Interview: Karen Russell talks to the animals

Frustrated vet
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  October 13, 2011

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Florida native Karen Russell burst on the scene in 2007 with an unbelievably likeable and charming book of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. She was 24. Reviewers took a liking to Russell's funny, wistful, occasionally acrobatic prose, anointing her a major new voice in Southern literature. Last year, the editors of the New Yorker chose her as one of the 20 key US writers under 40.

In February, at the ripe old age of 28, Russell published her debut novel, Swamplandia! The book concerns the Bigtrees, a family of alligator wrestlers who run a floundering theme park deep in the Florida Everglades. Russell has a soft spot for whimsy — for instance, the monstrous alligators are all named Seth, regardless of gender — but tragedy, unbearable sadness, and a Faulknerian levels of madness and dissipation couch Swamplandia! far on the right side of twee.

On Saturday, Russell will appear as part of the Boston Book Festival on a panel I'm moderating. I called her at Bryn Mawr, where she is teaching this semester.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THIS PANEL WE'RE DOING? It's like an alternate-reality cocktail party. I'm worried about the technology of my presentation because I'm so lo-fi. I hope Chuck Klosterman doesn't have a hologram of Chuck Klosterman. I just did the Brooklyn Book Festival. It was very exciting. The nice thing about it is that writers have such a solitary way to go — there's no water cooler — so book fairs are all we've got. And talking to a self-selecting bunch of weirdoes is a great way to spend your day. And I'm so excited that Kelly Link is going to be at the book fair! She's one of my favorite writers. I doubt I would have been able to write what I do without her.

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I WAS THINKING OF YOUR BOOK THIS MORNING AS I WAS PETTING MY VERY SMELLY KITTEN. IT SEEMS TO ME THAT ALL PETS ARE HORRIBLE IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, AND THE SETHS ARE CERTAINLY HORRIBLE. ARE THEY BASED ON A REAL-LIFE PET YOU'VE HAD? When I was growing up, we had Schnauzers. They weren't horrible, they just weren't very bright. They used to jump with joy every time we went through the swinging kitchen doors. But the Seths don't have any real-world reference, I don't think.

After St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves came out, I went to work in a veterinarian's office because I thought my love of animals would translate to skill with animals. It did not — you can't mistake love for competence. I worked there for two years. They were very kind to me. By the end, I was just bringing the vet clipboards and puppy scrubs. Now I'm teaching at Bryn Mawr.

WHAT WRITERS DO YOU TEACH? I wish I had been up on Steven Millhauser when I started! I would have loved to have taught him. We're teaching Jim Shepard and this woman, Robin Black, who has this fantastic story collection. Her stories are fabulous. They just feel classic, but they're very contemporary.

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