Karen Russell, the Florida-born, Portland-based author of “Swamplandia!”, and imaginative story collections like “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” has just published another anthology, “Orange World” that’s guaranteed to be one of this summer’s hot reads.
Russell, a recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant”, is a seemingly inexhaustible source of intriguing ideas: What if an endangered plant decided to go on the offensive and spread its seeds through unassuming humans passing by? What would rural life look like if Florida was overwhelmed by toxic seawater, leaving humans to make do poling through the waves on boats? Or what if a demon told you he could keep your child from harm forever?
She'll read at Powell's City of Books Friday, May 24.
Russell thinks through each story, infusing her characters with love, but never lapsing into Wes-Anderson-level twee. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Q&A with Karen Russell
April Baer: Conventional wisdom tells us pregnancy and parenthood make it hard for writers to focus and do their best work. But I got to say, I feel like you are just mining it.
Karen Russell: That's kind. I'm six months pregnant, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to write every single one of the stories on this collection. But then, one of the benefits now is you get over the hurdle of your own perfectionism. If I finish anything, including a load of laundry, I am a hero, you know?
April Baer: You explore so many altered states in your writing. Is the state of pregnancy and postpartum an altered state for you?
Karen Russell: Yeah, The title story, "Orange World," is very much about this kind of emotional topography of pregnancy, the — in my experience — very feverish and surreal transition from having a baby inside of your body to having a relationship with this child that's, you know, forever more on the outside. The greatest naïveté I think I had was that if this baby was born healthy, I don't know …
April Baer: Your worries would be over!
Karen Russell: Yeah! Instead, it was a lot like the ending of [Chekov's short story] "The Lady and the Pet Dog" where it's still like that, only all the time!
April Baer: The story’s about a young mother named Rae who is at loose ends due to sleep deprivation and hormones, and in the course of her pregnancy, she struck a bargain with a devil because she's scared about her child's safety. Rae’s interactions with the devil are nightmarish and interesting, but it's nothing compared to what happens when she brings this problem to her new moms group.
Karen Russell: I should say, in case my in-laws are listening, in no way is this directly autobiographical. Obviously I didn't broker a deal with a huckster demon. But I understand the temptation. I think that also the judgment that you are exposed to all of a sudden — suddenly you have people kind of coming up to you and just pelting you with their opinions about everything from vaccinations to the kind of hat you put on your baby. That was new. It's really a communal story to me. I was thinking a little bit about how desperately I needed other women to kind of echo back my own experience.
April Baer: You, you come up with such incredibly wonderful ideas for expressing anxieties and fears, whether it's a mother making a deal with a demon, or plant life that becomes sentient and fights back. Do you spend more time in your process on the underlying concept of a story or on the execution?
Karen Russell: The really fun part for me is coming up with these ideas, many of which sound either insane or doomed. They do sort of feel almost like these little counter-factuals, these experiments, these tiny worlds. I spend a lot of time kind of groping around in the dark. I think the difference between a bad idea and a good idea ends up being sometimes just what I can make live on the page.
April Baer: How are you feeling about the short story form these days?
Karen Russell: That's where I feel most at home. It's a funny thing to be called a novelist if you've only succeeded at doing that once. There's something about the short form, just the compression of it. I did do some good spade work in sort of a delimited plot, and I've read so many amazing collections recently.
April Baer: Who’s on your shelf?
Karen Russell: Terese Svoboda has a new book out, "American Desert". She grew up in Nebraska — I don't know why I'm sort of Nebraska-obsessed. They sort of range in time from like these Clovis cave people all the way to a speculative sci-fi story about Pink Pyramids in Nebraska in sort of a post apocalyptic world, and everything in between. Also, "Friday Black".
April Baer: By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
Karen Russell: The stories are just knockouts, and they just came at precisely the right time. I find myself really hungry for these other consciousnesses processing apocalyptic anxieties in new ways.