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THE STORY BEHIND THE BOOK

Russell says what critics call her magical realism is ‘just realism’ in Florida

david wilson for the boston globe

“It’s sort of a surreal time,” said Karen Russell, fiction writer and newly minted recipient of a coveted MacArthur Fellowship.

“You know everyone is familiar with the stages of grief?” she asked during a telephone interview Monday. “We don’t really have a great vocabulary for the stages of accepting something joyful and impossible. It’s so outrageously good that there’s a part of me that’s in denial.”

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Russell, a Floridian whose second collection of short stories, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” was published in February, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her first novel, “Swamplandia!”

She’s not the only Miami native on this year’s list for the five-year, $625,000 “genius grant’’ — it also includes playwright Tarell McCraney — and Russell credited her hometown as an artistic influence. “I do think as a place there’s nowhere like it,” she said. “It’s really a sui generis kind of culture.”

“People would send me real news stories from Florida that would make me want to hang up my fiction-writing hat,” Russell said, adding that the outrageous details that prompt some critics to label her fiction magical realism are “just realism” for Florida readers.

At 32, she has become a perennial feature on lists of young writers to watch but said her new book features some of her most mature characters: “There’s even an adult narrator or two in the most recent collection, which felt to me very experimental and risky.” (Still, she promised that it contains “plenty of bewildered adolescents and animal-human hybridized bodies,” touchstones for her fans.)

Russell apologized for being rushed and giddy as she moved on to the next interview. “It’s probably not a great idea to process this with major media outlets,” she said. “I feel like I’m flashing everybody with my own big emotions.”

Russell will read at 4:30 p.m. Monday at the Newhouse Center in Wellesley College’s Green Hall, 106 Central St., Wellesley.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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