On May 15, Karen Russell visited the Harvard Book Store to discuss “Orange World,” her new short story collection. Russell, whose novel “Swamplandia” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, attracted such a large audience that some attendees sat on the floor, stood in the back of the room, and even watched Russell speak from closed-circuit televisions elsewhere in the bookstore for the duration of the one-hour event.
Russell began by reading the first half of her collection’s title story. Her signature wit — the New York Times Book Review has praised Russell’s work as “hilarious, exquisite, first-rate” — was on full display as she interrupted her own reading to provide running commentary. “I tried to do the Australian accent and was encouraged by many people, many people that I knew and some that I didn’t, not to do that again,” Russell said, explaining her decision not to attempt reading a character’s dialogue with an accent. “The joy of reading is that you’ll have to queue in up in your head. Everyone knows what an Australian accent is. Except for me.”
At times, Russell jokingly questioned some of the details in her story. “‘She fishes for the clasp of her bra. Her breasts are straining against the thin lace,’” Russell read. “I pause to tell you,” she added, “that I read this detail recently and was like, that is not autobiographical. Who is wearing a lace bra? You know… ‘Her breasts are straining against her stained Hanes clearance bra.’”
When Russell finished reading from “Orange World,” she transitioned directly to an open Q&A. “Since it’s just me up here, I think I will just take questions from you guys,” she said, addressing the audience.
Much of the Q&A centered on Russell’s experiences with pregnancy, motherhood, and writing. The story “Orange World,” which is about a new mother who breastfeeds the devil to ensure her newborn child’s safety, was inspired by the period during and after her first pregnancy. “[‘Orange World’] was the only story I was able to write, actually, in the wake of my son’s birth. He’s two now. And it took a long time — I was totally muted by that experience,” Russell said.
“This was the first time ever in my writing career that I’ve tried to write about something in the midst of an experience,” Russell continued. “Usually there’s a lag of years. I couldn’t write about childhood until I had exited that peninsula. You almost can’t see it from the inside… You don’t have the perspective. But I think because this new landscape I was living in, this psychological terrain of pregnancy, this new weather, was so extreme, I thought, we need to find a story shape. And I was strangely very happy when the devil showed up.”
One audience member asked about the effect of Russell’s current pregnancy on her writing. “You mentioned you were muted for a couple years. Are you unmuted? And will you be muted again?” he asked.
Russell responded with uncertainty. “I will give a too-candid response to that, which is that I’ve been working on a novel for years now. And it’s sort of like a friend said, sort of like riding a horse that keeps changing shape underneath you. That metaphor isn’t even the whole truth of it… You’re changing shape too, for me very literally right now,” she said, gesturing to her abdomen.
“The world has changed so much. That’s the thing about novels, they take so long and then whole revolutions happen… I am really committed to this book,” she said, referring to her novel-in-progress, “but I feel like I need to find a new way in because I tried to return to it right after our son was born… So much had changed for me that I felt like I locked myself out of the house a little bit… But I’ve been writing stories, and that feels good.”
Even those attendees who were unable to find seating were delighted by Russell’s visit. Lily C. Mysona, who works at the Malden Public Library, came to the event with her colleague, Caitlin R. Quinn.
“We got here a little late, so we couldn’t stand in the actual room. We watched on the TV, but it was amazing,” Mysona said. “I’m so glad that I did this. [Russell] is just so down-to-earth and funny and lovely.”
Melinda J. Li ’19 also reflected positively on the event. “I read [the story] ‘Orange World’ over the summer when it first came out in the New Yorker, and it was really beautiful to hear it in her voice. There were so many comedic moments that I feel like I picked up on at the live reading of it… And it’s also just an amazing story.”
Salem resident Jack Butterworth expressed similar sentiments. “I’ve been a fan of Karen Russell’s since Stephen King chose [Russell’s story] ‘St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves’ in 2007 for the best short stories of the year,” Butterworth said, referencing the anthology “The Best American Short Stories 2007,” which King guest-edited. “I just really enjoy reading her work.”
—Staff writer Angela F. Hui can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @angelafhui.