CONVERSATIONS AT THE NYPL

1. Lauren Collings, painter and Wells Tower fan. 2. Erin Overbey and Kelly Stout, who work at the New Yorker together, came with friend/Strand bookseller Maxine Speier.

We’re only two days away from my least favorite holiday — St. Patty’s Day — (I blame those years of living in Hoboken) but I decided to celebrate the auspicious occasion anyway…by pre-conditioning my liver with the plenty o’ wine, special for this event, at the New York Public Library . Last night was the latest installment of Conversations from the Dorothy and Lewis B Cullmen Center and this one was, I’d argue, the coolest: Wells Tower interviewing Karen Russell.

1. Emma Hamilton and James Sullivan, former grad students and current Karen Russell readers. 2. Artist James Drz and writer Elizabeth Rushing waiting for Russell to sign their copy of Swamplandia!

Well, Astor Hall was positively aglow, and not just from my drinking but from the genuine warmth exuded by two of New York’s hottest young writers: Karen Russell, who is the author of Swamplandia! and was listed on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and Wells Tower, the winner of the New York Public Library’s 2010 Young Lion’s Fiction Award. The two were students together in Columbia’s MFA program and they treated us to a 45 minute love fest of each other’s work. Unlike so many of these forced conversations, Russell and Towers seem to genuinely like each other and by the end of the event the warm fuzzies were contagious: even Mary Gaitskill, who was sitting in front of me, smiled.

1. Andrew Eisenman, Ashley Nelson and Adam Levy. Columbia MFA in the house! 2. Wells Tower and Karen Russell: so charming…don’t you just hate them?

Both Tower and Russell get pigeon-holed as “Southern” writers but neither knew exactly what that designation was supposed to mean. Said Russell, “My friend Carrie said that when she hears ‘Southern Gothic’ she thinks of a chubby girl wearing all black sweating a lot, just regretting the choice to be a Southern Goth,” and Tower responded, “Yeah, when someone starts asking me about it, I start feeling like I’m getting pushed in the corner at the square dance. I mean, am I supposed to be writing about banjos, donkeys and gingham?” “Banjos, donkeys and gingham…A memoir of the South…that would be great!” joked Russell.

1. Sneaky writer Mary Gaitskill escaped before I could get her picture, so I ended up with this shadowy figure instead. (I missed her at AWP too. You win again, Gaitskill!)

Russell’s Swamplandia! features alligator wrestlers and the underworld and a father named Chief Bigtree. The story seems like magical realism but in fact plays with that “tipping point where optimism and courage tumble over into delusion.” The book was recently given a glowing review by Janet Maslin in the Times, who called Russell “one in a million.”

To that Russell said, “I just want to slow dance with Janet Maslin.” Said Kelly Stout, who works at The New Yorker and who was in the audience, “I just want to slow dance with Karen Russell.”

Me too.

–Cassie Hay is a new contributor to Electric Dish.

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