Volunteer Nathan attends an evening with Karen Russell at Politics & Prose.
Karen Russell is in the zone. On February 12th, her most recent collection of short stories Vampires in the Lemon Grove hit the shelves, and the new stories offer more proof of Russell’s talents. On February 25th, she visited Politics & Prose for a brief reading and Q & A.
She read the first half of her new story Proving Up. Her voice’s timbre transformed while she read, softly phrasing words with inflections reminiscent of childhood story time. She was practiced and confident and paced her sentences with care. The childlike approach distracted me at first, but I missed none of the odd similes and striking descriptions.
Proving Up is a fine example of Russell’s rhythm with swift sentences that read with a spritely bounce like the ball on a sing-along song tapping away each joyful syllable. The perfect balance of stressed and unstressed syllables is infused with beautiful descriptions and observations – marking Russell’s evolution toward a refined and unique authorial voice. She is no longer flexing flimsy, albeit promising, muscles, but she has become a well-toned heavyweight.
The story originally appeared as The Hox River Window in Zoetrope’s Fall 2011 issue, which was horror-themed. When the audience asked Russell for a scary story, she replied, “All of them are horror stories, even the love stories.”
Like every reading, the juicy bites came with the Q & A, when Russell’s voice returned to her natural register, and audience members directed questions from two microphones. She took each question to heart and spouted answers worthy of transcription for later reflections. When asked why she chose to mostly write adolescent protagonists, Russell delivered a stream of analogies, how the friction of coexisting in simultaneous realities (imaginative childhood, stark adulthood, the supernatural) gives her stories energy, and the pendulum sway from childhood to adulthood gives her characters the ability to experience spooky fantasy and harsh reality with equal merit.
When asked for her writing inspirations from childhood, Russell cited Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as well as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles among others. The audience nodded along with the references, fully understanding how Russell’s work is a product from equal parts outcast themes and dreamlike sci-fi.
Another question perked my Potomac Review blogger interest: what is Russell’s writing process? She said, “It varies, but [each process is] equally demented.” Russell smiled, and the audience chuckled. She admitted that in her earlier stories (St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Werewolves) she spent less time on research. The stories evolved from a simple idea for an interesting predicament. This is where the bizarre setup happens. Haunting Olivia began with Russell wondering what it would be like to find a pair of swimming goggles that would let you see ghosts under water. From there, she creates a narrative arc that propels a character (and reader) through an emotional experience.
Her more recent stories required more research. Proving Up contains facts and information about the Dust Bowl era American West and the Western migration. She said that sometimes her research leads her to a story idea. The process of whole communities sharing a single window, passing from family to family, inspired the basis for Proving Up. This got her reading about the period, and she says she is currently working on a new novel with this same setting.
Russell’s presence crackled with creative electricity. She answered questions quickly and with eloquent phrases. She seemed in direct communion with what all writers are reaching for – her unique creative voice. I look forward to her next novel, and I hope to see her speak again.