Karen Russell on Swamplandia!


At Work

Photograph by Michael Lionstar.

Swamplandia! is twenty-nine-year-old Karen Russell’s first novel. But the Miami native is already well known in literary circles for her debut story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006). The overlapping themes in St. Lucy’s—the pitfalls and wonders of childhood, reality’s spectral double, and the changeable mood of the Florida swamp—resurface, with equal deftness and wit, in the novel, which also borrows the Bigtrees, a family of alligator wrestlers. In Swamplandia!, the Bigtrees operate the titular theme park on a small island in Florida’s archipelago, and Ava, the youngest daughter, traces the park’s and the family’s demise—the “Beginning of the End” she calls it—after the death of her mother.

Were there theme parks on islands in the Florida you grew up in, as there are in the novel?

There were definitely a lot of these little Diane Arbus-y–constructed realities everywhere. We had Monkey Jungle, Parrot Jungle, a serpentarium off I-60, zoos, and the Miami seaquarium. It was this seamless, whole cloth thing: There is the seaquarium, now we go to the grocery store. It doesn’t really interrupt reality.

We had a little boat when I was really young, and we would go tool around the islands near Pristine Bay, and I loved that. I was reading YA novels where kids are always shucking their parents and living for months on an island, so that was exciting. There’s a whole genre of YA novels where some kid is stranded by a plane, or stuck on an island, or lost in the woods, and they use their kid resources to survive through sheer luck. That was always my favorite trajectory. I was an anxious kid, and these books seemed like the best invention ever: here is a door I can carry with me wherever I go; I could just open a book in any situation.

What you’re describing occurs in a similar way in the novel: reality is punctuated by unreal moments, and the two don’t interrupt each other; rather, it all meshes together.

I think even when you’re really young there is something beautiful and sad about that—that this is our best imagining. Parrot Jungle always struck me that way. I really loved that place, but then as a kid, you are making a good effort to pretend that it’s great. You give them some money and they cover you in parrots and you put on a fake grin and you’re like, What we’re doing is strange here. What is this for, exactly? And I remember feeling a weird, uncanny sympathy with the cockatoo riding a bicycle.

The Bigtrees are isolated from and insulated against the world, and this makes their island, which is only populated by the family and their alligators, a kind of Eden. But it’s a short-lived one; the story is, as Ava puts it, about their “fall.” Did you intend this as a metaphor for childhood?

That’s a really beautiful reading. I was definitely thinking in the opening section—it was hard to figure out what the right introduction would be—about how everybody has a dream-bubble memory. Even if it has been edited over time, it’s a beautiful, seamless memory of your best moment in childhood. But there is always a tinge of unreality; it was never so perfect. Even when their mother was alive, Swamplandia! was still a tawdry tourist trap. But the experience of it was like, yeah, this is Eden. A lot of this book grew out of my sense that I had arrived a little late for the party, that a few generations ago was when the skies in Florida were dark with birds, and the Everglades was a wonderland. I grew up in a time when there was an increased consciousness of phosphor solution and development, and adults were reckoning with the past twenty years of development and its consequences. So I think it must always be the case that you are in the shadow of an Eden that was more spectacular than your own. The Bigtree kids grow up hearing about the glory days of their island, which they were not alive for.

The relationship between reality and fantasy, between reality and unreality, is very slippery in the novel. Ava is thirteen, that awkward time between childhood and early adulthood, and her understanding of events straddles both perspectives.

I’m glad it reads that way. That was never my experience, that sudden before and after. I thought a lot about her trajectory. She starts out having cut her teeth on fairy tales and stories of heroes and comic books—really black-and-white narratives of good and evil—and she’s lacking in reality. And then she goes through a literary gray zone, and that is a much more complicated reality. I definitely didn’t want it to read as though there is some sharp, literal division, and then you come out on the other side. She figures out a different kind of story to tell, one that accommodates a new reality.

Ava is a very seductive narrator. As the author, you put the reader in a tough spot: wanting to believe everything she thinks is true, but knowing that it’s probably not.

A lot of the challenge of the book was trying to figure out a way that the reader could stay merged with Ava’s consciousness. I thought there would be no tension if you were making this voyage with her and you had an aerial sense of what’s happening, one that diverges from Ava’s sense of what’s happening. There’s a metaphysical pivot near the end, the moment where her idea of what’s happening kind of breaks, and she has to reconstitute her sense of who certain people are. There is something really beautiful, too, about Ava’s credulity and her desire to believe, and I think that is a beautiful impulse that kids have, that everybody has—that we’re going to save each other, that we’re going to be the heroes of our stories.

She’s not completely gullible, and I think that makes her all the more credible. For instance, she doesn’t completely believe that her older sister, Osceola, is having relationships with ghosts, but she doesn’t entirely reject the notion either.

That’s such a weird threshold to be on when you’re that age, even if you don’t have a clairvoyant sister. It is such a difficult ledge because you do have this myth of who you are and what your family is, but new evidence is being introduced all the time, and you’re having to do this private arithmetic. People are trying to protect children that age from realities that they’re very much alive to. So you try to sift through different levels: you’ve got the story of what’s happening in your family, and then you’ve got the evidence of your eyes. I was thinking about how difficult it is for every person alive to be that age, and to try to figure out what their orientation is going to be to what is going on.

The Bigtrees featured in one of the stories in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls. Did you always imagine expanding that tale into something more substantial?

The story that appears in the collection was, when I showed it to my editor, like a forty- or sixty-page sprawl, and she said, This is neither a story nor short. So we cut it and did an ice-cream scoop of what felt like the dramatic part of that material. But I wanted it to be a longer thing. I also had a really naive idea that I had already done sixty pages, and I thought, That’s half a novel practically! I’ll be done tomorrow! I really was pretty smug. That was years and years ago. But I love the sisters’ relationship a lot. Or love isn’t even the right word, but I really think that out of all the stories in the collection it felt open and humming and still active.

Was the transition from stories to longer fiction a difficult one to make?

It was really tricky, because the way I write stories isn’t really compatible with novel writing, and my favorite part of any kind of writing is always on the sentence level. I would end up writing sections that amounted to a lot of drafting, and I don’t really outline, so I had only a rough idea of what I wanted. I ended up with a lot of material that didn’t make the cut for the book, and it was very painful, because I had spent so much time on the sentences. There was also the endurance part of it, staying with these characters and letting them change over time, writing down blind alleys and then backing up again. I thought that was almost the scariest part, because oftentimes with a story I will get the ending first or early on, or just feel like I can put all the parts together; this wasn’t like that. I didn’t know how to tell the story so that you could believe along with Ava and feel everything that she was feeling with her and not feel betrayed as a reader.

Were you influenced by other authors in inventing the Bigtrees?

In an earlier version of Ava’s story, I went back and read Geek Love. It is so good, in that way that you read something and it gets into your bloodstream. I’m afraid to read it now because I’m sure that she’ll take me to the People’s Court for plagiarism. I think that a billion years ago, when I first read it, it must have been the proto-proto-influence. She made it possible to have an eccentric family that exists off the grid and to use it to explore universal family themes, which just ends up highlighting how the most mundane sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts that any family in New Jersey can relate to … it’s that, but instead there’s Arty the flipper boy. I owe her a great debt. Her work showed me that you could have a novel that was interested in sentences but also had Arty the flipper boy.