Small Talk: Karen Russell

Karen Russell, 31, was born in Miami and studied Spanish at Northwestern University. She was a finalist in last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut novel Swamplandia! She now lives in Philadelphia.

Which book changed your life?

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940), which my mum gave me when I was 12 or 13. Understanding that my mum felt the same sorrow in the exact same places was an intimacy that I hadn’t really had with her before.

Where do you write best?

I’ve never had a Virginia Woolf “Room of One’s Own”. I write on the Amtrak [train], at Starbucks and at Philadelphia’s Free Library. But my preference is to be alone at home.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?

As research for Swamplandia! I made my brother and father go to Gatorland [a theme park in Florida]. We have pictures of us feeding chicken drumsticks to alligators with terrified smiles on our faces.

What book do you wish you had written?

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998).

Which literary character most resembles you?

Junot Díaz’s Oscar, the sci-fi loving Dominican nerd. I love all the sci-fi fantasy stuff that Oscar dorks out on. His struggle to be comfortable in his own body is something that I can relate to.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

At the end of the block where I used to live in Coconut Grove in Miami, there’s a swampy area, a no-name alcove with a little mangrove estuary. It’s beautiful.

What does it mean to be a writer?

It means you can wear loose-fitting pants every day on a weekday. It means having to keep reassuring other people that you’re not actually unemployed. For me, writing is a parenthesis where I can make sense of life.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

[The character] Tracy Jordan from the comedy 30 Rock. His running monologues are hilarious. I feel drunk watching him sometimes.

Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?

I would love to be stuck in a lift with Clive Owen, a handsome, competent leading man who would reassure me in a gorgeous accent that everything is going to be fine.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

I can’t say marry an oil tycoon, can I? I would love to travel around the world working for a travel company taking students abroad on cultural immersion trips.

Karen Russell’s latest short story collection is ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ (Chatto & Windus)

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