ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And Im Melissa Block.
Down in the wild swamps off the coast of southwest Florida, tucked in among the saw grass and mangrove tunnels, is a fictional family-run theme park. It's called Swamplandia and it bills itself as the number one Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Cafe.
In Karen Russell's debut novel, also called "Swamplandia!," the narrator, Ava Bigtree, describes the main attraction - her mother, Hilola Bigtree, diving into a pit of alligators by starlight.
Ms. KAREN RUSSELL (Author, "Swamplandia!"): (Reading) Like black silk, the water bunched and wrinkled. Her arms rowed hard. You could hear her breaststrokes ripping at the water, her gasps for air. Now and then, a pair of coal-red eyes snagged at the white net of the spotlight as the chief rolled it over the pit. Three long minutes passed, then four, and at last she gasped mightily and grasped the ladder rails on the eastern side of the stage. We all exhaled with her. Our stage wasn't much, just a simple cypress board on six-foot stilts, suspended over the gator pit. She climbed out of the lake. Her trembling arms folded over the dimple of her belly button; she spat water, gave a little wave. The crowd went crazy.
BLOCK: Thats 29-nine-year-old novelist Karen Russell reading from "Swamplandia!" And, Karen, we should say thats "Swamplandia!" with an exclamation point after it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: Not just "Swamplandia."
Ms. RUSSELL: That's right. Yeah, I really wanted to keep that exclamation point, as dubious as it probably seems. But something about the exclamation point, it just seemed like the right punctuation for the whole novel. You know, because so much of their park is engineered enthusiasm. You know, this engineered fantasy and it's really powered by their belief in themselves. You know, they're sort of in the tradition of self-invented American families - they became the Bigtree Tribe.
So even though there's no Miccosukee or Seminole blood in them, the father of this family Chief Bigtree tells here children, well, we're our own Indians. So it's sort of, you know, they're in good company in south Florida, where there are a lot of pathless people kind of re-inventing themselves.
BLOCK: Thats their story and they're sticking to it.
Ms. RUSSELL: Yeah, thats their story and they're selling it for profit, too.
BLOCK: Well, by Page 7 of the book, the mother, Hilola, who we just heard about diving into that lake of alligators, has died of cancer, ovarian cancer. And the family, which is three children and the husband, the chief, are all blown in different directions. The son, Kiwi, is on the mainland. The two other children, the older sister, Osceola, starts communicating with the dead and is possessed by ghosts and disappears. And then it's up to Ava, the narrator who's 13 years old, to try to find her - going out on a skiff through these swamps, trying to find the underworld with this really, really creepy guy, the Birdman.
Ms. RUSSELL: It's such a difficult novel to paraphrase. It just sounds...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RUSSELL: Every time I hear it paraphrased. I mean, it was difficult during the years of drafting to explain to people what I was up to. Youve either got a kind blank face or a face of horror, you know, when I would try to describe what this book was about.
BLOCK: Well, Karen, let's talk about the tone here because it starts out - and clearly from the way you're describing it, part of it is this sort of rollicking burlesque with sort of shades of another great Florida writer, Carl Hiassen. And then it takes this very, very dark turn, sort of a gothic turn.
Ms. RUSSELL: I think the original seed of the idea was that it was going to be sort of this underworld journey staged in the backwaters of the Everglades, which to me have always looked, you know, just seems like an appropriate setting - cause the swamp is an absolutely uncanny place. It's neither sea nor land; there are these mangrove tunnels that really do feel like something out of Dante, you know, and the saw grass prairies that just go on limitlessly.
So it's a really - it has a haunted feeling if you go. And it does feel sort of like anything could happen.
BLOCK: You also had to try to figure out, because these are alligator wrestlers, a lot about just how strong an alligator's jaws are and how you would get your foot out of an alligator's mouth if you needed to.
Ms. RUSSELL: Right. No hands-on research really here, beyond feeding a Purdue drumstick to a gator at Gatorland.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RUSSELL: That was about as close as I got. No, I was pretty terrified just doing that. And part of the reason I was terrified is it turns out an alligator can close its jaws with 2,125 pounds per square inch, which is about the force of a guillotine. But the muscular that open those same jaws is extremely weak, so thats sort of what alligator wrestlers are exploiting.
If you can get your fist around an alligator's jaws - if you can even get a girls' Goody hair elastic around their jaws, they won't be able to open them.
BLOCK: Karen, what were your influences when you were a young reader, reading books, letting your imagination go wild, what kinds of worlds were discovering in books that you knew you loved?
Ms. RUSSELL: I think I was a pretty omnivorous reader. If you put like a Pepperidge Farm box in front of me, I would read that. You know, anything that kind of came my way. I had this bargain with my mom that we would go to library and if I read, you know, like a kiddy version of "Jane Eyre" or sort of a classically-vetted author, then I could get a Stephen King book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RUSSELL: So, and I really think that that diet has influenced everything I've written since, sort of. You know, this whatever food pyramid we cobbled together and I loved both. I mean I really loved these sorts of lyrical realist stories. I definitely probably listed towards the weirder books.
And I was an anxious kid so it was such a pleasure to have, you know, this little door you could carry around with you and just open in whatever situation you found yourself. You know, sort of like this really convenient rabbit hole you could carry around with you.
BLOCK: An anxious kid, but it sounds like you also gravitated towards some scary stuff.
Ms. RUSSELL: Yeah, I think thats probably why, you know? And I think that this occurs in this book, too, where Chief Bigtree really wants to create a beautiful fiction, a fantasy for his children but they are so rocked by a grief at the loss of their mother, and sort of other depressing and terrifying realities that have found their way on to the island.
So I think kids are really alert to all kinds of darkness, you know, and sorrow. I think that they're actually - it's like raw nerves in the world a lot of the time. And so, to find a way privately to reckon with some of the forces that you know exist but you're young, you dont maybe have the vocabulary to talk about them. Or, you know, you're not going to be taken seriously if you try to bring them up, or those concerns get squelched.
I think the literature was really sort of a private world where - talk about communicating with the dead, right? That was incredible to me as a young reader, and still, you know, that you can read a book by a decades-dead author that articulates so beautifully something youve always suspected. It was a real antidote to loneliness for me when I was a young reader.
BLOCK: Karen Russell is the author of the debut novel "Swamplandia!," with an exclamation point. Karen, thanks so much.
Ms. RUSSELL: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: And you can read the beginning of "Swamplandia!" at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Author Karen Russell talks to All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block about her eclectic literary tastes, life in the Everglades and other influences for her debut novel, Swamplandia! — about a gator-wrestling, theme-park-owning family
In Karen Russell's debut novel, Swamplandia!, set in the middle of the swamps of southern Florida, we find a fictional amusement park full of high-diving gator wrestlers. The park, the "number-one gator-themed swamp cafe" in Florida, is run by the Bigtrees, a family that invents their own mythology of being gator-wrestling tribal royalty. Swamplandia! closely follows the youngest sibling, Ava, who takes it upon herself to rescue the park from ruin after finances go south and family members disappear.
The 29-nine-year-old Russell grew up an hour from the Everglades, in a time when projects to dike and dam the swamp led the way for taming some of the swamplands — but her older family members had memories of a more unrestrained place.
"I grew up in this world sort of perfumed with nostalgia for a much wilder version of South Florida," Russell tells Melissa Block on All Things Considered.
The title of the novel includes the emphatic exclamation point, Russell says, because it fits the high spirits of the novel. The Bigtree family members have created their own fantastical history springing from their alligator-wrestling tradition, but in reality, they're just the lowly operators of a shabby tourist attraction in a swamp. Including the exclamation point hints at the manufactured enthusiasm to be found in such a place.
"[It suggests] something about the incongruity between how badly they want this fantasy to be the reality," Russell explains. "It's all there for me in that exclamation point."
The swamp itself does have its mystical qualities, though. Swamplandia! begins with Hilola, Ava's mother, diving into a deep black swamp-water pool full of alligators as the crowd watching her bursts into applause. But things take a darker turn after Hilola is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Ava eventually has to navigate the haunted, dank Everglades swamplands on her own, in a raft.
"The Everglades … to me have always looked like an appropriate setting," Russell says, "because the swamp is an absolutely uncanny place. It's neither sea nor land; they're these mangrove tunnels that really do feel like something out of Dante."
As Ava watches her family's alligator theme park start to crumble, she sets off on her own through the swamp's mangrove tunnels and carpets of mosquitoes to find her sister — who was possessed by ghosts and disappeared to the underworld.
This premise, the author says, was a hard sell when she was explaining the novel to friends over the years. Family members suggested moving the setting to Hawaii, or a boat, or "somewhere more pleasant."
While writing, however, she became fascinated with the tricks of the trade of alligator wrestling: For instance, although alligators close their jaws with 2,125 pounds per square inch of force, the muscles used to open them are so weak that simply wrapping a fist around them can keep them shut.
Russell feels that her unique consumption of books as a child influenced her drive to write such strange tales. She made an early bargain with her mother, wherein she would read a children's version of Jane Eyre or Charles Dickens, and would then be allowed to check a Stephen King book out of the library.
"I really think that diet has influenced everything I've written since. ... I loved both; I mean I really loved these sort of lyrical, realist stories, and I definitely listed towards the weirder books," she says.