By Taylor Stone
The BMC Creative Writing Reading Series ended with a bang, or rather, a “boom”, a word which writer Karen Russell herself uses to sign off e-mails.
Bryn Mawr Creative Writing Program Director Daniel Torday, who had nothing but the highest praise for the 2011 Distinguished Visiting Writer, introduced the reading. His commented that the “wild kinetic energy that [Russell] brings to her writing she also brings to life”, conjuring “sparky sentences” seemingly without fatigue. Indeed, such remarks perfectly foreshadowed the energetic tone of the passage Russell would later read as well as her entire demeanor.
Karen Russell is the author of a story collection,St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and the novel Swamplandia!, which was aNew York Timesbestseller. She has been named one of The New Yorker’s20 Under 40, a GrantaBest Young American Novelist, and one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. Her stories have appeared three times in the Best American Short Storiesanthologies.
As if that resume wasn’t impressive enough, Swamplandia! has been picked up by producer Scott Rudin to become a half- hour television series on HBO. The unique universe of the novel, occupied by its protagonist Ava Bigtree, a 12-year-old alligator wrestler, was inspired by Russell’s short story “Ava Wrestles an Alligator”.
Since Russell taught a course this semester at BMC and participated in events such as “New American Short Story” panel this October, audience members were well aware of the effortless charm and poignancy that her writing exudes. The selection she read, a “bread-bowl scoop”, of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, certainly lived up to this reputation.
The story follows a group of wolf-girls as nuns attempt to re-educate and form them into functioning, “normal” humans. Audience members laughed as the girls spoke in gruff, wolfish tones, resisted the urge to chew on their penny-loafers, and humorously attempted to “mark their territory” in their new dormitories to the utter dismay of their care-takers.
The story also touched a more serious note, concentrating on the problems of the perceived need to transform the societal “other” to fit unattainable expectations.
Russell was inspired by a chart in the Study Abroad office of her undergraduate college depicting the different emotional stages of the traveler, ending in complete fluency of both cultures. She was struck by the ridiculousness of such a notion.
“Never in my life have I experienced progress without loss”, Russell said.
Russell took questions from audience members on her ability to balance humor and seriousness and her fascination with the power of setting.
“Many of these landscapes look a lot like exaggerated version of my own backyard,” Russell said. “I grew up in Miami, very close to the ocean, and we made frequent trips to the Everglades. I tend to write about characters on thresholds, and to blur the lines between fantasy and reality a bit, so I find myself drawn to liminal geographies: swamps and marshes and island beaches, where the lines are constantly being redrawn by the wind and the sea”.
Russell raved about her experiences this semester at BMC.
“I can’t believe the semester is almost over–it really flew by,” Russell said. “My Short Fiction II students, including students from Haverford and Swarthmore, are incredible writers and people. They have absolutely blown me away with their risky, surprising, imaginative fiction. I do feel like I’m the one who has learned the most. And I’ll miss Hope’s ice cream at Milkboy coffee, of course”.
She also offers advice to aspiring writers.
“Read!,” Russell said. “Read like an omnivorous bear, across genre-lines–I always recommend that fiction writers take a poetry workshop, for example, and vice-versa. And this is some old-fangled advice, I guess, but I really do think that so much of writing is about sticking with it. Giving yourself permission to write “badly,” to wait and see what a draft is going to become, to give it a chance to evolve into its final form, to push on even when you get a rejection or are tempted to jump ship from your laptop to cruise the internet or watch “30 Rock”.
Russell will truly be missed by the BMC community.