Swamplandia! author Karen Russell
“Madness, as I understood it from books, meant a person who was open to the high, white whine of everything.”
— Ava Bigtree, in Swamplandia!
“Nobody can get to hell without assistance, kid.”
— The Bird Man, to Ava
Karen Russell is a Floridian. Never mind that she has spent the better part of the past decade living in New York, experiencing the reverse acclimation of a Southerner to a Northern climate. Never mind that the tastemakers of New York’s literary scene have claimed Russell as their own. Never mind that just last month, on a Tuesday morning in which the city was paralyzed under yet another dome of headline-grabbing ice and snow, Russell was perched on a windowsill in Manhattan, trying to carry out an uninterrupted conversation on a cell phone she describes as “janky.”
Yes, never mind all that. Because while you likely wouldn’t be able to find another Floridian quite like Russell in New York, you’d be equally hard-pressed to find a better representative for our state than this affable, 29-year-old writer.
A native of South Florida who grew up in Coconut Grove and graduated from Coral Gables High School, Russell garnered national attention five years ago with St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, an inventive collection of stories that offered a fresh hybrid of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism, Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic, Carl Hiaasen’s satirical slapstick and Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ Everglades environmentalism. In one story, the human child of a Minotaur recounts his father’s travails pulling a wagon into the Western Territories. In another, a girl becomes trapped inside a giant conch shell. And in the title story, a school run by Catholic nuns attempts to drive the wild from its student lycanthropes, to varying — and rather bloody — degrees of success.
Acclaim arrived swiftly for St. Lucy’s and for Russell, who received her MFA from Columbia University. The book finished 2006 on a number of best-of lists, including those published by the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, and the author has been named one of her generation’s greatest writers by the National Book Foundation and The New Yorker, which last year included her in its “20 Under 40” list of fiction writers.
Now, with the publication earlier this month of her first novel, Swamplandia! — which tells the story of a family of alligator wrestlers living in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge — Russell is being met with another wave of attention. The novel has already received positive reviews from The Washington Post and The New York Times, which led off its Feb. 6 Book Review with a glowing take by Irish novelist Emma Donoghue, and Russell is set for a promotional tour that Feb. 24 will bring her to Books and Books in Coral Gables.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a former tree-climbing, manatee-loving Coconut Grove tomboy whose connection with South Florida only grew deeper the farther she moved away from it. That connection crackles on every page of Swamplandia!, which continues the adventures of the Bigtree family Russell introduced in the St. Lucy’s stories “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” and “Out to Sea.” The Bigtrees are led by an eccentric, idealistic patriarch named the Chief, whom Russell describes as “an ‘indigenous swamp dweller’ who was actually a white guy descended from a coal miner in small-town Ohio, a man who sat on lizards in a feathered headdress.” The family’s business is Swamplandia!, an Old Florida tourist trap that sank deep into debt following the death of its star attraction, the entrancing matriarch Hilola Bigtree, whose show involved her donning a two-piece bathing suit, diving into a 27-foot-deep pool filled with alligators and casually emerging from it minutes later. The survival of Swamplandia! is further threatened by the nearby opening of the World of Darkness, a corporate-run theme park that Russell portrays as a wicked approximation of Disney World, in that tourists pay top dollar to experience a facsimile of Hell, complete with Devil’s Oven food stands and Tongue of the Leviathan amusement rides.
The story’s central struggle, however, takes place between the family’s youngest daughter, the 13-year-old Ava, and her 16-year-old sister, Osceola, an apparent medium whose late-night “love possessions” result in her eloping with the ghost of a long-dead dredge operator deep into the Everglades. Accompanied by a mysterious transient called the Bird Man, Ava takes off in search of her sister on an odyssey through the River of Grass that Russell freely admits was inspired by not only Huckleberry Finn, but also by the Coen brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou?Swamplandia! is both a celebration of the Everglades and an elegy for it, with the Bigtrees struggling to maintain a dying way of life in an ecosystem that itself seems forever on the verge of extinction, forever doing battle with invasive species of man-made (the World of Darkness) and natural (the melaleuca tree) origin.
“I grew up hearing all these stories about a virgin Florida,” Russell says. “My grandfather would talk about how the sky would be dark with birds, about how many fewer fish there would be every time he went to Flamingo, the struggle with Big Sugar. I was sort of growing up at a time of really rapidly expanding ecological consciousness. It was a time of reckoning when people were talking about how the Everglades was on life support. I was always trying to reconcile it as a kid. I thought that place was so beautiful. But it also seemed like I had been born in the shadow of a great morning, because all the adults around me were talking about how much more beautiful it was [back then]. There was a real sorrow. People seemed to really be reckoning with the consequences of phosphorus pollution, farming having diked up the headwaters, that kind of thing.”
While the novel’s pro-swamp, anti-development theme is overt, Swamplandia! is no heavy-handed screed. Russell is too smart and too beautiful a writer to lapse into stock characterizations or aphoristic grandstanding. As she did with the stories in St. Lucy’s, Russell has created a credible, captivating universe in Swamplandia! And even when her characters are flirting with — or bedding down with — the supernatural, their authenticity never comes into question. The novel’s pleasures — like those found in her short stories — derive primarily from the writing, which is rich with unexpected metaphors (“everybody’s legs acquired the cracked sheen of cockroach wings”), whip-smart dialogue (“So, is your sister like the war chief Osceola?” “Oh, no! She wears barrettes and stuff”) and enviable creativity (Chief Bigtree dubs the park’s survival strategy “Carnival Darwinism”).
Swamplandia! also serves as a rejection of the most-egregious stereotypes about the Sunshine State and, especially, our slice of it: a place where senior citizens come to die, voters screw up national elections, people don’t read, everyone sings Jimmy Buffett songs and all Miami is one South Beach nightclub. Florida-Duh.
“I think in a weird way the book must be a tiny bit of a correction to that idea, right?” Russell says. “Because it’s such a heterogeneous place, too. It’s so incredibly diverse. I even regret a little bit that I’ve ever used the word redneck in talking about it because it’s easy to default to that stereotype. You know when people talk about, like, ‘Oh, my grandparents live in Florida’? I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’ve never felt it to be this graying state of retirees. It just seems like one of the most-alive places in the country.”
Until she turned 13 and, she says, “made the transition into makeup-wearing,” Russell would explore the mangroves along Biscayne Bay with a friend. “Weird, weird stuff would wash up there,” she recalls. “So to go down there and see what the tide had brought in was exciting.” The Russell family would spend time in the Flamingo area of Everglades National Park, camping on Watson Island and motoring around Biscayne Bay in a small boat. But they also would take excursions to places that rendered the natural world as a tacky souvenir shop, such as the Miami Serpentarium and the original Parrot Jungle.
“I’m sure there’s a direct link between that experience and the way I write now,” Russell says. “It was such a seamless part of what reality was. It
was sort of like, ‘Now, we go to the grocery store. Now, we go to this tawdry, enchanted Parrot Jungle.’ It was just all kind of whole cloth that that was what the world was. And then, I think it was later that I started to think about what a strange ratio of fantasy to reality Miami is.
“My mom was talking about this reptile house off of Dixie [the Miami Serpentarium],” she continues. “Anytime there was a tropical storm, the roof would come off it, and it would rain, like, this biblical rain of reptiles on everybody. Then, it was just, like, a regular Wednesday and it was, ‘Oh, crap — a hurricane ripped the roof off the reptile house and now we’re being pelted by tarantulas and snakes.’ "While conducting research for Swamplandia!, Russell dragged her father and brother to Gatorland, a family-owned, 52-year-old theme park in Orlando known for its alligator wrestlers and snake exhibits. The park’s Gator Jumparoo Show, in which reptiles leap from their pools to snag chicken carcasses from suspended wires, appears in the novel as Live Chicken Thursdays, “a very popular and macabre attraction … with cloud-white hens suspended above [the gators], tied by their talons to a clothesline.”
“That was my big tax write-off,” Russell jokes of her visit to the park. “We got this really shitty motel with a terrifying dolphin mural. My brother and I were, like, in bunk beds. I was 26 at the time. I think they thought we were wildlife inspectors or something. Everyone was really leery of us because I had this black composition notebook. My dad was like, ‘Let’s go watch the snake show again.’ So we watched the snake show three times in a row. There was no one there that day. I don’t know what the staff must have thought. We fed drumsticks to some gators. That’s when I knew this is not going to be in any way an autobiographical novel, because I was terrified to feed the drumsticks to the gators. It was incredible to watch this dinosaur lunge out of a lagoon, lunge at a chicken breast, lunge at some white meat on a Tuesday. It’s just a very surreal place to go.”
Russell found herself in another dreamlike venue this past June when The New Yorker published its “20 Under 40” list, which also included such bold-faced literary names as Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart, Wells Tower and Nicole Krauss. Almost immediately, the books pages of newspapers and Web sites on both sides of the Atlantic began picking apart the list, with New York magazine labeling the selection process “a highbrow, literary American Idol.” For Russell’s fans, however, the announcement not only confirmed their idea of her as a writer with few — or, at least, no more than 19 — peers, it also afforded them a preview of Swamplandia! with The New Yorker’s publication of “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” a short story that forms the novel’s ninth chapter.
“I’m anxious by nature, I think,” Russell says of learning her name appeared on the list. “So then, of course, my first thought is, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to have a stroke or develop a debilitating heroin addiction and I’ll just be writing wingdings, and they’ll be so embarrassed. [New Yorker editor] David Remnick will have to write a correction.’ Once I got over that feeling — that’s always sort of there as background noise — I couldn’t feel more grateful. They took one of my first stories [“Haunting Olivia,” in 2005] and it was just a fluky, lucky strike. I really feel like I owe that magazine so much. The stuff that I’m writing feels so whacked-out and weird to me, too. So it’s nice to have a vote of confidence.”
The constant focus on Russell’s age also puzzles the writer. “In no other industry would I be considered young,” she argues. “I’m, like, buying Oil of Olay products and have crow’s-feet. I have never felt young enough to warrant all this attention. But at the same time, my God, there’s just such a crushing volume of stuff that gets published. If they were [recognizing], like, I don’t know, petite brunet writers or picked some other basis to make this list, I would still be grateful for anyone saying, ‘Read this book.’ It’s made 30 look even scarier than it probably should. That’s my one complaint: I’ll be turning 30 and, suddenly, I’m over the hill.”
Even though the pressures of writing and publishing her first novel are behind her, Russell is feeling a bit unmoored. Her parents recently left Florida for a new home in California, she’s enduring yet another subarctic winter in New York and, after spending years with the Bigtree clan romping through her head, she’s adjusting her focus toward a new novel about the Dust Bowl.
“New York is a weird place. I’ve been here now for seven years, and it still doesn’t feel like home,” Russell admits. “I think South Florida always will feel that way. It’s so weird now that the book is done. It feels a little lonely, because I’ve been living in that world for so long. I wrote ‘Ava Wrestles the Alligator’ when I was 22 or 23. These people and that world have been evolving in me for a while. It’s such a shift not to be in that world.
“I hope I can still be a South Florida writer even if I’m writing about, like, some cow in Nebraska. I hope they don’t rescind that from me.”
Karen Russell will appear 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24 at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Call 305-442-4408 or visit Booksandbooks.com.
Contact Jake Cline at firstname.lastname@example.org.