Karen Russell & Wells Tower Discussing Swamplandia!
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.
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.
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