Karen Russell is the author of the story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and the novel Swamplandia!, both published by Knopf. Recently she was selected by the National Book Foundation as one of their “5 under 35″ and by The New Yorker as one of their “20 under 40.” She is the Writer in Residence at Bard College.
KR: Robin, [If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is] so rich, and fed by so many different streams of life experience—the stories may be “short,” relative to, say, “The Brothers Karamazov,” but they have all the insight, heartbreak, and complexity of the best novels. In your acknowledgments, you mention that it took you eight years to write the ten stories in the collection. Do you feel like the gestation period for the stories has something to do with their emotional depth?
RB: In part, I think the whole process took a long time because I never set out to write a story collection. I wrote each story as its own thing without focusing on how it would fit into a manuscript, so I didn’t feel hurried to finish a book. And I am remarkably inefficient. I honestly think I throw out a good 80% of what I write. On a less logistical level, I think that some of what you call complexity and depth – thank you, Karen! – comes from a childhood spent trying to figure out the familial complexities into which I was born. So many of my stories deal with aftermath, years of history echoing down, and I can see now that I grew up with a sense of a household still trying to deal with its own history. Maybe this is true of all families, but in mine anyway, the stories from the past seemed to loom incredibly large and I was always aware that my parents and my grandmother, who lived with us, were carrying the legacies of these complex narratives within them. There had been deaths before my birth that were still being grieved, injuries and illnesses from which people had never recovered. I know that isn’t unique and my preoccupation with those things is probably the strange part, but for better and worse, I have always been obsessed with the question of how personal history determines the present moment.
KR: Your characters felt very real to me, some more real than many people I know, as though they had a secret life beyond the page. I got the sense that every one of them casts a shadow, has a past and will have a future. How much do you know about your characters when you sit down to begin a draft? Do you draft out biographies for them? Or do their histories, quirks and preoccupations become clearer to you as you write?
RB: My characters definitely reveal themselves to me in process. Going into a story, I know almost nothing about the people, the events, the reason it feels urgent to me. And I like that. Characters develop in a kind of conversation that takes place between actions or plot elements that occur to me as I go along and the responses the characters have to those which then in turn spark on more plot developments. In the sort of stories I write, the story grows out of character, meaning the people do things because it makes some kind of psychological sense to me that they would, but the characters also evolve to serve the story. Like so much of fiction writing it’s a messy and inexact process.
KR: So many of the stories in this collection focus on an emotional or spiritual blind spot—their characters’ inability to accurately see themselves, or their failure to fully apprehend a lover, a parent, a child, or, in the case of the title story, the neighbor who lives behind your cunningly-erected fence. I’m thinking of the sort of intimate one-upmanship of the conversation between Clara and her ex-husband, Harold, in “Immortalizing John Parker” or Jeremy’s startling discovery in “A Country Where You Once Lived.” How can we be so wrong in our judgments of those to whom we are closest—our parents, our children? What blinds these characters; in your opinion, what prevents them from truly seeing one another?
RB: I honestly think it’s just how we all bungle through life. We make mistakes We assume we know what’s going on and we don’t. Every person carries a vast number of secrets, even people who don’t think of themselves as secretive. We withhold from one another as a kindness or to be in control of some situation or because we don’t want to violate someone else’s confidence. Or because it’s not even theoretically possible to tell someone everything you know. So much of life is conducted in this kind of strange murky darkness. I think I may be more attuned to that than some people or I may be naturally drawn to it as an area of narrative potential, but I think it’s a condition that exists for us all. What’s amazing to me, and continually beautiful, is that we manage ever to connect to one another at all.
KR: Memory, in your stories, felt suddenly so precious and so terrifyingly fragile to me. These characters suffer losses in the present, but often it’s their version of the past that is most at risk. In “Immortalizing John Parker,” there is a wonderful dinner scene between Clara and her ex-husband where reminiscing becomes a heart-stoppingly dangerous activity: “Harold has just taken from her a part of George she thought she held…as effortlessly as she has just rewritten decades of Harold’s life for him.” Is this a loss or a betrayal that you wanted to explore in the collection–how even the past can be taken from us?
RB: Definitely. And also how it can be preserved and how we conspire to create the past. In “Immortalizing John Parker,” Clara robs her former husband of his version of events, but she also offers to preserve John Parker for his wife, agrees to try and keep the past alive that way. In “Tableau Vivant,” Jean and her daughter tell and retell the story of a shared evening to one another because doing so preserves a moment of happiness. It’s a kindness they give each other. I think there’s something inherently hurtful to someone saying “Really? That’s not how I remember it at all.” It strikes a very deep chord. I imagine that we all want to believe we are reliable witnesses to our own lives. Maybe because it makes time itself seem more like something we are able to hold.