The Bryn Mawr teacher is the author of Swamplandia! inspired by her native Florida
By Rebecca Shaw
At 17, Karen Russell wanted to travel the world.
To do so, she decided to work for Putney Student Travel, a summer program that organizes high school tours to places such as Cuba, Australia, and Spain.
“I am the least athletic person, but ended up on the trips where you’d propel down a waterfall or sail the Great Barrier Reef,” said Russell with a laugh, her brown eyes sparkling. “I’m grateful that if I write a really bad story or sentence, the stakes are so much different than the Putney job, where I just wanted everyone to ski down a glacier alive.”
For Russell, 30, geographical settings have a way of sneaking into her fiction. During Putney Student Travel, she visited a site of a shipwreck in Cuba. As part of her 2006 short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girl’s Raised By Wolves, Russell wrote “Haunting Olivia,” a story about two brothers snorkeling off a shipwreck in Cuba.
This semester, Russell is teaching Short Fiction II as a distinguished visiting professor through Bryn Mawr College’s Creative Writing Program. Russell described the experience as “a lucky blessing—an Oprah miracle.”
“There’s always the cliché that if you teach undergrad writing, you’ll get thinly veiled autobiographical stories about fraternity parties,” said Russell. “I have encountered none of that. I’m amazed about the amount of vision and voice in the students’ writing.
Russell’s journey to Bryn Mawr College began in Fall 2010, when she traveled to Ireland to participate in a story festival. In Ireland, she met Robin Black, a previous Bryn Mawr Creative Writing professor.
“We spent many days buying shamrock merchandise,” recalled Russell with a smile. “Robin told me how much she enjoyed teaching at Bryn Mawr. Some behind-the-scenes magic happened with Robin and Dan Torday, the Bryn Mawr Creative Writing Program Director. I really wanted to go to Philly, and I was ready to leave New York, so the timing worked perfectly.”
Russell moved to New York while pursuing a MFA, a graduate degree in creative writing, from Columbia University. She graduated in 2006. During her last year at Columbia University, Russell started generating the pages of her first novel, Swamplandia!.
Russell began to write stories from a young age; as soon as she could hold a pencil.
Her passion for writing stemmed from a strong dislike for sports. She sought refuge in her own imagination and formed a love of reading.
Russell was attracted to darker fiction, such as Stephen King novels. She made a deal with her mother that she would read fiction like Jane Austin novels to balance the darker series of books. She read The Count of Monte Cristo, before reading about psycho rabbits in Watership Down.
“It seemed amazing to me that words on a page could become an entire world to you,” said Russell. “ I was an anxious kid and books saved me in this way. Books were this door which you could carry to a historical period, or entire universe.”
Russell’s novel Swamplandia! carries readers into the universe of Ava Bigtree, a 12-year-old alligator wrestler who lives in Florida. The novel is inspired by Russell’s short story “Ava Wrestles An Alligator,” which is part of Russell’s 2006 short story collection. Swamplandia was published in February 2011 to critical acclaim.
Literary critic Janet Maslin of the New York Times described Russell as “one in a million.” Maslin wrote that “the proof is in Swamplandia!, a novel about alligator wrestlers, a balding brown bear named Judy Garland, a Bird Man specializing in buzzard removal, a pair of dueling Florida theme parks, rampaging melaleuca trees, a Ouija board and the dead but still flirtatious Louis Thanksgiving.”
Swamplandia! was noticed by the television world as well. Executive producer Scott Rudin optioned to adapt Russell’s novel for a half- hour television series on HBO.
The Swamplandia universe will be transitioning from page to television screen, allowing people to see Southern Florida’s unique geographical settings as depicted in the book.
Growing up in Miami, Florida influenced Russell writing and her emphasis on the geographical settings.
“In the book tour circuit, people ask where my ideas come from. I like to say my home address,” said Russell. “Geographically, South Florida’s a weird place. I tend to write about childhood to adulthood thresholds. Florida’s a good setting for thresholds since tide lines are always coming in and revising the beach. The swamp itself is a literally uncanny place. It’s neither land nor water.”
In order to publicize Swamplandia!, Russell has been participating in book tours and book fairs around the United States since February.
For Russell publicizing her novel required a different sort of energy than writing it. During the writing process, Russell grew “accustomed to spending hours alone, taking dictation from an imaginary world.” During the publicizing process she spent time with different types of people.
“That’s been a little disorienting; the public part. I don’t even have a webpage or a Facebook page. It just seems stressful, to maintain online identity. It’s hard to put together an outfit in the morning in the real world,” said Russell, straightening her skirt.