An Interview with Karen Russell

Jess Pane, Issue 40

Karen and I met a couple of summers ago at a writing workshop. She was my workshop leader and navigated the classroom easily and in a way I would wish for again and again—not only making sure everyone’s voice was heard and honored, but also handing out writing exercises and taking the extra time to comment on them. We were her groupies, but she was a groupie with us. Often her laughter carried across the lawn where we all hung out. Karen had left New York for Oregon, so I was curious about how moving affects storytelling. In this interview, we talk about geography, balancing the personal and professional, and teaching.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: I’m wondering how you approach the outdoors—so much of your work is tied to setting. There’s the lemon groves, the conch shells, the swamps, and most recently the mountains and chairlifts in “The Prospectors.”

KAREN RUSSELL: One of the reasons I’m drawn to the Floridian landscapes of my childhood is because I have such deep sensory memories of wading through the bay, climbing into the mangroves and exploring the mucky canals near our house. The air in Florida is so humid that it’s like this continuous embrace. Water, too, is everywhere, oozing out of the ground and hovering in the clouds. Moving through these slippery, overgrown places, you really can’t forget that you are a part of nature. Those conch shells you mention, I used to love collecting shells with my grandmother after a big storm. And our family spent a lot of time in the Everglades. As a kid I think that contact shaped me pretty profoundly. I mean, we’re talking about a state where sinkholes swallow houses, where the land and the water are never stable categories. The porosity of Florida meant that I loved stories that floated somewhere between the poles of “fantasy” and “reality.” Annie Proulx has a wonderful essay about how geography shapes the imagination. I do think that those childhood landscapes migrate inside of people, and become interior references for all time.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: As you move around, how does the landscape affect you?

KAREN RUSSELL: I love the way you phrased this question, your emphasis on movement. There’s a Dean Young line I love, “You start with a darkness to move through/ But sometimes the darkness moves through you.” Moving to Oregon, and moving through Oregon—I’m sure that will change the fiction I write. Maybe it will give me a mind of winter, and I’ll be able to clear out some of the kudzu in my brain. Although I fear the swamp might be a permanent feature of my mental landscape.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: I always find that I can’t write about a place until I leave it, until I move to the next city, or maybe the “legend” of it isn’t fully realized until I don’t have it in front of me anymore. The place becomes a story in my memory. Have you had similar reactions to the places you’ve lived? Or is it entirely the opposite?

KAREN RUSSELL: I know exactly what you mean about that lag. For me it’s also true about certain ages. I couldn’t write about childhood until I’d graduated from college. And I couldn’t write about Florida until I’d made it out of that peninsula, either. Friends of mine seem able to channel their direct experience onto the page, but I find that I’m usually drawing on things from the past, conjugated events. The paint has already dried; the “legend” of it exists, mysterious but complete. I’m glad to know it’s the same for you. I once heard Denis Johnson tell a crowd that before he could write about something, he needed to be “the right distance from the canvas.” I sometimes wish I could set a story in Portland, Oregon, where I live now, or New York, where I lived recently. But this has yet to happen.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: So how do you work around that?

KAREN RUSSELL: I find that it helps me to set stories in slightly altered versions of real places. For “The Prospectors,” I drew on the Timberline Lodge for inspiration but found that I had to transform it into an imaginary place, the Evergreen Lodge, to give the story a sort of elasticity in my mind. Otherwise I get panicked about getting the details “right.” Instead of feeling my way into the world, with the headlamp of the imagination.
Once, at a reading, I mentioned that I thought of my stories’ settings as sort of an imaginary archipelago, a mythic Florida. Then an older man in the audience said approvingly, “Good idea, girl! That’s how you avoid lawsuits!”

WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s really funny. So when you’ve managed to find that magic “imaginary archipelago,” how do you go about balancing your personal and professional life. I can’t seem to ever do it. Some writers stay up all night and write, others work in the morning hours, others, like me, at random. Do you have a set schedule?

KAREN RUSSELL: I remember the writer Uwem Akpan, then a Jesuit priest, once explaining how it was often difficult for him to work on his fiction because he had to perform the last rites and other sacraments for his congregation in Zimbabwe. I think about him every time I’m tempted to complain about my work/life balance. Really, I should be able to get a lot more done with the time allotted to me!

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you feel like you worked differently in your early career as opposed to now?

KAREN RUSSELL: You know, speaking of balance, I often miss the totally unbalanced, single-minded focus of my MFA program. Back in graduate school, I remember spending whole weekends in the weird lighting of the computer library, drinking my body weight in coffee, so happy to be working obsessively on a new story. That kind of bender, I associate with the twenties. A decade when sleep seemed somehow unnecessary. I miss the all-nighters and the sanctioned monomania of the MFA program. I’ve had to shift things around, now that I have other responsibilities and can’t go into a lucid dreaming cocoon at the computer lab at 4 a.m. When I’m teaching, I try to keep at least one day free for my own writing. Mornings, I’ll write for about four hours. Evenings, if I’m excited about something, I’ll pick it up again. That shadowless stretch from one to four, I tend to do other things; reading student work or prepping for class, say. It really can vary, depending on how I’m feeling about a project. Or if I have a deadline, in which case, I go back into terrified, elated all-nighter mode.
Right now, my baby boss, our four-month old son, sets the schedule. I’ll let you know how things shake down!

WASHINGTON SQUARE: There’s this funny picture book called King Baby by Kate Beaton that you should look at. In the end, King Baby gets a little sibling and is no longer king.
Remember when we had our week-long workshop together? I felt you had a very solid idea of how to lead a workshop and seemed to want to build that relationship outside the classroom. I find myself using your techniques when I’m teaching. (I also feel, right now, you’re laughing at this comment.)

KAREN RUSSELL: Aw, Jess, that aside makes me so happy. Do you know that our baby son just started laughing? It’s the best sound in the world. I am laughing, you’re right, trying to remember what my “techniques” might have been that summer; usually I just feel like a bear on a unicycle in the classroom, pedaling maniacally just to stay upright. I lucked out, too—our group was a really special one. As I recall, you guys were basically a self-running machine.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: It’s always nice to have a good workshop group. That’s not always the case. So how did you develop a teaching style?

KAREN RUSSELL: Teaching creative writing is a strange endeavor in some ways, and the workshop is a vulnerable space. Workshopping a story, you’re putting your faith in the instructor to make sure, first, that the class does no harm. I always say it’s like sharing an ultrasound of your dream in utero, and inviting other people to tell you how it’s developing. What a crazy and brave thing to do. My teaching style was just straight plagiarism of my own best instructors for the first several semesters. I used their exercises. I gave my version of their first day talks, the throwing down of the gauntlet. Slowly I think I’ve developed a style that’s a little more in line with my own personality, and with what I feel I can do to help students develop whatever is idiosyncratic and most exciting about their own work.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: So it’s evolving. Do you feel a responsibility to help early writers?

KAREN RUSSELL: I do think a lot about what helped me as a student, and I try to do that for my students. To wear both hats—to read generously, to help draw into focus a story’s secret ambitions, and the ways that it is meeting those ambitions. And to read skeptically, and critically, to help a student to see what. might be cleared away, to make space for new growth. But I really try, to the extent that I can, to read a story on its terms, without imposing my own vision. And to model that sort of echolocation for students, especially undergrads who may never have taken a workshop before. I think the best workshops operate a little like sonar—you’re helping the author to navigate through the dark of a first or second draft, bouncing back feedback on how the story is reading and what is and is not working. Those echoes are essential. You start to fly with more confidence, to gain control over your own narrative effects. And you have a sense of where you’re at with a draft, what you’ve made inside the reader.
I do feel a responsibility to help early writers, definitely. I’ll never forget the mentors and editors who helped me.