SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"Orange World" is a short story collection that plunges a reader into new worlds that are, at once, vaguely familiar and totally fantastic. A boy falls in love with a girl who's both too old and too dead for him. A widowed tornado farmer - yup, you heard that right - discovers how a young storm can grow to overtake lives. And a mother makes a diabolical deal.
It's the latest book from Karen Russell, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her novel "Swamplandia!" She joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
KAREN RUSSELL: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Scott.
SIMON: Where do all these detailed visions of other worlds come from?
RUSSELL: Oh, my goodness. I feel like some of my relatives think the answer is flu medication.
RUSSELL: But, you know, I really credit growing up in Miami, in some ways. Miami, if you've ever been there, it really is so many pocket universes...
RUSSELL: ...Kind of condensed into one location. So yeah, it's a totally wild place. And then I think, as a consequence, I was drawn to fiction writers who are making these worlds, you know - whole worlds.
SIMON: So let me ask you about some of these stories. "Bog Girl" is a fantastic story in all ways. Teenager who works in the bog mines of an unnamed bog-mining community falls in love with a 2,000-year-old beautifully preserved body of a young woman. You always have to ask this where young love is concerned. Is it love or mere infatuation?
RUSSELL: I think I'm going to say this is mere infatuation (laughter) in some ways. But I was - you know, it's funny. I just read this story at a high school, which was a terrifying experience for me. I haven't set foot in a high school, you know, since I was that age. And I confess that I'm really not sure how it went over. They seemed a little creeped out by it (laughter).
SIMON: Well, I - and, of course, in the story, as I don't have to tell you, he brings his new love to high school, and everybody is very understanding.
RUSSELL: You know, this was a funny story tonally to try to get right. I think on the one hand, I wanted to say something sort of earnest and true about first love - you know, that very vertiginous state of sort of discovering something about yourself as you're falling. But also, I was thinking about what a game of projection this life can be and the kind of violence that we can do to real bodies, you know, when we project these stories on them. So there's a twist at the end that I hope is a little bit of a feminist take on...
SIMON: Well, yeah. And I don't want to give anything away, but the implication is that, you know, a lot of men just want women to be silent.
RUSSELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. I do think that. And I think it made sense to me somehow that he would have this sort of rescue or fantasy about this bog body that he finds who, conveniently, is always smiling, always serene, totally inert, (laughter) you know...
RUSSELL: ...Not really complex in the way that a real person is, right? He doesn't have to grapple with sort of the dimensions of a real person.
SIMON: The title story, "Orange World" - first, I gather that's an actual term. I hadn't heard it before.
RUSSELL: No, this ended up being this wonderful metaphor that I stole from my actual kind of - no. We went to all these classes. I was a very anxious pregnant person. And so we went to, you know, these safety classes. And there was this educator who gave us this metaphor. She said, you know, green world is the ideal. It's this world of infinite attention and perfect safety. Red world, you know, she described as sort of these true hellscapes and, you know, incredibly dangerous situations. And she said most of the time, we're living in orange world. And she said this, interestingly, maybe a month before the 2016 election, so.
But it did sort of feel like a good, controlling metaphor for all the stories that this book gathers up to me, in some way. That sort of purgatorial space that's - you know, it's not really a heaven. It's not a true hell, but it's - you can sort of feel those polarities.
RUSSELL: And you feel how quickly - right? - what a short commute it can be, actually, from your everyday into something that does feel quite like a hell.
SIMON: In your title story, an expectant mother is - I'll put it this way - is offered a deal.
RUSSELL: Yeah, she is. An expectant mother is offered a deal that I think many of us would probably take, to be honest.
SIMON: I was going to point that out. Of course, any parent would.
RUSSELL: Any parent would. I can tell you, you know, without getting too personal, I have never experienced sort of these extremes of hope and fear as I did during this particular pregnancy. And then, of course, you learn that so many women have stories of miscarriage, you know, near-miscarriage, stillbirth - I mean, all kinds of private terrors. And it's sort of like if you are so lucky as to have a baby, it's almost inadmissible to talk about them. There is a real pressure, I think, to sort of toe the line and express just a kind of uncomplicated joy. And I think with this particular story, I really - I was so - I was still fresh from coming from that bargaining room that I honestly think every human must know.
You know, I had a friend who told me once, I went into a pay phone booth, and I found out that my brother was, you know, hospitalized. And I came out. I was never the same. And so that really stayed with me. You know, something about just how very, very quickly you can get knocked out of your everyday concerns and suddenly just be pleading with your whole heart for the safety of a loved one.
RUSSELL: And so anyway, but this deal - you know, this is - because I'm not the most sophisticated thinker, I really wanted to literalize (laughter) that bargaining room. And it ended up being a story about this woman who agrees to breastfeed the devil in exchange for her son's safety.
SIMON: Unlike some short story stories you can read that describe a fantastic world, your principal care - oh, yes, you'll have the devil, you'll have beans (ph), you'll have a bog girl. But most of the people you have are utterly ordinary and normal, and they accept this world as it is. They don't shrink in horror. They're not supercreatures. They're utterly normal.
RUSSELL: I mean, as a writer, and a reader, too, if there's not something that you can recognize that syncs up with your own understanding of how people behave...
RUSSELL: ...You don't care that much, really, right? I - that's - I guess I'm old-fashioned that way, but I really do want to care about a character. You know, and I want to understand the mystery of that particular personality. And if I'm making some kind of bonkers alteration to nature, hopefully - hopefully - it's just to get at truth from a different angle.
With this mother story that felt so feverish and intense, I was, you know, grateful that this little devil showed up because it just gave me a new kind of vocabulary to talk about something that I had no language for, you know? So hopefully, you're extrapolating from something you know to be true about people.
SIMON: Karen Russell - her new collection of stories, "Orange World" - thanks so much for being with us.
RUSSELL: Thank you so much, Scott.
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