To say that Karen Russell's star has been on the rise is to understate her phenomenal entry into the literary world. Russell made it onto New York Magazine's list of people to watch under the age of 25 while still in Columbia's MFA program and prior to releasing her acclaimed collection of stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. This was the first of many accolades to grace her, the most recent being her inclusion in The New Yorker's list of "20 under 40" fiction writers.
She has been lauded for good reason. Woven from deft, nimble sentences, her stories convey with beauty and searing honesty the juxtapositions of adolescence -- that self-conscious guardedness combined with lovely and sometimes tragic naivety. The products of a soaring imagination -- full of ghosts, werewolves, and even a minotaur -- never lack for heart. And her debut novel, Swamplandia! (out this week) delivers the same.
The narrative follows the Bigtree family, who has been running an alligator theme park -- the titular Swamplandia! -- on one of Florida's keys, until the family's matriarch and star-attraction dies of ovarian cancer. With the park facing foreclosure and each member isolated in grief, youngest daughter Ava embarks on a quest to save both the park and her family's cohesion. The novel alternates between her and her older brother, Kiwi, who has defected to a rival park to try to make his way in the mainland.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Russell by phone about her writing process, in the hopes of uncovering some of the secrets to her success.
Did the acclaim you received for your short stories have any impact on your process of writing Swamplandia!?
When I would get really nervous about making good on those votes of confidence my dad liked to remind me, "Well, I just read a statistic that 48% of Americans only read one book a year," or something like that. So I don't think the stakes were ever as crazy as I was making them out to be.
What made it hard was that the only voices I remembered were never the good ones, it was jojoboy89 at Amazon.com who was like, this writer sucks! The shift occurred when I gave up and thought, "I'm not going to write the Great American Novel. If I can just write the novel then that would be a triumph." That opened stuff up again, because I think I felt squeezed and scared. It was like trying to sing in the wrong octave -- Swamplandia! just wasn't working.
And at the same time, there was something great about knowing that there would be readers and I had an editor to send stuff to.
How was the process of writing a novel as opposed to short stories different for you?
I thought it was going to be so easy, because I write these long short stories that are pretty digressive. That was a mistake. If you've been doing miniatures and then try to do a gi-normous canvas, different brush strokes are required! I had a tricky time.
It seems a common writer's myth that novels are allowed to digress, as if the writer doesn't have to be concerned with pacing or structure.
Everyone always cites that Melville example [from Moby Dick], where he's like, I learned a shit-ton about whales, let me tell you all about the whales now, and then there's all this historical info.
At a certain point I had to cut so much -- I went way too in-depth about the alligator research. My editor was like, this is interesting and maybe they'll do a Discovery Channel special about it, but no one's gonna care!
In short stories there's more permission to be elliptical. You can have image-logic, or it's almost like a poem in that you can come to a lot of meanings within a short space. The pleasures of a novel are different, and that was really tough for me, because I don't know how to write forward if I'm not into the sentences. I have friends who will do a rough sketch to get the basic plot stuff down and then go back and flower up the language, but I can't -- for whatever reason -- seem to do that. So then sometimes you feel like a lunatic. It seems like you're painting these tiny scenes on little ornaments but there's no tree to hang them on! It ends up feeling kind of wasteful.
The very best moment of writing Swamplandia! was when I figured out what the ending should be. And even though I changed the prose of it, that realization was an ice cube melting in my chest. After that, I was able to work on the pacing and get the chapters to alternate more regularly between Kiwi and Ava's story.
How far along were you at that point?
I had this hallucination in 2008 that it was pretty much done, and of course it wasn't at all. At one point Swamplandia! was written in these long chunks I called books, which I think was just a way for me to trick myself into writing. My editor was like, here's a suggestion -- why not try chapters? I don't naturally think in units like chapters.
It's a wonder to me that Swamplandia! exists in a linear way at all, because even with my new project, which I'm trying to do differently, it's just disaster town, it's messy. Sometimes I'm like, I'm going to outline everything, or story board it! What about PowerPoint? I've tried lots of things over the years, but I don't think that kind of planning works for me. I don't have the kind of intelligence that can do it like that.
In my MFA program most people were working on short stories. How did your program prepare you for the challenge of writing a novel?
I was very jealous when I came into my program of the people who were committed to long projects. They were like the married people -- I wondered how they were making it work!
In workshopping short stories I learned how to get character down, and how to work with ratios of literal to fantastic to make a world that people can believe in even if it's a little wild or out there. You were able to talk about how the parts of the story were working together and get a sense of how something was reading in real time, someone's response to the whole work.
It can be difficult workshopping novels because any questions or qualms you have as the author can be like, that's next chapter, don't worry about it! I don't think the workshop is set up so well to do that for novels.
What is your advice for young writers?
Keep reading widely and for pleasure. And don't get discouraged! So much of it is just mule-like persistence. That's what I feel I learned this time around. There were many times when Swamplandia! failed, and I had to pick it up and try and write it again. And there were stories in my collection that were just duds, they were would've been voted off the island, and it was only because I had this maternal commitment to getting them out the door that I was willing to keep working at them. I really do think that's the best advice -- to keep at it.
Someone told me this plumbing analogy once, "The water has to run brown for a while before clear." And I thought, uh no, if it's running brown maybe you should move! But that is kind of true, you have to become comfortable writing suckily for long stretches. That's the hard part for me anyway, thinking that there's no way, that the project is doomed, and continuing to push through that feeling. I've learned not to despair. Even I'm writing pretty badly I don't feel it's impossible that this could become something if I give it time.
And that's good advice too: it really does take time. I felt encouraged hearing George Saunders say that he spent a year on a short story once. That it was a dance of his conscious and unconscious mind before it came together and he had the right ending. He was just willing to be patient. There are some narrative problems that you can't just come at head on, they sort themselves out over time, you can't sit there and solve them.
Also, don't spend too much money on credit cards! And brew your own coffee -- I saved a lot of money that way.