or not. It’s that phase where I have a character, or a description, but I’m not yet immersed within it. And I don’t know if it will ever coalesce. After that, it’s really exciting. I’m not a fan of that point when you’re just pumping bicycle air, and you’re not sure if it’s ever going to inflate.

What is your favorite book? What authors inspire you?

I really enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve never read a book like that. It’s so completely original, an atmosphere that you can enter and live in for an entire hundred years! George Saunders, who’s getting a lot of praise right now. For poetry, Wallace Stevens is one of my favorites.

How do you deem a story publishable?

That’s funny because I’ve realized I might not be the best authority on that. There will be times when you’re on that pink cloud high, and you say to yourself “This is the best thing I’ve ever written!” I’ve realized that maybe that’s not the best time to send it. Maybe you want to sober up, go back, and look at it again. That’s something that authors need to figure out—that what you perceive as your best work, even your best line, might not be the same for others.

How do you feel about sharing your work?

It gets to a point where you become so immersed that you lose an objective view of your work. You memorize every single sentence, and then you wonder “Should I change that preposition?”—that’s when you find someone else to read it. Having said that, sometimes you don’t want people to see your work at an early stage; it’s like getting an ultrasound before your doctor recommends it. Once I feel I’m getting at an ending, once it feels complete, with a beginning, middle, and end (as if the story follows a linear structure), then I think it’s time to share my work. Because if not, it’s like cutting your own hair; you need to know how other people see it. I think the workshop is so valuable because your peers will confirm a worry you had about one part in your story. Or that other moment when everybody loves something you weren’t sure would be understood. Isn’t that a rare and amazing moment?

In class, we had a conversation about topic vs. theme within Swamplandia!

For me, it was a pretty ambitious book in a lot of ways because I wanted to encompass a lot. In a way, the whole family is coming of age, because they’re all assimilating the fact of the mother’s death, and also, I really wanted it to be a Florida story. I heard someone say that basically every story is a coming of age story, because you confront a character with a new set of circumstances, assimilate them into their life and belief system, and then move forward. So it doesn’t matter if it’s about a middle-aged man or a child, you’re confronting something.

Do you have a favorite short story of yours?

Not a favorite short story, but the way I felt while writing it. For some pieces, you feel so completely engrossed in them, and that feels like a gift. You know those rare periods where everything is intuitive, and you keep moving forward? That never happens; it’s an amazing feeling.