Excerpted from Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. Copyright © 2011 by Karen Russell. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Swamplandia! and your story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, are both set in a sort of enchanted, Lewis Carroll-like version of North America. What draws you to these worlds and how do you create them?
A: Well, I think I owe a big debt to Lewis Carroll himself, probably, and other folks who I read as a kid like Ray Bradbury and Peter S. Beagle and Stephen King and Madeleine L'Engle. My favorite books were always the ones where I felt like an alternate world had been created in some star cradle by the author and, in an amazing feat of compression, shrunken down into a 200-page book (or, in the case of Ray Bradbury, a three page story about a country uncle with green wings). I think I wanted to create strange but familiar snow-globe worlds almost as soon as I started reading these books
I also think I'm drawn to imaginary places because it's an architecture that any reading consciousness can enter—as a kid I used to love talking to other readers who had visited the same nonexistent places as me—you know, Oz, Watership Down, Derry, Macondo. This kind of travel, to an invisible place created by the author, felt both exquisitely personal and also communal; anybody who could make it through the book could get from Kansas to Oz. At a time when nobody could drive and we were all child-hostages of our houses, when we could not even get to school by our own power, it made me so happy whenever I discovered that another kid and I had both gone to a wonderland or a dystopian England, and that, even more insanely, we'd done this inside of the same skin, merged with the same character. It still strikes me as an amazing thing to have in common with someone. Much better than discovering that you both bought jeans at the same GAP or ate shrimp flautas at the Chili's near the airport.
The world of Swamplandia! has been around since I first drafted “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” in graduate school, when I was 22. I can't pinpoint where exactly the idea came from, but it probably owes a great debt to my school's field trips to the Miccosukee Indian Village in the Everglades. I think these are still happening—a bunch of ten-year olds from “the mainland” of Miami stuff their ears with cotton balls and board an airboat; then, in my experience at least, you eat pinkish hamburgers with mayonnaise and watch a sweaty man in jeans perform a gator-wrestling demonstration. I remember feeling confused about who to root for in this battle—the man was more or less sitting on the alligator. My Ikea sofa puts up more of a fight than the alligator did that day. For reasons I can't perfectly explain, this day has become one of my favorite memories. It didn't start out that way, but it has stealthily crept up in the rankings. Now I think that gator wrestling demonstration, which I sort of snoozed through at the time, must have made a more lasting and dramatic impression than I realized.
I don't think it's a coincidence that so many authors are drawn to South Florida (Carl Hiaasen, Peter Matthiessen, Joy Williams). There is something absolutely haunting about the swamp. If you go to the Everglades, it does feel as if you're standing in a mythic and a real space at once. I wanted to explore the extreme, alien beauty of the Everglades—and also its extreme devastation, which we've managed to accomplish in just a few generations of Floridian settlement, from the plume-hunting of the nineteenth century to the more recent dyking and drainage and Big Sugar's phosphorus pollution.
Q: Many of your narratives are seen through the eyes of children, and rather precocious ones at that. Do you believe there is something unique or meaningful about childhood, particularly the perspective and experience of youth, that makes you continuously return to them as protagonists?
A: For better or for worse, when I sit down to write I feel gravitationally pulled towards characters who are children and adolescents. I was joking with a friend that I can decide to write a story about the rabbits of the apocalypse, and it will undoubtedly being, “The world was ending. The bunny was fourteen-years old (in bunny years).”
I love the double optic that children possess—the way they can develop kid-theodicies and fantastic explanations, but also shift gears and have a nascent adult sense of the world, a more “realistic” vision. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are all poised at different thresholds, about to go through literal and figurative doors to reach new life stages, which is an exciting/terrifying period to get to dramatize in fiction. I heard Antonya Nelson say that all stories can be thought of as “coming of age” stories, since a character is confronted with a new event or new information that compels a change of status. And the child to adult transition—I don't think that's a one time affair. I think we're probably all struggling to suit up and be adults, every day.
Q: Speaking of Lewis Carroll, your book’s epigraph is a quote from his Through the Looking-Glass:
“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish that I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
Why did you choose this particular quote? Does it hold special significance for you?
A: That epigraph is seared into my brain now—I think it performed a sort of lighthouse-function for me. Whenever I felt lost during the drafting process, I'd return to it. I love it because it so succinctly contains one of the central questions of the book—how can we find one another, how can we truly “see” one another, when so much of our lives are spent straining after phantoms?
To me, this bit of dialogue is hilarious and sad, and hope-filled, too, in its wry way; it acknowledges the extreme difficulty of seeing real people—seeing yourself, seeing anybody clearly. Finding the clean lines of another person, in spite of the warped glass of need and desire and terror and projection/fantasy that can fog up our lenses.
So much of the story of Swamplandia! is taken up with the girls’ quest to find the ghost of their mother. Grief is a very private affair for these characters, and each member of the Bigtree family is so focused on the ghosts of the past, and their doomed, miraculous visions of the future, that they keep missing one another in the present.
It gets right to the heart of the problem; That's why I love that epigraph.
Q: What is it like making your first big leap into novel-writing?
A: I think “leap” is the right word—I thought it was incredibly challenging, to be honest. You know, I heard Nicole Krauss recently compare novel-writing to something along the lines of, “breaking all of your bones and stitching them together again.” Which I think suggests the incredible transformations that a book can go through from conception to the final draft.
In the case of Swamplandia!, the book that is being published contains material as old as 2006. At one point I had 500-plus pages, most of them terrible. I had to write the book straight through once and then pretty much start fresh, with a destination now in mind. There was a lot of joy and discovery in the process, but I'd be lying if I said the leap was 100% exhilarating. I'm sure it's a smoother transition for many authors moving from story writing to a novel, but I didn't exactly take to the ice and skate a perfect figure-eight. I was crashing all over the ice, yelling, “What the hell is a novel, does anybody know? Is spring here yet?”
Then at a certain point I turned some corner, and the writing was joy-filled again, and I could hear Ava's voice in my head, and I cannot describe the relief of that moment. But I have no idea how to do it again, write a novel, even though I look forward to trying. I have a respect that is huger than a Macy's day parade float for every novelist out there. It's such hard work and it also feels ridiculous to me sometimes, all the effort that it takes—like, why can't you get some imaginary people to do something interesting? You invented these fools, why can't you make them behave?
Q: Do you see any of yourself or your family in the members of the Bigtree tribe?
A: I would not want any reader to mistake the Bigtrees for my flesh-and-blood family. I keep apologizing to my siblings and my parents for this book—I know some readers will assume there is a one-to-one correspondence between, say, Ossie and my real life sister, and I feel very badly about this, because my real life sister is beautiful and sane and “as smart as a planet,” as my brother says, and nothing like Ossie Bigtree, who is a near-albino having sex with ghosts. Ditto my brother, who is not a ginger-haired dork—my brother is a genius, actually, but he would never claim to be one in the doofily aggrandizing way that Kiwi does.
I do feel that this book is much more personal than anything else I've written,
in part because the setting of Swamplandia! is a tweaked version of South Florida. And it does feel emotionally autobiographical in places—but only in the loose way that you're always creating stories out of your own set of experiences on this planet, extrapolating from these to build a character's mind. Only a few threads are directly lifted from life. Like Ava, I find alligators transfixing (for pets, my family had two inbred and obese miniature schnauzers, no Seths). Like Kiwi, I still really bungle the pronunciation of many basic words (just yesterday I pronounced “duet” so that it rhymed with "Monet"). And, at the risk of making everybody Hallmark-nauseous, I do think that the secret engine of this book is the strong love that exists in my own odd family.
Q: You’ve been featured in The New Yorker’s “20 under 40 Fiction Issue”, New York magazine’s list of twenty-five people to watch under the age of twenty-six, Granta’s “Best of Young American Novelists” issue, and named a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” young writer nominee. How do you feel about all this attention and awe surrounding your talent at such a young age?
A: I feel extremely grateful and weirdly embarrassed, too. Very aware of my own mortality, thanks to all the emphasis on age. I'm buying those Oil of Olay products, ok, I have crow's feet!! What I mean to say is that I don't feel quite young enough to merit any fuss, and I certainly don't feel like any kind of “Best Of” author, either, so these honors, while greatly appreciated, are also a little disorienting—you know, when my big writing victory of the day is deleting a louche joke about a starfish, it can be tough to feel like I'm making good on these votes of confidence from the New Yorker and Granta and the National Book Foundation.
That said, I cannot overstate how much that encouragement has meant to me, especially at this stage—it makes me want to write better, and has helped me to push on through big walls of self-doubt. I hope very much that I go on to write many more novels and stories, and that I can honor those lists. At the very least, I want to avoid the “Mistakes Were Made: 1 over 50 We Got Wrong” list!
Q: What’s next for you?
A: In what is probably a supreme over-correction for all that time I spent in the Florida swamp, I'm working on a new novel set in an imaginary town during the Dust Bowl drought. My sister was joking that it should be called “Drylandia.” Bring on that dust! No more alligators, although who knows, maybe a gator should burst out of a silo in the surprise last chapter, a la “Jaws.”
And I'm hoping to put together a new story collection by the year's end.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Absolutely irresistible. . . . A suspenseful, deeply haunted book. . . . A marvel.” —The New York Times
“[Russell] has thrown the whole circus of her heart onto the page, safety nets be damned. . . . Russell has deep and true talent.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride. . . . This family, wrestling with their desires and demons . . . will lodge in the memories of anyone lucky enough to read Swamplandia!” —The New York Times Book Review
“The bewitching Swamplandia! is a tremendous achievement.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Seduces before you’ve turned the first page.” —People
“If no such thing as the Great Floridian Novel already existed, consider it done. . . . A novel of idiosyncratic and eloquent language; hyperreal, Technicolor settings; and larger-than-life characters who are nonetheless heartbreakingly vulnerable and keenly emotional. It’s a tour de force.” —Elle
“Beautiful, dark, and funny.” —Rolling Stone
“A spook-house masterpiece.” —Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Dazzlingly original. . . . Like the state itself, Swamplandia! is a crossroads where the wild and the tame, the spectacular and the mundane meet; underneath the hubbub of the fantastic lies a family of misfits at sea in their grief—theirs is a story that is as ordinary as it is heartbreaking.” —Boston Globe
“Wonderfully imaginative.” —The Seattle Times
“A rich and humid world of spirits and dreams, buzzing mosquitoes and prehistoric reptiles, baby-green cocoplums and marsh rabbits, and musty old tomes about heroes and spells. With Ava [Russell] has created a goofy and self-conscious girl who is young enough to hope that all darkness has an answering lightness.” —The Economist
“A lusciously written phantasmagorical treat.” —Palm Beach Post
“Swamplandia! flashes brilliantly—holographically—between a surreal tale brimming with sophisticated whimsy and an all-too-realistic portrait of a quaint but dysfunctional family under pressure in a world that threatens to make them obsolete. . . . Ava is a true contemporary heroine and not easily forgotten.” —More
“Winningly told.” —Vogue
“Audacious, beguiling. . . . Ava’s story turns into a tale that could have been concocted by Flannery O’Connor in partnership with the Brothers Grimm—in other words, a first-class nightmare. . . . You will admire this novel for its prose, but you will love it for its big heart.” —The Daily Beast
“Ava’s juicy, poetic voice, assembled through sheer willpower and joie de vivre and desperation from a self-taught young genius’s love of language, is what carries this book. . . . [A] garish and fierce beauty.” —Salon
“The talent Karen Russell paraded in her remarkable short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves has turned into mastery.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Swamplandia! is both a celebration of the Everglades and an elegy for it. . . . Russell has created a credible, captivating universe.” —The Sun Sentinel
“Think Scout Finch if she’d been raised in an old-school tourist attraction instead of a tiny town. Or Dorothy if a tornado had dropped her in the Everglades instead of Oz. Or Alice if she had tumbled into a Wonderland populated by gators and ghosts and a man in a coat made of feathers. . . . A story rich in fantastic images and gorgeous language, anchored . . . by its wonderfully human characters and its big, warm heart.” —St. Petersburg Times
“A rich, lively narrative (sometimes silly, sometimes sad) with gorgeous language. . . . Russell’s debut novel shines with the glow of the southern sun.” —The Oregonian
“Funny, sorrowful, and engrossing. . . . Hardly a page goes by without the reader marveling. . . . An adventure story, a tale of family, a testament to resilience and an account of America’s homogenization, Swamplandia! is an accomplished and affecting debut.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Unlike any story you’re familiar with. . . . A mesmerizing gothic portrait of love, death, and the loss of innocence.” —The Gainesville Times
“Russell’s writing is clear, rhythmic and dependable, even as her imagination runs wild.” —Los Angeles Times
“An astonishingly assured first novel.” —The Washington Times
“Some novels pull readers forward with plots that demand resolution; others make them want to linger on each sentence, bathing in the delights. Swamplandia! . . . does both, leaving readers with a sweet dilemma: Appreciate the present or forge on to find out what happens next.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“There’s simply no question that Russell writes beautifully, even about the darkest of truths.” —Time Out Chicago
“May be the best book you’ll ever read about a girl trying to save her family’s alligator-wrestling theme park.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Satisfying and heart-warming.” —Florida Times-Union
“Gorgeously written. . . . Russell’s flirtation with the fantastic adds a dangerous, off-kilter edge.” —Bookforum
“Intensely moving.”—The Onion’s A.V. Club, Grade: A
“[Russell’s] prose dazzles in any medium.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Russell’s prose is beautiful, vivid, and lovingly creepy—just like Florida itself. . . . Magnificent.” —The Stranger (Seattle, WA)
“[A] wonderfully overstuffed, scaldingly funny, and frightening debut. . . . Read this book, pass it on to those who deserve it, and be thankful that the world contains artists like Karen Russell.” —PopMatters.com
“Exuberant, big-hearted, and entertaining. . . . In the midst of making readers think, Russell also makes us laugh, cry and gasp as she concocts an amazing and undiscovered world and populates it with characters we come to care for deeply. You’ll want to savor the sentences in this literary triumph.” —Maclean’s
“This was the first time I’ve read Karen Russell’s work, and I was dazzled. It’s very rare, among the tonnage of manuscripts and galleys that land upon one’s desk, to come across a young novelist so inventive and versatile, yet so thoroughly in control. Also, I’m a sucker for any plot line that features man-eating reptiles. . . . Passages of this fine novel call to mind Conrad, García Márquez, and even—for those who have kids—Judy Blume. . . . I can’t recall the last time I came across a character who shines as brightly as Ava, or a first novel that made such a rich and lasting impression.” —Carl Hiaasen
From the celebrated twenty-nine-year-old author of the everywhere-heralded short-story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves comes a blazingly original debut novel that takes us back to the swamps of the Florida Everglades, and introduces us to Ava Bigtree, an unforgettable young heroine.
The Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, formerly #1 in the region, is swiftly being encroached on by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, has just died; her sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava’s father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL, and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen-year-old, to manage ninety-eight gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief.
Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, Karen Russell has written an utterly singular novel about a family’s struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking. An arrestingly beautiful and inventive work from a vibrant new voice in fiction.
1. Now that you’ve read the novel, go back and reread the epigraph. Why do you think Russell chose this quote?
2. Some of these characters first appeared in the story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” in Russell’s collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Have you read that story? How does it compare to the novel?
3. “‘Tradition is as important, kids,’ Chief Bigtree liked to say, ‘as promotional materials are expensive.’” (page 6) Did the Chief show this in his actions? Which of the Bigtree tribe members paid the most respect to tradition?
4. How did Chief’s myth-making affect his children? How might things have been different if he’d been more truthful?
5. On page 36, Chief introduces his theory of Carnival Darwinism, which he thought would save Swamplandia! How might it have been successful? Why wasn’t it?
6. Where else does the notion of evolution come into play?
7. Belief—in Carnival Darwinism, in ghosts—plays a large role in the novel. What prompts Ossie’s beliefs? Ava’s? Where is the turning point in their belief systems?
8. Why do you think Ossie sees Louis and other ghosts, but never Hilola?
9. What does Ava’s red alligator represent? And the melaleuca trees?
10. Why do you think Russell interrupted the novel for the story of the Dredgeman’s Revelation? What exactly is the “revelation”?
11. There are biblical references throughout the book, especially in the World of Darkness sections. Why does Russell include them?
12. How do Kiwi’s actions affect his family? What do we learn via his sojourn on the mainland?
13. On page 183, the Bird Man tells Ava, “Nobody can get to hell without assistance, kid.” How does this compare to the quote from Dante that opens the chapter? What does it tell us about his character?
14. The three Bigtree children are innocent for their ages. Which one matures the most over the course of the novel?
15. The Bird Man calls the ending of the Dredgeman’s Revelation “a vanishing point.” (page 221) What does he mean by that?
16. Both the Bird Man and Vijay act as guides to a Bigtree sibling. How does each approach his role?
17. When Ava said “I love you” to the Bird Man on page 245, what did you expect to happen as a result?
18. On page 247, Ava recites a credo: “I believe the Bird Man knows a passage to the underworld. I believe that I am brave enough to do this. I have faith that we are going to rescue Ossie.” Was she right about any of this?
19. Did the Bird Man believe in the underworld, or did he have an ulterior motive all along?
20. How does Kiwi’s use of language change during the novel? What does it reflect?
21. Like the Dredgeman, several of the Bigtrees have revelations. Whose is the most surprising?
22. What is the significance of the Mama Weeds passage? What do we learn from it?
23. Why doesn’t Ava ever tell anyone what the Bird Man did?
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