Author Karen Russell, who grew up in South Florida, delivers stories with a bite

Karen Russell, who grew up in South Florida, sinks her teeth into the surreal — but fleshes out her work with emotion, too.

02/10/2013 12:00 AM

02/10/2013 12:02 AM

Author Karen Russell would like to set the record straight.

“My sister is not a large, pale, necrophiliac schizophrenic,” she insists with a mix of bemusement and genuine exasperation. Furthermore, her sister has never professionally wrestled alligators nor slunk off into the Everglades for a midnight rendezvous with a sexually aggressive ghost. “She’s a really sweet girl!” sighs Russell.

Devoted fans of Russell’s writing, though, often confuse the characters in this wildly inventive fiction with those in the real-life family of the Coral Gables High class of 1999 grad. Russell admits the literary boundaries can get a bit blurry: surreal teenage weekends spent camping on an isolated Everglades key with her siblings were followed by mundane shifts working at the Shops at Sunset Place’s Gap, “trying to convince Brazilian tourists to buy those puffy vests despite hundred-degree humidity.”

Her siblings’ reaction to Russell’s new collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove? “My brother and sister always say, ‘You have to explain these are just strange, excised parts of your own psyche — and not us,’ ” she says, chuckling.

Strange is an apt way to describe Vampires (Knopf, $24.95), about which Russell will talk Saturday at Books & Books. The title story’s 500-year-old creatures are the book’s most level-headed protagonists, at least compared to the equine cast of The Barn at the End of Our Term, featuring 11 former U.S. presidents reincarnated as horses. (Turns out James Buchanan is no less clueless on four legs, while “Eisenhower hates it when she calls him Gingersnap.”)

However, for all the wryness, Russell isn’t mining this material solely for laughs. There’s a visceral emotional current beneath her writing’s arch surface, whether it involves larcenous seagulls or the human offspring of werewolves uprooted into an Operation Pedro Pan-like program. Just don’t call it, as The New York Times raved, “a North American take on magical realism.”

“I love people like [Gabriel García] Márquez and the folks that term was originally applied to — it’s flattering,” says Russell. “But at the same time, some people hear the word magical or whimsical, and they want to discount the work as without urgency or moral stakes and consequences. That’s when it gets a bit dicey. You don’t want people to think you’re just writing stories for children about a pig in a tutu.”

Pirouetting pigs aside, Russell’s trajectory has included not only critical raves but also impressive sales. As of last week, her first novel Swamplandia! has sold 161,000 copies in hardcover and paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan. Even a blue-chip author like Tom Wolfe has had a difficult time in today’s beleaguered lit marketplace: his Back To Blood has sold only 62,000 copies so far.

Accordingly, when Swamplandia! became a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist alongside fiction from Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace, the honor should have been a career victory lap. Yet last April, for the first time in 35 years, the Pulitzer board mulled those three contenders and subsequently opted to not name a winner — and to offer no explanation. The publishing industry was stunned at the smackdown and left puzzling over the board’s decision.

Count Russell among those still scratching their head.

“What happened in that room? I really have no idea. Nobody sent me a secret memo or a grainy video of the deliberations,” she says. “I was astonished and grateful to be put up for that honor and then as confused as everybody else about how to read that decision. . . . It feels like a statement, but there is no accompanying statement. Everybody’s left to interpret that darkness as they will.”

And the notion that perhaps the dreaded “magical realism” tag soured the Pulitzer board?

“For better or worse,” Russell explains, “this is the only language I’ve been able to use in a way that feels honest, in order to think through some questions that really matter to me.”

If there’s a consolation, she adds, it’s in the company she keeps as a finalist with heavyweight talents such as Johnson and Wallace: “That’s what permits me to feel good about it, instead of like they put me in the major leagues, and then I bunted and fell over.”

Brett Sokol is the arts editor at Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive magazine.

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