Books

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

 

cogle@MiamiHerald.com

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.”

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.

    Stories

    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.

    Nonfiction

    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category