Talking To Karen Russell, Author Of ‘Swamplandia!’
by Daniel Crown
To open with a bit of an understatement, author Karen Russell has had a very good year. Her debut novel, Swamplandia!, has received widespread praise since its publication in February (including a spot on the just-announced New York Times list of the 10 Best Books Of 2011). Then last month, the news broke that HBO has optioned the novel — a bildungsroman of sorts about a teenage alligator wrestler and her search for her missing sister — for what they describe as a “half hour comedy series.” The adaptation will coincide with producer Scott Rudin’s other in-the-works literary projects, including Noah Baumbach’s take on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, as well as an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.
A quick note for fans of the book: details in terms of casting and potential writers for the HBO show remain hush-hush — though, before we hung up, Russell did relent and say that she secretly wants Bill Murray to play Chief Bigtree. Here we discuss her history with short stories, HBO, and the pleasures of the kind of news stories that can originate only in Miami (spoiler alert: there may be talk of unlicensed butt injections).
Daniel Crown: Swamplandia!, obviously, was based on the short story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” Considering that you broke on to the literary scene as a short fiction writer, do you see this becoming your MO of sorts? It certainly worked for Flannery O’Connor. Both of her novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away, were based upon previously published short stories. In her case this seemed a rather efficient way to work.
Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is such an odd book in some ways because the short story that wound up getting published is kind of this ice-cream scoop of a much longer, sprawling story. At that point it was the longest thing I had ever written. Maybe 40 or 50 pages. It’s never quite been the right length.
What’s so exciting about this new novel that I’m working on is that there was no real template. It’s scary in some ways, but I’m finding it kind of liberating to not have a short story as the basis. There are pros and cons. A good pro when I was writing Swamplandia! was that I really felt that I knew these characters and had a sense of the setting, but so much ended up changing over the course of drafting the book and one of the main obstacles was that I was resistant to changing my original view of the island.
I do really love going back to the acorn to the tree [of O’Connor’s Wise Blood] to some of the Enoch Emory stories. It’s fun to see how much is already there in terms of [O Connor’s] center of gravity and of her preoccupations in those early stories. It’s interesting when you go back and read them because these characters already exist and their personalities are full clothed and already formed.
I realize that this is the sort of horrid, pigeonholing language that critics tend to use to fill their word counts, but when I was first reading Swamplandia! I remember turning to my girlfriend on the train and saying, “This books reads exactly like what would happen if Flannery O’Connor wrote a Stephen King novel.” After doing a little research and reading a prior interview that observation doesn’t seem entirely off base…
(Laughing) No. I think that’s an amazing compliment. I love it when [reviewers] do that… “If Cormac McCarthy and June Cleaver got into a car that crashed into another car carrying so and so,” or “If Don DeLillo and Mary Higgins Clark went on a balloon ride”… I’m always so beyond humbled by this. It’s wonderful when it’s people that you have actually read and really did influence you. Flannery is someone that I always return to, her humor and her darkness. And one of my favorite Stephen King books, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to write Swamplandia! if that wasn’t percolating in the back of my mind. It’s basically just like the ancient horror stories — a little girl lost in the woods. There is some supernatural menace but beyond that it’s just a primordial horror story.
It’s easy to see how your work is particularly prime for that sort of language in that you manage to toe the difficult line separating literary writing from popular fiction. You seem to have been able to please the elite literary critics, but somebody who picks up Swamplandia! doesn’t necessarily have to hold a graduate degree in creative writing to enjoy it.
Oh, I hope so. I really hope that’s true. I’m reading Cloud Atlas right now, and I’m kind of amazed by David Mitchell. His sentences are gorgeous — he’s some kind of imagination Olympian or something — but the book is still readable. There’s such a great story there. That’s the highest bar, too high really. I think that Flannery and Stephen King also share the incredible ability to take on serious darkness in a kind of unsentimental way, and to use humor to leaven. I think that [O’ Connor] writes so beautifully about violence and she’s not unduly kind to any of her characters. I think that she and Stephen King are really good at winding the clock that way, letting a character spiral.
So, Swamplandia! on HBO, you’ve got to be really excited, right?
I am psyched. Really, really excited. I guess everyone has the voice of Eeyore inside them, the pessimist that says, “It might not happen”, but it’s in development right now and I’m really hopeful. I got to meet with [producer] Scott Rudin and his friends and I think that they are just so smart about these kinds of adaptations. I’m relieved that there’s going to be a real TV writer involved. I feel like everything I don’t do as a writer is what is required to write a good screenplay. You know what I mean? I prefer to write a three-paragraph extended metaphor about foliage, and that probably wouldn’t film well. We obviously can’t just hold the camera steady on a hibiscus while the actors talk (laughs).
I don’t even watch all that much TV, but most of the shows I have watched are from HBO. I wept like a baby when “Six Feet Under” ended. And “The Wire.” Everybody says that show feels like watching a novel, but it’s really true. They’re so good at giving you this universe that has dimensions.
Right now, obviously it’s still in the early stages. In my mind I have everything already cast, like my brother and I will be playing gators (laughs). I want to do all these Hitchcock cameos where I’m selling Gator Tots in the background or something.
How did this whole thing come together? Did you pitch it to them, or did they come to you?
They came to me. At the time I was still shocked that the book even had an ISBN number and was going to actually appear in the world. Then I hear that Scott Rudin had read it and enjoyed it and it kind of made my dome explode. It was a Pinocchio moment a little bit, where I was like… It’s a real book. We talked a little bit about what would have to change, because right now the focus is so much on this grief-struck little girl and we were talking about maybe giving her father more of a role, or how some of the ancillary characters get to become potentially more of a part of the series. We agreed that the book would have to transform in a major way. There’s been talk of using the setting of contemporary South Florida and the Everglades. We want to maintain the darkness and the kind of wacky humor, so we talked about Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation a lot. That’s a great example of something that is extremely dark and kind of Gonzo and insane, yet it maintains this very realistic story inside of it.
Again, I’m not really sure though. We’re still at a really early point. A lot of this is fantasy and speculation on my part.
You know, when I read the initial news release the way they described the show was as a “half hour comedy project”. It’s not that the book is totally bereft of humor, because it’s certainly funny, but it’s definitely not sitcom-y either.
(Laughs). That’s kind of the meta-joke here, because the book couldn’t be fatter to me. Even when I talk about the book it’s always like “if you had an aerial picture of what grief looks like in the body,” this swamp landscape. It’s not exactly “The King of Queens,” right? This widower and his weird kids twirling around in a swamp. But I definitely think that there is the potential for some lightness there. I was really excited that HBO would want to set something in a kind of fictionalized Miami. It’s truly hilarious. There’s a lot of potential there for all kinds of cultural mishaps.
The funniest part to me is how matter-of-factly people talk about crazy things that happen [in Miami]. My mom just sent me an article about this 30-year-old woman who was receiving injections of like cement and Fix-A-Flat, the stuff they used to fix flat tires, into her buttocks. Did you see that?
I did! It literally looked like she had two tires attached to her thighs.
It was horrifying. I was like, “What is wrong with you?” It was terrifying, and you feel so horrible, yet if that had happened in a novel it would work as some sort of dystopian comedy about vanity gone insane. But no. That’s actually just a Wednesday in Miami. They closed the wounds with Super Glue…
What a crazy place. A guy I grew up with is the managing editor at the Miami New Times now and some of their features are mind-boggling. I’ve been keeping up on Facebook, one crazy story after another. They range from wide-scale police corruption to the mass killing of prized pet birds… it’s all out of Chandler, or I guess more appropriately Elmore Leonard, but it really does reinforce the stranger than fiction adage.
Exactly. They do all of this long-form journalism about really serious stuff, and then all of this insane, wacky stuff about celebrity culture. When I was writing my novel, my dad would send me all kinds of crazy headlines saying, “Maybe you could put this in the novel,” and I never could because the stories were so outrageous. I’ve said this before, but my favorite one was about this archaeological field trip where a bunch of middle school students went on a pretend dig in Broward and in the process of digging they found a real body.
Wait, they what?!
They found an actual corpse that someone had buried in a pit. They were going to do a fake dig and they found a real body. I swear, somehow that story contains it all for me — that’s so Florida.
But I think at this point, [for the show] we’ve just been talking about how the troubles that afflict the family will probably be the same, where there is this rivalry with a dark Disney kind of theme park. But we’ve also spoken about expanding the world of Swamplandia! to include some of these outlaws and weirdos that are living in the swamp.
So it sounds like you are getting a fair amount of input. I was going to ask you what being a “consultant” actually means? Is it for serious, or is this some sort of long-established placation for authors?
I’ll have to let you know. I don’t know if I just get to wear a little Burger King Crown and don’t have any real power or what (laughs). They’ve been amazing about asking me about these characters and how I see the world. That’s very encouraging. Some of this was even before HBO optioned it. I was just talking to Scott [Rudin] about how his people want to maintain the voice of the novel and keep the same tone and how that was really important to them. And again, I’m glad that I don’t have to write the series myself because every episode would be four hours long and packed with figurative language. I don’t know how that would work on HBO.
I think one of the main changes would be to fill out some of the adult characters, because right now Ava and Kiwi get all of the airtime.
What about the supernatural aspects, like, say, the main arc of Ava and the Bird Man searching for Ossie?
Well, as I said, we are still “in development,” and I haven’t even sat down to talk with a writer yet or anything, so I guess we’re in the sci-fi speculative zone about what the show might be — but while I think the Bigtree family will remain at the heart of the show, and characters like the Bird Man will definitely feature, I think that particular storyline might not be the dominant one, at least at first. I do think that everybody is excited about keeping the supernatural elements, and having a show that is expansive enough (like South Florida itself) to encompass many, many registers: funny and dark, mythic and contemporary, the sprawl of the strip malls and the manufactured insanity of the theme parks and casinos and then the genuinely wild island.
I’m curious what it feels like to go at least partially hands off on something you’ve invested so much time and energy in? Inevitably, if/when the show makes it to air, people will know the Swamplandia! story more from HBO than they will from your book. Does this scare you in any way?
The reach of what they do is astonishing to me. I’ll have a story published in a journal and it will be read by my siblings and maybe 12 others, but the idea of the show being watched by millions of people, that’s an impossible shift for me to make.
I feel like I’m kind of in the dream position right now. Not to sound too naive, but I just feel like based on the HBO shows I’ve seen and Rudin’s track record, they will do a great job. And in a way I’m happy to turn it over because I’m glad for it to become something new in a new medium. I’m not the sort of person that would become outraged if they don’t use the right fabric on Grandma’s wedding dress. I don’t think that I have that neurotic of an attachment to my own work.
Daniel Crown is a freelance writer based out of Brooklyn.