Monday, April 23, 2018
Books

What's Karen Russell reading?

Nightstand

Karen Russell

We recently caught up with Russell, author of Swamplandia!, the 2011 bestselling novel about a shabby amusement park in the Ten Thousand Islands, from her temporary digs in Germany. The Miami native is the recipient of the Mary Ellen von der Heyden Berlin Prize at the American Academy in Berlin. While on fellowship there, Russell, 30, is working on her second collection of short stories, which she hopes will "fuse contemporary reality with fantasy and history with myth.'' For her first book of stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Russell was named a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" young writer honoree in November 2009.

What is on your nightstand?

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I wanted to read it because it got all sorts of advance praise.

Are you enjoying it?

It's eerie. In the story, the earth gets knocked off its axis, and at the same time it is a sort of coming of age story. The girl in the story is entering sixth grade against the strangest backdrop. Plants are dying. Environmentalists are rallying because days are getting shorter. It's fabulously apocalyptic and all too plausible. What I think is hilarious is that despite the slowing, as they say in the book, the world can't stop things like a boy-girl dance. Everyone in the book tries to cling to normalcy even though the world is coming to an end. I also have The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus to read. I read his book The Moors and, as a socially anxious person, I really appreciated it.

Because Swamplandia! takes place in the Ten Thousand Islands, it's easy to link you with Peter Matthiessen. Was he an influence?

People do ask me about that. I made sure to put his Killing Mr. Watson away and not read it while writing Swamplandia! There are some writers that are dangerous to read while you are drafting because they are defined, and their rhythm is so particular that there's a danger that you'll hopelessly imitate them, and with this part of Florida, it is so (Matthiessen's) own place. He is so good and so complete. It was terrifying. I feared the danger of plagiarism.

So when you are drafting, who do you like to read?

I like to read poets like Anne Carson and George Saunders. Saunders is having so much fun on the page.

And right now, in Germany I'm living near these dark woods, working on a collection of what is basically folk stories and fairy tales, so I'm reading Grimms' Fairy Tales again. (Grimms') is reminding me of the ancient pleasure of the fairy tale. And boy, Grimms' Fairy Tales are so much darker than I remember as a child. Walt Disney and his hazmat suit have not touched these. Go back and read one, and you will be shocked.

Piper Castillo, Times staff writer, can be reached at (727) 445-4163.

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