Karen Russell's first novel, Swamplandia!, is situated at a crossroads between reality and myth, and investigates the misfortunes of a clan of Florida alligator wrestlers.
The setting of Swamplandia! will be familiar to readers of your story "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," which kicked off your lauded collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. What was the journey from short story to novel like?
These people have been with me for a Methuselah's age. The story itself went through so many revisions that, before I hit on the sensual relationship between the siblings, it was a very redneck comic piece. Even the story that appears in St. Lucy's is gutted from 70 pages. So the story just spilled out everywhere, and I realized I was writing a novel.
Did you find any benefits of long form as opposed to short?
With a story collection, there's this sadness to setting up these circus tents that you have to collapse before moving on to the next town. So it was really nice to put down stakes and live in the place for years. It feels like a weird eviction not to be there anymore.
From having a crappy job to the death of a mother, there's much that's relatable in Swamplandia! despite the fantastic setting. Were you conscious of balancing gee-whiz wonder with the more concrete?
I was trying to play with the Kansas-to-Oz ratio; learning to work the place between the literal and the dream space. Marianne Moore said poems are "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," and so much of the writing I admire—George Saunders, Marquez, Calvino—works with fantasy to throw something real into relief. The Bigtree family claims to be an indigenous swamp people and that's a total fiction, but it's their faith in the myth that runs the park. Kiwi believes he's leaving his island for the real world and a real job, but when he gets there everything is so totally saturated with ridiculous advertising, loony commercials, burger chains, and strip malls that he winds up feeling alienated in this theme park culture. Meanwhile, Ava's story line, which begins as more of a myth, winds up engaged in a more blood-red reality.
How did you utilize your Florida upbringing?
When people say I write this magical stuff, I feel like a phony because you go down to South Florida and discover that it's virtually past-less, seasons are a question of degrees, and it's built on a primordial park full of monsters. So it already has that inbuilt ratio between liminal territories. Combined with its history as a Creek Indian settlement, it's a really good place to ask questions like: what is reality? what is home?
What has it been like to have been chosen as one of the New Yorker's "20 Under 40"?
I was really grateful for the attention and I really admire everyone else on this list and the one from 1999. But, of course, I'm still doing my own laundry.