Our excitement for Karen Russell’s visit to Lawrence is now in overdrive, especially after meeting for coffee last week (at our respective computers) to talk about books, movies, and the world in general. If you haven’t had a chance to read Russell’s work yet, the following is a great primer for understanding the mind behind Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Grab some free tickets at the library to Russell’s talk Thursday night, October 15, 7:30 PM at Abe & Jake’s Landing.
1—What are five new books everyone should know about?
Karen Russell: Ok, I’m biased, but my brother Kent’s truly amazing nonfiction book, “I Am Sorry To Have Raised a Timid Son” and my best friend Carey McHugh’s debut book of poems, “American Gramaphone” are two must-reads on my list. And in recent months I’ve been raving about Jim Shepard’s “The Book of Aron,” Joy Williams’ “The Visiting Privilege,” Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Gold, Fame, Citrus,” Robin Black’s “Life Drawing,” Daniel Torday’s “Poxl“—but there are so many more!
2—If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing now?
KR: Oh, my God. What a grim question. Before I could even imagine an answer, I thought, “I’d be fired.” What job would I have recently been fired from? Let’s see. In high school, like Kanye West, I worked full-time at the GAP. After graduate school, I worked at a wonderful veterinary clinic, Symphony Veterinary Center. I loved that job. I also worked for many years at Putney Student Travel, taking teenagers on trips abroad. So I guess that’s my range: folding clothes, getting rabbits their ear medicine, or teaching teenagers Spanish on a tour bus. I’ve always wanted to write, or failing that, to somehow read for a living—it’s hard for me to imagine doing something that didn’t involve the written word. I’m fascinated by science, but I don’t think I have the right skill set to be a scientist. Just ask those rabbits.
3—Did you have a significant mentor?
KR: I’ve had many excellent mentors—amazing writing teachers Edith Skom and Sheila Donohue at Northwestern (I’m always hoping they will self-Google and spot this, so I can publicly thank them). Terrific professors at Columbia University, Ben Marcus and Sam Lipsyte and Stephen O’Connor among them. My editor at Knopf, Jordan Pavlin, is such a source of inspiration and the guiding lighthouse beacon that directs me through the shoals. But I also think you can find your mentors in books—Flannery O’Connor, Joy Williams, Kelly Link, Virginia Woolf, they are mentors, too.
4—How would you describe the world at the time of this interview?
KR: This is a shockingly sad moment here in Oregon—the morning after the Roseburg shootings. But President Obama’s response is a powerful reminder, I think, that our species has the ability and the responsibility to make different choices, to push for a more peaceful and just world. Joy Williams, an author who I deeply admire, was just in town to do a reading, and she talked about the strain of human narcissism, greedy optimism, and self-interested myopia that has resulted in the poisoning of our planet. But we also expressed our hope that a genuine shift in values is occurring–we humans are a mimetic species. It’s encouraging, I think, to see so many people working for change on the local and the national level. I get the sense that people realize we are at a definite turning point, that we really do have to change the way we live, in relation to one another and in relation to the nonhuman world. Just last week, here in Portland, our mayor declared a state of emergency on homelessness, for example.
5—What’s the last great movie you saw?
KR: I really loved “Force Majeur,” and before that “Coherence.” I cannot wait to see that Austrian horror movie with the two twin brothers and the spooky masked lady, “Goodnight Mommy.”
6—What would readers be surprised to know about you?
KR: You know, I’m drawing a real blank here. I’m surprised that I live in Portland, Oregon. Does that count? I grew up in Florida and then spent a decade bouncing around, so it feels incredible to have a permanent address where the mail comes.
7—What haven’t you explored in your work that you’d like to?
KR: Oh, gosh. I feel like one of those Angler fish swishing around with their little umbrella of light, I’ve barely explored anything! I’d love to try and write from the point of view of a sane, well-adjusted adult, for example. That would be a challenging experiment, I think, for me. It would be fun to play with the conventions of a detective story, or do something for young adults. Right now, I’m really interested in trying to write about the fantasy of “home,” and how humans are shaped by their physical landscapes, and vice-versa.
8—What would be the title of your memoir?
KR: “The Botulism Had the Last Word”
9—Why do you write? What’s in it for you?
KR: Yeah, good question! Where’s my gold atrium, where’s the indoor swimming pool? Really, I think the reward is in the making of a story, what you learn as you move forward, and I do often anticipate sharing a world under construction with a reader—it’s the intimacy that has meant the most to me, the merger of minds that can only occur inside a book. I can’t imagine my life without reading and writing—it would be a lonely, narrow life! Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful quote to the effect of, “I need art so that I can feel through form.” I think that’s true for me, too. Feeling through form, thinking through form—there’s a way where a book opens up a world outside of ordinary time, where you can often feel more deeply, and consider a moment more fully, and maybe see something hidden from your view in everyday life. Also, you know, and I always feel strangely shy admitting this, but it can be really fun.
10—What do you want future generations to remember about you?
KR: Oh, dear. You know, I wrote a story about a barn filled with dead presidents who had reincarnated as horses, each of them obsessed with his legacy. I think that story cured me of really worrying too much about how future generations regard me. It’s hard enough to do right by the people you love in this life.