A Brief Interview With Karen Russell

Karen Russell Shares The First Book She Ever Loved

Brief Interviews is a series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.

Karen Russell is the author of one novel, two short story collections, and a new novella titled "Sleep Donation," released this week as an e-book. Russell is a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient. Her first novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

What inspired you to write "Sleep Donation"?
About this time last year, The New Yorker asked a bunch of writers to conceive of an imaginary invention, and one of mine that didn't make the cut was about a sleep van--I think I was experiencing sleep deprivation myself at the time. I imagined something analogous to the American Red Cross blood truck, where dreams could be transfused from healthy dreamers to insomniacs. It just seemed wonderful to me that you could experience a transfusion of baby sleep. I was originally thinking of a "Twilight Zone"-like riff, around 3,000 or 4,000 words on the question: What if a significant portion of the population lost the ability to sleep, and was now dependent on healthy sleepers?

What it evolved into was more of a meditation on what a gift is, especially one that would be difficult to repay. I'm interested in that experience from body-to-body. As a writer, that's how reading has always felt to me: like a kind of dream donation. Some writer has crafted a dream for your brain, and you're hosting their dream in your body. There's something occult and amazing about that transfer for me.

Your work--this novella and Swamplandia! in particular--has been described as magical realism. Would you say that's an accurate descriptor?
As a descriptor I think magical realism seems insufficient to me, or too broad in a way. I also think of magical realism as connected to a particular region--Latin American writers writing out of a certain historical period. I'm definitely influenced by some of those writers, they're some of my favorite writers, so I'm always flattered to be grouped with them. I told a friend that maybe I should start qualifying that descriptor by calling it "magical thinking realism," because often in my stories there's something supernatural happening, or something dilated, something in that "Twilight Zone" register, because the focal character herself is in a delusive state. It's a feedback loop between what a character wishes to believe and what he or she is seeing in external reality.

This is the first novella that you've written. How does this medium compare with writing a novel or a short story?
I loved writing at this length! I don't think there are too many homes for these hybrid-length stories. I knew from the get-go that this wouldn't be my next novel, but I was concerned that I'd just have to do an ice cream scoop of the most dramatic moments of the story, you know? Take a pool skimmer and remove an excisable portion. This felt like the right length to explore the world of the story, while maintaining a tight focus on plot and character. You get a different sort of emotional impact when you're with a character for this length of time.

Where do you like to read?
Oh, everywhere. I'm not finicky about that. It depends on the book. I'm the kind of dork who has a visible emotional reaction to whatever I'm reading. I was just reading this amazing book--Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I had a long layover, and I almost missed my connecting flight because I was tearing up. If it's a book that I'm going to have a huge emotional response to, then I think that maybe I ought to be reading it in private. Who wants to subject strangers to all of the shadows of emotion on my face? But I don't feel comfortable if I don't have a book with me. It's sort of like a door you can carry around.

Lately, I've been in Iowa City, and it's been freezing. I chose to come as a visiting professor during the spring semester due to a failure of my own logic. I was like, "Yeah, spring, sounds fun!" I forgot the way that a calendar works. And this winter in particular has been the most brutal winter in about 3,000 winters--we checked an almanac. So, I got into a groove where I read in front of my space heater. I decided it's like a modern fire. I was estranged from heat so I made this strange Galapagos in my apartment, just covered in a pleasant sweat in -30 degree weather. I've also been assigning books like A High Wind in Jamaica. I'm not saying my entire syllabus was determined by the thermostat, but I'm not saying it wasn't.

What's your favorite word?
A word that I love that I learned while writing Sleep Donation is "iatrogenic," which means physician-caused harm, or harm that is caused by treatment. The cure is worse than the disease. There are so many zones where that word applies, literally and psychologically. It can describe the various doomed strategies we all employ to treat certain excesses in our own lives, and the problems they can cause. I also love words with a watery sound, like "liminal."

What's the first book you remember loving?
A Wrinkle in Time was a book I loved early, early on, as well as Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. There was also a book, and I don't even know the name of it now, but I was allowed to check it out from the grown-up section. I just remember loving it but knowing that I shouldn't be reading it. All that I remember about it was a mythical beast in conversation with a giant worm. Everything I enjoyed had some sort of fantastical element. I read tons of genre stuff by authors whose names I might not recognize today.

Stephen King also made me feel like I'd ridden out in advance of what I could understand. And John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I'm sure I didn't fully understand it when I was younger, but I remember feeling transported by it.

Which classic have you not read yet, and do you intend to read it?
Actually, I'm auditing Marilynne Robinson's class on Moby-Dick. And, I would have told you that I've read this book--I have a vague recollection of reading parts of it in high school--but I don't think I've ever read this book. That's been revealed to me. Week-to-week I'm learning that I lied, to myself and then to everybody else. I had myself convinced that I'd read it, but I'd never read this book! I'm on the edge of my seat. I am an unreliable narrator of my own history.

I also read The Great Gatsby for the first time last summer. I don't know what happened; it's almost as though I'd created some kind of force field around it. I was so embarrassed that I hadn't read it, and decided that maybe I never would. But I was in Berlin, and it was one of the few English-language books that I could get my hands on. It was so amazing, but I felt that I'd outlived the opportunity to share my amazement with anybody. Like, I could have really geeked out about it as a freshman in high school. I felt like the movie adaptation was my in to discuss it with people -- "So, what do you think of the representation of Gatsby on-screen?"

Do you prefer print or e-books?
That's in flux for me at exactly this moment. I love print. I absolutely love print, and I hope to God that I'm able to publish a print novel again. But writing an e-book has been an exciting experiment; it's the way so many people read now. [Print versus e-books] is sort of a funny rivalry. Personally, I'm still a print person, but I also feel like a dinosaur in that sentiment.

It also depends on the story. Nicole Krauss did an amazing Kindle Single, and Joy Williams's 99 Stories of God, which she published with Byliner, was, to me, perfect. I was so excited that I found an innovative way to think through some of the questions in Sleep Donation, and use the means of transmission to foreground some of the preoccupations inside the text. This felt like the perfect form for this particular novella, because it's about a nightmare going viral.

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