November 29, 2016
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Karen Russell’s work is imbued with the spirit of her Miami childhood.
Russell signs copies of Swamplandia! at the New York Public Library in 2011.
Her latest collection of short stories (Knopf; $24.95)
At Parrot Jungle in Miami in 1989.
Don’t be fooled by its title. Vampires in the Lemon Grove, the new collection of short stories by Miami native and Coral Gables Senior High School class of 1999’s Karen Russell, has little to do with Twilight, True Blood, or any of the other fantastical vehicles currently setting teenage hearts aflutter. In fact, the title story of Russell’s latest book may just feature the least sexy vampire ever put into print: monogamous, ethically concerned, and more in need of a gym membership than any supple neck or hidden crypt.
“I’ve written so many stories about adolescents, I was excited to write about a 500-year-old, although he’s still sort of like a teenager,” she laughs. “It all loops around—there’s a small portion of our adolescence we never escape from.” Moreover, she adds, “the title feels right because so many of the stories are about characters stricken by some appetite and bewildered by the way to handle it.” Not that she’s unaware of the potential for false advertising: “I wanted to add a sticker to the cover—‘Thank you for indulging this title,’” she continues. “But all my titles are ridiculous! I’m calling my next one Sea Horses in Top Hats.”
Outwardly ridiculous yet inwardly poignant is excellent shorthand for all of Russell’s work so far, beginning with her 2006 debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Its title story was ostensibly about a pack of girls sired by werewolves and taken in by (apparently Cuban) nuns to be “civilized.” GWARR! and HWRAA! found themselves rechristened Jeanette and Claudette, taught to stand upright, to assimilate at all costs, and to never indulge a fellow pack-mate who couldn’t make the transition:
“They made me watch another slide show. This one showed images of former wolf-girls, the ones who had failed to be rehabilitated. Long-haired, sad-eyed women, limping after their former wolf packs in white tennis shoes and pleated culottes. A wolf-girl bank teller, her makeup smeared in oily rainbows, eating a raw steak on the deposit slips while her colleagues looked on in disgust. Our parents. The final slide was a bolded sentence in St. Lucy’s prim script: DO YOU WANT TO END UP SHUNNED BY BOTH SPECIES?”
The story unfolds with sharp emotional pangs between the guffaws and subtle nods to the Cuban-exile community’s Operation Pedro Pan alongside quotes from The Jesuit Handbook on Lycanthropic Culture Shock. The end result left readers charmed and critics raving about Russell’s fresh voice.
She cemented that reputation with her 2011 novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Set in an Everglades theme park, complete with amorous ghosts and alligator-wrestling kids, the novel’s release saw The New York Times salute Russell as “one in a million,” while HBO bought it for production as a TV series. The marketplace took notice as well—Swamplandia! has sold more than 200,000 copies, an impressive feat in today’s commercially parched landscape of literary fiction.
Having moved to New York City following college at Northwestern University, Russell uprooted herself in the wake of all that attention. She’s since been residing far from what she calls “the Candyland world of every writer living in Brooklyn,” first as a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and then as a visiting teacher at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College. She’s remained in Philadelphia and is in little hurry to return north. “The ego whiplash in New York can be damaging. Sometimes it feels like everybody’s writing about nanotechnology for Harper’s or The New Yorker. Meanwhile, some of us are watching Everybody Loves Raymond reruns, and we’re a little bit hung over,” she quips.
On that note, Russell says the spirit of Miami from her teenage years continues to loom large wherever she happens to be living. “When people ask about your influences, it’s always a little bogus because you want to assemble a certain image: [Vladimir] Nabokov, Anne Carson. But I’m sure T.I. is in there,” she says, referring to the notorious rapper. “I listened to his last album obsessively while I was writing. And Power 96!” Russell begins humming a jingle from the Miami radio station known for its singular mix of thumping bass, hip-hop, and skitterish dance beats.
So how do you get from T.I. to, say, a 500-year-old vampire in an Italian lemon grove? “It’s like blood rising from a cut. It’s nothing you feel consciously in control of,” Russell explains, recalling the sight that triggered the inspiration for her unique character: an “older man with a glorious tan drinking fresh lemonade and sucking on a lemon. What if that was vampire methadone? There’ll be an image that seems silly on the surface. But that automatically makes a space where you feel a freedom to invent…. It’s a way to meditate on some bigger question, but out of the corner of your eye.
“If I were to write a coming-of-age story in the Miami that we recognize today, say of a young Cuban boy in Coral Gables High School, it would be terrible,” she goes on. “Just flat and dead and sentimental! But if I were to write about a starfish that lost one of its limbs in the war under the sea, it frees you to write about the same emotions in a way that feels honest.”
There’s your next book: The Great Starfish War Beneath the Sea!
“Nah, his arm will grow back,” she retorts wryly. “Not enough drama there. It’s too easy for him.”
photography by ryan collerd (russell); jonathan grassi (russell at book signing); courtesy of karen russell (parrot jungle)