You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the sign post up ahead — your next stop: not “The Twilight Zone,” but the pages of Karen Russell’s new story collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.”
Russell comes to town Monday for the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s ongoing Winter Words author series, following the February publication of her dazzling new book (see related staff pick, page 6).
These eight collected stories invite you into fantastical worlds you couldn’t have imagined, and leave you somehow better understanding your own reality.
Russell conjures vampires in a lonely marriage, among other monsters, along with U.S. presidents purgatoried as stable horses, a massage therapist who can move features in a war veteran’s tattoo, and a silk factory where women are forced to metamorphose into mutant silkworms.
Sounds ludicrous, right? No doubt. But the peculiar and enthralling thing she does, time after time, is use the odd-ball setup to subversively wheedle a deeper meaning.
“The fiction that I love,” she says, “it does exactly this move where it disarms you with a ridiculous premise.”
The eight stories in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” were published over the last six years in magazines and journals. They span centuries, cultures and dimensions. Russell’s previous work — like the best-selling and acclaimed novel “Swamplandia!” — focused mostly on her native Florida.
At Monday’s event, Russell will be in conversation with “Blueprints for Building Better Girls” author Elissa Schappell. The pair struck up a friendship at a Tin House summer seminar and Russell recommends Schappell’s work “to anybody with eyeballs.”
Asked about her own work, Russell most often deflects with praise for others. She points to writers like Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino and George Saunders as polestars who’ve pulled off similar literary tricks. The light touch of Calvino’s story “The Dinosaurs,” employing a dinosaur narrator nearing extinction, for instance: “It feels like a comic kind of light story and ends up being this meditation on the biggest questions,” she says. “If you would telegraph up front that this is going to be a story about legacy and identity and also there’s a dinosaur narrating it, that would seem kind of incongruous.”
Placed in a surreal world, as readers, we’re more willing to look at those “biggest questions”: the meaning of life, the inevitability of death. That’s where Russell has staked her artistic claim. The litmus test for whether a story succeeds, for her, is its ability to tackle that big stuff. Her trash bin is filled with clever alternate realities that didn’t take on a greater significance.
“I have dozens of stories where I had some premise that I thought would be fun or funny or exciting and it didn’t end up being a vehicle to think about something that is genuinely emotionally moving or vexing,” she explains. “And those never worked, because I didn’t find a way to make them consequential or have some kind of emotional life.”
And sometimes she surprises herself by making them work. In “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” one of her most transcendent stories, she follows President Rutherford B. Hayes and other former commanders-in-chief who find themselves reincarnated as horses. It started, more or less, as a lark.
“That was really just playful,” Russell says. “My impulse was kind of ‘What would happen if…?’”
Readers may begin that story smirking, as it opens with a panicked horse Hayes licking a farm girl’s hand in Morse code, telling her that he is the former president, and that she must alert the authorities of his predicament. (The handler giggles and responds, “That tickles.”) By the end, though, it leaves you shaken and thinking again about those “biggest questions” — God, pride, the afterlife, and the thin line between hope and delusion.
Russell published her first collection, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves,” at age 24. And before she turned 30 she followed it up with “Swamplandia!” Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize last year — when the board controversially opted not to award a prize — the novel centers on the Bigtrees, a family of alligator wrestlers in the Everglades, as their gator theme park goes under.
Asked about her early success, Russell, now 31, compares herself to Mr. Magoo walking blindly across skyscraper construction beams and unwittingly skirting death.
“I think I was just stupid in the right way or something,” she laughs.
Her first two books focused on perspectives of children, giving them a big-hearted verve that continues in these new stories.
“I think I’m chronically bewildered by some things,” she says. “I feel innocent myself sometimes. So I often write about pretty innocent characters, even if they’re centuries-old vampires. Those guys haven wised up, they’re still kind of wide-eyed and trying to figure things out.”
Beyond her imaginative conceptual power and technical ability, Russell’s fiction is fueled by an infectious curiosity. Her work is built on a foundation of research. The idea for her story “Proving Up,” a horror tale set on the western frontier, for instance, began on the “L” train in Chicago. She recalls riding the train while reading a book about the Homestead Act of 1862, for an in-progress novel set in the Dust Bowl. A couple on the train noticed the book and told her a story about Mennonite farmers in Nebraska during the frontier era, and the bizarre lengths to which they had to go to secure land from the government. She turned her researching eye to that, and “Proving Up” was born.
“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” also comes along at a cultural moment where short story collections are drawing more readers and more praise than they have in years. Russell’s new book arrives on the heels of collections like George Saunders’ “Tenth of December,” Alice Munro’s “Dear Life” and Junot Diaz’s “This Is How You Lose” her — all of which hit best-seller lists and left critics salivating in recent months.
“A lot of people just don’t think they like stories because the last time they read a story was in high school when they had to read ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and write about its themes in 30 minutes,” she laughs. “So they say, ‘I don’t really care for stories.’”
Oh. And, be warned: the Miami native will be hitting the ski slopes during her Aspen visit for exactly the second time in her life. Her first time out, in New Zealand, she says she got the hang of pizza-wedging down the hill. But stopping, not so much: “The ski police made me leave the mountain because I was a hazard.”
In conversation with Elissa Schappell
Presented by Aspen Writers’ Foundation
Monday, March 4
$20/ $18 for members