‘It’s wild,’ writer Karen Russell says of winning ‘genius’ grant

The shock of winning one of the country’s most prestigious and lucrative awards hasn’t quite worn off for Miami native Karen Russell.

“I feel like a leaky vessel these days,” says the author of the story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grov e, who, along with Miami playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, became one of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur “genius” grant last week.

“It’s wild. I’m still processing. It’s funny to be doing the processing with major media outlets. I should stop splashing my incredulity on everyone.”

The Coral Gables High graduate, 32, should get used to the idea eventually. She was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” young-writer honoree in 2009 for her first collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. She was named one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” notable writers in 2010, and in 2012 her novel Swamplandia — set at a rundown Florida tourist attraction — was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. (It didn’t win, but then, nothing else did either; no fiction award was given that year.)

But the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which comes with a $625,000 prize paid out in quarterly installments over five years, represents a whole new level of achievement. Russell sought guidance from friend Dinaw Mengestu, author of How to Read the Air and The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, who received a MacArthur grant in 2012.

He gave her two pieces of advice: “When people tell you this is well deserved, say that all any of us deserve is a swift kick in the pants,” Russell says, laughing. “He also said, ‘Don’t answer any questions about what this is going to mean for you.’ ”

Russell is joking, but she does understand that her life will change.

“My goodness, it pays the most immediate dividend,” she says of the grant. “It’s a huge relief from the pressure of how you are going to pay rent. With every new project you start from zero again, and that insecurity doesn’t go away. I’m working on my second novel, and it feels as scary and baffling as ever. …

“What this does permit is the freedom to take certain risks and dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to a pursuit that realistically in financial terms isn’t ever going to come out right. The way work is valued is so strange. I’ll take months to write a short story I’m really proud of, and if you do the math you realize you’re getting paid in several hoagie sandwiches.

“The more powerful psychological effect is that the stuff I write, it incorporates fantastical elements and adolescent points of view. There are a lot of reasons superficially it could be easy to dismiss or engage with. To be taken seriously by the foundation is pretty significant.”

Russell, who lives in New York, will return to her beloved Florida in November to appear at Miami Book Fair International. In the meantime, she’s toiling away at the new novel, set on the Great Plains, which says has similarities to her home state.

“It’s really focused on why people stay in a terrain that’s inhospitable,” she says of the book. “What are any of us doing down there in Miami? I remember kids at Gables High who would get ringworm from wearing sneakers in that humidity. I love Miami so much. That is a place where you’re just not separable from the setting.”

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