Karen Russell, the author behind Swamplandia!, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block, which will be released next week (listen to Karen's reading here). Until then, get to know her a little better with this Q+A, in which she talks about crossing the river Styx, Lil Jon, and why the socially anxious would thrive in the time of the dinosaurs.
In your interview with The Paris Review, you mentioned that Swamplandia! grew out of a sense that you had arrived a few generations too late, missing the time when "the skies in Florida were dark with birds, and the Everglades was a wonderland." If you could visit any other time period and place in history, which would it be and why?
Karen Russell: I think it would be the time of the dinosaurs. I would have loved to (safely) see the world of the dinosaurs; and because they are dinosaurs, this would get me off the hook of making awkward "Hello, I come from the future!" conversation. Cool ferns, a stegosaurus, and an added bonus for the socially anxious.
Growing up, you had a thing for YA novels about kids surviving by their own wits. What drew you to that type of narrative and which novel in that category made the biggest impression on you?
KR: I think younger readers love these books for the same reasons that adults love a book like "Into Thin Air" -- survival tales give us case studies of how humans look in stripped-down circumstances. These books offer a documentation of our bared, truest natures. I also loved, as a kid, given that we were all under the thumb of adult power, any tale of kid autonomy. I loved stories where child protagonists were called upon (and given the opportunity) to be their bravest selves. Where they had agency, a challenge. And there are so many great YA books in this genre! I loved A Wrinkle in Time, The Hobbit, the C.S. Lewis Narnia stories, Alice in Wonderland, A Red Fern Grows Through It, Hatchett, Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins. It's a wonderful thing to have those earliest and most vivid reading experiences in common with someone.
What music would best represent your writing style?
KR: This is a great question; I honestly am not sure. I wonder what readers would say. While I was writing the stories in the St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves collection, I did spend a lot of time listening to the Donnie Darko soundtrack for some reason. The score is dreamy and dark and funny, too -- it has some sort of sci-fi "Midsummer Night's Eve" feel to me. In Swamplandia!, I listened to Cat Power's "Haiku Ten" on repeat, something about that one seemed synced to Ava's character for me, but I couldn't say why. Juana Molina's waterfalling "Son" has a wonderful lost-in-the-swamp quality, too.
What's something about you that might surprise people?
KR: I wish I had a big revelation for you. That I was a former broomball star, or that I killed a bear in self-defense. My surprises are lame. I own a Toyota Avalon. Nobody ever believes that I can speak Spanish, I guess that's one. For years, I worked as a veterinary receptionist.
If you had a spirit animal, which would it be?
KR: Well, for promotional reasons I should probably say, "an alligator." Or maybe an alligator-wolf. But sadly, I bet it would be a creature like the groundhog: it's a homebody, and it's always glimpsing its shadow and freaking itself out.
Look for Karen Russell's episode of The Writers' Block next Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!