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Russell’s fiction is more than a literary combo platter

JOHN TIMPANE, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Publication: The Day

Published February 24. 2013 4:00AM

What a conversation it was.

The Book of Job. Hippos. The road life. The writer's life. Philly. Iowa. Rutgers. Bryn Mawr. Florida. Kafka. Dorothy Day. George Saunders (more on him later). Sharing an apartment with your sister. A bumper-car arcade of ideas and language.

Such is an hour of talk with writer Karen Russell, sitting around her apartment near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sparkling notion-eruptions and prismed, faceted phrases.

Her 2011 debut novel "Swamplandia!" was both a critical succès d'estime and a bestseller, selling in the hundreds of thousands. Her new collection of stories, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95), has already gotten much praise.

Although she claims to be uncomfortable with it, Russell is, in fact, very good at "being the used-car salesman for my imagination." She is engaging and engaged, but she cringes at published interviews and photos because they "reveal the hideous depth of your vanity."

Even that sparkles.

The stories in "Vampires" often step off from a genre, say, vampire stories (the title story), or war stories (the startling, superb "The New Veterans," which deserves to be called a short novel), or Asian women's memoir ("Reeling for Empire"). But in each case, something ... happens. There's a turning point, a transformation, and suddenly ... where are we?

Clyde is a vampire trying to get back into his wife's good graces. The women in a silk-spinning factory become their work in unexpectable fashion. In an exquisite modern-day echo of the shield of Achilles, an Iraq vet has his war experience tattooed all over his body.

And those horses. Adams, who can't clear the fence. Rutherford B. Hayes, who wants to.

There's a thing happening, a negotiation between a notion of the fantastic (or is it?) and something universal, something that, as Russell puts it, "maybe doesn't conclude in the conventional way, but opens out at the end."

Russell, 31, is aware people sometimes cubbyhole her with other "mashup writers," "slipstream writers," "new-wave fabulists," fictionistas who combine genres, pop-cult, history, surrealism, and (your material here) to create novel tales.

She's not shy about saying writing can sometimes be fun. In one story, "The Barn at the End of Our Term," several former U.S. presidents discover that in the afterlife, they are horses. They aren't quite sure what it all means. "Maybe the Barn itself is God."

"I had a lot of fun writing it," Russell says. "Writers get embarrassed sometimes in talking about how much fun writing can be, but drafting is often really enjoyable. Often, you're tumbling in the dark, and you don't know where the story is going to lead. Sure, there are conscious effects you put in, but then there's the part that's irreducibly mysterious."

Russell, who grew up in Florida, came to Philly from the American Academy of Berlin, where she was a visiting professor. She's now teaching at both Bryn Mawr College and Rutgers University - and doing her reading tours. Next year she'll go out to the revered Iowa Writers Workshop.

Who is she reading right now? "Dune" by Frank Herbert, "a novel that was tremendously important to me when I was 13, not only for what it could tell me about kissing, but also for this whole cosmological order he's able to set up, completely immersive. He sets up the rules in a very consistent and thoughtful way, even when they're bizarre."

Not a bad description of Russell's own best work, among the most prominent of a new strain of darkly magical, often wry, often wackily heartbreaking fiction.

Russell also names George Saunders, a writer suddenly on a lot of people's lists: "He writes stories that are their own strange hybrid beings. You can see (Thomas) Pynchon, Barry Hannah in there, but he makes the stories his own. It's funny to watch people trying to come up with language to describe what's happening."

She's in the midst of the writer's life 2013, a world at once traditional (you have to be writing something that other people read) and very much of the media moment. Publishing, meanwhile, is looking for a business model that works.

"It's cool," she says, "and I'm at a stage where it's still exciting. The dwindling sales numbers for the business are troubling, and yet the Internet is allowing for a more intimate relationship between readers and writers."

Ah, the readers.

"It remains unbelievable to me," Russell says, "that I have any readers beyond my own blood relations - it's a crazy, wild gift."

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