Karen Russell is the author of the book of short stories St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and the novel Swamplandia!, reviewed recently in the May/June 2011 issue of Orion. We asked Karen a few questions about the intersecting roles of place and fantasy in her writing.
Whenever I’m asked about the ratio of the real to the fantastic in my work, I will shamelessly plagiarize Flannery O’Connor, who said, “The truth is not distorted here, but rather a distortion is used to get at truth.” Another quote that comes to mind comes from the poet Marianne Moore, who calls poets “literalists of the imagination” and poems themselves “imaginary gardens / with real toads in them.”
When I first started writing stories, eons before I ever did any reflecting on “craft” or “process,” I would just sort of naturally begin with setting, usually an aqueous or a densely wooded one, a literal, concrete place that I could see in my mind’s eye. In St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, the story “The Stargazer’s Log” I imagined as being set on a sleepy beach like Marco Island, on Florida’s Gulf coast; “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” was set on a failing alligator park in a kind of haunted version of the Everglades; and “Z.Z.’s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers” was a camp on an island of pines where it seemed always to be twilight or midnight, a Midsummer’s Night Dream of a woods.
In Florida, fantasy is our big industry, so I think it’s natural that in my writing I keep returning to settings where the boundary between the real and the fantastic, the natural and the artificial, gets effaced. I was very influenced by the theme parks that surrounded me as a kid in South Florida, these artificial worlds like the Miami Seaquarium that fronted the real ocean, or the Gatorland park in Orlando where you walk through a gaping, cartoon-green archway built to look like an alligator’s jaws in order to see the real thing. Here’s a creature that hasn’t changed in millions of years, and who survived its ancestors, the dinosaurs. It’s like a splinter of time. And while this Mesozoic monster is swimming around an artificial lagoon, children are wandering around the park with balloons, and infants are sucking on rubber pacifiers in their strollers while their dads push them, talking on cell phones.
I think the geography of my childhood conditioned me to be drawn to fiction that was elastic enough to contain multiple universes, to juggle many worlds at once. Because that was daily life in my homestate. That collision of different kinds of time and natures and realities. For example, it took us forty minutes to drive from the Dadeland Mall, with its frenzied music and Food Court and zillions of people from every country you can imagine, and the “Hurry! Hurry! Buy! Buy!” vertigo of all malls, down the Dixie to the Everglades National Park, which felt dizzying in a very different way. I was an anxious kid, and somehow going to the Everglades could cure me of that shallow-breathing feeling. There is so much sky. And green spots of color on the horizon, these hammocks, tree islands, that appear to be floating in a sea of dark yellow grass. Even as a nearsighted child with a short attention span, I think I realized the sublimity of a sky that huge, of birds and trees as comically strange as the pelican, the royal palm. The Everglades, compared to the high-speed, honkadelic retail at Dadeland Mall, felt like a timeless, mythic setting: palm trees and gumbo limbo, big flame-red poinciana, mangroves and sawgrass, white ibis and great blue heron, anhingas frozen on pylons, turtles, manatees, and the grinning alligators, of course.
As a reader, I’ve always been attracted to books with settings that feel both wholly real and wholly other. Siamese-twin universes, where the daylit world we know is connected to an underworld or alternative reality. When I was a kid, so many of my favorite books seemed to simultaneously occur in a world that I recognized and some alternate zone—a bunch of anemic, pink-eyed British kids walking through their closet door to become the heroes of Narnia, say. Or siblings tesseracted through space to a different dimension, explorers plummeted in a submarine to an alien, liquid realm. A Midsummer’s Night Dream is set in both a real woodland and an enchanted fairyland where all ordinary laws are suspended.
So long as you have a human character interacting with a landscape, all those dreams zipped up in a skinsuit, I think you’re going to end up with an amalgam of fantasy and reality. Every tree and rock is filtered through that particular human’s eye. Any physical setting, in whatever book you take down off the shelf, whether it’s Venice or a Martian bear cave, reveals these other dimensions: the fantastic, subjective, invisible dimensions of the material world.
In Swamplandia!, I often found the physical settings through which Ava and Kiwi and Ossie travel to be analogous to their emotional states—when Ava has to escape from the swamp, for example, I pictured her trip across the vast floodplain as the literalization of what it feels like to move through grief. Similarly, when Kiwi gets “swallowed” by the Leviathan slide at the mainland World of Darkness theme park, I thought of that as symbolic of what it feels like to be digested by an impersonal institution: to become anonymous. Setting for me almost always operates on both a literal and a figurative plane, but only over the course of drafting does it become sort of shockingly obvious to me. Grief in a swamp, you don’t say? I’m always the last to know!
I discovered a lot of the places that ended up seeping into my fiction between the ages of ten and fifteen, when I would go on these long bike rides. I was a little bit of a loner, and I’d ride my bike to Matheson Hammock almost every day after school—it’s one of the last remaining hammocks in Miami, and right in the heart of the city, a really quiet oasis where I liked to pedal fast through this truly eerie mangrove tunnel. Sometimes I’d be the only one there and I’d see this beautiful heron that I swear looked as tall as me, just standing stock-still in the water. James Merrill has that beautiful line: “the world beneath the world is brightening.” Whenever I saw that great blue heron, that’s exactly how I felt—like some mystery was drawing closer to the surface, where you could almost glimpse it. And I think that’s the power of the richest settings in fiction—they take you to where the world beneath the world begins to brighten.
Karen Russell, a native of Miami, received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation in 2009. Her novel Swamplandia! was published in February 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf.