Karen Russell on the world of 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove'

Karen Russell

Karen Russell

Liz Braun, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:30 PM ET

A conversation with Karen Russell offers the rare chance to use the verb 'burble'. The author (Swamplandia!, St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves) is energetic and humorous in person, and her words often seem to be in a race with her laughter to see which gets to the end of a sentence first.

She is completely charming.

Her latest book of short stories, Vampires In The Lemon Grove, is the reason Russell visited Toronto recently. Russell has been one of fiction's 'it' kids since she started, getting her stories published in such outlets as The New Yorker, Granta and Zoetrope when she was in her early 20s.

The Miami native, 32, was a Spanish major at Northwestern University and then graduated from the MFA program at Columbia in 2006. Her debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was also on the NY Times' list of 10 Best Books of 2011.

Prior to that, she was named a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" young writer honouree for St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, her first collection of stories. That book also won the Bard Fiction Prize in 2011.

Russell says she's loved the written word since she was a child.

It has loved her right back.

She's spent this semester in Iowa City at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, "Which sometimes feel like it's the microphone feedback, you know — a lot of writers on writers on writing on writers — and you kind of want to eat snow and go into the hills, just do something physical," she jokes. She describes her teaching style as, “belligerent standup comic” for her efforts to get her students to love the same books she loves.

Russell grew up in a Catholic household with one brother and one sister and very supportive parents. "Collectively, everyone's in a state of bewilderment still," she says of their response to her success, but both her siblings are also very successful. She's the oldest child in the family, a spot that brings with it a lot of parental scrutiny. "And a funny index of that parental scrutiny is pictures," she says. "There are a zillion pictures of me.

"And then my brother, there's like a police sketch."

Her mother, says Russell, worked hard to ensure that the three children went to good schools. "I think it's such a luxury to have had that communicated to us in some wordless way, that it was okay to pursue writing … I think both my parents would say they'd been skeptical it would pan out," she says, smiling, "But nobody ever said, 'This love is conditional — you have to be an engineer.'"

Success came early for Russell. "This sort of miraculous thing happened," she says. "I was 23 and the New Yorker took this story of mine. And that just seemed, continues to seem, ah — I don't even like to talk about it," she says, laughing, "in case I undo it somehow! It seems kind of tenuous still."

A firm believer in print, Russell says she nonetheless has a digital-only novella coming out: Sleep Donation, which will launch (March 25th) the new book division of Atavist. "I'm sort of a blood-sworn print person, so I felt, I don't know, am I the Benedict Arnold of print?" She laughs.

"But this particular project is really suited to this medium, because it's about an insomnia epidemic, a sort of nightmare contagion," she says of Sleep Donation. "And it seemed for this kind of viral medium that would be appropriate."

VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE REVIEW: SENSE OF LOSS IN EVERY TALE

It's difficult to recreate Karen Russell's conversational style — all wordplay, sudden segues, hilarious interjections and eruptions of rare and delicious words — and it's almost impossible to describe her writing style.

The short stories of Vampires in the Lemon Grove are strange tales told in bewitched language. We mean that in the best way, of course.

Russell writes about fanciful worlds populated by fantastic creatures, like the young Japanese women of Reeling for the Empire who find themselves transformed into some kind of human/silkworm hybrid. They grow soft white fur and spin silk from their bellies. In Russell's stories, a soldier's tattoo has a life of its own under a massage therapist's touch; a vampire considers what he's traded off over time; former U.S. presidents adjust to having been reincarnated as horses.

A sense of loss colours almost every tale.

Russell is a conjurer of the language. Reading her is an experience a bit like being hypnotized, just in the way you're drawn into her off-kilter world. You have to pace yourself with these stories, too, because there's something about the language that feels like gluttony. It's as if you were eating a whole box of chocolates by yourself.

Twitter: @LizBraunSun

Liz.braun@sunmedia.ca

 


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