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UNF's #1 Student-Run News Source

UNF Spinnaker

Headed to the swamp

Karen Russell walked around her New York apartment and almost stepped on her hair dryer while giving a lecture to no one about child narrators in fiction novels.

But she wasn’t lecturing to no one. She was nearing the end of a 30-minute-or-so phone interview with the Spinnaker in regards to her Feb. 25 appearance at Neptune Beach’s independent bookstore, The BookMark.

The Miami-born wordstress, 29, authored the generously reviewed “SWAMPLANDIA!,” a novel that came out Feb. 1 about, well — we’ll let Russell tell you.

“I have to warn you that I do this badly,” she said.

Fair enough.

“SWAMPLANDIA!” is set in the Everglades, more specifically on a fictional island off the equally as fictional Loomis County – an exaggerated version of South Florida, Russell said.

Swamplandia!, the theme park that specializes in alligator-wrestling, sees a decline in attendance after its headliner, Hilola Bigtree, dies from ovarian cancer at the story’s start.

Enter the World of Darkness, a rival theme part that boasts a slide called “The Tongue of the Leviathan” and the fact that not only was Bigtree a performer, but she was the narrator’s mother. With all of this in place, the novel charges Ava Bigtree, a homeschooled 13-year-old, with the task of holding her family – and the theme park it owns – together.

Since the New Yorker published her short story “Haunting Olivia” in its debut fiction issue June 2005, many entities have honored Russell with age-specific honors: 20 Under 40, 5 Under 35, and Best Young American Novelists. She even won the 10th Bard Fiction Prize from Bard College, awarded to writers under 39 at the time of their application.

With all of this, Russell has set a precedent for younger authors.

“It makes me scared that I’ll be the One Over 50 We Really Regret,” she said.

She said it seems she should have done more to earn such recognition, like save an animal species.

Jokes aside, Russell said it’s nice to have support from organizations such as the New Yorker, the National Book Foundation, Granta Magazine and Bard College.

Rona Brinlee from The BookMark said the store brings in authors it thinks customers would like — such as Russell. And it only helps that the novel’s setting is easy for customers to relate to.

“It’s a perfect book for Florida,” Brinlee said.

Even though a title such as “SWAMPLANDIA!” seems Florida-specific, judging by the rave reviews from The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, the novel attracts non-Floridian readers as well.

“I think Florida is the fun mirror to the rest of the country,” Russell said.

Brinlee said at the BookMark’s author events, the authors will normally talk about the book, read passages from it, answer questions and then sign copies of it.

A question Russell might be asked is how younger writers should hone their craft.

“Read the stuff that made you wanna write in the first place,” Russell said.

As a joke, she said aspiring novelists should read less-than-desirable works by authors such as Nora Roberts. She also suggested listening to Top 40 and hip-hop music to teach writing confidence because artists such as T-Pain, Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Wayne are not apologizing for the verses they put out – instead, they’re saying, “You’re welcome.”

After making sure the Spinnaker is in no way affiliated with Columbia, Russell said she advises studying writing at a graduate level if young writers have the means to pay for it. Graduate school is a good place to get a lot of work done, and graduate students read widely, she said.

Russell earned a teaching scholarship to help her out, but she cautioned that if writers take out loans for graduate school, they should note they’ll eventually have to pay those loans back – and it’s not like they’re going to be lawyers after they graduate.

And about that child narrators bit from earlier — Russell said readers are able to listen to children without fear, and children are able to articulate questions about love, identity and home that don’t go away.

Although the story presents itself from a child’s voice, Russell said “SWAMPLANDIA!” is not necessarily a young adult novel.

“It’s for adults, too!”

Karen Russell will speak at The BookMark in Neptune Beach located at 220 First Street Feb. 25 at 7 p.m.

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