Interview with Karen Russell

Karen Russell, author of the story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, sat down for an interview at the 2006 Miami Book Fair International.

Mark Hayes: Were you a writer when you first started coming to the Miami Book Fair and what sort of impact did this event have on you?

Karen Russell: I was always writing, but I don’t think I was a writer just then. I was writing these pretty terrible stories – I still write pretty terrible stories sometimes – but when I was a kid I started writing at about the time I started reading. I remember seeing Dave Barry, who was actually a really huge influence. People have asked me which South Florida writers influenced me and he’s the one, which is sort of funny. He’s not really a fiction writer – he’s written some fiction – but what I remember is really identifying with Dave Barry Turns 40 for some reason. I was this 12-year-old kid and I was like, “It’s so true!” I really thought he was hilarious, and for a long time I just wanted to make people laugh the way that he did.

MH: How would you describe your background?

KR: I always feel like there should be more of a story to this, like my family were hot air balloonists or we have some wacky background. My dad is from Ohio, and his dad was a schoolteacher in Sarasota, so he just sort of drifted down here. And my mom grew up in Miami Springs, so they’ve both been around here for a while. I grew up in the Coconut Grove area until I was 18, and then I wanted to see the seasons so I went to Chicago. I was here and it was a pretty great childhood. I think the stories might mislead people into thinking I was a real outdoorsy kid. I suppose we sort of tromped around a lot, but I was not particularly good at the outdoors. My dad would take me fishing, but I would scream like any girl confronted with a squiggly thing.

MH: Do you think Miami provided some sort of exotic background material for your stories?

KR: When you grow up here, in the midst of all this mix of natural and artificial and different cultural groups, it wasn’t until I left that I realized how marvelous and truly strange it is. But it all seems to matter of fact. “I’m going to go help my friend’s father send fire trucks to Ecuador today!”

MH: Did you spend a lot of time in the swamp?

KR: I think I ended up getting drawn to the more natural settings. In my work there’s less urban Miami. There are no recognizable parts like South Beach. These stories ended up being set a couple of degrees South of what people might recognize as a South Florida reality. I think growing up near the water had a tremendous pull. There’s a lot of aqueous stuff going on in the collection. Maybe growing up with all the fiberglass dolphins around does something as well.

MH: What sort of writers do you admire? Are you drawn to magic realism? Who did you read that influenced your work?

KR: That was one of the best things about my undergraduate education. I remember reading “The Dinosaur Story,” this Calvino story narrated by a dinosaur who survives extinction. To that point I had been reading wonderful stories, but just straight realist stories, but the idea that this thing could be a story too was incredible to me. And George Saunders is a contemporary writer who I just adore. Kelly Link is doing some really neat things. So people who are stretching the boundaries, where the fantastical stuff rubs shoulders. Joy Williams is another writer who I think is at the top of her game doing that kind of thing. And some of those Southern Gothic ladies I would like to invite. They would make things interesting, I’m sure.

MH: One of the themes that runs through the stories, especially the title story in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, is that of being an outsider. Is that connected to your own Miami experience?

KR: Most of my best friends are Hispanic or from different backgrounds. I think it was pretty much me and Robert McDonald in terms of representing [our backgrounds]. I think for some of my youth I did feel, like many people probably, like an outsider. I remember going to quinces and dancing with a robotic stiffness. And also I think I was a strange, romantically inclined bookish kid from the age of 11 on, and that can be hard.

MH: What has it been like coming back to Miami as a writer and doing a reading like this?

KR: This was the first one I’ve done in Miami, and it was terrific to see everybody, but at the same time it was also overwhelming, like a wedding or a funeral when you don’t get too much time to spend with people you’d really like to thank. And it’s sort of a “This is Your Life” feeling. I saw one girl I haven’t seen since the first grade. It’s a funny feeling to have the book out in the world, because even my parents had never read anything that I’d written. It’s its own entity now. It’s sort of like a literary striptease. There’s this totally imaginary world that I’m showing. It happens to me on the other end, when I read things that my friends have written. It’s dizzying to know that this world’s been going on inside this person the whole time without your knowledge. It’s a little scary and embarrassing too.

MH: What are you working on now?

I’m working on this novel called Swamplandia! It grew out of the first story in the collection. It’s a multigenerational story, a weird story about this family of alligator wrestlers in this mythical Everglades kind of theme park.

MH: Have you read Katherine Dunn?

KR: Geek Love was one of those books I read in one sort of fevered sitting.

MH: What’s the most common question you get asked? Is it about being so young?

KR: It’s sort of funny. Because I’m not really that young – maybe if I were ten years younger. I feel that there’s a novelty to it, sort of like a seal wrote a book. “Hey, this seal honked out a book on its horn!” I worked very hard and sometimes I worry it won’t be taken as seriously as I’d like it to be taken because of the age thing.

Can I tell you the worst question I ever got? I was doing this reading at a bar, and I don’t think the people at the bar knew there was going to be a reading. I think these were people who were on their commute home to New Jersey who just wanted to stop and drink gin and then they were going to catch the train. You should have seen the look of true horror on these people’s faces when I ascended the stage and sat on a stool and started reading to them. And the lighting was such that you couldn’t see people’s faces, so it was this jury of shadows listening. I found this one bald man, and his head was like a beacon. I just had to keep focusing on it so I wouldn’t fall backwards off the stool. So I read this story. I could tell these people are antsy, and they just want to continue boozing or to actively flee. At the end there’s a Q & A, and it’s dead silence for a whole minute. And this drunken man in the back finally raises his hand and asks, “Izz – Izzit a pome?” “I’m sorry sir, is your question ‘Is it a poem?’” “Yeah, izzit a pome?” “No, I’m sorry sir. It was a 20 minute story.” So that was the worst question I’ve ever got.

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