Author Karen Russell on sports as secular religion and the B-side presidents

Author Karen Russell on sports as secular religion and the B-side presidents

Welcome to Random Reads, wherein we talk to authors about the characters and stories that defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand which ones we’ll ask them to talk about.

The author: Karen Russell published her first short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, in 2007, only a year after receiving her MFA. With the fanciful dark comedy of the title story, “Ava Wrestles The Alligator,” and “Lady Yeti And The Palace Of Artificial Snows,” Russell’s work was immediately recognized for its imagination. A second story collection, Vampires In The Lemon Grove, was released last year, with another array of surreal tales that inject horror and science fiction into otherwise recognizable realities. “The New Veterans” concerns a masseuse who can alter a soldier’s tattoos, while “The Barn At The End Of Our Term” supposes that every American president gets reincarnated into a horse in the same barn.

Russell’s 2011 novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she was a 2013 recipient of a “Genius” Grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Russell’s latest work is the novella Sleep Donation, the debut release from Atavist Books, available exclusively as an e-book—which makes a certain sardonic sense, given the book centers on a society so overwhelmed by glowing screens that an insomnia epidemic grips America. Trish Edgewater—a recruiter for Slumber Corps, which harvests sleep and transfers it to insomniacs—is yet another plucky protagonist amid a fascinatingly exaggerated form of reality. Sleep Donation is out March 25.

“The Barn At The End Of Our Term,” Vampires In The Lemon Grove (first published in Granta #97, 2007)
The A.V. Club: What inspired you to make Rutherford B. Hayes the lead?

Karen Russell: I think that story is lost in the mist a little bit. It’s one of the older stories in that collection. Originally I was going to do presidents reborn into different, confounding purgatorial situations. Rutherford just, he doesn’t get a lot of airtime in the history books, right?

AVC: [Laughs.] That’s true.

KR: He was sort of a B-side president. [Laughs.] I think that was the original intent, and also in a story that was going to be about everyone doing the calculus of how their past spills into their future—trying to do this anxious calculation about how past events might have created the future—these people would be obsessed with their legacies and how they’re remembered. He seemed like a good candidate because he was right on the edge of never being president. He was a squeaker, so it seemed like he was a forgotten president and had that arbitrary fortune element of someone who’s just a few votes shy of never being president.

AVC: An interesting detail from the story was that his wife was the first official first lady.

KR: The first first lady, yeah. Isn’t that great?

AVC: That seems like an interesting milestone to accompany the squeaker president.

KR: Right. That’s true. Something about those milestones from the congealed orb of retrospect start to look so shimmery and speculative and arbitrary, things that have been minted into history. And then you think it’s funny that we just decided to call that woman the first first lady.

AVC: So the original plan was to have different purgatory environments?

KR: Yeah, I think initially I was going to have 12. For some reason that was the challenge I was going to set myself. It was right after St. Lucy’s, and I wanted to write a story that wasn’t from an adolescent point of view, because so many of those stories had been from a first-person effeminate or deranged boy’s point of view. It seemed right just to move away from that and try something new. I don’t know how that impulse ended up with the ghosts of presidents inside of horses’ bodies, but I think no one would argue that I succeeded in writing a story that’s not about teenagers coming of age.


“Proving Up,” Vampires In The Lemon Grove (2013)
AVC: I’ve read a little bit about you working on your next novel, which you’ve said has a Dust Bowl setting.

KR: Yeah, I’ve been talking about working on that thing for about half a decade. [Laughs.] I feel like all I do is talk about working on that thing.

AVC: And you did an interview last year where you talked about Stephen King’s influence on your work. This idea of a Dust Bowl novel brings to mind a Western as filtered through The Dark Tower, and “Proving Up” has some inkling of that. It has a horrific edge to it.

KR: I think there’s definitely a gothic quality to that vision of the homesteading community. I think that imperiled innocence, to have a child that age, made it feel like there’s a kind of neutrality to depict some of that violence. I tried at a certain point to tell that story from the father’s point of view, and then there’s such a stain of adult ego and ambition on the entire thing. Somehow I just felt like when you’re identifying with this adult consciousness, there’s a way that you’re not accessing the panoramic horror of the situation. You’re just holding that person accountable for their fortune in a way that you can’t with a child, necessarily, who’s sort of innocent and plugged into this landscape.

Also that’s the voice that it was easiest to hear the story in. I think there’s that way that kids just receive everything in a matter-of-fact register and that contributes to the horror for me. He doesn’t really know what to resist, and he’s plugged into this economy, and I think the terrible inertia of that story is that you start with a family that’s basically virtuous: hard working, has good intentions, is trying to fulfill this agrarian fantasy, and just trying to make a home. Which I think is the most sympathetic of goals: the collision of an ambition that’s basically good and the way that can spiral or expose people to evil, or a father’s ambition can expose his children to real violence. Somehow there’s the larger horror of having people who put roots there, planting your ambition in terrain that can’t support it and then seeing what happens. Having your first dream, if that goal is revealed to be an illusion or dangerous, hanging on well beyond [the point where it] has tipped into a nightmare, and refusing to acknowledge it.

AVC: As exemplified by that line about the window at the end of the story: “Sometimes we see things we don’t want to see.”

KR: Yeah, I hope that’s not too dorkily explicit. [Laughs.]

I was so excited for that window, because I think that’s what you’re always hunting for, to have something that’s concrete and moves the plot of the story but can create some symbolic significance. I think there’s some dark comedy in there.

Actually that was one of the edits that we tried, I think. In my mind some of the dialogue with that zombie homesteader was maybe a tonal adjustment. It got a little less funny in the final version. There’s dark comedy to me in that figure, in some terrible Beckett universe where your ambition outlives your physical body, it outlasts your life on the planet. That’s pretty grim.

AVC: It’s so all-consuming that it lives on.

KR: Yeah, that’s a mean joke. [Laughs.]


“Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules For Antarctic Tailgating,” Vampires In The Lemon Grove (2013)
AVC: This story doesn’t have a very positive opinion of obsessive sports fandom.

KR: [Laughs.] My brother is a hockey fan, and he writes about hockey for Grantland and other places. He’s tremendous. I’ve respected and found this hilarious, but he’s this kid from Miami who loves hockey, out of place like the Cool Runnings Jamaican bobsled team or something. [Laughs.] I remember him having an actual crisis when his team started winning, because they were the perennial underdog. This collection is so dark in places that I thought maybe it’s okay to have a story in a goofier register.

AVC: The idea of a fan going through the gauntlet of the environment to even get to the arena is fun.

KR: Yeah, there’s something about the scale of that, right? The game is only going to be several seconds. It’s just amazing to me the kind of emotional processing that seems to be going on around American sports. [Laughs.] I don’t totally understand it. I’m envious because it seems like if you could have that kind of intense emotional response with a group of people, it seems like secular religion. You’ve found a performative way to feel joy and sorrow and hope with a bunch of other people. I don’t think of that story as any kind of sophisticated social commentary or anything. Like a bunch of other stories in that collection, it’s about how optimism tips into delusion. You can risk frostbite, or your son; that’s the kind of danger you can expose yourself to when you’re really blindly committed. Like Team Krill could ever beat Team Whale.

AVC: Because the game is often so short, it’s also about the tailgating culture and fan interaction. That’s kind of how American sports culture builds out with college football or the NFL, especially for teams that don’t do very well.

KR: Banding together, right. Under the surface of a lot of that I think you see these class differences come to the forefront. If you’re pitting regions against regions, I think that coded aggression underlines a lot of it.

AVC: Team Whale fans are so wealthy they eat krill risotto cooked by a five-star chef.

KR: Yeah. [Laughs.] I had such a fun time writing that story. But then I was thinking there’s this darker story, for me anyway, that if you have this culture where you’re really encouraged to root for the underdog and believe against all evidence that they might win this time, because sometimes they do and that’s exhilarating. Doesn’t that seem like you’re never addressing the deep structural injustices? When I wrote Swamplandia! I was thinking about that a lot, where you want to root for this mom-and-pop shop, and it puts all the onus on the individual. It’s a way to dodge thinking about how we’re all complicit in these systems that keep perennially regenerating certain kinds of injustice or inequity. [Laughs.] I don’t know enough about American football or anything to make that case.

AVC: Did you go to Northwestern football games as a student?

KR: I did! I got so sunburned. I’m sorry I don’t know more about football. [Tailgating] was always my favorite part. Let’s eat some barbecue in a parking lot! All sports were like that to me. “Sure, I like basketball. Let’s get a hot pretzel and buy a hat.” But it is a funny thing to be like an amateur anthropologist. The males in my family, all of their emotions contour exactly to who wins, who loses. It’s a wild thing.

There’s something so primitive and amazing about how that superstitious thinking works. I can relate from other zones, but where you think somehow if you wear this shirt and you cheer in this particular way, it will have an effect on the game in progress. That’s when I think, “What is this dark magic that goes unacknowledged? Where the most rational men, who would deride any kind of crystal medicine new-age stuff, would assume any kind of causal, correlative connection between a sweatshirt and cheering?”

It’s amazing. Like everybody’s dad pretending they’re like Roald Dahl’s Matilda. “If I wish it hard enough, it will be so.” I’m just going to try and steer the ball remotely from my lounger; I think I can get it down the field.


“Ava Wrestles The Alligator,” St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves (first published in Zoetrope, 2006)
KR: I wrote that when I was in grad school, and I just had novel envy. It seemed like everybody was sort of settling down. It was that point in the musical chairs when I felt like I would love to be in an imaginary universe for a year or more. I had been writing stories compulsively, and I love writing stories, but it also takes effort to wrench a world into existence and then leave it in 12 pages. With Swamplandia! and “Ava,” somehow I had written what I believed was the first several chapters of a novel even though it was just a lot of sprawl. It was maybe a 40-page story. That was the longest thing I had written at that point. I think I just couldn’t stop worrying. I kept thinking about Ava and Ossie in a way that wasn’t true of the other stories in St. Lucy’s, where I sort of felt content to leave those kids forever and wish them well. [Laughs.] With the sisters, I kept thinking about them, because in the story they’re left in such a moment of crisis. It did keep opening out in my mind. It didn’t feel like an ending.

AVC: Did that have anything to do with the Florida swamp setting?

KR: Absolutely, because there are stories in that collection that are maybe more far-flung, but that felt like my own backyard. In some ways it’s the landscape of childhood. It may have felt closer than some of the other stories to my actual home, but not that close. The lawn was overgrown, but it wasn’t a swamp. Looking back I think some of it just felt like home.

AVC: Is it true you worked briefly as a veterinary assistant in Manhattan?

KR: Yeah, I did.

AVC: Animals have popped up in a few places in your fiction, with Ava and alligator wrestling, or the presidents inhabiting horses. What do they symbolize for you?

KR: I’ve been teaching this course out here [at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop] on landscapes, and we’ve been talking a little bit about how there is this beautiful inhuman autonomy. So if you have an animal in a story, what it represents is an order that is so much grander than the human order. Not disconnected from it, not like that’s a binary, but that there’s this cosmic natural order, something sort of inscrutable and mysterious that’s happening beyond human drama. I also just love animals. But I think in fiction sometimes for me they take on this talismanic shimmer, because they do seem alien and mysterious, the uncanniness of an alien gaze, where you see your same architecture. There’s a symmetry that’s familiar, and then this otherness that you can’t anthropomorphize. Alligators are that for me. I think that’s a creature you really can’t anthropomorphize, and it seems to connect in a really physical way to a vast past, it’s like geologic time waddling around wearing scales. So I took that job at the vet clinic, and it turns out loving animals doesn’t really qualify you to give animals injections.

None of the animals are interested in my love at that juncture. The animals also look sort of baffled, like they were trapped on some kind of Noah’s Ark in Manhattan.


“Reeling For The Empire,” Vampires In The Lemon Grove (2013)
KR: That was a big jump for me. I thought it was a new frontier. I had been reading this book by David Graeber, and there was a section on female debt slavery. I think that’s what sent me down some rabbit hole where I started reading about the Meiji period in Japan, which is this amazing time of violent metamorphosis. Somehow so many of these stories ended up being about transformation, and this one got the macro world of the story and some of the intimate stuff to link up. It’s a tale about these silkworm workers, which is an exaggeration of a story that’s historical. So there really were these factory girls who leave their houses to work in Western-style mills. And then they became important to the rise of feminist consciousness in Japan because there were these collective strikes. When they got to these factories, they saw that the conditions were abysmal. Industrialization happened so rapidly and suddenly everyone is living on a clock and they’re working 10-hour shifts in these windowless places.

Silk manufacture was interesting because it couldn’t be completely mechanized like other textiles. You still had to use your fingers because it’s so fine. So there’s a kind of delicate human endeavor that’s part of it. I forget exactly how it came into being, but the backdrop was that I had been reading about this place undergoing seismic cultural change and in a generation it’s getting wrenched out of isolationism and into trade with the West, and how that affects every part of life there. And then these women, who lose their identity as individuals, have fingers that are just unreeling silk, and that seemed like a real horror story to me. I guess that was the logic of the story that ended up being about metamorphosis and change. 

AVC: That’s a resonant theme across the collection, in “Vampires In The Lemon Grove” and “The New Veterans” as well, that kind of darker metamorphosis.

KR: That is funny, right? I think there’s only like half a joke in “Reeling For The Empire.”

AVC: It ends on this note of vengeance after the horrific transformation the women go through, but it points to a flashpoint for feminist consciousness.

KR: And a collective action. I think something irreversible has happened to those women. That was my hope anyway, that it ends on an ambiguous moment, but that there’s real power there, and hope for change.

More Random Reads