Karen Russell’s debut novel, “Swamplandia!” was one of the most-acclaimed books of 2011. NPR, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times ranked it high on their year-end lists. HBO optioned it for a forthcoming series. The Pulitzer Prize Board named it a finalist in the fiction category. Stephen King, no stranger to success, raved that the book, an inventively written odyssey set deep in the Everglades, is “as terrifying as ‘Deliverance.’ ”
“And still,” Russell says. “And still.”
And still, Russell is worried. About how “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” her new story collection, will be received by her fans and critics. About how she’ll respond to their reaction to the book. About the very act of worrying itself.
“It’s just, like, the worst fear,” the Miami-born Russell says from her current home in Philadelphia, where she moved last year to teach writing at Bryn Mawr College. “It’s just been embarrassing to realize how raw and nervous I am all over again. I really believed I was all right: ‘The novel has inoculated me, and now I can be brave, and I don’t have to be afraid about reviews, because I know that you just can’t please everybody.’ But it turns out there’s still some demented part of myself that’s like, ‘What if you could write something that pleased everybody?’ It’s so embarrassing how resilient the anxieties are.”
As real as those tremors may feel to Russell, though she laughs much of the time she’s describing them, readers of “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” along with those who devoured “Swamplandia!” and her 2006 collection, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” may have a difficult time understanding her fear. Like Russell’s previous work, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” presents a writer with a seemingly infinite imagination and a tremendous appreciation for the possibilities of language, particularly its ability to extract beauty from the darkest places and situations.
But anyone expecting Russell to pull on her snake boots and tramp back into the muck of the Everglades to deposit imperiled children among the reptiles, or to venture up and down the peninsula leaving a trail of Sunshine State fantasies that would make the work of Carl Hiaasen look like abject realism, will be disappointed. The word “Florida” appears only once in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” and then only in passing in the final story.
Only a fool, however, would read Karen Russell seeking to be comforted by predictability. Her originality is relentless, and if these new stories share a common theme — which the author describes as “the horror of having this hope that is inflexible, that can’t adapt to new circumstances” — they each convey it from a starkly different angle. In the title story, a centuries-old, married vampire who sucks lemons instead of necks commits a devastating act of infidelity. In “The New Veterans,” a lonely massage therapist treats a soldier suffering from PTSD by rearranging the battlefield scene tattooed on his back. Young Japanese women are transformed by the government into human silkworms in “Reeling for the Empire,” the book’s most-unsettling story, and in “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” President Rutherford B. Hayes wakes up to find himself in the body of a horse, sharing a stable and an afterlife with several of his fellow commanders-in-chief. (Russell explains the genesis of this amusing, heartbreaking story here.)
If, at first blush, the stories in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” appear to be more eerie, their magic a few shades darker, than those in her previous books, Russell says the effect is unintentional, stemming from the same place that created the terrifying events in the latter half of “Swamplandia!” and spurred the feral acts of violence in “St. Lucy’s.”
“I think it’s a trajectory that must be built deep inside me that wants to keep rising like blood to a cut,” she says, “where there’s a situation of intense optimism, and then, there’s just a hope that outlasts any chance of its fulfillment. Sometimes, I think that the stories are not wholly dark. That hopefully, there’s some comic element, too, just to leaven the thing.
“[This is what] fiction has always been for me,” Russell adds. “It gives you a relatively safe place to consider, to hold a mirror up to some of the worst parts of our nature, and the myths that can become lethal if you have an uncritical faith in them. It’s a way to really look at the blind spots that I think we’re all living in probably all of the time.”
Russell says she wrote half of the book’s eight stories before she completed “Swamplandia!” and the other half last year, during a fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. There, she decided “to catch my breath and get some new writing done” as her debut novel was making her a literary star back home. “My time was all kind of cut up for over a year there after the publication of [‘Swamplandia!’]. Somehow, the collection felt more like the right scale of things to take on,” she recalls, noting that, while in Germany, she also took a break from working on her second novel, which is set in the Dust Bowl era.
For now, though, Russell is steeling herself for the public’s reaction to “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” all the while giggling through her discomfort and poking fun at her own anxiety. (The book’s early reviews, including two last week in the Times, have been uniformly positive.) Russell laughs when she imagines a reader viewing the book’s title as an indication that she’s bounded into Stephenie Meyer territory, spinning jejune tales of hormonal, undead teenagers.
“It just had to be that,” Russell says of “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” “Metaphorically, that’s just the right title. I wish I could put a little sticker on there and be like, ‘This title is intended humorously. Not to worry: There are no sexy vampires, no monster erotica in the lemon grove.’ I told my sister that I’m going to title my next story collection something like ‘Sea Horses and Hats,’ just to see how dumb I can make them, titles I can’t say without blushing myself.”
Karen Russell will appear 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Admission is free. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.