A Writer on Writing: Karen Russell

Well it must seem like I am obsessed with Karen Russell lately. Maybe I am!

I came across something so relevant to my review of Russell’s story collection, that I felt the need to post this for you guys. On Goodreads, the Facebook for readers, Russell had a Q & A session from September 12-16, where members of Goodreads could ask her any questions they would like. Most pertained her thoughts on writing and on her own writing process–valuable information, I think.

Some of Russell’s posts were very long and littered with details specific to certain characters or themes in her writing. I have taken the liberty to edit these answers into what I hope is a coherent medley that gets at the core of what she thinks about that ever-so elusive craft: writing.

On straddling the line between the supernatural and believable…

Karen: “I think that’s the balance I’m always struggling to find–I’m always afraid that I won’t be able to transcend the original goofus premise of a story, that I’ll end up with a wacky idea that feels merely gimmicky, and doesn’t have a core of genuine emotion. My favorite stories, like Italo Calvino’s ‘The Dinosaurs,’ tend to start with a wild premise (‘I am a dinosaur who survived the extinction of my race; also I talk, for some reason, like a charming Italian bachelor’). But as the story evolves, it pushes on this premise and somehow becomes a vehicle to get at a truth or ask a question that I think would be difficult to write about in a realist mode. So this is a super long-winded way of saying that if a story is working, I feel that the strangeness is in the service of that story’s larger themes (which I’m almost always oblivious of when I start writing).

I still have alot to learn but I do love to try to make some whacked-out worlds as credible as I can. Do you know that Marianne Moore quote about how a poem creates ‘imaginary gardens with real toads’? I think that’s such a great way of thinking about the relationship between the realistic and the fantastic in fiction….

I’ll often try to write even the more outlandish aspects of a story…in the same naturalistic vein as the more conventional details….So narrating a story’s “fantastic” elements in a matter-of-fact tone can be one way to make them real for a reader. And I’m drawn to child narrators in part because they have such an easy time moving between these registers–they can shift fluidly between believing in animist or supernatural explanations and a more analytical/conventional understanding of their situation.”

On her own writing process:

Karen: “I tend to write in the mornings now, on my big dying computer. I’m trying to write longhand now, so that I don’t spend all my time Googling things like ‘what do parrots eat?’

…I always wish I had a more interesting answer for the mechanical question–like how Alexa says old Papa Hemingway wrote like a titan, standing up, at his desk. I sit down, usually in the morning, and pledge to put in three to four hours, and I’ll try to cheat by drinking too much coffee and Google ‘researching.’ I don’t have a word count like some authors but I’m starting to think that might not be a bad idea–you know, you cannot get off the treadmill until you hit 700 words or something….Every time I read another writer’s answer to this question I am immediately converted to their method. Like, is Jhumpa Lahiri wearing a tin-foil hat? Is Russell Banks doping with ginko biloba? Sold!”

On Joyce Carol Oates’s claim that the stuff you read around the time you are 15-16 inspires you the most…

Karen: “You know, I think that my most passionate, formative years as a reader probably happened even earlier–when I was 12 and 13, say, and on this weird diet of Stephen King, ‘Watership Down,’ the Dune series, Peter S. Beagle and Ray Bradbury, ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.’ I think those books really set me up in some fundamental ways. But I’d agree with Joyce that 15 and 16 are a critical period as well, and I remember having my dome blown by some of our class reading: ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude,’ ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ ‘Antigone,’ ‘Great Expectations.’ Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a revelatory discovery, that a novel could have that scope and lush magic. I remember cracking alot of jokes with the other eye-rollers in A.P. English about all of those dozens of Buendias and then racing home to pick up where I’d left off. Macondo was the most incredible place; it felt more real to me than many actual landscapes I’d visited. What else? I think I read ‘Geek Love’ a little later; but I remember skipping class to finish Jose Saramago’s ‘Blindness.’

Now I wonder why we didn’t read more story collections in high school–I didn’t discover short stories until sophomore year in college.

As for what I’m reading now, I just got an early peek at Heidi Julavitz forthcoming novel, ‘The Vanishers’ which is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Watch for it, it’s incredible.”

On her writing as Magical Realism…

Karen: “I’m going to try to tackle the magical-realism question below, because that’s been coming up alot–it’s a hard one for me, because to be honest I’m never sure exactly what people are referring to when they use that term to describe a work of literature. I love fabulists like Marquez and Kafka and Angela Carter, people who draw on myths and fairy-tales and use language to create uncanny effects; and I guess without ever setting out to write ‘magical-realism,’ the stories I wound up writing descend from their stories. But sometimes I shy away from the word ‘magic,’ because I think certain readers are then apt to dismiss the work as mere fantasy, a whimsy-tale for children, and the fiction I like to read (and try to write) has high stakes for its characters…Angela Carter’s ‘fairy-tales,’ for example, are terrifying documents about the scariest parts of our natures, and they always have blood-red consequences…”

On being a writer…

Karen: “You know I feel like a late bloomer, too–like, I got to publish at a relatively young age, but I still feel like a total amateur, like I’m always beginning again…in fact I’m shocked at how persistent that feeling is with each new project! You’d think at a certain point you’d be like that kid who kept repeating eighth grade, the wise-ass with the moustache who finally understands the quadratic equation…

But I have always been writing stories and poems, I think I was such an anxious kid that I really needed to do so, just to exist publicly in the world I needed some private place that I could disappear into…I wanted to write stories pretty much at-pace with my ability to read stories. I loved books so much, and those worlds felt much realer to me than most of my actual Tuesdays.”

On advice for young writers…

Karen: “When people ask me for advice for young writers I always make the same nervous joke–don’t spend too much money on credit cards! In part because boy is it easy to go into debt while pursuing a career as a writer; it’s still amazing to me that such a thing is even possible. I have no magic tricks, I’m afraid; I was extraordinarily lucky, and alot of that luck was just right place/right time.

But I think the only part you can control is to keep at it–to keep writing, and when your stories or your novel feels ready, to keep submitting. Here’s the best advice I’ve got, cobbled together from my old professors: to read and read, and to read like an omnivore, outside of your genre; to take a poetry class (I think this is a hugely helpful one for fiction writers); and to keep writing no matter what. If you’re writing whacked-out stuff and not sure where to submit it, you might check and see where stories with which you feel an affinity are being published–I remember reading through some of those prize-anthologies and journals like ‘Tin House’ and ‘Conjunctions’ just to get a sense of what/who they were publishing.

Oh! And last thing, I think undergrad workshops are the perfect time to experiment with different structures and voices in your stories, to take big risks.”

On writing:

Karen: “…You can do anything, break any rule, as long as you believe it’s in the service of the story you have to tell.”

Sorry for the long post, but hope you enjoyed this, nonetheless.

What do you think about Russell’s comments about writing? I’d love to hear!


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