This fall novelist Karen Russell became, at 32, one of the youngest members of this year’s class of MacArthur Foundation fellows, a much coveted and lucrative honor bestowed on the best and brightest in the nation. The author was in town last month to speak at Wellesley College’s Distinguished Writers Series.
BOOKS: Do you own a lot of books?
RUSSELL: I do, but most of them are in storage. It’s like they are in Guantanamo. I’m in this tiny, beautiful sublet in Brooklyn. When I was packing to move here I realized I had one shelf. It was a big challenge to decide which books were coming with me. It’s really instructive, like creating a shadow biography or trying to predict your future.
BOOKS: What did you bring?
RUSSELL: I brought Flannery O’Connor’s “The Complete Stories” and “Red Cavalry and Other Stories” by Isaac Babel. That’s not a super fave, but I thought I might be hungry for that. I brought “Aglow in the Dark” by David Gruber and Vincent Pieribone about the discovery of biofluorescence. I also have “Crime and Punishment” and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of “The Book of Job.” I don’t know what I was expecting this fall.
BOOKS: Do you still buy books?
RUSSELL: Yeah. That’s an expense I can always rationalize. I love Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. I just got “Speedboat” by Renata Adler, which was published in the ’70s. It reads to me like Joy Williams’s writing. It has that same spacey brilliance.
BOOKS: What else are you reading?
RUSSELL: I’m in galley world right now. That’s a wonderful position to be in, but I feel adulterous when I’m not reading one of those. I’ve also been on a big Jorge Luis Borges kick. I’ve been reading “Ficciones.” He’s someone who took the top off my skull early on. Now I’m reading this slim novella he wrote the preface to, “The Invention of Morel,” by Adolfo Bioy Casares.
BOOKS: Are you a book finisher?
RUSSELL: I try to be a book finisher, which means I don’t read that many books because I’m a slow reader. I sometimes think I’m just not doing it right. The more I love a book sometimes the slower I go. These Borges stories will take me forever. I’m belly crawling through them.
BOOKS: Is there a book you haven’t finished that you feel guilty about?
RUSSELL: God, there are many. I’ll be honest. I haven’t finished “Moby-Dick.” I feel better having told you. I feel cleaner.
BOOKS: When in your life have you read the most?
RUSSELL: When I studied abroad in Spain in college. I had really strong memories of the books I read there. When you travel, you are riveted to your skin. You are so awake. So I have this really strong memory of reading Elizabeth McCracken’s “Niagara Falls All Over Again” in this giant lush garden in Seville.
BOOKS: Is there a book you recommend a lot?
RUSSELL: I love C.S. Lewis’s “Till We Have Faces,” which retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the point of view of Psyche’s older sister Orual. I might love it because my mom gave it to me. It feels like reading books that my mom loves is another way to know her.
BOOKS: Who influenced you as a reader?
RUSSELL: My seventh-grade English teacher. She would give me adult books, like mysteries by Tony Hillerman and Michael Crichton. That felt like an incredible vote of confidence.
BOOKS: Did Miami have a literary scene when you were growing up there?
RUSSELL: There was the Miami book festival, but it still felt a little bit like a wasteland. That probably has to do with my cowardliness, of not owning my own bookworm. I would pretend I was reading books for school so my friends wouldn’t mock me.