I started writing in isolation. For me, it was the natural result of reading too much: those extra words bred in the pools between my ears, multiplying and evolving, and finally spilled out of me in a tidal rush. I read everything when I was young. I loved the privacy of being a reader, and how a book could be a shield between me and the rest of the world. When I read, I felt reality melt away. It was the same when I wrote. Time flowed differently, moving at the pace of the stories I scratched out. I did not mind being alone inside those stories. I wrote for pleasure, because it felt natural, and because if I did not the excess of ideas in my brain would have nowhere to go. A hundred years ago, doctors bled patients to release the bad humors in their blood. My writing was no different. I was jabbing for a vein, trying to vent some of the pressure building up inside me.
Among other things, I wrote letters to the authors I liked the most. I was prepubescent, addicted to books about faraway lands, women in armor, talking animals, and terrible quests. My letters were unabashedly enthusiastic. I wrote to Beverly Cleary, Brian Jacques, Lois Lowry, Robin McKinley. These letters were long and very detailed, and always included a couple of questions.
Who draws the maps that are printed in the endpapers?
What character is your favorite to write about, and why?
Do you only write one book at a time or plan the whole series?
I was crushed when I learned that a writer whose work I loved was deceased, and could not be reached by mail. (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien missed out.) I sent my fan letters through the regular post, to the author c/o their publisher. The address was usually printed on the inside of the book, on the ISBN page. I remember dropping these letters into the mailbox, never doubting that they’d reach their destination.
Now that I am grown up, I understand how unlikely it was that these letters reached their intended recipients. However, once or twice there was a response. This was like finding a message in a bottle on the beach. It confirmed my belief that writers were real people, not mythical creatures. They received mail. They wrote back to children like me, answering my questions and thanking me for reading their books. I still have Brian Jacques’s letter somewhere, a response to a letter I wrote right after I finished Mossflower for the fourth time.
He said that the animal characters in his books were based on the people he knew. “For example, Gonff is me!” he wrote. That exclamation point pierced my heart. I read the Redwall series again, this time imagining Brian at his desk, laughing while he wrote Gonff’s dialog. I wrote again, asking more questions, this time about who the other characters were based on, and why he used so much poetry in his stories, but I don’t remember if I sent it. I think I felt, even then, that I’d been lucky to get a letter from the master’s desk. I knew better than to push my luck.
Because I was a reader, and he was a writer, and I understood that it wasn’t his job to become my friend, simply because I loved the books he’d written.
This was before the Internet, when the only way to get in touch with a stranger was to find them in the phone book or through their publishing company. Now, authors have their own websites. Twitter accounts. They share their email addresses and other contact information online. If you want to get in touch with your favorite writer, it’s not difficult to do that. My friend, the late Katherine Dunn, who wrote Geek Love, was my neighbor in Portland. Her phone number was listed in the white pages, which I know because I looked her up. I remember staring at the digits, printed in cheap ink on nearly transparent paper and wondering who in their right mind would have the gall to actually call her up and ask her about her novel.
When I was younger, that person would have been me. But that was when I was a reader, and a child. Now I am a writer, and I understand how fiercely we must guard our privacy. When I started writing for money in 2006, I was not thinking about anything except getting published. I wanted to get my name out there: I wanted to get paid. I wasn’t thinking about what kind of writer I might turn out to be. I was also completely unprepared for the responses that readers had to my work.
Up to then, my experience with readers was limited to close friends and other writers, or at least embryo writers, who went to workshops and took creative writing classes on the weekends. We read each other’s work seriously, with an eye towards craft. We knew how to give each other constructive criticism, each negative comment balanced by a positive. We never said things like, “I liked this,” or “Your main character upset me.” Our feelings were not part of the discussion. I wrote stories that were disturbing, lyrical, strange, and moody. Most of them were not very good. I didn’t aim to please my reader, because I had no idea who that person would be. I wrote because I liked writing, and the stories I made were reflective, I think, of my intense focus on my inner world. My stories were pointed at myself: my fantasies, fears, dreams. When I wrote, I felt like I was gazing at my own reflection. I saw myself as a nymph, with charcoal skin, drawing stars on its forehead. A fragment of nature. I felt powerful when I wrote, and full of magic. I created worlds, beautiful worlds, and tore them into pieces.
That sense of self evaporated when I got my first letter from a stranger.
It was a nasty feeling, like finding a hateful note on your windshield. Learn how to park. I read the letter several times, trying to understand what I’d done wrong. The story in question upset this reader: upset him to the point of profanity. There was no constructive criticism in the note, or even an explanation of what exactly was so offensive about my story. I read it a few times, face on fire, and then crumpled it up and threw it away. I thought, later, that I should keep this note, the way I was keeping all my rejection letters. If I had, I’d have enough to paper my bedroom. Because, apparently, what I write—the way I write—maybe the way I am—is enough to provoke a stranger into writing to me. And, paradoxically, although my writing is deeply private, even when it is published and read by millions of people, something about it suggests that I am a person who is interested in hearing from you. Yes, you.
Even though you’re not supposed to read the comments, I always read the comments. And I always open the emails, no matter what the subject line says. Maybe this is my inner masochist, but when I read these letters—both the wonderful and the abusive—I start to get a sense of what kind of writer I have become.
I recognized the brittle, devastating truth in your stories.
This essay articulates something that I’ve been trying so hard to get at. Thank you. I was in tears.
I am a writer who makes people cry, because I tell them the truth about themselves. I am a writer who infuriates people. My readers told me this. Because of them, I am learning who I am.
Whether I like it or not, the way I am seen by readers, and the person they think I am, is an important aspect of my development as a writer. When I committed to writing for money, and becoming a writer in public, I also committed to growing. That means expanding my conception of myself, improving the quality of my writing, and making an effort to connect with readers. Reader responses are not reviews, and they’re not criticism. They’re raw, usually spontaneous reactions to my work. They’re valuable to me because they make me feel like I’m sitting right next to the reader, watching them bite their lip or roll their eyes as they scroll down the page.
What have readers seen in me? More than I’ve ever seen in myself. When I write about recovering from heroin addiction or alcoholism, I get a small flurry of messages. People write to ask for help, compare their recovery to mine, or criticize me for not taking the same path they did. When I write something controversial, the comments section wonders if I’ve relapsed. I’ve been called horrible names. I’ve also been branded as a non-feminist, a liar, a slut, a loser who doesn’t deserve to have a boyfriend, an idiot, and a genius.
I once received a four-page letter from a woman, asking for help with her long distance relationship. She’d read an essay of mine, guessed my email address, and gotten in touch. Like me, she was coming to terms with the fact that her boyfriend was imaginary. She shared the intimate details of her relationship, asked for help, and then apologized for maybe overstepping her bounds. You don’t have to write back. It just means so much to know that someone else has gone through this and come out alive. I waited two days before I decided to respond.
The personal emails, especially the ones who encourage me to keep writing, mean the most. It takes time and effort to find my contact information, write a message, and press send. The person who’s willing to jump through those electronic hoops has something important to say. The least I can do is read it. Even if I don’t like what they say, or it’s stupid or hurtful, I read it. It reminds me that I can’t win over everybody—that my writing is not for everyone—and that I don’t need to be universally celebrated to be happy.
Most of all, these letters remind me that I am real. I’m not an imaginary or mythical creature, spinning yarns in a grove somewhere. I’m a person, read by people, and the porous membrane between us can be punctured by the messages between us. The more I share about myself and the bigger my stories get, the more responses I receive from people who identified. I make stories and I get letters. Is it a dialog? No. It is a new way to see myself: not isolated, and not alone, but connected, transmitting, and bright.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Karen Russell was just out of Columbia’s MFA program and entering her mid-twenties when her short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves debuted. Replete with ancient images such as a Minotaur, Yeti, and numerous ghosts, each tale speaks of the heartbreak of adolescence in language beautiful and true. She sets many of them in her native South Florida, on small keys, surrounded by the seemingly endless Everglades.
Russell returns to the Everglades – and to characters from one of her short stories, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” – for her first novel, Swamplandia! The book tells the story of the Bigtree family, who run a theme park – the titular Swamplandia – on one of Florida’s keys. Their star attraction is the family matriarch, Hilola Bigtree, who dives nightly into a pool of alligators until her untimely death from ovarian cancer.
With the park left destitute, Hilola’s eldest son, Kiwi, takes a job at a rival theme park with dreams of saving the family by one day going to college. Part of the novel follows Kiwi, but the lion’s (or should I say alligator’s?) share of the story is given to Ava, the youngest daughter. Left alone on the island, surrounded by swamp, Ava and her older sister Ossie become enmeshed in a world of séances and ghosts.
I had the opportunity to talk with Russell recently by phone, and I asked about the influences on her work.
The Millions: You’ve received a lot of attention because your sentences are highly literary, musical constructions, but the content of the stories is often genre based, pulling on fantasy and science-fiction. And the emotional lives of the characters feel very real though the specifics of the dilemmas are fantastical. Where does the impulse to mash disparate elements together in your fiction come from?
Karen Russell: The people I loved reading the best in college were total mash-up artists. Like Junot Diaz, who has this voice-driven, wisecracking, going-to-curse-at-you prose and then he has these lyrical, gorgeous descriptions. Or George Saunders – I owe him a great debt because he showed me you can have really moral, moving stories that are partly a function of how insane and absurd the setting is. That was always what got me most powerfully as a reader: these incongruous pairings.
It’s also just fun! I had a lot of fun writing Swamplandia! because it felt like I could juggle different kinds of worlds. And I feel like in life we’re all sort of operating in different registers all the time.
TM: How so?
KR: I find myself always writing from this young adolescent point of view because that’s the threshold where you really are straddling worlds. That was my experience of it anyway. Ava, the protagonist of Swamplandia!, was a good, fun age to write from, because she’s a very innocent thirteen and so still has access to the private, child world of fantasy and comic books, but she’s also alive to grittier, more adult realities. She’s tying to figure out the death of her mom and the insolvency of the park – a lot of childhood myths are crumbling around her. As an adolescent you move registers, you switch lenses. You have a sorceress’s magical lens but are also beginning to see the world through adult eyes.
But just in the course of a day I think everyone shuffles a bit. And what happens in my stories is just an expanded vocabulary to talk about a way that everybody feels. To paraphrase Etgar Keret: if I have some guy levitate out of his chair then maybe he’s in love and inside feels like he’s flying.
TM: It sounds like you’re very aware of the writers you admire and have learned from, but how does that work for you in concrete terms? Do you go back to any authors in particular when you’re stuck to crib technique or pointers?
KR: You learn what a story is by reading. There are some stories and novels that leave a big stamp, that virally inhabit your consciousness.
When writing Swamplandia! I ended up teaching Geek Love, this amazing novel by Katherine Dunn that I picked up in high school. It’s a dark carnival tale about a family of actual freaks – it’s just nightmarish, I’ve never read anything like it. I’m positive that if I hadn’t read that book, Kelly Link’s short story collection (Pretty Monsters) and George Saunders, that I wouldn’t feel free enough as I do to write weird. They expanded my idea that you can have a literary book, a book that’s interested in sentences and the poetry of language, and it can also have Arty the Flipper Boy or a Civil War ghost.
When writing the Kiwi sections of Swamplandia!, if I ever felt like the tone was off I would read Saunders because he always makes me want to write. He reads like he’s having such a good time and I love his humor so much. I think you write better if you’re reading good people.
Swamplandia! also owes a big debt to Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I think that’s one of the most beautiful books. For King it’s pretty quiet, about this nine year old girl wandering around the woods in Appalachia. It’s weird to me that King is as popular as he is, you know? Because of the places he goes. That’s an acknowledgement of how weird we all must be, and how we love the dark. I feel like he’s some organ, doing extrasensory processing for all of us!
TM: Do you see Swamplandia! as a coming of age story?
KR: I heard Antonya Nelson say that all stories are coming of age stories, which I really like, because people hear coming of age and think To Kill A Mockingbird or whatever we all read in seventh grade. But Nelson’s idea was that coming of age means you’re getting new information, there’s a new challenge or event and you’re going to have to expand as a character – at whatever age you’re at – and you’re going to become something new as you move through the experience.
The story that felt at the heart of Swamplandia! was Ava’s story, and that is about this kid trying to wrestle with her grief. She does grow up over the course of the book, but the novel also tackles the whole family in grief, so it’s kind of a collective coming of age.
TM: As Swamplandia! progresses, the history of Floridian ecology and land-use come to the fore. Was this material that you knew from your childhood, or did you do a lot of research?
KR: I did too much research. I wanted to know the real history of the state. I think the Bigtree story is a local version of the bigger story. I felt that the death of the mother that’s the catalyzing event in Swamplandia! deeply resonated with how we diked up and drained the swamp. It used to cover the whole state, this floating prairie that extended down from Lake Okeechobee, and now it’s cut off from its headwaters and it’s fractured and really in crisis, a quarter of its original size.
While writing I would look at these aerial pictures, and you can see exactly over time the shrinking territory and how cut up it is. That felt true for this family too, the members of which end up being partitioned and cut off from one another.
TM: One thing that comes up frequently in MFA workshops is consistency – sticking with a point of view or tense or pattern. Yet in so many fantastic books there are surprising changes, elements that make a work really exciting. Like the first 65 pages of Swamplandia! are written in the first person from Ava’s point of view, and then the narrative voice switches to third person, following Kiwi as he heads off on his own and gets a job at The World of Darkness, a rival theme-park. Were you worried this wouldn’t work?
KR: I had the same fear, because you internalize the voice of the collective workshop saying, “You can’t do that! We need to know where this narrative voice is coming from!”
But in a workshop at Columbia, novelist Ben Marcus once said something along the lines of “readers won’t be distracted if it’s written well.”
You want these abrupt narrative changes to be deliberate, to have a rationale. Swamplandia! is not just Ava’s story, it’s the whole Bigtree family’s. I envisioned Hilola Bigtree’s death like a pool ball break, this traumatic event happens and they all spiral off into their own pocket. Ava’s sister Ossie is on her own mystery tour, and Kiwi wanted to save the family in his own way, a more conventional get-a-job, go-to-college way.
TM: Ossie journeys into the swamp, following a spirit she’s fallen in love with, the story of which is left largely to the reader’s imagination. Were you ever tempted to follow her?
KR: No, I knew that for the gravities to work Ossie’s story has to be the dark matter. So much of the power would be lost if we saw what really happened to her, I thought that was an important thing to leave to the reader.
And I wanted Kiwi and Ava to be on parallel tracks, each in their own hell. Kiwi’s is a minimum wage theme-park hell, a mainstream USA kind of hell, while Ava is off in the swamp. In the original conception of this, I thought it looked so beautiful, like a helical DNA strand. Ava’s story is fantastical and Kiwi’s is more realistic, but in the end they both are pretty deranged.
Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays famously opens with the question, “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”
I’m one of the people who asks. Samuel Coleridge might have called the search for Iago “the motive hunting of motiveless malignity,” but I lack the capacity to accept that certain truths are just inscrutable. I reason that because fictional characters are born in the mind of the author, their actions must necessarily stem from something resembling Kantian categorical imperatives. Within the confines of their own logic, their actions make perfect sense. There is internal consistency and cause and effect. The system is governed by rules; the game is to discern exactly what those rules are.
It’s a cliché that nothing is more interesting to people than other people, but in essence, those of us who ask about Iago do so because he is not so different a puzzle from human beings. He is only a more tantalizing one, because his author has deliberately controlled what we see and know of him, as though dispensing clues. But the prize for solving a literary conundrum is the same as for solving a human one: if I can figure out Iago, I can figure out Hamlet, I can figure out anyone and I can figure out you.
1. As An Aside
Having searched for Iago predominantly throughout other works of fiction, I think it is worth pointing out that I’m aware of the tenuous merit of this project. It’s considered fairly dubious practice to explain the motivations of real people via fictional characters. But what about explaining the motivations of fictional characters via other fictional characters? Let alone fictional characters created long after the fictional characters in question? Won’t that turn into something of an analytical Ponzi scheme?
It may also be worth noting that real world psychology, if not always an exact science, is farther along than any such fictional goose chase. Iago might simply be found in the entry under “Antisocial Personality Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV for demonstrating “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Real world sociopaths have been described in detail in nonfiction, from Charles Manson in Helter Skelter to Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood. Dick Hickock has “one of those smiles that really work,” an IQ of 130 and the sort of toughness that “existed solely in situations where he unarguably had the upper hand.” Dick even looks exactly how Iago should look: “his own face enthralled him. Each angle of it induced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful …”
But I’m not interested in diagnosing Iago, per se. I’m not trying to discern what he looks like, or what his childhood practices might have been. I am searching for the emotional truth of his nature, which (as Tim O’Brien famously opined) may be better found in another fictional story than in facts.
2. Excerpts From A Guide To Literary Sociopaths
The sort of villains in popular fiction that enjoy the same level of celebrity as Iago include the likes of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. The common thread through many a literary sociopath is, as you may have noticed, that they have extremely evil-sounding names. Sociopaths in fiction are often intended to either appeal to readers’ fantasies that good and bad could be so easy to identify in real life, or are so absurdly riddled with diabolical clichés that they are parodies of themselves (like the pantheon of villains in Pynchon’s and Heller’s comic masterpieces, or Jasper Fforde’s Acheron Hades, who explains in his memoir, “Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit,” that the “best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts – and let’s face it, I am considered something of an expert in the field – is purely for their own sake.”)
But there is something far more understated, and sinister, about Iago as a villain. Like Zoe Heller’s Barbara Covett from Notes on a Scandal, Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers, or perhaps even Brontë’s Heathcliff, the real evil that Iago inflicts is upon the people to whom he is closest. He is the godfather of villains who rot from the inside out.
Destroying those to whom one is closest reeks of a certain sort of motivelessness. Kevin Frazier, in his excellent essay on A.C. Bradley here at The Millions, points to the following discussion of Iago from Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog … So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
What strikes me most about this passage is that the examples chosen for being akin to Iago’s cruelty suggest that Iagoesque cruelty is almost commonplace. Horrifying though it is, there is nothing particularly rare or exotic about a man bullying a wife or child, or about thwarted superiority craving satisfaction. The implication is that it might not be such a mystery why Iago’s victims line up so willingly to be abused. Likewise, there might be nothing so superhuman about Iago’s power to abuse them. From Katherine Dunn’s sublime novel Geek Love, the following description of Arturo Binewski, the book’s megalomaniacal villain, struck me as pure, undifferentiated Iago: “He seems to have no sympathy for anyone, but total empathy.”
Empathy is a curious source of power. Relatively speaking, it is unglamorous in the extreme – it is of the sort best suited to Dostoevsky’s contention in Crime and Punishment that “Power is only given to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up.” Far more than any sheer irresistibility, the ingratiating, servile role Iago must steadfastly play for both Desdemona and Othello is the key to his seductiveness. Othello the Venetian general might be a natural leader, but Iago cannot be puppet master without being puppet himself. He succeeds as long as he does solely because the near-sightedness of his victims prevent them from asking – not “why would he lie?” but – “why doesn’t he have any life of his own?”
3. How I Picture Iago When He Is Off-Stage
In Geek Love, while attempting to gain total control over his family, Arturo Binewski starts bugging the room of his sisters Iphy and Elly. Reports his documentarian Norval:
I find this depressing. The idea of Arty sitting and listening to hour after hour of footsteps, pages turning, toilet flushing, comb running through hair. Elly’s conversation has been reduced to the syllable mmmmmm and Iphy is not in the mood for song. Her piano is covered with dust … and Arty is listening to her file her nails.
4. A Comic Detour
That villainy can be pathetic is a well-explored contradiction in fiction. Brett Easton Ellis’ oddly beloved misanthrope and American Psycho Patrick Bateman and his ilk suffer from the incurable disadvantage of being impossible to take seriously. Their particular breed of literary sociopath consists, perhaps naturally, of comic characters, because there is something so pathetic about hating absolutely everyone. Grandiose ambitions aside, these characters are as paralyzed by issues as Phillip Roth’s Portnoy, and just about as menacing. In Sartre’s darkly funny “Erostratus,” the narrator sends out over a hundred letters announcing the following:
I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and killing half a dozen of them; perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver only has six cartridges. A monstrosity, isn’t it? And moreover, an act strictly impolitic?
Now, there is a relationship between the extent to which someone declares themselves to be a particular thing, and the extent to which he or she actually is that thing – and that relationship is plainly inverse. The comic sociopaths are so desperate to be taken seriously that they can never be taken seriously, and so fumbling and impotent in their attempts that you know they will only get themselves into trouble.
Returning now to Othello and the genre of tragedy, if you subtract the comedic element from being pathetic, who are you left with?
5. The Regular Joe
I suppose I always knew I’d arrive here at the end.
Dunn gets here first, of course. In one of Geek Love’s final notes on Arturo, his documentarian writes:
General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions in this spectrum at one time or another … however, I come to see him as just a regular Joe – jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge.
What Dunn so evocatively indicates is that the trick to the complexity of characters such as Arturo is that there is no complexity. The documentarian’s final notes on him ring of disgust upon making this discovery – self-disgust, and perhaps even a little disgust for his subject.
Likewise, we build a labyrinth of motive and mythology around Iago because for all of his manipulation and the epic destruction it causes, we believe – or hope – he must be a monster. We are wont to compare him to the vilest of both real world and fictional sociopaths. We resist stripping away at him, knowing we will be sorely disappointed by what we find underneath.