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Karen Russell on Swamplandia! and the Weirdness of Growing Up in Miami

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If you see bumper-to-bumper traffic on Tamiami Trail heading to the Everglades, it's because author Karen Russell has made our mucky, inhabitable frontier seem like a thrilling carnival ride. Her debut novel Swamplandia! follows the adventures of the Bigtree gator-wrestling dynasty. Ava takes an Odyssey-like expedition through the swamp in search of her sister Osceola, who has succumbed to the underworld of her spectral fiancé. Meanwhile, Ava's brother Kiwi confronts the brightly lit hell of the mainland in search of income to save the family business. They brave water-sucking melaleucas, dredgemen ghosts, swooping buzzards, and humidity-induced madness. Russell is pioneering a new genre - Swamp Gothic - in which saw grass and ahingas pulse with something sinister, and we're enamored with the dark ride. 

Russell, a Coral Gables Senior High grad, was featured in The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" fiction issue last year. Tomorrow night is her homecoming when she discusses Swamplandia! at Books & Books. We spoke to the author about how growing up in weird Miami makes for great fiction.

New Times: Among all the short stories in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, what was it about "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" that made you think there was a novel there?

Karen Russell: The relationship between the sisters. There's was just something provocative and weird there. There was something so sad and lost about Osceola and sort of terrifying too. Same for Ava. I left them in that story on this plateau where it's just the two sisters alone in the humming swamp. It seemed to have the DNA of a much larger world.

Ava shares some of the spotlight with her brother Kiwi, who is having his own adventures on the mainland. How did you intend their two stories to work together?

I thought Ava's sad and nightmarish journey would feel more poignant if there was a contrast. For those Kiwi's age, that kind of disillusionment -- where you're working your first minimum wage job -- it does feel sort of hellish. And then Ava has a different experience that is equally terrible.

For her isolation to feel acute, you have to have a sense of the larger world. And I was thinking about how strange the "real" world ends up feeling. Kiwi thinks he's leaving Swamplandia for a place that's going to be more logical, but he comes up against all these modern absurdities. Everything feels like a corporate fiction.

Do you think the response to Swamplandia would be different if Kiwi had been the protagonist? Are young women's coming of age novels received differently?

Often male readers seem to like the Kiwi narrative a lot better. They've said we wish you would have focused more on this satirical bigger palate, this Dickensian world, instead of this 13 year old. Man, it's tough to say you've written a novel with children protagonists. There's such a resistance. Even I feel it as a reader. And it hasn't been done that often where you have a girl epic odyssey. I was so excited that True Grit is out right now. We have so many touchstone tales of picaresque guys like Huck Finn.

You're from Miami. Did you have adventures in the Everglades growing up?

I wish I could say I was a tom boy, because then it seems like I could skin a fish or something, but I was very squeamish. One of the fun things about writing Ava was that she does have all these outdoorsy skills when I'm like "I can't open this can."

We did go camping in the Everglades. And my mom loved to go to Shark Valley. We'd go on these bike rides where they're like "Zag away from the alligators!" It's like a lawsuit waiting to happen, because there are these alligators stripping the road. When you're eight, you're like "I don't know if this is the best idea."

You recently told the New Yorker you've always had a "pretty short commute to strangeness." What did you mean by that?

I really never thought about [growing up in Miami] consciously until I ended up in the Midwest and thought, "I think that was weird what just happened. There was something different about the way reality is ordered there." One of the things in South Florida is how much weather shapes our lives. There's just this season where it's accepted that these apocalyptic storms sweep through and tear the roof off your house.

It's a short commute to strangeness in that it's the most culturally heterogeneous place -- even New York pales in comparison to me. There's just riotous diversity in Miami. And a lot of people pouring in from all over the world. It feels like a tide. Things are always shifting.

What's funny is that people call it a magical realistic novel and the details they sort of fixiate on are based on events that actually happened in Florida. Everyone's like "Imagine! Melaleuca seeds that they shake down from salt and pepper shakers!" And it's like -- oh shit, we actually did that. And they're like "What a crazy theme park!" and it's not half as crazy as the Santeria stuff going on.  

In other interviews, you brought up watching the bike-riding cockatoo at the old Parrot Jungle as a formative experience. That's just a perfect image for the sense of sad nostalgia that runs through Swamplandia!.

That's definitely so much a part of the book for me. It's this second-hand nostalgia. When I was growing up in Miami, it was a time of extreme development so all the condos are going up. There was a true sadness about what the Everglades had become and also the sickening velocity of development. You could just feel this unstoppable machine moving forward.

Some of my earliest memories are of learning about this devastation and having this adult sorrow over it. It's a big shadow to grow up in. I'd be like "That's a beautiful lake" and some adult would correct me and say "That's an irrigation pit. Nothing lives in that." My grandfather would complain about Pennekemp or that there's no more fish when he went to Flamingo. Part of the dialogue was always about what was lost.

Like in the book, the destruction of the invasive melaleuca trees seems more dangerous than any gator.

I was thinking about the parallel between the melaleucas and Wal-Mart. There's like this niche species that takes over and then you wind up with this forest of a single species of tree. You end up having these totally homogenized landscapes.

Hear more from Karen Russell when she reads at Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables) tomorrow night at 8 p.m. The reading is free. Visit booksandbooks.com.

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