Writing in her 20s, Russell said, her perspective was just close enough and just far enough from her own south Florida childhood to remember it well:
The “beautiful, frightening ease,” when you’re a kid, of walking with one foot in the realm of the fairy tales and the other in adult reality.
The “kid egotism” that says, Yes, you have special powers.
The “funny kind of whiplash” she experienced on her family’s trips to the Everglades, a half-hour drive from suburban Miami, as they left the retail blur for a place that felt “totally otherworldly,” she said, a true wilderness populated by countless birds and plants and alligators but no people.
Now 33, Russell was 30 when her book was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. She was the youngest of last year’s 24 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winners, and her name has appeared on the New Yorker’s and others’ best-young-writer lists.
Russell has received a lot of attention for her age as well as for her writing. And a writer’s age does matter, Russell said. As does distance – miles, like years, make room for perspective. Now living in Portland, she’s writing about the Midwest, the last place she lived. While some writers write about their immediate time and place, she said, she has a lag.
What comes out in the end for Russell can be fantastical or bizarre, or like “Swamplandia!,” teeter on the edge between a mystical world and a recognizable one.
Eva Silverstone, Spokane Public Library’s communications manager and part of the group that picked the book for Spokane to read, said she thinks of Russell’s writing as an amped-up version of real life.
“She turns the knob up on reality,” she said “The things are imaginable, but (she) turns the knob just a teeny bit past regular.”
On the edge of reality
While Russell has heard other writers say they were embarrassed by their early published work, she said she’s glad to have a record of herself as a younger writer.
“The self is a moving target,” she said. “Whatever my set of preoccupations and interests and all that were when I was in my early 20s, I’ve shifted away, I’m sure, in ways I’m not even aware of.”
But now, a little older, she has more to look back on, more “human landscapes” to pull from.
As a younger writer, she said, she wrote about adolescents almost exclusively, terrified to take on adult characters. One main character in her second novel, in progress, is a teenage girl, the rest of the cast is mostly adults.
She also has more geographic landscapes.
Russell moved in May to Portland to live with her boyfriend, a book editor. It’s her first time living in the Northwest.
It was a soft landing after the wild ride that followed the publication of “Swamplandia!,” as she published her second short-story collection and bounced around the U.S. from teaching gig to teaching gig, most recently at the University of Iowa’s writers workshop.
Her MacArthur grant – the award comes with $625,000 – allows her to spend her days reading and writing.
“Portland feels a little like hiding on the mountain,” she said. “Like a literary convalescence. The day feels so much longer here.”
As a child, she didn’t travel great distances. Growing up in Florida, she joked, “you just couldn’t get out of the state. You’re just driving for actual days, and then sort of maybe crest Georgia and have a sandwich and return home.”
But her family trips to the swamp fueled her imagination. She was fascinated by dinosaurs and, especially, alligators, which play a major role in “Swamplandia!”
“I was the kind of kid who was in total animist mode, blasting my tiny consciousness all over town,” Russell said. But with its ancient architecture and a “smile you absolutely can’t anthropomorphize,” she said, the alligator resisted. She knew: This was a living time machine. This was something crawling from the deep past.
Ava Bigtree, the 13-year-old protagonist of “Swamplandia!,” first appeared in “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” a short story in Russell’s 2007 collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” (Her second set of short stories, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove: And Other Stories,” came out in January.)
She expanded the story for the novel. Swamplandia! is the Bigtree family’s alligator-wrestling theme park, built on an island in the Everglades.
After Ava’s mother’s dies, her father leaves, her sister – armed with a copy of “The Spiritist’s Telegraph” – claims to be in love with a ghost, and her brother leaves the island to work in a mainland theme park called the World of Darkness.
When it falls to Ava to save her sister, she sets out through the swamp for another version of the underworld.
The book teeters on the edge of reality: Is her sister’s ghost real? Will Ava really cross into another realm?
In writing it, Russell said, she was remembering the “double-optic” vision of adolescence, children’s dual citizenship in the fantasy world and the real one.
And she was remembering the way children construct some version of reality out of available inputs. The inputs might include “The Spiritist’s Telegraph.” They might include a family mythology invented for marketing purposes. The Bigtrees, white people from Ohio, claim to be alligator-wrestling tribal royalty.
“When you’re doing your kid arithmetic to add up reality, you’ve got a hodgepodge,” Russell said. “You’ve got the Bible, you’ve got Shakespeare, you’ve got ‘Tom and Jerry.’ You don’t have any hierarchies established yet.”
New room for risk
Now, in Portland, Russell said she’s writing with a new sense of freedom, afforded by the MacArthur grant.
She has time to write without teaching – “a crazy luxury” – and room for risks. She can pursue ideas she might before have rejected as commercially unviable.
Russell said her digital-only novella published in March, “Sleep Donation,” grew out of the mundane. She was just really tired. She got this idea: What if sleep could be donated, banked and delivered to insomniacs? She included the idea in a list of “imaginary inventions” she wrote for the New Yorker.
Her list, as published, included Baby Roshambo, a computer-modeling program that shows parents how their baby’s life might turn out with a different name. The “sleep donation” idea was cut. But it snagged on her brain, she said, and with time a whimsical idea grew and warped into something dark: An epidemic of fatal insomnia plagues a futuristic America, and babies become “deep, rich wells” of sleep.
Russell’s novel underway is about the dust bowl drought in the Plains states. It’s a natural progression from “Swamplandia!,” she said, “something about the flatness of that land and the idea of transforming a landscape” in one generation, the reasons people leave a place or stay, the meaning of home.
They’re questions she keeps asking, regardless of time and place.
“Some of those questions must just be my questions,” Russell said, “because they’re sort of pushing this thing forward, too.”