Gracious — that’s the word that comes to mind when I think of Karen Russell. A Pulitzer Prize finalist and MacArthur Genius, Russell need not respond to my email asking for the below answers. But not only did she respond in record time, she has a newborn at home.
Such generosity won’t be surprising to a fan of Russell’s work. She creates worlds worth sinking into. Peat bogs, lemon groves, amusement parks — Russell’s been there and done more than send us a postcard. She’s extended her hand and asked us to visit. So what better guide for an upcoming talk and class all about charting a course through an imaginary place?
Read on for a day in the life of this well-known writer, a preview of her upcoming work, and a few hints of what’s ahead for her May visit to Seattle.
Q: What’s a typical day of writing look like for you (if there is a “typical” day)?
A: Well, right now, I have to confess that I’m writing in hour bursts while our newborn son naps, and I’m feeling pretty accomplished when I can send a lucid text. But a typical writing day for me used to be writing for about four hours in the morning, breaking for lunch, and either getting back to it if I was feeling really excited about something, or close to finishing a chapter or a story draft. Or, more frequently, using those afternoon hours to do teaching prep or other kinds of work. Mornings and early evenings seems to be the most productive times for fiction, for me anyways. That shadowless stretch from noon to three, I always seem to hit a wall.
But it really depends on what stage I’m at with something. In the honeymoon phase of a project, I only want to live inside that world in utero. Then, once I’ve made a mess of things, lunch starts to sound really appealing. When I sense I’m nearing the completion of something, too, I can happily work for hours and hours at a stretch. But most of the time, it’s the middle. And during the middle, it’s a real victory just to stay at the desk and not keep bobbing up to the surface to check email, or get more coffee, or neurotically reread the three paragraphs that I managed to eke out.
Q: The last I read of your writing was “The Bog Girl” in The New Yorker. What have you been up to since that piece published in June?
A: I’ve been working on a novel, and a new story collection. Two of the new stories will be published this summer. I wrote a longform piece on housing and homelessness in Portland for an anthology called “Tales of Two Americas, Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation.” And I’m very excited to be collaborating with a composer and a choreographer on the storyline for a contemporary ballet.
Q: What do you hope students learn in your class,“Cartographers of Imaginary Places”?
A: Strategies for creating worlds on the page that feel vibrant, specific, and dimensional to a reader. And ideas for how to make these imaginary worlds matter to a reader.
Q: What are your favorite imaginary places?
A: Oh, dear, there are too many to list. The cosmos of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Louise Erdrich’s North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, which recurs in so many of her novels. The sunny underworld of Pedro Paramo. Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Kelly Link’s spaceships and pocket universes. Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Ursula K. Le Guin’s planet Gethen. Stephen King’s Derry, Maine. Ray Bradbury’s gonzo theme parks and melancholy ruins in the Martian Chronicles. The post-nuclear Florida Keys in Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro.