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Karen Russell On Home, Monsters, and Magical Realism

Karen Russell On Home, Monsters, and Magical Realism

Pulitzer finalist Karen Russell is a writer whose work has truly and deeply impacted my life. Russell’s debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, opened my eyes, as a budding college student, to the wondrous world of magical realism. Those fantastic stories took me to worlds I hadn’t yet known. They taught me about guilt, love, loss, and, mostly, what home was—and could (and can) be. Swamplandia!, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and Sleep Donation only added to my sincere appreciation of Russell’s writing.

With her latest collection, Orange World, she’s at the top of her game. Balancing the bizarre with human authenticity, the collection captures us as we truly are—damaged, complicated, and even a little hopeful. Orange World reads like a love letter to those who crave magic; it’s an ode to the weird.

It was a pleasure to speak with Russell over the phone and through email about, among other things, classic monsters, the horrors of time, and Orange World.

Bradley Sides

A constant in your fiction is an embrace of the fantastic, but you also retain one foot in the human world. When you set out to write, do you start with a magical element first? Or does the real-world situation or character lead to the fantastic?

Karen Russell

I think it’s really case by case. In one of my earlier stories, “Haunting Olivia,” I had the idea that goggles would give these kids access to a haunted underwater world, which sounds like it could be a really bad Disney ride. Part of the pleasure of that story was it eluded my worst ambitions and became about these brothers mourning the loss of their sister. She drowns, and her body is never recovered—a loss that feels unfinalizable. Her ghost comes to feel ubiquitous to them, to haunt the entire ocean. So the inspiration for this story was a sort of fantastical “what if?”—what if two brothers found goggles that opened a porthole into some watery underworld? Goggles that let them see underwater ghosts? But it didn’t really become a story until I realized the brothers were searching for their drowned sister—I needed that grounding in a real, blood-red reality.

In another story, “Proving Up,” the story’s supernatural and earthly dimensions both grew out of a conversation I had with a couple on the L train in Chicago. They saw me reading a Dust Bowl diary and mentioned that they were descended from Mennonite homesteaders. They told me there used to be an obscure clause in the Homestead Act—if you wanted to prove up on your land, you had to have a shelter of specific dimensions with a glass window. And glass was rarer than rain, so the settlers in this community swapped a single window around.

Just that idea of the window—it’s something like Flannery O’Connor’s wooden leg. It has a literal role to play in the story, but to me it feels so awesomely magnetic of other meanings. Like the goggles, which do become a kind of portal for the boys seeking their sister, drawing a new reality into focus, I felt this window in “Proving Up” opened a portal onto a true horror story, the one we often paper over when we eulogize the mythic West in our history books. For me, “Proving Up,” which features this glass widow and a sort of zombie sodbuster, is also a very old, very earthy tale about what can happen when the so-called “American dream” becomes a nightmare, when hope outlives any chance of its fulfillment. That window feels enchanted to the family, because it represents the fulfillment of the final stipulation in the Homestead Act—it’s the window to a new life.

So, if the story’s going to work at all, it has to hook up with some larger concern. It can’t just start and end with a strange conceit. It has to serve as a vehicle to address something else.

Bradley Sides

When you began writing as a student, did you immediately gravitate toward magical realism?

Karen Russell

I actually found a notebook recently from my childhood with a forest of magical beasts and a flood. I believe my first story went something like: “Once upon a time there was a peaceful forest full of unicorns. Then there was a flood!” So, I loved fantasy as a kid. And I was also fascinated by the real consequences of a disaster. I think that kids figure out right away that a story begins with some disruption of a stable context—that the incantatory spell of “once upon a time” sends the reader careening into some disequilibrium. If it’s just unicorns grazing in a magical glen, that’s a lovely Sunday, not a story.

Long before I was a fiction writer, I was a voracious reader. I think I gravitated toward fantasy and horror and science fiction and magical realism, at least in part, because I wanted to get as far away from my life and my body as possible as a teenager. I loved Dune and Watership Down. They were portals to other worlds, and I needed other worlds at that time.

Sometimes I fear people see the word “magic” and associate it with a kind of escapism. A friend of mine, the wonderful Porochista Khakpour, wrote that “great literature merges escape and confrontation.” It’s a paradox that sometimes you have to go to Middle Earth or Macondo or Dune to discover the truth of this world.

Bradley Sides

In high school, did you encounter a lot of literature that fell into the magical realism genre, or were you primarily exposed to “classic” literature?

Karen Russell

I went to a big public school in Miami and was involved in a program that was for the nerdiest nerds, International Baccalaureate. As a consequence, I was reading Antigone and King Lear and all kinds of incredible material at fourteen and fifteen. I have to give a shoutout to Ms. Wirshing, my AP English teacher. She had my class read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Because I was a coward, I pretended to loathe it. That was just the rule of the day, and you risked social death if you admitted you loved books. I just kept it under wraps. I remember how that book astonished me. It was hard to believe a book like it even existed. It made me feel like I did when I first encountered Bradbury and Poe.

Ms. Wirshing would bring in all of these supplemental texts and introduce us to artists, too, like Marc Chagall. Before then, art wasn’t really a part of my education, but she would show us slideshows of the Surrealists. This introduction felt like such a gift to me at seventeen—my first contact with some deeply strange and marvelous other consciousnesses.

In my sophomore year, Ms. Esco had my class read Great Expectations and Their Eyes were Watching God. The latter had an incredible impact on me just like One Hundred Years of Solitude. In both of those books, I felt like I was reading about Miami.

Ms. Wirshing, Ms. Esco, and Ms. Jowanda Peterson—even today, I can recall almost verbatim things they taught me about literature, and about the wider world.

Bradley Sides

Let’s talk about your new book. What is it about Orange World that made you select it as the title story for your collection?

Karen Russell

You know, it made me happy to get to that story. I felt intuitively that it was the end of the cycle. The final landscape for this particular collection. My publisher and I went back and forth on titles for a while. One fear my publisher had with the title is that there would be a connotation with our current president, which I understood. There’s also an Orange World in Orlando, Florida, that I visited as a kid. As advertised, it’s a giant orange. You enter and buy citrus-themed things.

But “Orange World” felt like the right title to me, for a few reasons. I love the round sound of it, and the somber glow of it, too. It conjured a picture, for me, of our sunlit planet, turning in space. But the main reason is that I was gifted this phrase, “orange world,” that seemed to work like an awning for the book, gathering all the other stories underneath it.

Two years ago, when I was about six months pregnant, I was taking a safety class for new parents at the hospital—one of those where they make you feel like it’s inevitable your child will die a gruesome death. The class had a presenter who delivered these really interesting metaphors. In one, she discussed the concept of a “green world”—what we all wish for each other and for our children. A heaven world of safety and unfailing protection. Then, in what she presented as a “red world,” there is a true hellscape of neglect and abuse of various kinds. “Orange world,” she said, is where most of us live—although I imagine many people on the planet would say, “No, lady. We are in red world.”

In the context of this parenting class, “orange world” meant the realm of groggy adults and sharp edges, the world of domestic catastrophes and accidents and illnesses. But I came to think of it as something more expansive—“orange world” as our slippery everyday, that state where we can dream of a green world, a just and peaceful world, even as we know that it’s a short commute from an “ordinary” morning to a true hell. And I think in all of these new stories, in one way or another, the characters feel the pull of both a beautiful fantasy of their future and some terrifying, even fatal, possibility. That color spectrum of hope and fear that can change so rapidly, from green to orange to red.

Bradley Sides

I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which you craft monsters, and the monsters in the stories in Orange World had my highlighter drying out. It’s as if identifying the real monster of the story depends on the lens we wear while we are reading. For example, in “The Tornado Auction,” tornadoes are monstrous, but Bobby Wurman, the guy who is pretty much responsible for them, has some monstrous tendencies. In “Bog Girl,” it seems like a literal Bog Girl might be the monster, but Cillian, the young guy who unearths her, has some shady behavior. Even in “Orange World,” the devil seems like an obvious monster, but, near the end of the story, the other characters have a level of pity for him. One of these characters says, “Poor motherless thing. Look at it looking.” Do you mind talking about the complexities of your monsters? What makes your monsters monsters?

Karen Russell

I love those readings. What seems monstrous to me is the violence we do to one another when we are projecting our fantasies onto real bodies. I think people do that all the time in this world—papering over another person’s complexity, their dynamic reality. Reducing another real person to a stereotype, or using them as props in our own stories. I just saw Us, the new Jordan Peele movie, and I love the metaphor of the tethered. Monster Theory by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is also terrific. It helped me understand why zombies, vampires, and bog bodies keep showing up in my fiction.

One of the monsters I find most chilling in literature is Humbert Humbert. The prose is so seductive and charming that you can find yourself slipping into an identification with this person, but Nabokov so skillfully casts us back into the bedroom, out of Humbert’s skull, so that for a moment we can glimpse the monstrosity of what this real man is really doing. We see that this little girl is a child. A girl who has been erased. If you found yourself delighted by Humbert a paragraph earlier, you feel complicit in the crime in progress. Instead of writing a story where the reader feels superior to the monster, we are forced to have a reckoning.

I identify with all the monsters who show up in “Orange World,” the human mothers and fathers and the porcupine-like demons. I think, look at these starving creatures, look at what hunger does. I think that hunger really underwrites alot of the horror in this collection. Hunger can make us monsters, if it goes unmet—or if it runs rampant. In Orange World’s “Black Corfu,” I could feel how the involution of hope made the poor doctor monstrous—and hopelessness and hunger and fear I think all rear up in all these characters. The vukodlak—a new monster, to me—became another way to think about our exiled or alienated hopes. Also, the recursive nature of trauma in a body.

The very beautiful desire for love and connection, to be seen and know—that, too, can become monstrous when thwarted.

There is also an uncanny recognition that we feel when we see a monster. What is frightening is, at least in part, is one’s own identification with some frightening appetite or trait that we all want to deny that we too possess.

Bradley Sides

I don’t think I’d say that Orange World is a collection of horror stories, but several of these stories have a horror element. One such story is “Bog Girl.” It has some pretty scary things to say about love and our ability—well, inability—to understand and, ultimately, handle it. But the horror element that stands out to me the most in this story is time—and what it means to live and die in different eras. What is it about time that makes it such a fascinating horror device?

Karen Russell

I was thinking about the way people like Joy Williams and Toni Morrison write about time in these haunted worlds we inhabit. As a reader I often feel like I’m bobbing on the surface of stories that extend for millennia. They do a kind of perspectival magic, where suddenly the background is foreground and you have a swooning sense of how vast Time really is and how powerfully present the past continues to be, what a structuring role past violence of various kinds plays in our lives. Avery Gordon, in her incredible sociological exploration of haunting, “Ghostly Matters,” writes beautifully about Beloved. She has this line where she compliments Morrison’s ability to “bring the ghost to life, not merely to light.”

Part of growing up is cutting your teeth on how old this place is. In “Bog Girl,” one of the things that haunted me about perfectly preserved bog bodies is that they look like they could be anyone in your family. There is something deeply unsettling about that—and to see the nooses around their neck and to understand there is some rope that connects our moment to a much older past. Seamus Heaney’s poetry was another inspiration for this story—his bog poems yoke an ancient violence to present-day bloodshed with a power that left me gutsick and awed. There is a quiet, seeping horror inside them. I think it has everything to do with Time’s passage, with the mystery of death, but also with the recurring dark drives that animate human beings throughout history.

See Also

The “bog girl” in this story is the victim of some long-ago crime. Cillian’s desire to keep a dead girl “safe” is doomed from the start—but who can’t relate to that impossible wish? His rescue-fantasy is a reflection, of course, of all the ways he has already been hurt, all the ways he fantasizes about opting out of the messiness and pain and uncertainty of living. At fifteen, he knows that he is unsafe in this violent and uncertain world. Teenagers learn about ancient and recent wars at the same time that they are experiencing, and witnessing, and participating in all sorts of cruelty in their homes and their high schools.

The horror, I think, comes from a confrontation with our own insignificance on this ancient planet. But also from recognizing, when we see the noose around a 2,000 year old teenager’s neck, the perennial parts of human nature, some of which seem perennially dark. In our country, I think there is this fantasy that the past is over and done, that we do not need to reckon with or atone for the racial violence of our past, but that’s obviously not true. It’s very much alive today. I feel like some kind of national and global thaw is occurring right now, where we are having to contend with the repression and brutality that are still alive with us—and haven’t passed away at all.

Bradley Sides

My very favorite story in Orange World is “The Tornado Auction.” Near the beginning, Bobby Wurman, the protagonist who raises tornadoes, says, “Moisture began to clot on my glasses, so I removed them. Some things, I swear, I see better without correction. Tornadoes, for one. My eyes often snag on irrelevancies when I’m wearing my glasses; without them, I can take in more. The panorama, you know, the whole sublime blur.” This statement had me thinking about all of the real-world elements and events a writer of magical realism has to research—or to at least be aware of amidst the fantastic.

Is Bobby’s statement intended to be to the readers, telling us to just let the story be the story and try not to focus so much on the histories and sciences of the real world because those things belong to the world? Or am I looking too closely into his words?

Karen Russell

With this story, I want to apologize to all of the meteorologists and physicists. The story asks the reader to suspend a certain kind of disbelief. I ended up having a lot of fun using the vocabulary related to weather. But, yeah, my apologies to the weather scientists.

With those lines, I think I had in mind more a Lear-type blindness. A way to gesture at Bobby’s own willful suspension of judgment—his desire to see what he wants to see, maybe. The “sublime blur” of possibility instead of the hard edges that might make him reconsider what he knows to be a bad bet. But I love your reading, Bradley—I endorse your reading! I was very aware of not wanting the reader to get “snagged” on “irrelevancies” either. If this story works at all, it’s because the reader has generously agreed to meet Robert’s ante and imagine a world where breeding a tornado is possible.

Bradley Sides

When I step back and look at your work as a whole, I think about how you focus on the concept of home. When I teach “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” and “Haunting Olivia,” home always arises as a main point of discussion. Orange World had me considering it just the same. In “The Gondoliers,” the narrator says this: “‘Home.’ It sounds like a foreign word, the way he intones it. ‘Where is home?’” It seems like a simple statement at first, but I don’t think it is. Home is complicated for many of us, right?

Karen Russell

Home is so complicated, isn’t it? I’ve been living in Portland for almost half a decade, but I still feel absolutely like my true home is my childhood home in Miami, although it was destroyed in the hurricane and later bulldozed. The layout of that house undergirds my entire mental life. I find the question of who stays and who goes within a family so fascinating. There is no predicting which siblings will stay near their childhood home or how far others might venture. I have to confess, as universal as this no doubt is, I do still have a lot of grief around the fact that my childhood home isn’t a place I can return to.

I’m glad you brought up “St. Lucy’s.” That ending felt like such a gift, and I haven’t had that sensation since. The ending came early in the drafting process. It felt like the right place to land for that particular story and maybe gets to why home is so complicated. The place changes, but we do, too.

Bradley Sides

Your novel, Swamplandia!, has roots in your short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.”  Are there any stories in Orange World that might have more to say? Or are you already working on something else entirely?

Karen Russell

No. Man, I’ve been trying for what feels like centuries to finish my second novel, which is set in Nebraska. Stories can take on a life of their own, but I feel happy with the ending places for these stories.

I do hope to finish this novel, which is set in an imaginary Nebraskan town in the 1930s, not too distant from the landscape in “The Tornado Auction”—and in “Proving Up” from the last collection. I’m obsessed with that part of the country, for reasons I can’t entirely explain. For awhile my joke-title for this second novel was Drylandia!

Orange World
By Karen Russell
Published May 14, 2019

Karen Russell won the 2012 and the 2018 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and one of The New York Times’ Ten Best Books of 2011. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim award and is a former fellow of the NYPL Cullman Center and the American Academy in Berlin. She graduated summa cum laude from Northwestern University and received her MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Born and raised in Miami, Florida, she now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son. She is the Endowed Chair of Texas State University’s MFA program, where she teaches in the fall semesters.

View Comments (2)
  • And of course, there is a Dr. Josh Wurman, who is a famous tornado researcher, so I had to smile at Karen Russell’s quick apology. “Oops”, I guess.

  • Read this over the course of several days (it was my happy go-to between tasks at work). I’ve seen Karen Russell’s name pop up many times but I think I’m finally ready to pick up one of her books. A friend has been raving about St. Lucy’s for years but this lovely interview was the tipping point for me. Thank you for writing!

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