Author Karen Russell’s work defies easy categorization, blending elements of fantasy, horror and realism. Russell’s new short story collection ventures away from her native Florida where her earlier books were set, and takes readers to richly-drawn worlds from Italy to Minnesota. Russell joins Kojo in the studio to talk about her work.


  • Karen Russell Author, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove", "Swamplandia!"

Inside The Studio

Karen Russell reads from her new short story collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” Excerpts include the first chapter, which shares the book’s title, and “The barn at the end of our turn,” about dead U.S. presidents who are reincarnated into the bodies of horses.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell. Copyright © 2013 by Karen Russell. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, 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.


  • 12:25:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhat do you do after being named one of the top five writers under 35 to watch and your first novel is selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize? If you are author Karen Russell, you keep writing, of course. The Florida native has a new collection of short stories out that takes farther afield than her home state where her first two books were rooted with stories set in Italy, Wisconsin, Japan and Nebraska, to name a few.

  • 12:25:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut above and beyond taking us to those places, what Karen Russell does and does so well is create worlds for her characters that are both of this world and of another realm entirely. Here to explain this unique blend of genre she works in is Karen Russell. She is an award-winning author whose novel "Swamplandia!" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her latest book is a collection of short stories titled "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." Karen Russell, so glad you're here. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:26:16

    MS. KAREN RUSSELLHi, Kojo. Oh, thank you much for having me.

  • 12:26:19

    NNAMDII've seen your work described as literally fiction, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, humor, thriller, all of which seems to say it's genre-defined. How do you define it? Or is that something you even find it necessary to do?

  • 12:26:32

    RUSSELLIt's funny. I think I'm getting worse and worse at describing my own work. And I confess, too, that when people say literary fiction, I'm never completely sure what they mean beyond just that it's not governed by plot conventions. You know, it's not sort of one of these other genres that you just cited. I kind of think it's -- even for me, story to story, it's each its own thing, you know?

  • 12:26:56

    NNAMDIIn fact, I find it intriguing that you have more and more trouble defining what it is because that simply means that your mind is traveling to more and more places, and therefore, it's become more difficult with each word you write to describe exactly what it is you're writing.

  • 12:27:11

    RUSSELLYeah. I think, sort of in film and music and literature, some of my favorite artists are these mash-up artists. You know, they're really drawing on diverse sources and then synthesizing them into some new thing. So, you know, and some of the writers who I love at this moment -- George Saunders is someone who's been getting a lot of acclaim, the storywriter, Jim Shepard or Kelly Link. And I've heard the same.

  • 12:27:32

    RUSSELLPeople will say, oh, they're new-wave fabulous. They're satirists. They're, you know, the (unintelligible) and that way. It's just so -- it's fun. It's fun. I think it's always a good thing if you can magnetize a lot of adjectives.

  • 12:27:44

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. If you have read Karen Russell's work and you have questions or maybe definitions for her, give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to Do the attempts that others make to fit your work into some neat category ever worry you in the sense that a reader who might really enjoy your work but who doesn't typically like fantasy or thrillers could be turned off by one of those designations?

  • 12:28:13

    RUSSELLOh, absolutely. I mean, that worries me -- that worried me with the title of this new collection, you know...

  • 12:28:18


  • 12:28:18

    RUSSELL...which I think, if you read the story, you quickly realize it's not -- there's no kind of "Twilight" sparkly romance happening. But I do think that if I, as a reader, saw a book with vampires in the title, I would -- I'd be wary, you know, potentially.

  • 12:28:32

    NNAMDIYou would think it was genre-defining, so to speak.

  • 12:28:34

    RUSSELLWell, I would worry it was like "Monster Erotica" or something.

  • 12:28:39

    NNAMDIWell, it is what it is. You have to read "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" to see how much it is not just vampires.

  • 12:28:46


  • 12:28:47

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Your first collection of short stories, "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" and your novel were both firmly rooted in your home state of Florida. This new book takes us farther afield. Were you, in a sense, eager to move away?

  • 12:29:03

    RUSSELLI did sort of feel like I had to pack my knapsack and run away from home. I really did feel that, I think, at a certain point. Partially, it was -- some of these stories were written when I was still drafting "Swamplandia!," and that swamp just became an inhospitable place. And I had to go on a little vacation.

  • 12:29:18

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Are you a fan of fiction that defies categorization or pulls inspiration from multiple genres? Call us, 800-433-8850. Was there a certain comfort zone that you had with Florida that you felt you needed to get away from in order to challenge yourself more?

  • 12:29:36

    RUSSELLYeah. Absolutely. That's such a good question. I think my default, sort of the stocked images in my imagination, come from Florida. You know, it's a really rich place if you're a fiction writer to grow up. And I -- if I have my druthers, I'll return, like, to the beach. You know, I'll be in the swamp. I'll be in some sort of murky channel in Florida, backwaters. So it felt good. And similarly, I -- my default voice often tends to be some whacked-out adolescent or kind of like a deranged teenager. So it felt good to try it out -- try out some different voices in different centuries, different continents.

  • 12:30:10

    NNAMDIStepping away from home base. Since you have published both, do you have a preference for writing short stories over novels or vice versa?

  • 12:30:18

    RUSSELLOh, my goodness. They're both very difficult.

  • 12:30:21

    RUSSELLThey're both difficult in their own monstrous, you know, charming ways. I think when I was writing the novel, I couldn't wait to get back to writing short stories. I thought how miraculous to be finished with something in a few months instead of just, you know, committing for years to something that has no guarantee of ever kind of coming to life.

  • 12:30:40

    RUSSELLAnd then when I was writing stories, I sort of miss the sustained pleasure of putting down stakes in a world and getting to stay there and getting to know the characters over time. Stories, I always compare it to if you set up a bunch of little circus tents, it's a lot of work, you know? It's...

  • 12:30:52

    NNAMDIThat's true.

  • 12:30:52

    RUSSELLAnd then you just got to collapse the tent and move right on. So...

  • 12:30:56

    NNAMDIIt's interesting because, until I thought about it, I didn't realize that sometimes the short story can be more challenging than the novel because, as you say, you've started to inhabit this place, and all of a sudden, wait a minute, it's a short story. I got to get out.

  • 12:31:08

    RUSSELLRight. It's a little snow globe universe. I think that's so true. And you've sort of established the rules of the place and the atmospherics and everything.

  • 12:31:17

    NNAMDINevertheless, after completing a novel, where you've done all of this and extend it, you feel the need again to get back to short stories. What's up with that?

  • 12:31:25

    RUSSELLI think it might always be this pendulum swing. Well, I -- this is maybe a terrible analogy, but I was comparing it to sort of like a recent divorcee who wants to have a series of flings. You know, I think, in a story, you can just take a different risk, you know, and you can -- the way -- to sustain a novel to have those multiple worlds going at once. Some of the premises I was able to try in "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," I don't think you could sustain that energy for 300 pages. But it works, I think, very well, as a vehicle of revelation for, like, a 12-page sprint or a 20-page sprint.

  • 12:31:58

    NNAMDII'm still trying to wrap my head around the comparison to a recent divorcee who wants to have a variety of flings.

  • 12:32:03

    RUSSELLI know. That's a -- well, it's just sort of a, you know, the...

  • 12:32:07

    NNAMDIIt's a good analogy, though.

  • 12:32:08

    RUSSELLThe pin wheeling, yeah. Pinwheel around, have some fun.

  • 12:32:10

    NNAMDIIt a good analogy.

  • 12:32:12

    NNAMDIThe title story in this new collection takes on a familiar architect, the vampire, and turns our long-held knowledge of such monsters on its ear. Do you ever get any blowback for doing so?

  • 12:32:25


  • 12:32:26


  • 12:32:26

    RUSSELLMy siblings make fun of me. My siblings will make fun of me. They'll tell me they think that's such a, you know, cheesy idea or a terrible idea. I wonder, you know...

  • 12:32:35

    NNAMDIBut that's the siblings' job is to make fun of you.

  • 12:32:36

    RUSSELLThat's their -- exactly. They're -- thank God. They've been editing me my whole life.

  • 12:32:40

    RUSSELLThey were editing me when I was 11.

  • 12:32:41

    NNAMDIAny other from people whose opinions you really listen to?

  • 12:32:44

    RUSSELLI did have student recently who told me that he hated that vampire story because I took so many liberties, you know, with the vampire convention, which was sort of the point of the story, yeah.

  • 12:32:53

    NNAMDIThe point. That's right. That was the whole point of it.

  • 12:32:54

    RUSSELLAnd so I think a lot of story is just interested in what happens when you have a really uncritical allegiance to a myth. So in this case, this vampire really believes that he has to drink blood, that that's the only, you know, that's his curse in this world. And his whole kind of image of himself as a monster falls apart when he meets this woman. They have a fantastic first date. And she also is a vampire. And she starts to teach him that he doesn't have to do, you know, any of this murderous, blood-guzzling stuff anymore.

  • 12:33:23

    NNAMDIWell, I'd like to ask you if you can read a little bit from...

  • 12:33:26


  • 12:33:26

    NNAMDI..."Vampires in the Lemon Grove" for us, starting right at the very beginning.

  • 12:33:32

    RUSSELLOK. So this is "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." "In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or first flowering fruit, the most succulent lemons. In March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli. In every season you can find me sitting at my bench, watching them fall. Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I've been sitting here so long their falls seem contiguous, close as raindrops. My wife has no patience for this sort of meditation. 'Jesus Christ, Clyde,' she says. 'You need a hobby.'

  • 12:34:15

    RUSSELL"Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno's coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won't fade until I die, which I never will. I wear a neat periwinkle shirt, a canvas sunhat, black suspenders that sag at my chest. My loafers are battered but always polished. The few visitors to the lemon grove who notice me smile blankly into my raisin face and catch the whiff of some sort of tragedy.

  • 12:34:48

    RUSSELL"They whisper that I am a widower or an old man who has survived his children. They never guess that I'm a vampire. Santa Francesca's Lemon Grove, where I spend my days and nights, was part of a Jesuit convent in the 1800s. Today it's privately owned by the Alberti family. The prices are excessive, and the locals know to buy their lemons elsewhere. In summers, a teenage girl named Fila mans a wooden stall at the back of the grove. She's painfully thin, with heavy black bangs.

  • 12:35:20

    RUSSELL"I can tell by the careful way she saves the best lemons for me, slyly kicking them under my bench, that she knows I am a monster. Sometimes she'll smile vacantly in my direction, but she never gives me any trouble. And because of her benevolent indifference to me, I feel a swell of love for the girl. Fila makes the lemonade and monitors the hot dog machine, watching the meat rotate on wire spigots. I'm fascinated by this machine. The Italian name for it translates as carousel of beef.

  • 12:35:53

    RUSSELL"Who would have guessed at such a device 200 years ago? Back then, we were all preoccupied with visions of apocalypse. Santa Francesca, the foundress of this very grove, gouged out her eyes while dictating premonitions of fire. What a shame, I often think, that Santa Francesca foresaw only the end times, never hot dogs."

  • 12:36:15

    NNAMDIThat is Karen Russell reading from "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," the title story of her new collection of short stories. A vampire with a tan? That immediately said to me, OK, this is going to a different. A tan, we never think of that. What made you think of a vampire with a tan?

  • 12:36:33

    RUSSELLYou know, embarrassingly, I was in this lemon grove in Sorrento. My grandfather had never been to Europe. He wanted to go before he died, so this was a big family trip. And we saw this -- sort of his analog, this tiny Italian man, who is drinking some kind of lemon drink, just looked exactly to me like a shriveled vampire with a tan. And I made that joke to my siblings, so I just mentioned, and they, like -- basically were like, shut up, as they often are.

  • 12:37:00

    RUSSELLAnd I just kept thinking about that image. And I think somehow, as preposterous as it seemed, you know, I think my joke to them was, what if lemons were like some kind of vampire methadone, you know, that he sucks on that lemon and that means he doesn't have to indulge his, you know, his worst appetites?

  • 12:37:16

    NNAMDIAnd that's what you find in the "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." Despite the strong elements of fantasy in these stories, many grow out of historical fact, like a provision outlined in the Homestead Act of 1862 or the treatment of a female factory worker in Japan. How do those kernels of truth, if you will, inspire you? And when do you stick to reality and choose to depart from it?

  • 12:37:41

    RUSSELLRight. It's so funny because I sort of -- I've been talking a lot now about fantasy and reality, and I think, for me, that binary never feels so rigid. You know, it feels like a real continuum. And in a lot of those cases, you know, there's one story that's set on the frontier with this family that's proving up. They are trying to get their title.

  • 12:38:01

    RUSSELLAnd in order to do so, they have to show this inspector that they have, you know, X acres of land, that they've improved the land, that they have these crops and that they have a house with a glass window. Now, that detail is true. And that's more spectacular, I thought, than anything I could invent, that there is this bureaucratic wink, this sort of strange clause to the legislation, the Homestead Act that requires a glass window.

  • 12:38:23

    NNAMDIWell, that's the reality that inspires you. And you mentioned the comments that you've gotten from your siblings. It would seem that you all look at the same reality, but then you always extract something from that reality that your siblings find unexpected and, on some occasions, inappropriate. But that seems to be the kernel that drives you.

  • 12:38:42

    RUSSELLYeah. Often, it'll be -- yeah, some spot that you can dilate and see something that we've all become kind of inured to. You know, unlike the mundane world or the everyday world, it's so easy to fall asleep. And every now and then, there will be something like that that kind of wakes you up to the real strangeness, you know, of the every day, I think.

  • 12:39:01

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Karen Russell. She'll be reading some more, we hope, from her collection of short stories, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." But you can also send email to What makes you decide to pick up a short story collection or novel? You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:41:02

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Karen Russell. She's an award-winning author whose novel "Swamplandia!" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her latest book is a collection of short stories titled "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." We got an email from Jessica, who said, "I just finished 'New Veterans' last night in 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove.' Usually, I read a few pages of a book before bed.

  • 12:41:23

    NNAMDI"But with this story, I was totally sucked in and could not put the book down until it was over. At the end, I was wide awake but didn't want to start the next story until I had time to digest what I had just consumed." Why did you choose the tattoo as the medium for the exchange of memories? I know what she's talking about in that story, too, yes.

  • 12:41:43

    RUSSELLOh, well, thank you, Jessica. So this story, "The New Veterans," this is about a masseuse, this woman Beverly, who has been treating some traumatized veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars from the local VA hospital. They've been referred to her, and she develops a really intimate relationship with one of them, Sgt. Derek Zeiger, and he has this sort of fantastically detailed tattoo on his back intended to memorialize the death day of his friend.

  • 12:42:12

    RUSSELLAnd in the process of treating him, Beverly begins to think that she can move the tattoo around and alter his memories from without, that she -- that he has transmitted the memory of his friend's death day to her, that she can hold it for him. So the story for me, a lot of it is about memory and trauma.

  • 12:42:31

    NNAMDIAnd guilt. Let's not forget guilt.

  • 12:42:32

    RUSSELLAnd guilt and the idea -- this -- her sort of -- her horror. She aches with this sergeant, who feels that he is going to carry around his friend's death day for the rest of his life. So the tattoo for me, the tattoo -- tattoos have always been fascinating. I used to love that Ray Bradbury story, "The Illustrated Man," I think, because it's -- to have a story written on your body, to carry it, you know, have this kind of cape of color on your body, and then to imagine -- you know, the impulse behind getting a tattoo, you want something to be permanent.

  • 12:43:03

    RUSSELLYou want that memorial to be a fixed, immutable, you know, story that you'll carry. And when the tattoo starts to move and change, I think for me, in a really visual way, it was a way to think through how healing can sometimes feel like a betrayal, you know, a scar is erased, how histories aren't fixed, in fact, how they're changing all the time and they never resolve. So I think the tattoo worked for me in a quite explicit way to think about storytelling as the way that we make history.

  • 12:43:35

    NNAMDIYou say for you "New Veterans" is at the heart of this collection. The story embodies the theme of guilt that really runs through this collection.

  • 12:43:44


  • 12:43:44

    NNAMDIWhy is "New Veterans" at the heart of the collection for you?

  • 12:43:48

    RUSSELLWell, you know, I think it echoes a lot of the themes in some of the other stories -- as you say, guilt and atonement -- and here perhaps because it is so explicitly about storytelling, in a way, and myth and reality, and how slippery our identities can become, how slippery our -- the stories we tell about our past can become. I think that it kind of gathers up all the themes from the other stories.

  • 12:44:16

    NNAMDIIn the collection, which is called "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." We're talking with Karen Russell. If you find greater truth in stories that go beyond the bounds of reality, tell us why they appeal to you, and if they don't, why not? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Right after "Proving Up," perhaps the scariest story in the collection -- and I know of at least one individual who read "Proving Up" before going to bed at night and found that she couldn't sleep after...

  • 12:44:44

    RUSSELLIt scared her. Oh, what a victory. I'm so glad.

  • 12:44:46

    NNAMDIThat's our producer, Taylor Burnie.

  • 12:44:48

    RUSSELLI'm so glad.

  • 12:44:48

    NNAMDIBut right after "Proving Up," we enter a more lighthearted world populated by former presidents reincarnated as horses. First, I'd like you to read us a passage from that story, "The Barn at the End of Our Term."

  • 12:45:05

    RUSSELLOK. Well, let me find that. That's -- you set it up. That's it.

  • 12:45:08

    NNAMDII've already found it, page 115.

  • 12:45:10

    RUSSELLOK. So here we go. "The Barn." And as Kojo said, this is just a bunch of American presidents reincarnated in the bodies of horses. "The barn is part of a modest horse farm, its pastures rolling forward into a blank, mist-cloaked horizon. The landscape is flat and corn-yellow and empty of people. In fact, the prairies look a lot like the grasslands of Kentucky. There are anthills everywhere, impossibly huge, heaped like dirt monsters.

  • 12:45:45

    RUSSELL"There are 22 stalls in the barn. Eleven of the stabled horses are, as far as Rutherford can ascertain, former presidents of the United States of America. The other stalls are occupied by regular horses, who give the presidents suspicious, sidelong looks. Rutherford B. Hayes is a skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare. Rutherford hasn't made many inroads with these regular horses.

  • 12:46:10

    RUSSELL"The Clydesdales are cliquish and pink-gummed, and the palominos are inbred buffoons. The ratio of presidents to normal horses in the barn appears to be constant: 11-to-11. Rutherford keeps trying and failing to make these numbers add up to some explanation. 'Let's see. If I am the 19th president, but the fourth to arrive in the barn, and if 11 divided by 11 is one, then, mmm, let me start again.'

  • 12:46:41

    RUSSELL"He's still no closer to figuring out the algorithm that determine their rebirth here. 'Just because the ratio is stable does not make it meaningful,' says James Garfield, a tranquil, gray Percheron, and Rutherford agrees. Then he goes back to his frantic cosmic arithmetic. The presidents feel certain that they are still in America, although there's no way for them to confirm this. The year -- time still advances the way it did when they were president -- is indeterminate.

  • 12:47:10

    RUSSELL"A day gets measured in different increments out here. Grass brightens and grass dims. Glass cobwebs spread across the tractor's window at dawn. Eisenhower claims that they are stabled in the past. 'The skies are empty,' he nickers, 'not a B-52 in sight.' To Rutherford, this new life hums with the strangeness of the future. The man has a cavalry of electric beasts that he rides over his acreage, Ruby tractors and combines that would have cost Rutherford's constituents to fall off their buggies with shock.

  • 12:47:44

    RUSSELL"The man climbs into the high tractor seat and turns a tiny key, and then the engine roars and groans with an unintelligible hymn. Cherubs strumming harps couldn't have impressed Rutherford more than these baritone plows of the hereafter. 'Come back. That's not holy music, you dummy,' Eisenhower yells. 'It's just diesel.'"

  • 12:48:07

    NNAMDIThat's Karen Russell reading from her collection, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" from the story "The Barn at the End of our Term." What made you think of that story?

  • 12:48:20

    RUSSELLMan, it's so confusing. Now -- the fiction that I now perpetrate is just lying about the origin of any of these stories. I think it was a combination of things. I had seen a documentary about the presidents with a bunch of pompous voice-overs where they all kind of write anxious letters about how they'll be regarded by history.

  • 12:48:36

    RUSSELLAnd I was reading a fantastic book by Kevin Brockmeier called "A Brief History of the Dead," and I think that -- so I would -- he sort of meditates on this question of what if there could be an afterlife that is even more vexing and mysterious than our present life, you know, giving the lie to the idea that death is going to have any kind of answers for us.

  • 12:48:54

    NNAMDIWhy horses?

  • 12:48:56

    RUSSELLI know. That's a tricky one, too. I was living with my friend Carrie, who's an equestrian, and she had this book called "There Are No Problem Riders, Only Problem Horses," with this, like, tiny woman with great curls on a rearing stallion, who had betrayed our species and just said that horses were always right. And so I -- we were just looking at that book. I thought that was hilarious.

  • 12:49:15

    RUSSELLSo somehow the idea, I think, of -- originally it was going to be each of the presidents was reborn into a different circumstance and they had to make sense of is this heaven or is this hell, kind of thinking about the human impulse to figure our your present circumstance based on your past, try to do that arithmetic.

  • 12:49:30

    NNAMDIDo you get tired of people trying to get into your head, so to speak, especially interviews? I probably need to talk to your siblings.

  • 12:49:35


  • 12:49:36

    NNAMDIThey would probably be able to explain about...

  • 12:49:37

    RUSSELLNo, Kojo. I'm always excited for the company. It's weird in there. I'm so happy anybody wants to pay a visit.

  • 12:49:44

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number. You can call if you would like to visit with Karen Russell. She joins us here in studio, talking about her latest book, a collection of short stories titled "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." Here is Jonathan in Washington, D.C. Jonathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:50:03

    JONATHAN RICKERTGood afternoon. I just wanted to ask Karen Russell about -- something about "Swamplandia!" The cover of the hard-cover version is a drawing that was done by my grandfather, who was an artist and illustrator who lived from 1853 to 1917. And I was just curious how she came about to get that particular drawing from "Our Indians: A Midnight Visit to the Great Somewhere-or-Other."

  • 12:50:32

    RUSSELLWow. This is Jon Vaillant, (sp?) is that correct?

  • 12:50:35


  • 12:50:36

    RUSSELLDid I get your -- what's your full name, Jon?

  • 12:50:38

    RICKERTJonathan Rickert. But my middle name is Bradley. And the artist was Luther Daniels Bradley.

  • 12:50:43

    RUSSELLLuther Daniels Bradley. And you're an author, too, right? Is that -- am I crazy?

  • 12:50:47

    RICKERTNo, not yet.

  • 12:50:50

    RUSSELLForgive me. I heard some rumor about this at Knopf, my publisher, that this picture was in some way connected to another of their authors. This is a really gorgeous illustration that my agent actually came across. So we'll have to ask Knopf for the details of where she discovered it, you know, in what archives.

  • 12:51:09

    RUSSELLBut we were looking for something that felt sort of, you know, "Alice in Wonderland," you know, had that kind of storybook feel because a lot of "Swamplandia!" is about a child who is -- cut her teeth on myth and fairytale and then also had something menacing about it, you know, some genuine menace, which that -- I thought that -- I was so excited when I -- when they showed me that cover. So...

  • 12:51:31

    RICKERTWell, the picture shows my -- it's a self-portrait of my grandfather with his niece riding on his shoulders.

  • 12:51:38

    NNAMDIWow. And you say your grandfather lived from 1853 to 1917?

  • 12:51:41

    RICKERTThat's correct. And my mother who will be 103 in July...

  • 12:51:46


  • 12:51:47

    RICKERT...has the cover of "Swamplandia!" in a frame hanging on her wall, in her retirement home.

  • 12:51:54


  • 12:51:54

    RUSSELLThis is -- your centenarian mom has "Swamplandia's!" cover in a frame? It's a strange world we occupy, isn't it?

  • 12:52:04

    RUSSELLOh, that's really incredible. Well, I'm glad for people to know that the man on the cover is your grandfather and not the birdman who is sort of a nefarious dude. So let's make that clear to folks to clear his name.

  • 12:52:16


  • 12:52:17

    RICKERTHe's definitely a good guy (unintelligible).

  • 12:52:18

    RUSSELLYou're right, at all.

  • 12:52:19

    NNAMDIThank you for calling and sharing that with us, Jonathan.

  • 12:52:21

    RUSSELLThat's fantastic. Thank you. I'm so happy to know that.

  • 12:52:23

    NNAMDIYou, too, can call us at 800-433-8850, or send email to We got an email from Susan, who says, "I might not have picked up Karen's book based only on the title. But after hearing her read the beginning of it, I'm hooked, and we'll look for her stories. I like short stories because they fit my lifestyle, just right for busy times. Delightful guest and great topic." And Jackie in D.C. emails, "What causes me to pick up a volume? The title attracts me every time." They talked about different approaches.

  • 12:52:53


  • 12:52:54

    NNAMDI"The title attracts me every time. Consider "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" by the late Grace Paley, a great short story writer, it so captured my life at the time." So you never know, "Vampires in the Lemon Grave" might appeal to someone then not so much to others.

  • 12:53:08


  • 12:53:09

    NNAMDIBut the reading certainly helps. Another topic that you take on that's very much in the news is bullying. Is there something inherently fascinating in watching the tables being turned on bullies?

  • 12:53:22

    RUSSELLI think in this story -- and it's funny it has been getting so much attention. I think there is a recent book published about bullying. This is kind of, in some ways, the most realist story that I tried here besides "The New Veterans." It's set in New Jersey, which for me was an exotic location coming from Florida...

  • 12:53:38 this, like, kind of (unintelligible) invented city in New Jersey where this band of boys, they have a victim, this kid Eric Mutis, who sort of disappears, you know, mid-semester and is never heard from again. And they rapidly forget him. And it's a shallow burial because he comes back in a form of a scarecrow. So I was thinking just about a haunting, the social haunting. And I think -- I guess, a little bit more than bullying.

  • 12:54:02

    RUSSELLYou know, so many of the stories are about violence and the way that a subject can be converted into an object by violence. So -- and I think bullying, you know, it's something that we're all intrigued by because I think everyone is sort of a victim. I think -- and what can frequently happen is there is this loss of individual agency, especially with groups of boys where -- with this kind of gang of kids in particular.

  • 12:54:29

    RUSSELLI don't think any individual member is keen to -- and bullying almost sounds to me -- it sounds like something that we've learned to accept, or we say, well, boys will be boys. This is real violence that they're engaging in. They're really physically, brutally beating this student in their class. And I just don't think any one of those individuals wants to be doing it. I think that was the interesting part of the story for me. It was the inertia that can develop within a group.

  • 12:54:59

    NNAMDIAnd, of course, there is a story of betrayal there also that you can find out.

  • 12:55:02


  • 12:55:05

    NNAMDILast year, "Swamplandia!" was up for a Pulitzer Prize. It's one of the three finalists. That was the year no prize were -- no prize was awarded. But the mere fact that it was up for a Pulitzer, was that, for you, challenging as to what your next work would be?

  • 12:55:18

    RUSSELLI think I lucked out timing wise because I was doing final revisions on these stories. The stories had been in the works for a while. I was sort of working on a "Reeling for the Empire" and "New Veterans" and trying to revise some of the other ones when I found out. So there is no way to be completely paralyzed by that news.

  • 12:55:35

    NNAMDILucky for you, I should say.

  • 12:55:36

    RUSSELLYeah, lucky.

  • 12:55:38

    NNAMDIWhat's next? It's been a busy two years for you. What's next for you after this?

  • 12:55:43

    RUSSELLYeah. I'm going back to novel world. Can you believe that? It's...

  • 12:55:47

    NNAMDIYes. Given the fact that you were just having a divorcee experience here...

  • 12:55:50

    RUSSELLYeah. No, I want commitment again.

  • 12:55:51

    NNAMDI...flirting in short stories.

  • 12:55:53

    RUSSELLI know. I just want a committed, stable life for a while. I have been working on this novel set during the Dust Bowl drought. And so I think I'm in a sort of proving up is an offshoot of that story. That grew out in some of the research I was doing for the novel. So I'm back there again. I was telling a friend it's like trying to scale Mount Everest again, you know? It's -- you just start at the base camp and hope you can make a little farther this time.

  • 12:56:17

    NNAMDIWhich brings me to this. What is your writing process? When do you write?

  • 12:56:21

    RUSSELLIn an ideal world, in like my dream world, I wake up, you know, every morning and write with focus and discipline for four hours and then, you know, take a break and then return to it in the evening. It really depends on the stage of the project. You know, these are going great guns and I'm excited to be in the world of the story, that's all I want to do, you know, much more frequently, you know?

  • 12:56:42

    NNAMDIWhich if you are in the story like that and you're writing, a lot of authors tell me that that's the period when they tend to be most prolific. But it's also the period that requires the most re-reading when they write.

  • 12:56:53

    RUSSELLYeah, and sort of selfishness, too, in a way, right, because it really does require a kind of isolation and self-absorption that's not so compatible with life.

  • 12:57:03

    NNAMDIThat's true. As people think, that writers -- especially when they see you on book tours or getting awards and receptions -- think of it as glamorous life when it's really a life -- lot of times spent alone.

  • 12:57:14

    RUSSELLNo. It's a lot of time spent alone. And for the first time in my life, I'm living in this apartment building with a doorman. I'm so self-conscious. I think they think I'm this, like, mad woman, this unemployed mad woman 'cause I'm just always around.

  • 12:57:26

    NNAMDIWell, they don't know what...

  • 12:57:27

    RUSSELLThey're not wrong, right? I mean...

  • 12:57:29

    NNAMDIPlease make sure you tell the doorman what you do for a living because...

  • 12:57:32

    RUSSELLYeah. Like, tune in to Kojo, please. But, I mean, it is funny.

  • 12:57:35

    NNAMDIHe might think you're a cat burglar or something.

  • 12:57:37

    RUSSELLYeah. Yeah, I do -- or some, like, a really young dowager. I don't know.

  • 12:57:41


  • 12:57:41

    RUSSELLBut it is so funny that it's -- and it's kind of bipolar 'cause when you're on book tour, you get to meet readers. It's very exciting. It's very social...

  • 12:57:47

    NNAMDIThat's true.

  • 12:57:48

    RUSSELLYou get to come on this fantastic show. And the rest of the time, you're just taking dictation from imaginary beings.

  • 12:57:52

    NNAMDIThen it's back to being alone again.

  • 12:57:54


  • 12:57:55

    NNAMDIIn fact, she is an award-winning author, Karen Russell is. Her novel "Swamplandia!" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her latest book, a collection of short stories titled "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." Karen Russell, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:58:07

    RUSSELLOh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you, Kojo.

  • 12:58:10

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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