Author Karen Russell Awarded MacArthur 'Genius Grant'
The MacArthur Foundation said that Russell’s “haunting yet comic tales blend fantastical elements with psychological realism and classic themes of transformation and redemption.”
We revisit our February conversation with Karen Russell about “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.”
- 2012 interview and excerpt of “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”
- 2011 interview and excerpt of “Swamplandia”
- Karen Russell, author and 2013 MacArthur Fellow.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Among today's 24 recipients of the $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Awards: jazz musician Vijay Iyer, Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who studies how grit impacts academic achievement, and author Karen Russell. Karen was cited for her haunting yet comic tales that blend fantastical elements with psychological realism.
Her novel "Swamplandia!" featured a theme park modeled on hell. Her first short story collection had a tale about girls who were raised by wolves. In her recent collection, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," vampires suck on lemons to stave off their thirst for blood in the title story. Another, "Reeling for the Empire," is set in Japan. As that country transitions from a feudal to a modern society, young women are held captive in a silk factory where they slowly turn into silkworms.
KAREN RUSSELL: (Reading) Some of the older workers' faces are already quite covered with a coarse, white fur. But my face and thighs stayed smooth for 20 days. In fact, I've only just begun to grow the white hair on my belly. During my first nights and days in the silk-reeling factory, I was always shaking. I have never been a hysterical person, and so at first, I misread these tremors as mere mood. I was in the clutches of a giddy sort of terror, I thought.
Then the roiling feeling became solid. It was the thread, a color purling invisibly in my belly, silk. Yards and yards of thin color would soon be extracted from me by the machine.
YOUNG: What? Karen Russell is one of our favorite authors we've spoken many times, most recently when "Vampires" was published in February, and we started by observing that she seems so normal. Where do these ideas come from?
RUSSELL: You know what, the first collection, I would just tell everybody it was Diet Coke and insomnia and cartoon reruns. And now, it's true, right? I do think that there's - that somewhere on the DSM, that's always the fear, that one day my editor will just quietly send people into my apartment in lieu of a revision.
RUSSELL: She'll just - instead of editorial note, she'll just have me committed somewhere.
YOUNG: Now it's time to take her away.
YOUNG: Well, let's start with "Reeling for the Empire." All these women turn into these silkworm-producing creatures. And it is actually not that many degrees from - I thought of Asian women carefully putting tiny little parts in, you know, iPhones in factories in China.
RUSSELL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think the scariest thing for me about that story is, as you've said, I guess in terms of its, you know, relation to natural laws, it's unlikely that a woman would be converted into a silkworm monster, let's hope. But I just thought of it as a way to sort of concretize or literalize something that really is happening. The story is set during kind of Meiji-era Japan, but it's not so far removed from today's factories, textile mills.
And I think for me, reading about this period of extreme industrialization that happened at a really seismic kind of velocity, I was just thinking about how the horror of selfhood converted into factory machinery, basically, you know? So all of these women, the daughters of tenant farmers are sort of misled into thinking they're going to have a glorious imperial vocation as silk reelers. And the factory conditions were abysmal. Many scholars say it's sort of the dawning of feminist consciousness in Japan because these women collectively riot and strike for humane conditions.
And I was really moved by these accounts of female debt slavery. And certainly, it's nothing you can shrug off and say, what a SciFi horror story, because it's happening today.
YOUNG: Well, so that's to - one of the ideas. But what about the words? You know, critics falling over themselves. The New York Times writes: Put Karen Russell in a locked safe. Tie an arm behind her back. Blindfold her. Make her compose wearing mittens, see what happens: first-rate, elegant horror.
Let's take the vampire story, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." These are two sort of vampire retirees. But, you know, they could be retirees anywhere. Here's one talking about his lover, the sometimes bat, Magreb. Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything. We lived everywhere - Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. And I could just hear this guy talking. It almost sounds like a retiree on a bench.
RUSSELL: You know, it's funny. I mean, the story literally grew out of - I was with - my grandfather had wanted to see Europe before he passed away. So we took him on this demented cruise where you get, like, one day in each of the European capitals. So it was retirees meeting retirees, you know, across the Atlantic. And we were in some lemon grove where there was this ancient Italian man basically sucking on a lemon and, you know, just sort of had some kind of afternoon lemonade. And he looked to me like a tiny tan vampire.
RUSSELL: And, yeah, I was thinking about eternity and senescence, you know, what a terrible problem, in a way. I mean, how do you - I think it's sort of, again, another exaggeration of a pretty universal affliction, which is like, how are we going to make the most of our time here on this planet? And also, this couple, you know, yeah, they're in sort of like the red book's spice up your marriage phase of their monster union. I mean, I don't think their - some of the passion has dwindled. They're making a sincere effort...
YOUNG: After 700 years.
RUSSELL: Yeah, after like 700 years, and like no end in sight, right? And they're making a really sincere effort not to give into their, you know, blood-red cravings. So, yeah, it's kind of a sour patch for their marriage.
YOUNG: We are listening to an excerpt of our conversation with Karen Russell, who was named a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant today. She's talking about "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." That's the title story in her latest short story collection. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
We also asked Karen about another story in the collection in which presidents are reincarnated as horses after they die. As we said to her, so they're reincarnated, that's the good news. It's a second chance. But they're horses, so no one knows it.
RUSSELL: Some ambivalent good news, right. The death was not the end, but the afterlife doesn't make any more sense than this life did. It's funny. I was so excited when I wrote that story. And I remember describing it to friends, and just their faces, you know, blank as the moon. So - and they suggested we go get a beer. They were like, that's great, Karen, like, unconvinced that it was such a good idea.
That story was so fun to write. And I'm the kind of dork that will take a promise like that really seriously, you know, also, even as it fell pretty playful to spin out. And I was thinking about a book I love by Kevin Brockmeier called "The Brief History of the Dead," where souls go to this sort of antechamber between worlds.
What's beautiful about the book is you are as innocent as these sort of literal lost souls. I mean, you, the reader, are as innocent as they are about their new situation. You can hear in the echoes of their conversations about why are there here, what are they doing here, scrambling to do that kind of cosmic, arithmetic where you make your past equal to your present situation. You try to explain where you are based on your legacy, you know? I think I was thinking about all of those questions.
I had just seen this documentary on our American presidents with lots of pompous voiceovers. And just - I was struck by the intense, you know, if there was one thing they had in common regardless of their own politics, you know, it seemed to be this concern for their legacy.
RUSSELL: So I think that it's sort of a fusion of a few questions, but definitely that, you know, that kind of bewilderment, if you were to wake up in a horse's body, you used to be the most powerful man, you know, in the free world, and now you're stabled in some Kentucky afterlife that is even more mystifying than the place you left.
YOUNG: Yeah. And what if taking it further, you were Rutherford B. Hayes and thought that that sheep over there in the pasture was your wife Lucy. I just - it's where does she - where do you get these things?
RUSSELL: Yeah. Man, I - that was a weird turn even for me, I think. But I was just thinking if - it's another sort of universe. And, like, I would just hope that everybody has suffered some romantic delusion at some point, and this is - I mean, this is a pretty severe one. But I do think that that's a pretty desperate common wish, right, to be reunited with your beloved, you know, in some beyond.
YOUNG: Well, that is Karen Russell. Her latest collection of short stories is "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." It's just fantastic in every definition of the word. Karen, thanks so much for talking to us about it.
RUSSELL: Robin, thank you for having me. That was great. Thank you so much.
YOUNG: We spoke to Karen Russell in February. And today, she became one of the latest crop of MacArthur Fellowship winners that were announced. She says this might enable her to continue her writing, maybe pay her rent. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.