'It All Feels Pretty Marvelous and Strange': Karen Russell on Florida, the Surreal, and Orange World

'It All Feels Pretty Marvelous and Strange': Karen Russell on Florida, the Surreal, and Orange World
Image:Penguin Random House/Knopf

Two women survive a night at a haunted ski resort, mutant sisters navigate a post-apocalyptic Florida, a young woman is possessed by a Joshua tree, a bog girl is transformed into modern girlfriend, and a mother makes a deal with a devil—these are the women who inhabit the stories in Karen Russell’s new collection Orange World and Other Stories. For those already acquainted with Russell’s work, the surreal characters and inventive settings of Orange World will be a welcome addition to her fantastical literary landscape, already populated by alligator wrestlers, wolf-girls, and vampires. And in Orange World, as with her previous work, Russell uses the surreal to lay bare the anxieties and fears of modern life.

In “The Prospectors,” two young women conning their way through the Great Depression find themselves alone, abandoned at a buried resort turned graveyard, inhabited by the ghosts of men who met their deaths at the site. The women perform a strange choreography, nervously placating the egos of dead men in hopes of surviving and avoiding violence. The women band together, just as the four mutant sisters of “The Gondoliers.” Raised in “New Florida” the girls sing to each other as they echolocate through the drowned, post-apocalyptic landscape of Miami. And, in “Orange World,” a new mother is beholden to an evil force, saved only by other mothers who recognize the devil (or, in this case, “a devil”) as a weak parasite manifested by guilt and uncertainty.

In this collection, difficult realities are refracted through ghosts and mutants, but they still retain their potency. Russell’s greatest skill has always been that she can transport anxieties and seemingly inescapable realities into the realm of the uncanny, making readers reexamine them with renewed empathy and even with a sense of eager humor. That’s particularly true throughout Orange World. Ghosts are terrifying, but so is sexual assault; climate change is looming but perhaps survival takes more imagination; a person plagued by rumors and lies is hollowed out like zombie; the people we love can be unknowable.

I spoke to Russell about apocalypses, landscape, and (inevitably) Florida. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: What always strikes me about your writing, and particularly with these stories, is that it’s very tied to landscape. In Orange World, there’s a post-apocalyptic Florida, Northern European bogs, Joshua Tree National Park, and these landscapes define your characters, tying them to the land. I’m wondering how you approach setting when you’re thinking up your characters?

KAREN RUSSELL: I usually start with the setting, which I think is a little different than how my friends who are writers work. In almost every case in this collection, I definitely inserted some of my previous stuff. I went to Joshua Tree National Park for the first time and I did go on a road trip with my now husband, but he would definitely want me to say that it’s not an autobiographical story. It was just such a sublime place and I felt completely resized by it—I felt so haunted by these ancient trees. There was something about the scale of it that really torqued me in a strange new pleasurable way. It just feels like there are magnets under the earth. It’s like an exciting transgression just to be there.

I saw these Quonset huts on the horizon and that’s just an interesting question: Who chose to make this place their home? They’re not getting a lot of encouraging messages from the sun and the rocks, so how did this become the place that they decided they would offer their life story?

Similarly with “Bog Girl.” A long time ago I went to Dublin and it was the first time anyone had paid for me to go abroad for a book reason. It felt very amazing to me. I went to see the bog people in a museum. I was traveling alone so I was adrenalized, like riveted to my skin in the way you are if you’re traveling alone, and I was so moved. I was surprised by how moved I was to see these bog bodies. That was years and years ago. I’m not totally sure what spun up that image in my mind. Since I had never really stomped around a bog in Northern Europe, I was also just thinking about the muck in our backyards. I grew up in South Florida and we lived by this mangrove estuary that we just called “the muck.” We would play there for hours and it had that liminal quality where surprising things were always getting washed in by the tide.

These are all places that felt very evocative to me. The geography and its landscape always generate the rest of the story. I always wonder what kind of human beings would live in these landscapes and what kind of human beings would these landscapes produce? Sometimes geography controls the plot, too. In “The Bad Graft,” I was really thinking about the strange collision of different instincts. And with “Bog Girl,” there’s really nothing better you could ask from a landscape—tannic acid and perfectly preserved thousand-year-old people. When I was working on the story, I remember reading that they had found ancient butter that was still edible. Did anyone test that claim? I have no idea, but it’s wilder than anything you can imagine, that this kind of portal exists.

I am also from South Florida and, like you, I also moved West (though only for a short time) and I wanted to ask you if that shift changed the way you perceived landscape and setting. They feel like opposite ends of the world…

I don’t know about you, but I feel like my family cultivated this reverse snobbery about the West. I didn’t see snow until I was 18 and went to college.

Me neither…

That’s amazing when you think about it!

I think it’s because Florida is such a big state that you just can’t make it out. You can drive seven hours and you’re still in Florida. Why go anywhere? We just went to Orlando a lot. I feel like I didn’t appreciate the strangeness of South Florida until I left.

I am still getting used to the scale of the West even though I’ve been here half a decade. The Pacific is an angry ocean. I remember the first time I went to the beach here and I thought, we need a new noun for this—these rocks, these insane waves and this crazy ocean full of orcas. That was a little bit of a surprise. Again, I felt dwarfed in a pleasurable way that I don’t think happens in quite the same way on the East Coast. There is also a mellowness here that’s very different than the deranged eternal happy hour of South Florida. Portland can feel like such a mild and gentle place. My lame hypothesis is that we’re in the shadow of this mountain so people feel like time works differently. There is a calm here that’s foreign to me.

What was your experience?

I did the cross country drive and agree with you that it all felt surreal. I stopped at the Painted Desert on my drive to California and it made me feel so small, both physically but also small within the span of time.

It almost feels like a storybook the way we encountered it… just like the “myth of the West.”

It’s funny because people think Florida is surreal, but it doesn’t compare to the expansive deserts or the endless horizons…

It’s just grassy and flat. And the Everglades can be a tough sell! I remember cousins coming down and they always found it anticlimactic. If you’re not attuned to the subtle beauty of the place, it can be underwhelming. It’s not like Yosemite; there’s no awesome power of nature.

What’s surreal to you is just somebody’s Wednesday somewhere

But I also had the same reaction. People always want to ask me if I’m writing magical realism because the setting is so fantastical, but I’ve really decided that so many of those distinctions are regional. What’s surreal to you is just somebody’s Wednesday somewhere. In this collection, I wrote “The Prospectors” shortly after I moved out here and went to Timberline Lodge. I think ski lifts are terrifying, but if you grew up here, no one bats an eye. But they just seem like some kind of Icarus myth to me, that humans decided that they would ride chairs in the open air to the top of a mountain and then strap planks on their feet and come down the mountain. It’s pretty audacious.

I had this idea, growing up in Florida, that we were missing out on the woods. I would read the Brothers Grimm and German fairytales and felt like that was another ur-woods somewhere. And we just had drainage ditches and palm trees (the standup comedian of trees) and I thought the woods were somehow magic. That’s another way that the landscape feels different, too. It’s a different way to live in time.

Since we’re talking about Florida, I want to ask you about “The Gondoliers, ” specifically about this post-apocalyptic Florida that you’ve created. I feel like in the past few years, there’s been a kind of literary meeting of the minds and they’ve decided that Florida is in some way dangerous or carries this impending doom. I’m thinking, of course, of Swamplandia! but also of Lauren Groff, Belle Boggs’s recent book The Gulf, or even Laura van den Berg’s landscape of zombies. I was wondering why you think that is.

I love all of those writers. People talk about Florida like it’s a monolith but it’s such a heterogeneous state, too. We speak to slightly divergent experiences of these different Floridas, but I think we are all funneling all of these apocalyptic anxieties.

Do you remember that six month period when it felt every journalistic outlet ran a story about how Miami would be underwater by 2100? It was non-stop. There was one that I found especially depressing with the engineers who had consulted with the Netherlands came to Miami and they were like, “Limestone? Good luck! You’re doomed.” Suddenly there were all these physical representations of what Miami could become. I found this very sad and very frightening. Like a lot of people, I felt very helpless. It feels like all of these inertial forces are at work but actually there are so many man-made policies we could be changing. It’s not inevitable, at least not at this moment, that this has to be Florida’s fate. If writers have their antenna out, that’s part of the dark signal that we’re picking up. Maybe that’s why it feels like Florida is the frontier, and that’s why we’re staking out our nightmares.

It’s easy to imagine a drowned Florida. I think that’s why there’s been the location of so many apocalyptic stories. Jeff VanderMeer set the Area X books nominally in the northern part of the country but I always picture them in Florida, especially since he lives in Florida and I feel that influence on him as well. His mother nature isn’t the mother nature that will cradle you.

But with “The Gondoliers” in particular, without being too Pollyanna-ish about it, I think that a lot of the journalism about Florida can feel so fatalistic. I think it can also feel like we’re underselling our own ability to live with nature differently or to imagine a different relationship that humans can have with other creatures. It doesn’t seem even implausible to me that there could be a new generation of women mutants that can echolocate and negotiate this new world. This isn’t my fantasy, I don’t want Miami to be inundated, but I do want to believe that there is some sort of resilience to people’s natures and our natures. There might be unborn possibilities that we’re just not considering.

I do want to believe that there is some sort of resilience to people’s natures and our natures. There might be unborn possibilities that we’re just not considering

You brought up the mutant sisters from “The Gondoliers,” and, one of the things that struck me about many of the stories in this collection, is that the lives of the women in them are intertwined with each but also with fantastical elements—beasts, ghosts, nature, and so on. Is this a self-conscious approach to thinking about gender?

They’ve been infiltrated quite literally by nature. I love that question and it’s a new one. But I do feel like there’s a real reckoning at this moment, with the self in flux, and, if you’re going to talk about human nature, you have to talk about that really spooky and profound intimacy.

I was just reading this really beautiful galley by Miranda Popkey—I feel like everyone is going to know her soon—and part of her interrogation is asking how can women trust their own desire if they have been steeped in these corseted notions of what being a woman means. If we have these really impoverished cultural imaginings of female sexuality, then we have these really limited narratives. It can be so difficult to parse your own interior, especially if you know that you’ve been populated by the wrong kind of stories.

With “The Gondoliers,” what seemed exciting to me was gesturing toward the idea that, instead of speaking to a single “I” and really protecting your boundaries with the dark egotism that I have sometimes, I wanted to explore thinking along with your sisters and maybe even, in a more violent and exciting transformation, thinking with these other species as well. What if you could open your mind and hear these other creatures? What would that mean? That would loosen the corset strings of what it means to be a woman.

I think that’s something else fiction writers are interested in right now: How can we maybe revise the lines of what it means to be a person? Without essentializing, without accidentally making it sound like women’s most important function is reproductive, there was something exciting to me about imagining this power developing in these women’s bodies almost the way a baby grows. It would be something they evolved in this Lamarckian way in their own lifetime. And that it would be a collective project, all of them echolocating together and refining this project instead of something that is just happening to you and you alone like a Marvel superhero.

Image:Penguin Random House/Knopf

I want to ask about the story “Orange World” now because a lot of the themes you just spoke about are there as well, especially in this mom group that formed to fight a devil. The “orange world” is this real world where parents live which is compromised, filled by the things that we know aren’t safe but we do anyway because they are practical. There seems to be a slippage in the story as well as the rest of the collection between the real world and the magical world. I’m wondering if you think there are clear lines between the real and the magical or whether or not those lines even matter.

“Orange World” felt different to me than the other stories in the collection; it has a different ratio of reality to some kind of fantastical distortion.

With this story, there’s this weird double that shows up but it’s pretty realist. It’s set in a neighborhood like my own in Portland and I do go to a co-op like that one near my home. That character is very different in many ways than who I feel myself to be but some of the feverishness of her pregnancy and those early weeks, I was definitely writing a little closer to home than I usually do. Usually, there’s more of a refraction. It’s like the witness protection program, if I’m going to say anything true, I feel like I need to make more leaps.

This is also different for me because I wrote it a lot closer to my experience of becoming a mother. I wrote Swamplandia! which is about adolescence when I was in my mid-twenties. It felt a little feverish that way, too. It didn’t have a lot of time to process; I was in the middle of feeling like I was undergoing a strange metamorphosis myself when I was taking notes for that story.

I read a lot of older interviews with you when I was preparing for this one and it seems like everyone wants to ask you about genre, specifically this demand to know what genre your work fits into…

Yeah, I know..

But reading “Orange World” and reading “The Prospectors”—there are elements in them that are so real. In “Orange World” there are the deals that you make with yourself, these outside forces that weigh on you as a mother, and those things you do to just get through it—the decision to live in the “orange world.” And, I felt like with “The Prospectors,” that this is fundamentally a story about two women who have banded together. Even though the men who are surrounding them are ghosts, they are still two women who are maneuvering a space in which men expect a lot from them and this survival—getting through the night—is a familiar kind choreography for most women…

Thank you for reading it that way! So many people don’t. This is my fault because these conceits are so insane and goofy in some ways, but I think that people sometimes get hung up on the premises. There’s this Flannery O’Connor quote that’s like a mantra to me, where she talks about the different demand if you’re going to write something that’s not strictly realist. She says, “The truth is not distorted here, but rather a distortion is used to get at truth.” That helped me so much more than thinking about where this might be on the continuum of the real to the fantastic.

Pick any moment of any day where you’re not imagining yourself in a future or changing the past or living with this wild flux inside you

Those categories broke down for me because so many things seem surreal to me. Motherhood is such an alien landscape even though it’s so matter-of-fact; millions of people have lived this story. But, to me, it felt very much like a stranger in a strange land. I think that binary—between realism and fantasy—is misleading. Pick any moment of any day where you’re not imagining yourself in a future or changing the past or living with this wild flux inside you. It all feels pretty marvelous and strange.

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