Saturday, February 16, 2013

Karen Russell’s stories

FEB 16 - American novelist Karen Russell’s stories have been featured in many publications such as The Best American Short Stories, Conjunctions, Granta, The New Yorker, Oxford American, and Zoetrope, among others. She was named a National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35’ young writer honoree in November 2009 for her first book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by 

Wolves, which also won the Bard Fiction Prize in 2011. Her second book and first novel, Swamplandia!, about a shabby amusement park set in the Everglades, was long-listed for the Orange Prize 2011, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (although the prize for fiction wasn’t given out that year), and won the New York Public Library’s 2012 Young Lions Fiction Award. Her short story The Hox River Window, published in Zoetrope: All-Story, won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction. Russell’s newest collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is out this month. 

I owe a big debt to Lewis Carroll and other folks I read as a kid, like Ray Bradbury and Peter S Beagle and Stephen King and Madeleine L’Engle. My favourite books were always the ones where I felt like an alternate world had been created in some star cradle by the author and, in an amazing feat of compression, shrunken down into a 200-page book. I loved reading
so much; I mean, I still do, but not with that sort of illicit midnight intensity. I was such an anxious kid, and reading was a way to step out of that child’s body and into the mind of a Salem witch or a bunch of warring rabbits. It was spooky and intimate and totally intoxicating, to step into an author’s private rooms. I’d read the words and they became my rooms. Then I wanted to be a writer myself, to do to others what these authors were doing for me. 
I’m drawn to imaginary places because it’s an architecture that any reading consciousness can enter—as a kid I used to love talking to other readers who had visited the same nonexistent places as me—you know, Oz, Watership Down, Derry, Macondo. This kind of travel, to an invisible place created by the author, felt both exquisitely personal and also communal; anybody who could make it through the book could get from Kansas to Oz. At a time when nobody could drive and we were all child-hostages of our houses, when we could not even get to school by our own power, it made me so happy whenever I discovered that another kid and I had both gone to a wonderland or a dystopian England, and that, even more insanely, we’d done this inside of the same skin, merged with the same character. It still strikes me as an amazing thing to have in common with someone. 
For better or for worse, when I sit down to write, I feel gravitationally pulled towards characters who are children and adolescents. I love the double optic that children possess—the way they can develop kid-theodicies and fantastic explanations, but also shift gears and have a nascent adult sense of the world, a more ‘realistic’ vision. I heard Antonya Nelson say that all stories can be thought of as ‘coming of age’ stories, since a character is confronted with a new event or new information that compels a change of status. And the child to adult transition—I don’t think that’s a one-time affair. I think we’re probably all struggling to suit up and be adults, every day.
Writing is true magic. You can put three letters on a page, o-w-l, and send an owl swooping through another person’s brain. It’s a weird semantic migration, writing and reading. Picture a flock of birds alighting from the writer’s brain and converging inside the reader, this strange shuddering weight settling on the branches of the reader’s mind. Now I’m probably over-romanticising a good bit—it doesn’t always feel that way, not if you’re reading the classifieds or writing in your sweats. But there is something bizarre and wonderful to me about the whole enterprise. 
The way I deal with the tension between the imaginative and the real is by trying to keep one from overloading the other, trying to write characters who feel true and dimensioned, no matter how weird the world they inhabit. To try and write a story with a genuine emotional core, so that the fantasy feels in the service of something larger than the line-to-line pleasure of “Hey, isn’t that crazy!” But I think it’s impossible anyway to draw a hard and fast line between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy.’ So much of our mental lives are spent in fantasylands, either in the future or in memory. 
I don’t seek strangeness out—I feel like we’re all surrounded by it. There’s so much bewildering noise in our culture right now, at such a deafening and constant volume, that it’s easy for me to become inured to the strangeness of any ‘ordinary’ Tuesday. Fiction helps me to reconnect with the true, deep weirdness inherent in everyday reality, in our dealings with one another, in just being alive. 
One line from a Wallace Stevens poem or a George Saunders story can zap me awake. Talk about strangeness—what could be weirder than having this mysterious congress with a dead or distant voice, on a piece of paper?

No comments:

Post a Comment