When I was a sophomore taking Intermediate Creative Writing with Professor Nezhukumatathil and Literary Publishing with Dustin Parsons I was given the opportunity to conduct an interview via e-mail with fiction writer Karen Russell, author of the collection of stories St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Below is the interview in its entirety.
Alex Duringer: What is your advice to writers considering an MFA program? Do you think they should take time off after their undergraduate work or should they continue straight through? How did you choose your own MFA program?
Karen Russell: I definitely think it can be a good idea to take time off—the MFA is a big time and often financial commitment. I did attend my MFA straight out of undergrad, because I was on a story-writing tear and I had this probably silly sense of urgency about the whole thing—I really wanted more time to write, when I was 21 it felt like life or death. Now I wonder if it wouldn’t have benefitted me to take some time off from school. All of the jobs I was applying for as a senior had titles like “math workbook coordinator,” so when I got into Columbia University I was thrilled. I chose Columbia because Ben Marcus was teaching there and because I was excited to live in New York, and while I had a great experience there, I left school with heavy student loan debt. So one thing to consider are your goals for attending an MFA program—if you want time and support to write, it’s a great gig, but if you’re expecting to come out with a lucrative degree you might want to rethink your decision to attend an MFA. I heard a friend say that an MFA is like a deed to an invisible castle in the sky.
AD: Did you always know that you wanted to be a fiction writer or did you have a difficult time choosing what to focus in?
KR:I always feel lame telling people that yes, I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer—it seems so pretentious. It makes it sound like I had a quill behind my ear when I was nine or something. The reality is that I was an anxious kid and books were my world. I grew up reading, and my desire to write my own story grew at-pace with my love of books. I think I might have mentioned this at the Fredonia reading, but I was helped in this matter by absolutely sucking at many of my other pursuits—piano, science, even running, which is hard to do wrong. So it was writer by default in some ways! I did sort of think I’d write a column like Dave Barry, who was my idol in grade six. His book, “Dave Barry Turns 40,” really spoke to me at that time.
AD: If you were locked in a tomb with a flash-light, a pack of Big Red chewing gum, and three books of your choice, what would the three books be?
KR: This is a scary question, Alex! I am going to chew through that gum so fast, and then what? I hope you at least give me a flashlight in there, to read the books. I think I would bring…am I supposed to say the Bible, in case there is evil in that tomb? I’d bring Caron McCuller’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” because that’s a book my mom and I both love; George Saunder’s “Pastoralia,” for laughter-in-the-dark purposes; and “Believers” by Charles Baxter because I’m reading it right now and I’d want to finish it!
AD: I know that you’re currently working on a novel (good luck!). How different is it from working on a short story? Do you ever get bored or frustrated with the content?
KR: Oh, you said it! I love my characters but I do get bored and frustrated sometimes, because we’ve been together for years at this point—it’s like a marriage. So sometimes I miss the freedom of stories, and the way you can order scenes to produce a really particular emotional effect, almost like a poem. I miss the risks and pleasures of stories (if we’re using the wedding analogy, maybe a story is more like a torrid summer romance or a one-night stand). But that said, it’s been really amazing to get to stay with the same characters over time in this novel and watch them develop. I think readers invest in the world of the novel differently, and often have a deeper relationship with a novel’s protagonist—the trick is to keep that voice strong and compelling all the way through, I think.
AD: Many of your stories are both morbid and humorous, often at the same time. How do you effectively balance and blend them together?
KR: I think my imagination has a dark streak, but I’m also goofy to the point of annoying all of my friends and family, so I guess it all ends up in there. I don’t know how conscious I am of working that balance, but I did learn a lot from reading George Saunders and Italo Calvino, Flannery O’Connor and Denis Johnson. Those writers showed me that you can be comic and consequential, gothic and hilarious, whimsical and philosophical, lyrical and literal/scatological. I think that the funniest things often arise out of an honest acknowledgment of tragedy, and I love when writers anchor their most beautiful metaphorical passages with literal, concrete details. So I think that you can temper a morbid impulse with humor, and deepen a joke with a pinch of darkness.
AD: Setting is obviously important to the majority of your stories and is often very surreal in nature. What kind of planning goes into your settings and is it one of the first things you craft in the initial planning?
KR: In this collection, I almost always started with setting before character. I would get an idea, like the sleep-away camp or the Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and start to embroider it. I also drew pretty heavily on my memories of summer on the beach and in the mangrove woods as a kid. I didn’t plan so much as just let myself draft and invent—I got a kick out of inventing the details for places like the City of Shells.
AD: “Out to Sea” is very different both content and perspective from the rest of your works (though it is, in a way, a coming of age story and the protagonist happens to be the grandfather of a character from another of your stories). Where did this story come from and was it always going to be included in this collection? (Small tidbit—it’s also my favorite.)
KR: Ah, I’m so glad you enjoyed that one! Yes, it was always going to be included—I wrote it alongside the other stories, and I imagined it occurring in the same sort of semi-mythic island world. But that is maybe one of two successful “adult” stories I’ve been able to write. Sawtooth is in some ways, as you note, very similar to an adolescent—senescence and puberty overlap in a strange way, I think. Like the younger protagonists, Sawtooth is at a threshold. With this story, I imagined the place first—the Out to Sea Retirement Community. I had been working with elderly residents at the Stay Well Center in Manhattan, and that experience gave rise to the story.
AD: In “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” Ava is confronted with a “Bird Man” who more than likely sexually abuses her. It is never revealed whether or not he is a real, physical being or some kind of spirit/phantom. I’ve noticed through reading your other stories that, very often, much of the concrete information is left up to the imagination of the reader. Why do you do this?
KR: Well, in this one instance I do think there was a real man who abused Ava. But I like to leave some things ambiguous, particularly when doing a child’s eye narration, in part because it underscores the child’s innocence—the disparity between what the child believes is happening and what the adult reader knows or suspects to be true. And I also try to write stories that blur the line between fantasy and reality, because I myself love stories that produce that uncanny effect (I’m thinking about the twilight sensation I always get from Ray Bradbury’s fiction). Kids, I think, can still view the world through this double optic, and what they see about the adults around them is often very revealing.
AD: Because you write so much surrealism/magic realism, do you ever come across a story that is just too implausible to work? If so, what are some of these ideas?
KR: Yes! Oh my God, ask my sister, she is always vetoing my bad ideas. I wanted to write, I’m not even kidding, a sort of Moby Dick story set in space once. I’ve repressed the specifics of that one. Like, the space ship would be going after some big white object or something. I think there was one about a locomotive that was also a giant snake? The worst was probably “Half-Blind Clyde and the Oculus;” the less said about that, the better. I seriously just wanted to use the word “oculus” in a story, I think.