Litquake Q&A with Karen Russell by Litquake

BOMBlog teams up with San Francisco’s Litquake to bring you a series of interviews leading up to their annual festival. This week, Litquake talks to Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!

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Litquake What is your favorite book?

Karen Russell This is an impossible question, guys. Can I give you two favorite books? The Waves, by Virginia Woolf. I’ve been rereading it and it’s incredibly beautiful. And this year I find myself yapping about Geek Love a lot, the masterpiece of carnie-freak-incendiary imagination literature by Katherine Dunn.

Litquake Who is your favorite writer?

KR Again, impossible! But I love Kafka, George Saunders, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers.

Litquake Different answers?

KR Ok, what a good challenge. How to reconcile the different answers? Well, those books I listed as favorites really felt revelatory to me at the time when I read them. I like assigning The Waves and Geek Love to students, or a book like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, because you can practically watch their pupils dilate as they read them—I think there are certain books that are so stylistically innovative or so wholly “other” that they detonate inside readers. It’s a grenade-lob, and when the smoke clears these books have transformed the landscape of what fiction can be and do.

Then there are authors whose entire body of work offers a reliably skewed way of seeing the world—Kafka, for example, his brand of comedy. I couldn’t choose one book or story of his as a “favorite,” but his vantage on things I find incredibly wonderful, and somehow deeply reassuring, familiar despite the ocean of time between his life and our lives; you know that tail-wagging sensation you can get, when you recognize a friend, or a person with a kindred way of looking at the world? You “get” their jokes, can relate to their sense of what’s funny, absurd, depressing, insane, terrific about life? So maybe the distinction is that my favorite books open up a particular new universe to me (the Binewski Fabulon, say, or Macondo), and my favorite authors, in every line of their prose, offer a unique vision of our world and our natures, an original way of seeing things.

Or maybe not. I better think on this one some more. It’s a great question.

Litquake How old were you when you were first published?

KR 23. Unless you count the Printshop family newspaper that I printed at age 12, which put both of my grandfathers to sleep.

Litquake What writing style do you abhor?

KR Uh, my own? Can I say that? There is no one style that I can’t abide, unless it’s my own voice that I’ve grown weary of x-number of pages in. I admire and love writers whose styles are very different from my own — Raymond Carver comes to mind, or Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. Still, clean prose. I wish I could write stark, minimalist prose — a Halloween writing day. Or have one hour where I could write like Cormac McCarthy, just glorious, Gideon-flavored, fir-and-blood scented poetry.

Litquake What is your favorite writing cliché?

KR “Write what you know.” I like it because, as a piece of advice, it feels deeply true and totally false to me at the same time — on the one hand, the greatest joy of writing for me is the discovery part. You unearth your own weird preoccupations. You get a chance, in this alternate space, a fictional island or woods, to obliquely consider these Big Questions I find almost impossible to think about/articulate in “real” life. So it’s always seemed to me like we should swap out “write what you know” for “write towards what you don’t/can’t ever know.” That might be a more honest and helpful dictum.

But then, hypocritically, I do feel like I am always, inescapably writing what I “know” — extrapolating out of my own lived experience to imagine worlds and characters. When writers protest that their fiction is not autobiographical in any sense, I’m always a little suspicious. Out of whose life is it generated, then? What you know — what you’ve read and seen and heard and thought about, your storehouse of dreams and memories, all generated inside your body, on this planet — what other raw materials do you have at your disposal?

Litquake What is your favorite word?

KR “Viola” was my grandmother’s name, and it’s a pretty beautiful word, right? All those vowels. There are too many good ones. “Alluvial,” “cranberry,” “quartz,” “hirsute,” “equine,” “carouse,” “submarine.”

Litquake When and how do you write?

KR Well, when I was a student, I’d get loaded on Diet Coke and write all night in the Columbia computer lab, next to the foreign students doing math-modeling who would occasionally, at 4 a.m., glance over and read what I was writing (“The wolves howled howlingly!”) and then give me a long pitying or baffled look, return to their graphs. I get nostalgic for those all-night writing benders.

Now I try to do my writing in the morning, before noon, and if I’m lucky, or if the morning was a wash, I’ll sneak another session in at night. My goal is to get in three or four focused hours. This doesn’t sound like much, does it? I find myself lying to my lawyer friends (“Eleven hours. On my feet.”) so that they don’t eyeball me like they’d like to shoot me in the face. But sometimes it will take me an hour just to get back into the world of a story. It takes me a shockingly long time to write anything. I’m told I look like Forrest Gump frowning at an abacus when I’m drafting. If I’m really absorbed by a story or chapter I’m happiest when I get to go underground and work on it for an entire weekend.

I write on a computer but lately I’ve been trying longhand, which feels liberating and scary — I think I use the wizard of Google as a crutch too often.

Litquake Presents Karen Russell

Karen Russell. Courtesy of Litquake

Litquake What is your greatest fear when you turn in a manuscript?

KR That it is a total failure. Actually the specific fear is that I’ve written something so bad that my editor is projectile-vomiting into a mesh trash-can. I always know it’s a flawed creation, and I always hope that I’m somehow mistaken about that.

David Foster Wallace talks about his manuscripts as damaged-infants, this hideous spawn. He describes the dilemma perfectly: you’d rather be “completely, insanely, suicidally wrong” about your baby’s hideousness, you’d rather be crazy yourself than have the manuscript turn out to be doomed, because “what you want is for them to see and love a miraculous, perfect…infant.” So it’s a tough moment, waiting for feedback. Like the best case scenario somehow is that you’re a madwoman.

Litquake In what era do you wish you had been born?

KR Well, despite the mess we’ve made of the present one, I do feel lucky to have been born in an age of microwaves and penicillin. But I am a sucker for the American myth of the frontier. Everybody my age was duped into thinking we’d be legends of the American frontier by that DOS video game, “The Oregon Trail.”

Litquake Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

KR There are so many. “Limn” comes to mind. You are probably over-quota if you use “limn” more than twice per lifetime, but I think it’s in every story in St. Lucy’s. “Limbo,” “liminal,” “lunar,” all those misty words I overuse. It depends on the story, too — I’m trying to write about the Dust Bowl now, and if you guys can think of a synonym for “sod,” I will pay you cash for it. Lately I keep wanting to use “blood-red” and “lemon” for color descriptions.

In life, I notice that I’m saying “dang” all of a sudden, it’s a virus I caught from my friend Vince, who caught it from those Bon Qui Qui videos.

Litquake Which talent would you like to have?

KR I would love to able to dance. Just slide into a full split, with a blasé expression on my face. I mean I’d settle for being able to move my hips in tempo with my arms. My ass never even knows what’s happening, it’s like this stoic general facing the wall. I wish Michael Jackson could choreograph everything for me remotely.

Litquake What do you consider your greatest achievement?

KR I’m very proud of Swamplandia!, which took me several years to write. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to do it, to get that story into the world, and I spent a good part of my 20s having nightmares where Knopf sent hired goons to break my thumbs.

Litquake Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

KR I love the protagonist of Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone, Chappy a.k.a. “the Bone.”

Litquake How would you like to die?

KR Well, this is a cheerful question, guys! Did you have to memorize that Anne Sexton poem, too? The hysterical one that goes, “Oh starry, starry night!/This is how I want to die!/something-something about the ‘unseen serpent’”?

I think that way is too scary. I respect it, but I would prefer no invisible serpents.

I think it would be nice to live to be 101, and get a chance to say goodbye to your loved ones and settle your business, and maybe go out in a big chair with a view of the sea. Or even on a boat of some kind, surrounded by the sea, Viking-style? (I guess I’m grateful that this is one less choice to become neurotic about).

You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if the wedding planning industry expands to offer this service. Then we’ll all have to watch some terrible TLC reality show, Deathzilla.

Litquake seeks to foster interest in literature for people of all ages, perpetuate a sense of literary community, and provide a vibrant forum for Bay Area writing as a complement to the city’s music, film, and cultural festivals. Litquake is a project of the Litquake Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit registered in the state of California. Litquake’s main festival dates for 2011 will be October 7–15, so mark your calendars, and buy your tickets here!