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For a young writer, publishing a story in The New Yorker's Début Fiction issue and locking down a book deal are the first steps toward literary Valhalla. Karen Russell, a 25-year-old Miami native, has accomplished both. Last year a story she penned, "Haunting Olivia," was awarded with Début status. Next month Knopf & Co. will release her first collection of short fiction, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
The Coral Gables Senior High School grad is still reeling from her precocious success; when her agent called with the news that her story about a disappearance at sea would appear in the June 2005 New Yorker, she was teaching freshman writing courses and finishing a master's degree in fiction at Columbia University. In a recent conversation, Russell described the feat of getting published as "some sort of undeserved, karmical opportunity." But clearly she's being modest: In the past year, her fiction has appeared again in The New Yorker as well as in Granta, Zoetrope, Conjunctions, and the Oxford American. Indeed Miami may soon add Russell to the list of memorable writers we call our own.
Russell resides in New York City, but South Florida has left an indelible imprint on her work, with characters inhabiting both sun-drenched beaches and murky swamps. "I see a couple of my stories as set on some imaginary key," she muses, citing Dave Barry, the Everglades, wild parrots, torrential downpours, and "Dr. Seussical foliage" among her various local inspirations. And her stories often push Florida's oddities into the realm of the surreal.
"For a while I would try to write straight realist stories," Russell says, "but they felt very forced." Among them was an attempt at a more traditional Miami topic: As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Russell abandoned a novel about a young Cuban boy after deciding the character's perspectives on life were a little too alien from her own. "It was doomed," she says.
Ten of Russell's stories will appear in the soon-to-be-published collection, many told through the perspective of children or adolescents inhabiting imaginary worlds. The title piece, "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," is about a parochial reformatory where nuns transform lupine teenagers into dainty ladies. The story's first-person narrator must cope with the guilt of rejecting a friend unable to transcend her sylvan upbringing.
Misguided do-gooders are a repeated theme in Russell's stories. "If you ask me," says the young narrator of one called "Accident Brief," "it's perverse charity to make the mute boy rehearse with the Weitiki Valley Boys' Choir."
In "Haunting Olivia," two brothers search the ocean for their missing sister, using goggles that let them see the ghosts of dead marine life. The siblings demonstrate a world-weariness that borders on satirical: "This particular summer, our parents are in São Paulo," says Russell's twelve-year-old narrator. "They send us postcards of bullet-pocked favelas and flaming hillocks of trash. 'GLAD YOU'RE HERE! XOXO, THE 'RENTS.' I guess the idea is that all the misery makes their marital problems seem petty and inconsequential."
Russell also has a novel in the works, an expansion of a story in her collection called "Ava Wrestles the Alligator." Although she describes her book's theoretical beginnings as "a giant Hefty bag full of leaves," she has chosen the title Swamplandia. The narrative will elaborate on the history of the Bigtree gator wrestling dynasty, set in a mythic version of the Florida Everglades.
With her descriptions of houseboats, blue herons, crabs, and conch shells, Russell creates a Floridian landscape void of glassy highrises and crowded highways, and traversed by children on the brink of adulthood.
But she acknowledges that as much as she loves Miami, she wasn't exactly in the mainstream here: "Friends will sometimes visit and ask me where they should go clubbing on South Beach. I usually end up sending them to some place that burned down three years ago."