Karen Russell, prize-winning fiction writer and author of the novel “Swamplandia!,” gave a lecture sponsored by the Santagata Memorial Lecture Fund in Kresge Auditorium on Monday evening.

Russell charmed the audience with her wit, eloquence and humility as she read an excerpt from her novel and discussed the geographical and imaginal landscapes that inspire her.
Russell received a B.A. from Northwestern University and an MFA from Columbia University. A young creative writer, Russell has been featured in The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list, and was also named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” writer in 2009. In 2013, she received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant and was the youngest of the year’s winners.

Russell’s debut novel “Swamplandia!” was chosen as one of The New York Times’ “Best Books of 2011.”

Set in her native South Florida Everglades, “Swamplandia!” depicts the story of a family of alligator wrestlers living in a shabby amusement park. The novel tackles themes of loss and grief through a story filled with vibrant descriptions and whimsical characters.

The geographical landscape for the novel was motivated by Russell’s connection to the setting of her adolescence and by her desire to imaginatively return to Florida.

“It’s when you leave your home that you can see it most clearly,” said Russell. 

She suggested that many Bowdoin students likely share this sentiment.

In “Swamplandia!, ” Russell juxtaposes the reality of the historical Everglades with fantastical elements that thrive in Florida. The setting comes to life like a character in the plot. 

“There’s a fluidity in South Florida. There is such a heterogeneous culture, and there really is a magical way where things are constantly in flux,” said Russell. “I can’t imagine a more magical realist state.”

“Swamplandia!” was a continuation of her short story entitled “Ava Wrestles The Alligator,” which stuck in her mind after it was published in Zoetrope, a short fiction magazine.

Russell is also the author of several short stories and one novella, Sleep Donation, which describes a dystopian scenario in which healthy dreamers donate their dreams to an insomniac.

For Russell, the transition from the realm of short stories to novel territory was not linear.

“I was trying to juggle multiple worlds to keep narrative momentum going,” said Russell. 

She drew the analogy that a short story is a sprint, while a novel is a marathon, requiring more endurance.

The ability to metamorphose into another world inspired Russell’s hunger for books as a child and informed her desire to become a writer.

“I so enjoyed traveling to these fictional universes and wanted to make the same imaginal landscapes for readers,” said Russell.

Russell emphasized the importance of allowing truth to arise naturally. Writers should give their unconscious thought permission to roam, she suggests, rather than forcing conscious meaning too early on. 

Realism in a work of fiction, she proposed, only exists as language on a page. Anything claiming to be realism is actually a compression—a distortion of reality. Yet this distortion is at the heart of truth; it gives insight about the human experience. 

“Why not give yourself access to an expanded vocabulary to talk about how strange it is to be alive?” said Russell.

Russell’s discussion of the idea that “everybody is talking, but nobody is listening” resonated for Emily Simon ’17.

“It is very inspiring that there are so many people dedicated to the project of writing the human condition,” said Simon. 

But on the other hand, Simon added, it can feel like an unworthy cause if it is for their own benefit. She would like to read more of Russell’s works after attending the talk. 

On writers’ block, Russell advocated enduring and pushing through periods in which writing feels stifled or “bad.”

“You have to get over the hurdle of your own self-consciousness,” she said.

To aspiring fiction writers, Russell recommended reading like an omnivore: reading poetry, memoirs, essays and biographies in addition to novels. Using poetry as a medium for learning how to pay attention to the “music” of language was central to her development as a creative writer.