Karen Russell on Life, Death, and Bringing Swamplandia! to HBO: "I Want Cate Blanchett to Play All the Characters"
Jonathan Grassi via Wikimedia Commons
If you live in South Florida, it's hard not to have a mega literary crush on Karen Russell. The Miami native is just 32 years old, has three bad-ass books to her name, and is a MacArthur-certified genius. More important, perhaps, is that she's hilarious and didn't hang up on us when we asked her juvenile questions.
Here is the second half of our extended interview with Russell, in which she talks about everything from overdosing on chicken McNuggets to our fear of death.
She also gives hints about HBO's supposed production of Swamplandia!
Cultist: Most of the stories in your new book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, are set far away from South Florida. Was that a deliberate decision to try something new?
Karen Russell: A lot of these new stories I kind of consciously thought it would be good to leave the state for a little bit, just as a challenge to myself too. If I let myself, all my stuff would sort of be moon-eyed 13-year-olds paddling around canals in Miami. So I had to shift register.
What is it about Miami that fascinates you?
There is a sort of gloriously beautiful and terrifying nature that is impersonal. I felt that in Miami. There is some manifestation of arbitrary forces at all times. Nobody can really predict it and certainly not targeted to you for any reason. It's a certain thing about the place that we are targeted seasonally. It's cyclical. Everybody knows when hurricane season is. Our house was destroyed in Hurricane Andrew and I think that left a big... that was, a big before-after. I was going into sixth grade. Because I was a child and didn't understand consequence, I was like, "Oh good, now I'll never have to go to middle school. Well, there is a silver line for me here. We don't have a home, however. Maybe I'll just teach myself math and never go to P.E. again." That seemed like a consolation.
Miami has got a lot of irregular, outlet mall personalities, right? There's a lot of eccentricity.
What I love about Vampires in the Lemon Grove is that there are some pretty wicked characters, but you make the reader understand -- even sympathize -- with them at times.
In a way that makes it scarier to me. I think that then the frightening thing is that... if there is a character that you want to superficially dismiss as bizarre and just incomprehensible or incoherent or just a monster, and then you can sort of zip inside that skin and find that person relate-able.
I love that about books, you know, because it puts you in touch with whatever darkness is in you, or whatever you maybe don't want to admit to your conscious awareness about how slippery your own motives might be or how little in control you might be over certain impulses. For me as a reader that's good: to be reminded that if you can make that leap at all, and you can make that identification, it means you're not so safe. You're sort of called upon to that type of meta-cognition as well that maybe you're not the most reliable narrator of your own desires.
There is one story, in particular, "Proving Up," that terrified me because it contains all these desperate settlers trying to rough it out in the Dust Bowl, some of whom are driven to terrible lengths to survive.
If you flip it, that's the American story. We all champion the underdog making it good, right, or extremes of virtue and courage. And I think the seduction of that -- the push beyond your natural limits into the blind spot -- that's always interesting. Not characters who are just evil or wholly bad.
I think that's the scariest horror story to me is when you start out with a good intention and it becomes perverted along the way, and you're not alive to the moment when optimism tips into illusion.
I sort of think people loved Breaking Bad in that same way: It's such an indictment of the way you might fetishize family and use that as a rationale to give yourself license to commit the worst acts. Who cannot relate to a man who just wants to put first his family? You can kind of write yourself a check to become a monster.
It's like watching physical erosion, right? It's like watching a landscape get picked apart by some wind. But that can easily happen to you. You feel it in your own life sometimes, right? "My stated goals and reasons seem to be pretty pure-hearted. How did this thing go so awry?"
Was it strange or difficult to write about places as distinct from South Florida as Sorrento or the American Midwest?
There is some overlap with Florida, I actually really think. In the way of all things, I thought, "Wow, this will be such a different project." And once again, [as in Swamplandia!] it's like here's a family that is threatened by these extremes of the economy and the weather (laughing). It's a pretty flat place like Florida. I think it's a little different, but I think it's funny because you find out what your own obsessions are.
What I loved about writing this novel was that growing up in Florida I never even realized that we had been a frontier. I heard the word frontier and thought about the Wild West. I never knew there was all these outlaw, strange happenings in Dade County at the turn of the century and even earlier. I didn't even think about the swamp being a place for human conquest and development, even as we were all living on top of the bones of the swamp. That seemed very wild, that kind of paleontology of the recent past. We're all like "Oh, I guess my neighborhood was a drained fort." I just had no idea.
There is something about people living on frontiers anyway that is always... what's not to love, right?
Your stories about forgotten frontiers remind me of the quote from Conrad's Heart of Darkness that even a place as "civilized" as London had once been "one of the dark places of the earth."
Oh yeah. Yeah. In vertical time you're right there. That's so funny. I really love that line too. I think it's also kind of interesting to think about what might happen to a human personality under those conditions.
Do you still consider Miami home?
It is home! Oh please, yes. I felt a little weird: it was kind of this weird timing where Swamplandia got -- I'm sorry. I never know how to do that in interviews where I don't sound like this dick who thinks everybody has read their book (laughs). It's really a problem. God, it's so dumb. I fear that I do it and I hate it so much. It's like, "Well... while I was writing Woopty Doo. As you know from page 437 of Woopty Doo..." and it's like No. No one knows. (laughs)
Growing up in Miami, what does the Book Fair mean to you?
I have to tell you that when I was a kid, my favorite thing in the entire year was this Book Fair. It was my favorite thing. My friend Alexis and I would go by ourselves and eat like, I don't know, you know how there is a McDonald's right there by the Book Fair? I just remember it being my favorite thing. I would just go all out like "I'd like the nine piece chicken McNuggets and I'm going to buy 900 books." (laughs) It was like a kid bender. I would get bombed on a big ass soda and eat like nine chicken Mcnuggets, which I never did because I was a tiny girl, and I'd buy a million books.
And I remember we'd take the metromover for no reason. It was a time when we had to drive to take the metromover, you know? I just remember reading my notebooks sitting on the metromover. That was like heaven. I would sit in that weird window seat which I'm sure I'm sure is for the disabled full of disgusting french fries and just read some new Dave Barry.
Dave Barry was my favorite writer. I just remember at age ten reading "Dave Barry turns 40" and being like, "That is so true, what he says." (Laughs) I thought he had the best job in America. I wanted his job. I wrote a little news letter for my family which was based on Dave Barry. It was terrible. I'm sorry. That was like a super flash back. So to now go to come to the book fair actually feels like when you would go to Disney World and put your name on a fake newspaper, like "Michael wins the presidency!" (laughs) Something like that.
Does it feel different coming home this time, given that you've just won a MacArthur "genius" grant?
Isn't that cool that Tarell [Alvin McCraney], the Miami playwright, also got one? I felt hometown pride. He's a pretty young dude, right?
You're both extremely young, barely 30.
I'm just flattering myself: "He's a very, very young man. In his prime. Maybe his prime is still six years away, let's say." (Laughs)
I'd love to meet him, actually. I'm so excited to see his work. I felt a real affinity with the description. He's sort of fusing myth and contemporary reality. That sounded very Miami to me too.
I'm going to be there with these writers that I really love: Karen Shepard and Lauren Van den Berg. I don't know if you've read [Van den Berg's] stories but she's an incredible story teller. They are great and a lot of them are set in South Florida. There are a lot of them that are set in Opa Locka and then there's a Miami story that has uncanny doppelganger twins. I just think she's really talented and weird in the ways that we've discussed.
And then Karen Shepard wrote this amazing historical fiction novel about Chinese labor strikers that I loved, too. It's historical fiction but it almost feels like Sci-Fi because she does such an incredible job describing this world that nobody knows about.
Yeah, I'm excited. Every time I come home it's very emotional.
Do you have any rituals when you come home?
My two best childhood friends still live in Miami so we'll do a little Mecca where we'll go to our favorite restaurants in the Gables or the Grove or we'll go to the beach. I stay at my friend's house, she lives in the Gables and that always feels like coming home. Really, it's just fun to drink outside in the winter. That's always fun. Books & Books has that new bar outside, which is amazing.
It's sort of a sad, sad thing where my grandfather passed away and in some type of extreme grief situation, my mom had never really lived outside of Miami, she's semi-retired, she wanted to try. So they are subletting in San Francisco, where my dad was stationed in the Navy. So they are not in Miami right now, which feels so weird. In that sense, I feel kind of like a displaced person. And they sold our house in the Grove. Sometimes I'll make a pilgrimage back there, spookily, just to, you know....
Do you ever think about moving back here? Or is Miami something you take with you wherever you go?
Oh, I think you cannot escape Miami. That's a nice way to put it. I do think that it's nested.
I might [move back to Miami]. I certainly won't rule it out. In the short term, I've got to continue with whatever weird odyssey I've set up for myself here in the freezing north. If I had dependents or something, maybe, because it does feel like a mythic home for me.
I have to ask you, what's going on with the plan to bring Swamplandia! to HBO?
Yeah, that's a bummer. That's likely not going to happen because... let's just say that it's TBD. I don't think that it's likely to end up on HBO.
Cultist: Some authors cringe when their work is adopted to TV or film. Do you have any worries?
I think if it happened I would just be so excited, right? Talk to me if they cast Martin Lawrence as the Bird Man or something. Then thing things could go amazingly wrong.
I'd just say I want Cate Blanchett to play all the characters. Why stop at just Violet? She should play the alligator. She should play everybody. It'll be this experimental season where Cate Blanchett plays the entire family. I want her to play the Red Seth. I want her to play everybody! And then she's up for like every Oscar. Yeah. (Laughs)
No, I think i'd be so happy to turn it over to another mind to kind of innovate and do what they want to do.
A lot of the stories in Vampires have to do with death, but treat it in a very ambiguous way. Vampires can grow old, for example, and presidents are reincarnated as horses only to be stuck in a strange farmland limbo.
I guess I feel just in general that life might be [purgatory] (Laughs). You know my friend Wells, this wonderful writer Wells Tower, has this wonderful line about "the curse of our foreknowledge of death." And I like the way that he put that so much because certainly it is a blessing too, but at the same time, it makes interesting to live in time - to have this future event which we are sort of born to fail to imagine, which is our own death. That's a conundrum for all of us. If there is a consolation it's that we are in that one together, you know? Just trying to figure out what do with our time here, cursed and blessed with the foreknowledge of our own death.
So I think in the way that a Sunday, just an endless Sunday can feel almost like purgatory or that kind of limbo, and that challenge of having this gift of being awake in time and maybe it's not always obvious what the best way to spend your energies of love and time are. That's what I really love about that vampire story. It's like, what if "til death does us part" truly, truly was this fathomless problem?
But I was just re-reading that Borges story "The Secret Miracle" where the author begs God for extra time to finish his play, which he is composing in his mind. He's up in front of a firing squad and then there is this event that prefigures The Matrix in which the bullet just stops. The German lead stops just in front of his forehead and everything is still. He can see the shadow of a bee in the courtyard and he knows he's going to have time to finish composing. And the second he gets the last quatrain correct, he dies. The second the last words click into place in his mind.
It's an amazing story. But I was thinking about that suspension. That's lodged somewhere in me: this idea of [suspension of time]. And I think reading feels like that: this weird suspension of how time normally works. It's sort of like this timeless place opens up inside of time when you are reading a story like that.
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