The New Yorker
February 17, 2011
Karen Russell once described her work as “Hitchcock meets the swamp.” Her début novel, “Swamplandia!,” certainly fits the bill. The novel grew out of “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” a short story first published in Zoetrope, and included in Russell’s collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” It is set in an ailing alligator theme park (called Swamplandia!) in the Florida Everglades and concerns the proprietors of that park, the Bigtree family. It is narrated partially in the first person, by Ava Bigtree, who is on a mission to stop her sister Osceola from marrying a ghost; and partially in the third person, by Kiwi, Ava and Osceola’s brother, who is on a mission to save Swamplandia! by taking a job at the World of Darkness, a rival park. The physical descriptions of the swamp—a fictionalized version of the Florida Russell grew up in—and the wonder and the terror of the Bigtree family’s adventures, make for a deliciously spooky read. As Hitchcock would say, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Three of Russell’s stories, “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” “Accident Brief,” and “Haunting Olivia,” have appeared in the magazine, and she was recently named one of our 20 Under 40. We chatted over e-mail last week.
You once said in an interview with “The New Yorker” that you are “a sucker for humor and strangeness.” These qualities are abundantly present in “Swamplandia!” Do you seek strangeness, or are you just good at recognizing it when it comes along?
Well, I live in New York now and I grew up in Miami, so I’ve always had a pretty short commute to strangeness. Recently I saw news footage of a ten-foot alligator sprawled out on a Coral Gables golf course, and this creature’s grinning face next to a pyramid of neon golf balls struck me as a much more eloquent articulation of the allure, hilarity, and terror of the uncanny than any sentence I will ever come up with.
So I guess I don’t feel like I seek strangeness out—I feel like we’re all surrounded by it—but there’s so much bewildering noise in our culture right now, at such a deafening and constant volume, that it’s easy for me to become inured to the strangeness of any “ordinary” Tuesday. Fiction helps me to reconnect with the true, deep weirdness inherent in everyday reality, in our dealings with one another, in just being alive. One line from a Wallace Stevens poem or a George Saunders story can zap me awake. Talk about strangeness—what could be weirder than having this mysterious congress with a dead or distant voice, on a piece of paper? And humor can work to shine a light on strangeness—jokes often seem to me like the best way to underscore a shocking incongruity or an injustice, some absurd assumption that we all seem to possess.
The setting of “Swamplandia!” is the Florida Everglades. Do you feel influenced by other Southern writers? If so, by whom?
Absolutely. Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers. Joy Williams who writes so beautifully and ferociously about the Florida Keys and the “Neverglades,” as she calls them in “Ill Nature.” I also love Floridian homeboys Carl Hiassen and Dave Barry. Wallace Stevens and his “Idea of Order at Key West.”
You once said, “Great fiction, even when it’s comedic, has an urgency or an inevitability to it, a sense that the writer absolutely had to write this particular story in this way.” Why did you have to write “Swamplandia!”?
I felt wholly possessed by this place and these weird people—worse than Osceola, the teen-age character who falls in love with the ghost of a Florida dredgeman. This story is very close to me—the landscape is a fictionalized version of my home, “mainland” South Florida and the shrinking Everglades (about an hour from Miami), a terrain that’s currently poisoned by phosphorus pollution, dammed, drained, paved-over by developers, covered in sugarcane, dyked, maybe twenty per cent of its original size, and disappearing at sickening speeds. For me, the story of the Bigtree family’s meteoric descent after their mother’s death has always been connected to this larger story of the imperiled Everglades cut off from its headwaters.
Also—I recognize that this will sound like some D.S.M. description of true insanity, given that we’re talking about imaginary alligator wrestlers here—but I felt a deep commitment to the Bigtree family, to seeing them through their various hellish journeys. It was especially important to me that Ava get to tell her story in her own language. In the same way that I wanted to capture the physical landscape of the swamp in this book, I really wanted to channel Ava’s emotional state onto the page, this mixture of wariness and belief, innocence and complicity; the distorting affect that her grief over her mom’s death has on her vision. All the wonder and terror of her crossing over.
At a certain point in the novel, Ava muses about the energy of a secret discharged into language. “Swamplandia!” is a retrospective look at a place that no longer exists, so within the book, for Ava’s character, I think it was essential to tell this story—it becomes her way of truly saving her home and her family. For me, too, there are a handful of paragraphs towards the end that I think of as the fulcrum of the novel, that swing Ava through a door, and for reasons that I don’t think I can spell out here I feel a tremendous relief that they exist outside of me now, un-privately, and inside this book. Just in case all that wasn’t sufficient to make you regret ever asking me this question: I also had to write “Swamplandia!” because I wanted to better understand why we tell stories in the first place—what separates the good, ennobling, life-saving stories from the kinds of dangerous fantasies that can ruin an ecosystem or a family.
There are echoes of many of the stories in “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” in “Swamplandia!”—the most obvious being “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” When did you realize you wanted to flesh-out some of that story’s themes in a novel?
You know, when I originally started expanding the short story, I was probably thinking less in terms of fleshing out themes and driven more by my own desire to find out, “What is going to happen to Ava and Ossie?” Later, during revision, I worked to develop some of the themes that also appear in the Ava story, but at first I was thinking more like a future reader.
Unlike the other stories in the “St. Lucy’s” collection, the ending of “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” felt like a beginning to me. There was spaciousness there, the swamp humming all around them—that setting had a powerful gravity for me. And there was so much menace lurking around the borders of that story, the Bird Man character and Ossie’s possessions, the restless ghost of the mother. “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” felt like it contained the DNA of a much bigger world.
How similar are you to the narrator, Ava? How similar is your family to the Bigtrees? Have you or anyone you know ever wrestled an alligator?
Thank you, Rachel, for this opportunity to tell people that my real-life family is not a tribe of sham-Indian alligator wrestlers! Although I do secretly believe we could wallop a monster in a fight. I am extremely close to my brother, Kent, and my sister, Lauren, who have been remarkably understanding about all of my weird sibling tales. But neither of them dates the dead; they are nothing like the characters in this book. I guess we do self-mythologize, like the Bigtree family, but at its wildest our Russell lore features our father chasing an opossum into the carport. No alligators. Sometimes we caught lizards in Dixie cups.
Ava Bigtree, the novel’s protagonist, is a far braver kid that I could ever dream of being. Her emotional world draws on my memories of that age, but she’s tougher and weirder than I was. I’d say the only one-hundred-per-cent-autobiographical part of this novel is the fierce love that Ava feels for her mother, Hilola Bigtree, and the love that exists inside the micro-society of the Bigtree family. That, and Kiwi’s humiliating mispronunciations of words. That’s all me, sadly. Recently I read “duet” so that it rhymed with “Monet.”
A year ago, you mentioned that you were working on a novel about a “whacked-out imaginary town during the Dust Bowl drought.” Are you still in the process of completing that work?
Yes! It will be another whimsical tale of ecological devastation. No, really, I’m afraid to talk about it too much, lest I jinx it; for years people would politely ask, at parties, “And so when is ‘Swamplandia!’ coming out?”, and then I’d have to dive behind the tortilla chips to get away from them. I’m also very happy to be writing stories again, and hoping to complete a second collection.
You are quite prolific, especially for someone still in her twenties. Do you feel pressure to constantly produce? Do you expect your writing habits to change as you enter your thirties?
Ha! Thank you for this kind question, although I feel I should point out that the ball is about to drop on my twenties. I got a kick out of being called “prolific,” because I feel like the world’s slowest, most wasteful writer. Too often, my big writing victory on a Wednesday will be to generate and then delete a crappy joke about a starfish. It took me the bulk of my twenties to write one book about a family of alligator wrestlers. Whereas somebody like Steve Martin is releasing his latest banjo symphony, having just completed another movie and acclaimed, best-selling novel.
I hope that in my thirties I grow as a writer, push into new territory. I do feel pressure to produce, but it’s a (mostly) joyful pressure. Keep those wagons rolling.
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