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A Conversation with Karen Russell

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 2, 2013
pp. 136-147 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0044

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Karen Russell has been wildly hailed as a rising star among the next generation of great writers. She was honored as one of The New Yorker's twenty best writers under the age of forty, as one of Granta magazine's Best Young American Novelists and as one of the National Book Foundation's five best writers under the age of thirty-five. Her first collection of stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, came out shortly after she graduated from Columbia University's MFA program; it was named a Best Book of the Year by the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. Last year, her debut novel, Swamplandia!, was nominated, along with books by David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson, for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. NPR described her latest short-story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, as "one of the most innovative, inspired short-story collections in the past decade."

This interview was conducted in April 2013.

David Naimon:

Before we talk about Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I'd like to start with Florida and how it has influenced your work previous to this collection. Can you talk about Florida, how it has been a psychic tableau for you?

Karen Russell:

Up until this book, I would say most of my real and imagined life has been spent in Florida or some whacked-out version of Florida. My novel, Swamplandia!, is set in a mythic version of the Everglades, and so many of the stories in my first collection wound up being set in Marco Island, Key West, variations on those places, these liminal, swampy, watery holes populated by deranged adolescents—really damaged teenage boys and girls. Growing up in Florida, for me—even more than any literary influence, something about the matter-of-fact strangeness of that state—really had a lasting impact and primed me to love people like Kafka and Márquez, Kelly Link, George Saunders, folks writing these mash-ups where fantastical occurrences were happening simultaneously with more banal Tuesday grocery-store reality.


In an interview you did with Chad Harbach, the author of The Art of Fielding, you mentioned that setting determines what is possible and impossible for a character. The reason I've asked you about Florida is because it feels like with Vampires in the Lemon Grove you've departed from this landscape of your childhood that has informed a lot of what you've done previously. I wonder if you've discovered, as you've set your stories in places less familiar to you—Japan, the Arctic, New Jersey—different things popping up from your unconscious as you write, whether that shift of setting has changed the themes or tone of your stories as a result?


I love "psychic tableau" because it really does speak to the way there are landscapes that feel like analogues to certain emotional states. So I do think it likely happened. I don't know if I was entirely conscious of it, but to move around, to jump around to these different territories, is liberating. In the case of a story like "Proving Up," which is set in Nebraska with a family of homesteaders at the turn of the century, if you try to take on that way of seeing and relating to the world, which is basically an extinct way of seeing and relating to the world, there is a new grammar of thought that becomes available to you.


There were things that jumped out to me that felt like new areas of exploration in this collection. For one, a lot of your previous stories dealt with adolescence. There are stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove that also do so. But there are many stories that deal with radically different themes here. For instance, the question of what we will be remembered for when we die in "The Barn at the End of Our Term" and issues of immortality and monogamy in the title story, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." Do you think this shift is linked to leaving behind the setting of your...

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