volume 12, number 2
#46 : Winter Reading
The in-laws were very nice to gift me a subscription to Tin House Magazine for Christmas. Tin House is a nice (not)little Literary magazine out of Portland, Oregon. I received my first issue a couple of weeks ago and have been parceling it out to myself since.
In this issue “Elissa Schappell interviews Karen Russell.” There are other entries besides, but it is this featured interview “A Swamp Odyssey: A Conversation with Karen Russell” that I am posting about today.
Karen Russell is the author of St Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves (2006). Schappell describes it as “a collection of surreal and darkly comic tales of familial dysfunction that occupy a realm where the distinctions between human species and magical creatures, the living and the dead, the mythical and the mundane, are shadowy at best.” I’ve yet to read St Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, but that description does sound intriguing.
Another thing to know about Karen Russell is that in June of 2010 Russell made the New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” issue–at age 28. Even more interesting is that she was also amongst New York Magazine’s “25 under 25” issue, just three years before. Is it being in the right place at the right time? Do they mind all of those stories published in sundry places? A benefit of being a Columbia’s MFA grad? …While I harbored no end of speculation as to how one even gets on those lists (especially as a Writer), I am intensely curious as to how a ‘one book under-30 author’ makes the issue.
Elissa Schappell: Let’s get the age issue out of the way right now.
Karen Russell: I was very, very grateful for any attention that the stories received, but at the same time I never felt young enough to truly merit such a fuss.
ES: You were also singled out for New York Magazine’s twenty-five under twenty-five issue, weren’t you?
KR: It was a great honor. I was the twenty-five-year-old, right at the wire. Everybody else in the picture was, like, the fourteen-year-old Westinghouse guy who invented a new molecule, or a nine-year-old Joffrey ballerina. They were like, What did that old one do? And then I had to sheepishly confess what I’d done; I’d written one story. About a pair of magical goggles. I ended up feeling embarrassed that I wasn’t younger, a genuine prodigy of some kind. I think the other twenty-five children pitied me.
I am guessing they were the only ones to pity her. This was not a good start to the interview for me because of that green word called envy. yes, yes…have I even finished a collection or novel, or canvassed, or published, etc? no. Now I have to read that collection to see what sort of enthrallment it casts…
The interview was worth continuing on reading. Schappell asks interesting questions and Russell proves eloquent and humorous–damn her. After finishing the short read, the envy dissipated and I ended up kinda liking the author, and my motives for reading St Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves has changed somewhat. And I am equally certain that after St Lucy’s I will be picking up Russell’s new book, a (debut) novel : Swamplandia!.
The notable turning point in the interview for me was Schappell’s prompt: “There is a school of thought that argues that surrealist fiction simply isn’t as serious or important as realist fiction.” Now I am at the next table listening in on their conversation, fairly leaning out of my already imbalanced chair. In her reply, Russell references Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez. I’ve fallen out of the chair, picked it up, and am now seated at the table with Schappell and Russell. I soon find myself groaning sympathetically when Russell says,
I did this reading once where this woman raised her hand, then asked when I was going to write something that regular people can relate to? It crushed me; I didn’t even have an answer. I panicked; I balloon-twisted it into another kind of question: I said, “Do you mean…when will I write a more realistic story?”
Then I catch myself thinking how sad for that woman to be so detached as to not see the surreality in her life. I mean, isn’t that detachment “irregular” as opposed to “regular” in people? If it isn’t, don’t tell me, I will be so terribly sad and it’s snowing out and rather gray today…
There’s talk about Writing.
Karen Russell: I really liked what Joy Williams said at the Tin House conference, on being asked how she decided on a point of view for a story: with some choices you make, you don’t even remember them as choices. Those decisions about tense and point of view and plot and character that you make early on, their rationale, is lost in the mists by the time you get to THE END. The process of getting that final draft must be so painful you drink amnesia moonshine. The author’s pain killing amnesia moonshine.
Schappel soon asks: “I’m always curious about the author’s actual process. How do you write?” Me, too, I say (not outloud, because I am in a coffee house, not at home (not that I would say it aloud then…)). Russell replies,
The only process that works for me is what worked in grad school: trying to meet a terrifying deadline. I don’t know how to do it, how to finish anything without death swinging its fiery sword over my head. I don’t know how to finish a draft without a lot of donkey kicks from anxiety and terror and self-loathing. Gosh I wish this were not the case, but I think the best writing I do tends to get done under intense pressure, to meet a deadline. Good stuff comes out of that, is yanked out of you, in the best way.
Conversations eventually lead to Schappel saying: “In my opinion, depression is the writer’s equivalent of black lung, an occupational hazard that ought to be covered by workman’s comp. How do you get past it?” Russell’s amusing reply:
Sometimes if I’m in a really low self-esteem phrase I listen to hip-hop, because those gentlemen are making terrible metaphors and they’re not apologizing for it. You’re Welcome! is their attitude. I admire that! Too often I feel the opposite, like I want to include a little note inside Swamplandia! —My sincere apologies, good sirs. Writing fiction, making any art, it can feel awfully egotistical, right? To sit down and say, Listen up guys, I am going to regale you with my imaginings about feral children and giant lizards! You do have to have a weird kind of confidence to assert that you’ve got a story worth telling. While drafting, I find that I listen to Jay-Z quite a lot.
What do you do? When I read Russell’s answer I laughed, thinking how reading something awful can sometimes be as inspiring as reading something beautifully written. Actually, sometimes reading something so cleverly conceived can be daunting and depressing at times and you almost long for those terrible metaphors. “You do have to have a weird kind of confidence to assert that you’ve got a story worth telling.” –I like that.
Now I find myself rooting for Karen Russell because on some topics we relate. I acknowledge that this may be subject to change after I read St Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves and Swamplandia!, but I doubt it will. (regardless, I will let you know.)
You can find the interview online here. enjoy. and let me know what you think.