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Russell Discusses Challenges, Successes Of Writing

Heights Editor

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 13:02

Russel Discusses Challenges, Successes Of Writing

Alex Gaynor // Heights Editor

By Michelle Tomassi
Heights Editor

“The question I get asked most often boils down to, ‘Why do you write such weird stuff?’” Karen Russell addressed this question to a room of literary enthusiasts in Gasson 100 on Wednesday at the second lecture in the Lowell Humanities Series, this semester.

Russell has wasted no time making a name for herself—her debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and her prize-winning short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, was featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and its 20 Under 40 list. Russell also received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation in 2009, and three of her short stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories volumes.

After an introduction by Robert Chibka of the English department, Russell began by describing her love for the imaginary and the texts that inspired her throughout her college career. While she is currently recognized for her stories that delve into alternate realities and explore various possibilities, her sense of creation did not always come easily. Referencing classics such as Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby, Russell discussed the process of trying to find her own voice under the pressure of trying to emulate such widely acclaimed novels.

“I was trying so hard to get the facts right that these stories lacked any sense of effervescent creation,” she said, referring to some of her early work in short story writing. After learning about authors that strayed from the traditional and embraced a different kind of architecture in writing, Russell attempted to write without limits rather than spend time doing research. She soon realized, however, that having background knowledge was sometimes necessary to have a sense of direction.

“I was writing stories that were completely insane,” she said. “I was like a tourist myself in these stories. I didn’t understand their laws or customs.” She looked to writers such as Italo Calvino and Flannery O’Connor for encouragement, and eventually came to realize the key to effective storytelling.

“You need to have something at stake in your story, whether it’s set in New Brunswick or the surface of Jupiter,” she said.

Russell then discussed one of her favorite writing methods, the “fish-slap-to-the-face” technique, which she described as “unapologetic strangeness frontloaded in a text.” To support this definition, she provided readings from some of her favorite openings that demand readers’ attention, such as Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which she personally believes to be one of the most skillful openings in the realm of literature.

She ended her lecture with a reading from the title story of her newest short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, followed by a question-and-answer section with the audience. When asked about her own inspirations and her perception of short-story writing in today’s world, she pointed to widely-read authors such as Junot Diaz as testaments to the ever-changing and always exciting world of storytelling.

As a young writer herself, Russell could only advise aspiring authors to keep doing what they love, and to never give up.

“It would be great if there was some better advice, but I think it’s just not to get discouraged,” she said. “I think it’s easy to lose faith.” Russell also tried to assuage the fears of budding writers who are concerned about the planning of a story. “It’s really rare that I know exactly what’s going to happen going in,” she said. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
Russell concluded by explaining the reasoning behind her affinity for short stories, since she can take more risks and experiment with unique formal styles that are difficult to sustain in a longer novel. The writing process is by no means easy, Russell explained, but she noted that there is a certain way to recognize when a writer is on the path to success.

“If there’s not something a stake for me, or something that scares me, I can’t write it,” she said. “When you’re writing like the way a reader reads, when you want to know what happens next, I think that’s a good place to be.”

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