KAREN RUSSELL'S NEW NOVEL Swamplandia! expands on the story of the Bigtree family, first introduced in her acclaimed short-story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. The three Bigtree children were born and raised on Swamplandia!, an island theme park boasting the children's mother as an alligator-wrestling headliner. When their mother dies and a competing theme park threatens Swamplandia!'s survival, the children are left to fend for themselves—older brother Kiwi retreats to the mainland, where he attempts to pass as a normal teenager; middle sister Ossie becomes convinced she can commune with ghosts and runs off to marry her supernatural boyfriend; and youngest sister (and narrator) Ava sets out on a dangerous journey through the swamp to rescue Ossie from the Underworld. Russell's writing is rich with literary allusion and metaphor, yet rooted firmly in Southern Florida's unique culture and ecosystem. I spoke with the funny, forthcoming Russell about adolescent protagonists, symbolism, and from what height a character can survive a fall from a tree.
MERCURY: What drew you toward writing from the perspective of an adolescent protagonist?
KAREN RUSSELL: So much of it is about these two registers—you've got Ava's nascent sense of some really difficult realities, her mother's death, their park facing bankruptcy, but then she still kind of has her foot in kid world, she's come upon all these myths and fairytales. So just in terms of working this double optic, and prolonging an uncanny hesitation where readers aren't quite sure what's going on during the Underworld voyage... I don't think it would be possible to write this story and have a 42-year-old stockbroker on a glade skiff going to the Underworld.
Are you done writing from a kid's perspective?
With the new book I'm working on, I have a few stories that have adult characters, but they tend to be really stunted or weird. I don't know what that says about me. I don't feel like I can credibly inhabit adults unless I'm like, "Maybe if she has green wings, or a brain tumor!"
I actually feel like I should reread the book—I think I missed a lot of what you were doing symbolically.
Some woman asked me once, "Don't you think people over-read meaning into your stories?" And I said "No, ma'am!" I mean, what am I supposed to say: "I sure do! It was just accidental, I thought, 'I'll shake some words down on the page, see what happens! I don't want them to mean that much, though.'" There was definitely a logic to the book, in my head. There were effects that I was in a conscious way trying to achieve. It might not work for readers, but I wasn't just like, "It's Wednesday, I wonder what could happen? I'll put a lion in it!" For my own purposes, I definitely have ideas about how stuff links up symbolically, but then nothing is more irritating than to have the author footnoting it, you know, "For those of you too stupid to have read Gilgamesh...."
I noticed your dad helped you research the book.
Thank goodness for my dad. He's a native Floridian, and really familiar with the landscape. And also I just don't have any spatial sense—that's one of my many Achilles' heels as a writer. I think at one point Ava falls out of a tree that's 40 feet tall, and my dad was like, "No, she's dead now. Your book is over."