A conversation with Karen Russell, one of today's "most creative and imaginative" fiction writers, ahead of Pittsburgh appearance | Pittsburgh City Paper

A conversation with Karen Russell, one of today's "most creative and imaginative" fiction writers, ahead of Pittsburgh appearance

click to enlarge Karen Russell - PHOTO: MICHAEL LIONSTAR
Photo: Michael Lionstar
Karen Russell
Karen Russell can look at an austere, fallow landscape and see things most people miss. During a trip to the Sandhills in Nebraska, she looked beyond the endless vistas of sand dunes and prairie grass and found the germ of an idea that became “The Tornado Auction,” a short story from her collection Orange World (Vintage).

The Sandhills have a certain flatness that reminds Russell of her native South Florida, where you feel like “a clairvoyant of the weather you can see so far,” she says, even though the ecosystems are different. But the inhabitants of that midwestern landscape, like some of the Floridians who inhabit stories based in her home state, are not quite what they appear to be.

“People tend to think of farmers as stoic,” says Russell. “But they’re also mad gamblers. They’re really rolling the dice in a powerful way and collaborating with totally unstable weather that we have made more unstable.”

Russell appears Mon., Feb. 22 as a virtual guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture's Ten Evenings series.

Russell’s 2011 debut novel, Swamplandia, was heralded as the one of that year’s best novels. A finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was named no. 6 on Paste Magazine’s list of best novels of the 2010s. Russell also earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2013.

Another novel set in Florida might have been the savviest marketing scheme. Instead, Russell published two short-story collections, Orange World and Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013).

The short-story form, Russell says, allows her “to hop around. You can be sort of promiscuous. You can set up your carnival tent for 14 pages and see what a certain premise or landscape yields.”

Set free from the expectations of a single story line, Russell has become one of the most creative and imaginative fiction writers working today. In Orange World, the stories include "Bog Girl: A Romance," about a boy on a Scottish island who unearths and falls in love with the body of a 2,000-year-old girl he uncovers in a bog; a 17th-century doctor on the Croatian island Korcula who is charged with making sure dead bodies are not resurrected in "Black Corfu"; and the aforementioned "The Tornado Auction," in which a farmer purchases and raises a young tornado.

The settings are akin to blank spaces on maps, unmarked and seeming unremarkable unless one takes the time to stop and look and linger a bit. And the locales are partially a reaction to the success of Swamplandia. “I really spent most of my twenties trying to follow those weirdos through their swampy underworld,” Russell says, “and I really do feel like with Vampires in the Lemon Grove and this latest collection, it was like with the energy of a divorcee: I’m going to go everywhere, I’m going to go back in time, I’m going to Japan.”

Russell doesn’t complete ignore Florida. "The Gondoliers," arguably the centerpiece of Orange World, imagines her native state under water in the near future, with four sisters ferrying customers and navigating swampy waterways through echolocation.

The story’s dystopian tenor came from news stories about the prospect of Florida being deluged “in our lifetime,” Russell says, noting that friends in Miami deal with cyclical flooding while construction continues to boom.

“I think Florida in particular is a state where people cultivate a special amnesia to live there,” Russell says. “We’re seasonally threatened by hurricanes and everyone is aware that the bill is coming due.

She adds that she finds hope in human resourcefulness and nature’s resiliency and creativity. “I wanted there to be some recognition of that so it wasn’t all elegy,” Russell says. “Maybe something else will be born. I certainly hope that it’s not that we start echolocating to travel the canals in Florida.”
Ten evenings: Karen Russell. 7:30 p.m. Mon., Feb. 22. (Available online for one week.) $15. $10 for students. pittsburghlectures.org