In her debut novel, Swamplandia!, Karen Russell explores the fantastical facets of her home state. Here's what she has to say about magical realism and her science fictional influences.
Russell's debut novel, Swamplandia! follows Ava and Kiwi, two siblings each attempting to save their family's dying Everglades amusement park. Kiwi takes a job at their over-the-top mainland competitor, the demonically themed World of Darkness, while Ava tries to master alligator wrestling and sets out on her own journey to the underworld. We talked to Russell about juggling the fantastical and the realistic, her thoughts on magical realism, and why fairy tales can do the same emotional work as Anna Karenina.
The realistic and the fantastical elements of Swamplandia! flow together pretty seamlessly. How did you achieve that balance? Did you find it difficult, especially when you are switching between the Ava and the Kiki sections?
I always get a little nervous talking about them as these discrete categories. For me, especially with a first-person narrator like Ava, you're so meshed with her subjective experience that she's sort of narrating every clause in this matter-of-fact register and this is just her experience. With Kiwi, who has sort of a much more literal understanding, he's more grounded in a certain reality that's probably more recognizable to those of us who had shitty minimum wage jobs or struggled with Algebra or whatever. That was the easier point of entry into kind of a consensus reality readers would recognize. In that sense, those sections, in terms of that particular ratio, felt a little easier to write.
But then what was fun about Kiwi's — I think he had this idea that he would enter mainland culture, which was going to feel a lot saner than the micro-society of his family. Then, when he gets there, I had a lot of fun dilating the weirdness of contemporary south Florida, because it's already so insane.
Then, with Ava, I really loved writing those sections, in part because that matches with my own emotional memory of this time, where you have access to both ways of seeing. She's still very much this stunted, weird kid, and she's had kind of a black-and-white view of good versus evil. But she's also becoming aware of other, grislier realities, like the fact that if you don't have enough money to run your park they're going to close you down, or the inertia that you watch your mom's cancer progress with.
That's all to say it was really fun to play with those ratios and invert them. The more ostensibly fantastical story, that is Ava's, ends up feeling to me like it deals more directly with some really nightmarish realities like death and abuse. Then with Kiwi's story, which is really the more lighthearted, more grounded in the contemporary world, I felt I had permission to look at some of the really strange stuff going on in an ordinary Wednesday in the mall.
Is the theme park where Kiwi works — the Hell-themed "World of Darkness" — based on somewhere in particular? Because it's insane, but also not outside the realm of possibility for South Florida.
There's no specific reference, but definitely the entire city of Orlando, probably, and Miami, too. Miami has a million of these lesser Disneys, like the Miami Seaquarium, Parrot Jungle. I was thinking of the World of Darkness as kind of dark Disney, because while I too was seduced by the miracle of eating a hot pretzel on thunder mountain, I sort of liked, as a kid, the underdogs. So I would insist we go to these much shabbier parks to help their revenue or something. "I want to go to Monkey Jungle!" where all these monkeys were eating white bread. It made me really sad to go there, but I was like, "Those monkeys need our support more than Mickey Mouse!"
You have a very literary writing style and approach. Are there particular writers or influences that encouraged you to do this melding of the literary with the fantastical?
In the back of the book I do this fan-girl shout-out. I really wanted to acknowledge Katherine Dunn, George Saunders, and Kelly Link. These were the people that I read in high school and in college. They were so different than the canonical stuff we were being fed. It just wasn't a time when Hemingway was hitting for me, and i had been writing such weird stuff myself and was generally kind of a weird kid. And I grew up reading fantasy [and] scifi, so I Iove Frank Herbert's Dune, I was big into Tolkien, of course, and Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.
I had this sense that there was this weird hierarchy of taste. You had to read Willa Cather, that was "real literature" — and if it had a zombie in it, it was not. Then I read a story like "Sea Oak," which is a beautiful literary story by George Saunders that has a zombie aunt in it. Something about the ratio of the real and the unreal and humor and tragedy and pain in those stories was really instructive to me. It's so liberating. Geek Love is the one that absolutely expanded my ideas of what fiction could be. From the first page, it's so much its own world. It feels like some space text that was dictated to her, that had always existed somewhere. It's so complete and completely insane. I was so dutiful in other ways, and if I hadn't read that I don't think I would have felt brave enough to write really weird stuff.
What I realized reading them was that the fantastical wasn't whimsical. I think adult readers hear fairy tales and they can feel dismissive: "Oh whatever, it's just about a talking animal wearing pants, I prefer to read Anna Karenina." But those books can do the same kind of emotional work as Anna Karenina. The fantastic just gave them kind of an expanded vocabulary to talk about something emotionally true.
The underworld is a huge part of the book, and I'm wondering what drew you to that particular imagery in this setting. Because even today, post-drainage, the Everglades are still kind of hyper-alive.
I think that's true too. Even now when people are arguing, "Oh, it's just a museum of its former self," when you go there, it's offset by all this tacky artificial strip mall on the ride down, and then there's suddenly this jewel-green place.
But I was thinking, there are portions of it: the sawgrass is such a monotone, and there's no horizon line, it moves in every direction. There's something scary to me about that vastness, where it feels like you really could get lost in this flat landscape. And Dante sets his in this slough or swamp, so I felt there was good historical precedent. The mangrove tunnels, where it's that papery grey bark and you're going through all these wishbone-looking trees with these weird roots, that to me really felt like some maze-like hell when we would kayak around there. Even the color of the alligators themselves. We think they're a verdant green or a cartoon green, and we get there and they're almost a greeny black or more of a corrugated rubber color.
There are two ways to get lost. You can be lost in this flat landscape, these prairies that pretend to be ground but aren't. And then you can get lost in these labyrinths.
I'm curious to hear what you think of the term magical realism. You mentioned some of your influences earlier, like Kelly Link. Do you consider what you are doing to be magical realism?
I'm glad you asked this, because it's a really delicate one. If people invited me to that party with all of those people, I'd be there in two seconds. Those are many of my favorite writers.
It's tough to find the right descriptive language. It ends up feeling like a catchall for a lot of very different sorts of books. What Kelly Link is doing is, in a way, a lot more slipstream or dreamlike. George Saunders, to me, has a different texture. Some of his stuff feels almost scifi, some of it feels almost cartoony slapstick with like a Buddhist kick. So this ends up feeling like not the most precise way to describe some really diverse work. Somebody else like Dan Chaon will have a story like "The Bees," where nothing impossible happens, but the whole thing hums with this minor-key music of horror and feels like it has its roots in genre. But there's no break in the laws of physics. So, is magical realism when there's just a break, something that happens that doesn't have a naturalistic explanation, and you're just supposed to accept it as a reader? Is it when you dilate reality a little bit so things feel shimmery around the edges? I like both and I've written in both ways.
The thing that makes me a little uneasy with magical realism is I think some readers hear the word "magic" and have the wrong associations. They think there's going to be a whimsical story about a pig with wings that they don't want to be emotionally invested in. "Oh, its a ghost story, so it couldn't happen, it's not for me." That's also my big beef with the word "magical." It makes people think of a sorcerer in a hat and a world without consequences, or a child's story, some kind of escapist fantasy instead of just another strategy to tell one of the four stories we've got, about love or grief or death.
I get nervous in a story that's a realist story that says, "This is how reality is, I'm going to give you the metatranscription of reality." That's always felt kind of dishonest to me. Ultimately, it's just the writer's invention and their language.