Dear Karen Russell, If You Need Someone to Take a Bullet for You…

Karen Russell & Wells Tower Discussing Swamplandia!

Karen Russell signed book

My 5th grade psychotherapist did say I was a manipulative prick

Karen Russell knows how to make a little blogger’s quiet heart squeal with joy.

Not only did she and Wells Tower engage in some hot back and forth over writing, novels, Florida, Southern Gothic, and Columbia University; not only did I get top-notch insults from two of the New Yorker Magazine’s “30 Under 40” stud authors; not only did I eat crackers and cheese, with grapes and a bit of wine; not only were those vittles provided gratis by the NYPL and its Young Lions program; not only did I get yelled at only once for breaking some invisible line separating the cheese servers’ side of the buffet from the cheese eaters’ side of the buffet, mostly because my love of Brie demanded I get around the old lady taking her sweet time with a couple strawberry slices; not only did all of this go abnormally, amazingly well, but Russell sent me spinning by saying:

  • I was wondering if/when (ed: can’t remember which) you would come for my insult.
  • The people at Powell’s (awesome bookstore in Portland, OR) told me to watch out for you.

Top it all off by my having two witnesses to these happenings, alongside two other random people who were probably wondering why I kept looking over my shoulder with an expression that said I expected zombie Ed McMahon to show up with a check for 1,000,000 butterfly kisses. From Karen Russell.

For a couple days, then: never mind my less-than-fantastic Google Analytics numbers. Never mind the fact that I’m still paying out of pocket for all of my books, and I’m still waiting for a publishing company flunky to swoop down and offer me review copies of any and every upcoming novel and book of short stories my grubby stubby hands could handle. Never mind that I’ve still never published anything of note and I still make less than the average wage someone just starting out in my industry makes despite 7 1/2 years of experience.

For a night, and for what looks like the rest of the week, none of this matters because Karen Russell confirmed that something is finally going right rather than tits-over-teakettle wrong. Pardon me this saccharine gumbo of self-congratulations and self-pity. That evening was a feast of raw tiger blood. I was told that “we” are “talking about you.”

Goddamn right, #winning.

Wells Tower Everything Ravaged Everything Burned

Reads: You must have terribly low, or possibly outlandishly high, self-esteem to want me to insult you with this inscription. I hope it works itself out.

Back to the reading.

Karen Russell is an author who grew up in Florida, where “youth was KFC in a bucket, in a boat.” She is 28, and I’m trying so hard not to be jealous or petty about the fact that she could, as the emcee noted, be on the New Yorker’s “30 under 40” list twice in her lifetime. Goddammit.

She and Wells Tower sat up on a stage inside the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, a towering room with a glass dome, thick carpeting, and free wine and cheese off to the side. It looked like what I’d imagine a “den” would look like in a 19th century castle — dark, well-polished wood, columns — the only thing missing was a magnificent fireplace and a dramatic man holding a brandy, staring into the roaring fire.

Also missing: a large monitor behind the authors that read in flashing red and black, “SPOILER ALERT.” Russell read aloud what she felt was the most important part of the book, a point where any notion of magical realism or Alice in Wonderland was painfully snuffed out. Being that this passage came from page 260-something, and the book has been out for a little over a month, it was a bit unfair to read what Russell called the “crux” of the book.

On the other hand, it was powerful hearing Russell read with tenderness and maybe grief for her 13-year-old protagonist. Lately, I’ve been reading books written by authors I suspect of hating their characters. Mat Johnson’s Pym, Franzen’s Freedom, Shteyngart’s Super Sad True, Lipsyte’s Ask — it’s nice to see an almost tender love for a creation, live.

Russell’s reading voice was unnaturally somber not because it felt fake or forced, but because the solemnity skewed so far from the upbeat, happy note she registered over the preceding discussion. Maybe I’m still fawning, but she reminded me of a past creative writing professor who encouraged me to keep writing, despite the awful shit I was spreading over the page. When I’d get up to read, she’d inevitably have something positive to talk about, the way the voice felt like a camera or the excellent thick stock of paper I’d printed my stories on. Karen Russell seems like the type of person who finds something nice to say about everyone, and probably believes it too.

Wells Tower, meanwhile, was impeccably prepared and well-spoken. Too often, author “discussions” devolve into a cooperative fellatio-pact where rampant platitudes and cold war-style praise one-upsmanship is de rigueur. Their talk deserved the “discussion” title; I felt I came away knowing more about how both authors approach writing. And the limited time dedicated for audience questions was a surprise bonus.

Some of my notes from that evening:

Both authors were hesitant to accept the “Southen Author” handle and all the connotations that come alongside it. Russell talked about how Florida is the perfect “no place” in terms of readers’ preconceptions — it’s not the “South,” exactly. It’s not the “East Coast” either. It’s almost more “Midwest” than anything else, like as if Oklahoma had art deco, Cuban food, and beaches. I’d argue that Florida conjures images of bitter old people and overweight mothers driving Jeep Cherokees, but hey.

Tower asked how it feels to “lose control” of the characters after the book’s published. Russell mentioned that it can be frustrating, especially because readers are obviously going to have a different relationship with your characters that you have, or even imagined they could have.

Russell talked about how difficult it is to write “happy stories” and “happy characters” because “it seems like writers get punished for writing about happy things.” I wanted to hug the nearest person. Happiness! Tower praised her for being brave enough to write happy people, because he feels obligated to make “kind characters create a triple murder” to show readers balance. I felt like strangling the nearest person. MurdaGRAH.

Overall, an excellent evening. I’m slowly moving towards being able to die a happy man.

Follow Insulted by Authors on Twitter @wellwrittenhate

22 responses to “Dear Karen Russell, If You Need Someone to Take a Bullet for You…

  1. You make me want to eat Brie alongside of you, Bill.

  2. This blog made me want to sooch with happiness.

  3. I am so proud to be one of the witnesses! Russell and Wells were both awesome!

    • Hell YES, Alanna! I’m glad you were there to see it. I was kinda trying to get you and Steph to go first in case I bombed out. Glad it went down like it did.

  4. LOVED Karen Russell’s reading at Books&Books in Miami; I wish she could’ve read the entire book to me. She is so mellow when she reads, yet so ANIMATED when she speaks. It’s really fascinating to watch the bright young author switch to write such deep, dark things. Must’ve been fun to watch Tower and Russell interact– I def missed that bit of action. Plus the wine and cheese. Yum.

    • Right?!? She’s seems so happy and pleasant. We can pray for the next best thing: she reads her own novel in the audiobook version and we can build forts with pillows and cardboard boxes and pretend that she’s reading to us while we hug our stuffed animals.

      My SO was a little jealous when I returned from the reading. I guess I was (and still am) gushing a little too much.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Hello Bill – I have not been insulted by but had signings with Junot Diaz and George Saunders (and many more those were on your wish list)- he drew many a lovely cartoon for me…I know how you can reach he and Sedaris, David by year end if you are in New York this fall

  6. sorry quite a discombobulated hiding at work message I fear – George Saunders is the he in he and Sedaris…

  7. Bill, “Maybe I’m still fawning, but she reminded me of a past creative writing professor who encouraged me to keep writing, despite the awful shit I was spreading over the page…” Karen was my creative writing teacher at Columbia, and she was, as expected, an unbelievably encouraging and inspiring teacher. Fawn away; it is fully deserved.

    • Damn. Jealous. I guess technically it’s never too late, but I’d love to go back to school. Maybe Columbia’d give me a discount if I give them a mention in my blog.

      Thanks for reading, furthering my idolization.

  8. Are you going to try an insult from Mrs. Bossypants herself, Tina Fey?

    • I’d love to. I’ve decided to widen the scope beyond focusing on fiction; I think getting a Tina Fey insult would be excellent. I almost went to Snooki’s “reading” a few months ago, but bailed out when my gag reflex kicked in.

      Thanks for the comment, reading, being awesome.

  9. Superb blog my good man. As someone who has heard your voice in real audio I dare say you’ve beautifully transcribed it onto the page. I swear I’m getting back to writing that novel, just so someday, somewhere, somehow I might have the indubitable honor of insulting the inimitable Bill Ryan. In the meantime I look forward to you taking InsultedByAuthors on the road (I’d love to be one of your witnesses (soon to be dubbed ‘entourage’) at Powell’s in Portland!) Cheers

  10. *witty gushing comment about how glad i am to find this site and the level X of my enjoyment*<- there.

    • *obligatory response showing how much I care about the people who bother responding*

      *immediate regret for the flippant possibly callous note sounded in previous sentence*

      *serious thank you for reading, commenting*

      *beer sip*

  11. I found your blog through Go Fug Yourself who found it through Flavorwire and three clicks later I am absolutely enamored of your blog! I love it and cannot wait to read more.

    • Thanks Gracey. Hopefully I’ll have a new post up tomorrow, but damn if my inner-editor isn’t whipping my ass. I can’t quite get this post out. Literary constipation is a bitch.

  12. I similarly found this through the Go Fug Yourself/Flavorwire/etc trail, and clicking through just made my day (and also almost caused a tea and laptop incident, which was thankfully averted by a very sly quick swallow and cough while still laughing maneuver). Keep it up, and best of luck with your quest!

    • Laptops are liquid magnets. Someone should figure that out, how to make a laptop that you can run through the dishwasher. Right after they cure cancer, of course.

      Thanks for reading, commenting, being a person who kicks ass regularly.

  13. Bloody hell. I like this. Must be my upbringing, but insults= LOVE.

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