Karen Russell’s Oddly Hopeful Stories of Ghosts, Dead Bodies, Devils, and Disasters
The stories in "Orange World" are full of strangeness and fear, but in an optimistic way
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Snowflakes, I’ve recently learned, are all born the same—every ice crystal starts out with the same hexagonal structure. The reason they wind up as one-of-a-kind masterpieces is because no two flakes fall alike: they accumulate different arms and spikes according to the unique stream of humidity and temperature combinations encountered in the descent. In other words, our most-cited metaphorical paragons of uniqueness are shaped by their (sometimes traumatic) experiences.
Orange World, Karen Russell’s latest short story collection, is keenly attuned to the way that our environments buffet and hurt us into beauty. These are stories interested in how humans might bloom out of the experiences we have in different possible places and times, from the peaks of a haunted Oregonian mountain to the swampland of a post-collapse Florida. Whether it focuses on a woman infected by a tree spirit while her relationship fades, two best friends trapped in a lodge filled with ghosts while the edges of their faith in one another grow teeth, or a mother negotiating with the devil for her child’s safety, each story in Orange World is a novel lesson in paying attention to both the human landscape and the physical world.
Russell’s stories have never shied away from the reality of the fall. Her previous collections, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove along with her novel Swamplandia! have each offered a master class in how the fantastic gives us permission to imagine our way into the truth. But what is special about Orange World is the way the collection demands that we interrogate our most fundamental desires—more humanity, more survival, more love, more safety, more time. In Orange World Karen Russell’s stories show us how we can imagine our way into a relationship with the truth that activates hope.
Karen Russell and I talked over the phone about craft, climate change, hope in negotiation, and the things we forget in order to survive.
Erin Bartnett: There’s so much I want to talk about, but I’m hesitant to start off any conversation with an author by saying “oh, your book, to me, is about ‘X.’” So instead I wanted to start off by asking you about what this collection is about for you. What’s different or new in this collection for you? What are the perennial questions that continue to drive you to write short stories?
Karen Russell: It is so funny that you mention that because I was just thinking I haven’t done a ton of interviews for this collection yet. You can get to a place, unfortunately, where it’s a little bit like stepping on the automated walkway, where you just sort of have your elevator pitch down. I think especially with fiction writers, the danger is that you end up coming up with these post-hoc confabulations about how these stories came to be and what you were doing, after the fact. You romanticize a bit. I’m always a little skeptical when fiction writers are describing their process because we are the world’s biggest liars. It’s what we choose to do for a living!
It’s exciting to feel a collection start to come together. All of the stories in this book came out of a five-year period where I went from bouncing around continents and states, just putting new university stickers on my car, to when I met my now-husband and moved to Portland, made a home here and had our son. And this metamorphosis—which I think sounds pretty banal in paraphrase but felt shocking to me, and still does—happened to overlap with these years of extreme national and global uncertainty. The low sky of anxiety we’ve all been living under. [Orange World] feels to me like my most coherent collection, in part because all of the stories arose from this same bedrock.
What started to seem like a ligature to me was the way that these stories seemed to want to map a psychological or emotional terrain. And not in a neat, one-to-one overlay of an external and an internal landscape. More like a collision of an idiosyncratic personality and a new territory. Often the plots of these stories seemed to arise from a bad graft of a character’s original plan to an unforgiving landscape. A sort of honeymoon period would begin to shade into a darker reckoning with the true reality of the new terrain, and with a character’s private limitations. Over and over again, it seemed, a story wanted to arrow towards that moment when interior and exterior forces merge—the intersection between some unyielding reality and a character’s private world. “Orange World” seemed like the right way to conclude the collection—to me it felt like a very different kind of landscape story to try. I thought of its setting as the extreme topography of pregnancy and the early months of new parenthood. The surreal landscape that you enter after giving birth. Or that I did, anyway.
EB: I’m excited to hear you bring up that collision between “real landscapes,” and “interior worlds,” because one of the things I love about your writing—in this collection in particular, but in your writing, generally, too—is the way you marry history and your own imaginative dig into that history. That collision brings about a whole new truth. There were stories in this collection that, once I finished them, I went to the internet hoping some fragment of those worlds was “real.” It’s a special kind of enchantment.
KR: I remember an editor telling me once that it was fascinating to discover what the “urgent pleasure” was for each writer—what compelled them put language on paper. She said that this really was as individual as a fingerprint. I was such a weird kid and I needed books to be portals to another world. To just envelop me. It felt safe, inside a book, to know what I knew, if that makes sense. It felt safe to know things and to feel things that would have overwhelmed me in ordinary time, I think. That was my chief pleasure as a reader and that’s what I was drawn to attempt to do as a writer, too.
Stories feel special to me because each can become a kind of universe-in-miniature. (As a kid I loved snow globes and museum dioramas, maybe for this same reason.) I thank you for that echo-back because I also think stories can haunt you in a very particular way. Their velocity and their compactness—I always have the sense, too, with my favorite stories, that the world of the story is still spinning somewhere, long after I finish the last page. Because of a story’s brevity, you can almost hold it in the palm of your hand, you can walk around its periphery. It stays with you in a different way, I think, than a novel. Even my very favorite novels, sometimes a few months out, I feel a little gluey on the details. The plot, or characters’ names—I mean basic facts. But a story can work on you almost like a poem. You read it in one sustained burst and it has a different kind of integrity inside you.
EB: So how do you do it? Where does the research “start” for you in a story, and when do you feel liberated from or intimate enough with the “facts” to write into the “truth” of the event? How do you know when to dip out? I always get stuck in that “research” phase.
KR: I also think that research is my favorite method of procrastinating. And the internet—I mean there are pros and cons to the Google search engine because you lose a lot of time. I also think it can become a little bit of a crutch, I find sometimes. You do want to be able to imagine a place out of your own raw material at some point.
I guess for me, the research sometimes begins with real contact with a place, physically moving through it. Most of the locations in this collection are based on places that I visited. When I first moved to Oregon, I visited the Timberline Lodge and saw a ski lift, frozen in July, mobbed with dragonflies, and found it totally uncanny, and that was the kernel for “The Prospectors.” I went on a road trip with my husband to Joshua Tree and that landscape seduced me completely, and terrified me too—I had never been to the desert before. So I often had done a little exploring in these locations that inspired the stories in Orange World, but unlike Swamplandia!, these landscapes were foreign to me; a lot of my earlier work is set in a sort of mythical version of my own childhood backyard. So then I needed to do some supplemental research, and this ranged from re-reading Seamus Heaney’s bog poems to WPA diaries set during the time of Timberline’s construction to a scientific paper on the interdependency of the yucca moth and the Joshua tree.
For “The Tornado Auction,” I was inspired by this incredible photograph taken by Andrew Moore, and by his book Dirt Meridian. We have an enormous print of it hanging in our house—for a long time it was our only framed art.
EB: It’s exciting to hear you talk about the changes you notice in your own writing. Can you talk a little bit more about how your voice and style has developed over the course of your career?
KR: I can definitely try—although I suspect I am the least reliable narrator where my own work and its evolution is considered. In my earlier work, the focus is often on children and adolescents; many of them were told from the first person. In this collection, I found myself writing about couples falling in and out of love, adult friendships, adult siblings, mothers and fathers. “Orange World” felt like a very different kind of story to attempt, with an older narrator whose experience overlapped with the story I was living. “Bog Girl,” also, felt like a new challenge. Its narrator has a kind of floating, wry detachment from the human drama that unfolds; at certain points I felt like I was trying to conjure the ancient bog itself. “The Bad Graft” switches perspectives and features an omniscient narrator inspired by the old storytelling authority of Ovid and Shirley Hazzard.
And I felt more deliberate in some ways, in my approach to these stories. More aware of wanting to build a certain kind of architecture, particularly in revision. There’s a sort of metaphysical pivot that occurs in stories like “The Prospectors” and “The Bog Girl” and “The Gondoliers,” where the protagonists slide or float into a different kind of story entirely, and I spent a long time trying to tune up those moments of transition, to make sure they felt surprising but hopefully also inevitable somehow.
You know, I do often feel like, for better or worse, “style” can be another word for “capitulation.” An acceptance of, or giving over to, one’s natural, inborn rhythms. The strange syntax of your particular mind. It’s funny, I’ll read my brother’s stuff—Kent Russell, he’s also a writer, my favorite essayist and journalist, and we’re very different writers in many ways—but I swear, every so often, we write the same damn sentence. I’ll hear the rhythms of our family inside his essay, not unlike the way I sometimes hear my mother’s intonations in my own voice, in real life. Often I’ll hear our dad in our descriptions—our dad shaped our sense of humor, and his voice was probably our ur-influence. So it makes me wonder sometimes how much of what we call style is within one’s conscious control.
I do feel that I’ve developed quite a bit in this new collection. I felt more in control over my narrative effects, and more vulnerable in some ways too—it felt particularly scary to me to write “Orange World” and “The Bad Graft.” This time around, I also felt that I had more of a sense of the collection as a whole, how this archipelago of stories might work together. In the past, I think I have sometimes felt like a better sentence-writer than a storyteller. With Orange World, I can honestly say that I’m proud of the overall shape of these stories, and of the book. Each one felt quite distinct to me, a fresh challenge. But in revision, I was also conscious of trying to build connections across stories—the Tornado Auction and Black Corfu, for example, I think share some overlap in their portraiture of thwarted fathers and creators.
It’s humbling to discover your pitfalls as a writer. When I was a younger writer, I was such a metaphor fiend that I think I often tipped into excess of one kind or another. I love figurative language still, and I have to be careful not to let it overwhelm the story’s action. I have a friend who teaches in an MFA program and is always reminding his students to stay in scene and out of the bushes: “Every time conflict arises on the page they just look to the foliage!”
As a reader, I am very aware of how hungry I am for action, for tension: “What? I don’t want your lyricism about the hydrangea. Is this guy going to kiss her? Are they going to fight?” As a reader you want things to stay in the heat of the moment, but as a writer, much as in life, sometimes I have this impulse to flee conflict and dive into the bushes.
EB: Across this collection you give voice to different generations. “The graying community” of Tornado Auction and the Gondoliers of the future New Florida, even the Old Moms and New Moms in “Orange World.” I feel like, maybe more than ever, we’re really aware of the yawning gap between different generations’ experiences of reality. What was it like to write across these generational perspectives? Did it give you any insight into our current moment?
KR: Oh I love that question. The narrator of the Tornado Auction, Robert Wurman, is a 74-year-old rancher who has retired from raising literal cyclones. It was definitely a new voice to attempt, and I wouldn’t have tried it if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to meet some farmers and ranchers around Robert’s age in the Sandhills. You asked about research—a few years ago, I went to visit north-central Nebraska, and in some weird way I feel like it synced up with Florida’s Everglades, the flat landscape where you feel clairvoyant almost, because you can see the weather rolling in. Everyone is totally at the mercy of the weather, together. Politically, it was a very red place so that wasn’t something I had in common with a lot of the people that I was talking to. And yet, it did feel like there was this sort of shared sense that the world was changing very rapidly, that it was hard for all of us to get our bearings.
I was really curious: What are the pressing concerns here and where is there overlap with where I live now in Portland Oregon? Nobody I met in Nebraska was denying that there was change in the air. Maybe we had a different vision of what an ideal future might look like, and how to get there, but certainly nobody wants to live on a flaming marble with no resources. The farmers I met really reverenced their landscape and understood that it was, on the one hand a resilient millennial ecosystem, and on the other hand, very fragile. They had an intimate understanding of how interdependent we are on nature. I mean these farmers were gamblers. Every season was a profound gamble. And so they were attuned to changes in climate in a way that I rarely am in my air-conditioned Prius.
EB: In “The Gondoliers,” there’s this great generational clash. On the one hand there’s the old man who keeps trying to atone and apologize, saying, ”People my age are criminals. We ruined the world.” While the voice of the younger generation declares: “Our home is no afterlife, no wasteland…I doubt my voice can convince him that our world is newborn…life is flourishing in New Florida…it is our world now, not his any longer; that actually, he is the one who is dying.” So there’s another collision: what happens when generational perspectives clash on a future they each have different stakes in?
KR: That’s a great question. I’m so happy that it read that way to you, because I was really thinking about how to be honest about the fact that yes, on the one hand, this is not a future that anybody wants. I hope that we can pivot in time. That we can save our coastal cities. You see the younger generation pushing the older generation to respond to climate change as an emergency, and as you say, it does feel like a contest for the future. I’m really encouraged by the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal. For there to be that kind of mainstream support for a Green New Deal right now.
On the other hand, I’ve read so many of these dystopian worlds lately, and one thing I kept thinking about while drafting “The Gondoliers” is the danger of inadvertently confirming the worst possible vision of our natures. What might happen after a regional apocalypse? Is it really going to be this Hobbesian reality where we all eat other’s bones on a flaming marsh? Maybe. But there’s this really beautiful book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell where she pushes back against the idea that after a disaster, the thin veneer of civilization is ripped away and everyone reveals their true monstrosity. Solnit says, no, that’s not what happens after a disaster. She talks about the “somber joy” people feel when suddenly all hierarchies are suspended and they are permitted to be their best selves, actually. They’re helping one another and coming together to form these new kinds of communities.
So that’s all to say, with this story I was hoping to speak to some sense that we might be underestimating the regenerative powers of our own nature and nonhuman nature, too. I don’t know if I executed, but my hope for that ending was to signal that any transformation is also an extinction and that’s terrifying, but there might be another relationship that humans can author with other creatures, with the sky and the water here. We might actually evolve, and in our lifetimes. We might learn to think very differently about what it means to cohabit this planet with other societies, other species.
EB: I’m so glad you bring up Rebecca Solnit because that is something I see in this collection too. My favorite Solnit-ism is her definition of hope and how she describes three different relationships to history—the pessimistic view, the optimistic view, both passive. Hope is an active negotiating of the past and reckoning with everything that goes wrong but also recognizing our capacity to right what we’ve wronged. And there are plenty of examples we can learn from for the present and the future.
KR: Oh, I love that.
EB: I mean I think this story does that, and so many stories in this collection do that. “Orange World,” for example.
KR: Thank you, Erin. I hope that’s true. Even in the most dire stories, I feel like, if hope isn’t illuminating the sky, even a faint hope, then something is awry, something is false, single-note. Some of the stuff on TV where there’s a kind of glee, some sadistic joy in watching—I mean I really like Black Mirror, but it shades so dark that sometimes I think it feels as false to me as something that is very sentimental. That kind of monotone darkness doesn’t gibe with the complexity of people. Without being overly sunny about this, because I do think the news right now is relentlessly heartbreaking and grim, I also think that it’s not too late to imagine an alternate universe. One that is more just, greener, kinder. And to make it a real place.
And I love that you bring up the old man in “The Gondoliers,” because I think these apocalyptic nightmares can sometimes shade into fantasies, in a sly way. Because we sense that we are dying, and there is something strangely consoling about thinking that the ship will go down with us. It is difficult, I think, to imagine this world going on without us. The old man, a former marine engineer, apologizes to a much younger woman, saying “I ruined the world.” It’s meant to be an apology, but she can hear the boastful note inside it. This guy is not exactly unhappy that he had a hand in this devastation. Like those country songs where they sing, “I’m not proud of what I did,” but then they catalog everything they did…
EB: Can we shift gears to talk about another relationship in this collection? I was so fascinated by the parents in these stories, and the strange things love can make them do. It gives them this superhuman gift and curse, where they can see into the future and hold onto the past for the children in ways that go unseen. It made me think about parents as historians, thankless custodians of our past. And the final story in the collection, “Orange World,” made me think of that role in so many different ways. Can you talk about the way love, and in particular parental love functions in these stories?
KR: Growing up—what a betrayal! We all shake out the etch-a-sketch of all the memories of our dependency. I find that I keep compulsively thanking my parents these days, for keeping me alive from zero to three. How convenient that I have entirely forgotten this period where you had to meet all my needs around the clock!” I think, “Hmm I don’t remember that, but I remember this other time though where—”
EB: Where you forgot to dress me in pajamas for pajama day at school…
KR: Ha! Yes! My friend teaches a memoir class, and she told me the mothers get it so bad: “My father was a charming raconteur, I saw him every seven years! He was so charming! But my mother got sick once and left me with a babysitter. My mother loved me too much.” The blame always accrued to the mom. We probably have to forget this period of our abject dependency or how could we move forward?
But sometimes on planes, men will turn around and give me a disapproving look if my son’s wailing, and then I resent the general amnesia. I really just want to accuse them of having also once been babies. Just point at their navels and say, “You have a belly button. Do you think that you were just sitting with your hands folded in your lap when you were this age?”
EB: I just imagined one of those cartoon flag guns, loaded with a sign that says, “Do you have a belly button?” inside of it, and anytime someone gives you that look, you just maintain eye contact and flare that gun.
KR: [Laughs] Remember…
EB: So the relationship between the new mom in “Orange World,” and her mother brings a whole new dynamic to the table.
KR: Yeah, that sort of crept up on me. I had a hard time figuring out where to land. There is, without giving it away, a sort of climactic scene that feels like it could potentially be an ending but it continued to feel like something was missing, to me, for a long time. Even though Rae’s mother doesn’t get a lot of real estate in the story she wound up feeling incredibly important to me. I have no idea what a reader’s experience is of the story, but something about these two women—on other sides of the parabola, and also, in this story, literally on other sides of the world—that felt right to me. A mother caring for her dying mother, a daughter caring for her newborn. It’s not like they can perfectly share this experience and it’s not an uncomplicated one. It’s not all joy.
But the idea that you can come to these new understandings of the people you are the closest to, that they’re not static figures in your life? What a surprise that really was, for me anyway, stepping into my own beginning as a mother and feeling, in a visceral way I now had the tools to understand something my mother had felt for us. And still feels for us. That was really powerful, I still don’t know quite how to talk about it. I take for granted my parents’ love for me a lot of the time. I certainly feel it and I believe in it but it was a different thing to have this new insight into what the love of a parent for a child feels like from this side of the equation.
The ending to this story is maybe the happiest one I’ve ever written, but it’s provisional, an ephemeral state. A beginning, really. Because I don’t really buy stable epiphanies. You were just talking about that beautiful Solnit quote on hope—it’s a continuous negotiation. It’s a continuous recalibration. But there’s some sense that something new wants to be born, and maybe there’s a new kind of relationship for these two women.
EB: So it’s a prayer for that world where joy is a familiar feeling, but not a promise.
KR: Yeah! Oh, I love that. Yeah, just that prayer; there’s a little pivot towards the light. She gets to inhabit a heaven for that moment. That kind of matter-of-fact joy was new to me, I think. I feel like this little baby has taught me how to live in time again.
Remember when you were a kid and everything was unprecedented? I was just re-reading Joy Williams’ The Changeling—it’s so good. It’s terrifying, not a sentimental book at all. The book follows a new mother who discovers what can often feel unbearable but what sometimes is really exquisite about being straightjacketed into the present moment with a baby. In the way that we all were when we were kids, not carting around too much of a past, not living in the imaginary future. Watching the bubbles bloom.
When I wrote the ending of “Orange World,” I was surprised to see that it felt like a happy one. This felt like perhaps the biggest leap of all, the biggest risk. In my earlier work, I found myself drawn to a different kind of open ending, much darker—in my first collection, I leave two children stranded on a glacier with no transponder and no hope of rescue.
I was excited to discover that now I can imagine a threshold that feels more hopeful, even happy—instead of stranding my protagonists on a literal precipice, now, every so often, they make it down the mountain. Sure, they’ve sustained damage that will no doubt haunt them for the rest of their lives…but I can see new possibilities for them, these women who survive their worst nights.
It’s a little bit of a cliche, but also not untrue, that in our adult literature the final notes can be quite melancholy—this makes sense, I think, given that we are all living inside a story where nobody gets out alive. I’ve been reading to my son, and there is no such thing as a dark or open ending in his literature. All children’s books end happily, it turns out. My friend was telling me she read her son Metamorphosis, the adult version, just to see how he would take it, when he was four or five. And when she got to the end, where Gregor dies, he burst out laughing. He was like “That’s it?! It doesn’t have a happy ending?” To his mind, Kafka had made the craziest literary innovation, a book with an unhappy ending. He was like, “How did he come up with that?”