When Karen Russell was “lost in the swamp” of composing Swamplandia!—her outlandish and haunting first novel about the Bigtree family of Florida alligator country —a host of solicitous friends and relatives offered her well-meaning advice.
“At one point,” the 29-year-old Russell recalls during a laughter-filled call to her “tiny, dirty apartment” in Manhattan, her dad asked her, “Why don’t you write a love story? Set on a boat? During wartime? People like those things!”
“You have to have a solid bedrock to grow your crazy out of. Florida is such a weird, weird place.”
Then there were the skeptical-but-supportive “oooh-er-umms” of friends who made the mistake of asking what her novel-in-progress was about. “Try telling people you’re writing about a scary bird monster,” Russell says, laughing uproariously. “I’m like, well, one girl falls in love with a ghost. Her younger sister teams up with this scary bird monster-type man to rescue her from the Underworld. And their brother is working on the mainland in a Florida theme park.”
And finally there were the research trips into the Florida Everglades, not far from where she grew up, with her father, brother and grandfather. “My grandfather, who [recently] passed away, was very concerned,” Russell says. “He knew I was an inside girl and he would say, why are you writing about that swamp? People don’t want to read about that place; it’s full of bugs! He just knew I was going to get everything wrong. So he went out with me on this tram tour and he kept correcting the tour guide. She’d be like, ‘You see those brambles over there, that’s a gator’s nest.’ And he’d say, ‘That’s not a damn gator’s nest!’ He would reject all her facts. So I basically learned nothing on that research trip, except that my grandfather had strong opinions.”
Luckily, despite the strong opinions of her grandfather and the helpful suggestions from others, Russell stayed true to her swamp. As a result, Swamplandia! achieves the same exhilarating, remarkably inventive amalgam of the real and the fantastic that won Russell universal praise for her short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) and led to her being chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and then, in 2010, being named one of the New Yorker’s 20 best writers under 40 years old.
One of those much-heralded early stories, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” Russell says, provided the seed for what becameSwamplandia! “When I was done with the other stories in that collection, I had no desire to go back to them. But with the Ava story, I really felt haunted. I kept thinking about the sad things that had happened in her family.”
Thus, Swamplandia! is told mostly from the point of view of Ava Bigtree, the 12-year-old daughter of Chief and Hilola Bigtree, the fake-Indian proprietor-performers in “the Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café” on the Ten Thousand Islands off the Gulf Coast of Florida. When Ava’s mother, the theme park’s main attraction, suddenly dies, things fall apart. Her father goes off to raise money to save the park. Her brother Kiwi, convinced he is some kind of genius, leaves to find fame and fortune on the Florida mainland. Her older sister Ossie seeks—and apparently finds—a ghostly sort of love through the Ouija board and sets off with her lover for the Underworld. And Ava naively decides she will hook up with her strange bird-man and go through hell and high water to bring her sister back.
“They all sort of get lost,” Russell says. “It’s like a cue-ball break: Each member of the family gets lost in their own little pocket of grief. Everybody has their own doomed scheme to save the family and the park. And they’re all equally ridiculous in their own ways.”
But despite its wildly imaginative riffs, Russell says much of the book “feels pretty personal and exposing in a way. I mean, it’s not a memoir or directly autobiographical, but some of the emotional stuff feels pretty raw to me. I was just totally besotted with fairy-tale worlds when I was a kid. And we did have a swampy mangrove patch in our backyard. So at an age when I’m sure I was supposed to be using lip balm, my best friend Alexis and I were still wandering around in the muck near my house. I mean, I was not a tomboy because that implies athletic prowess. But I really loved being outdoors, and I loved reading fantasy books, all that sort of coming-of-agey, emotional stuff. So Ava’s emotional world is close to what I remember feeling when I was that age.”
Russell found further inspiration in her research into the Florida history that serves as a backdrop for her story. “You have to have a solid bedrock to grow your crazy out of,” she says. “Florida is such a weird, weird place. When I was researching this book I realized how much of our state’s history, or what I thought of as our state’s history, is totally fabricated. Fantasy is its big industry. . . . I wanted some of that history in Swamplandia! because the Bigtrees’ whole game is this really American project of self-invention. It seemed right for the texture of the book to let people know that the state itself is a mix of the real and imaginary.”
And then there are Russell’s marvelous descriptions of Florida’s prodigious, profligate landscape. “My mom would insist that we go on these doomed family outings where we would go biking in the Everglades even though we are all short, potato-shaped people. And I found that, geographically, Florida is just the most beautiful place in this country,” says Russell. “But it’s rubbing shoulders with all these strip malls and fast-food chains and super-development. My mom grew up in Miami Springs and my dad grew up in Sarasota. They both have this real nostalgia for it. When I was a kid it felt like there was this world I had just missed, a time when the place was just totally foliated and a lot more wild. So I think some of the book is born out of a nostalgia I’m probably not entitled to for the old Florida or for this wilderness that we’ve paved over a decade or two before I was born.”
Swamplandia! is thrillingly permeated with those competing American emotions—hope and doom. As for Karen Russell herself? “I’ve been very, extraordinarily lucky,” she says of her success. “Lucky in the way that, to make the math come out right, I’ll probably be eaten by a shark before I’m 30. I think that will just about balance the books.”