Karen Russell has a new short-story collection out, her first book since 2011's best-selling Swamplandia! The stories range from senior citizen vampires sucking lemons and wondering about their future, to a war veteran whose wounds are both locked up inside, and bright and bold across his body.
The book is Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and Russell tells NPR's Scott Simon that she's a little ambivalent about her role in giving vampires a sheen of literary respectability. "I should say these aren't really Twilight vampires; these are pretty unxsexy, elderly, monogamous vampires." Monogamous, that is, unless you count sinking your fangs into a stranger's neck as cheating.
And while the titular vampires have each other, Russell makes it clear that being a vampire is a lonely business. "The history of the monster tends to be that you're the only child of a species," she says, "so I think that made this romance even more miraculous."
The seed of the story came from an experience Russell had with her siblings in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy. "We saw this really small, leathery, tan old man, who appeared to be sucking on a lemon ... I think I just said, offhandedly, you know, wouldn't it be funny if that guy was a vampire, and that lemon that he's sucking on was like vampire methadone? No one thought that was funny but myself, as frequently happens in my family," she laughs. "But that idea of a temporary fix for a bottomless, eternal hunger, and whatever methods you've discovered — it's duct tape, or in this case it's lemons, or it's a really temporary solution."
But lemons don't always do the job. Even though Clyde and his wife, Magreb, spend much of the story musing on their 130-year marriage and the nature of existence, there's a startling moment when Clyde takes a young girl into an alley and drains her. "I was thinking about how difficult the commitments that we make to each other are, just how sort of beautifully insane it is that you can turn to someone and say, 'I will love you until death do us part,' " Russell says. "And so, I guess, the additional difficulty of making that promise really for eternity, the panic that would accompany that, maybe." And Russell says she does think biting another woman constitutes cheating.
Clyde and Magreb have hit what Russell calls a "sour patch" in their marriage, "a place where your dreams aren't aligned anymore." Clyde sees the two of them committed only to starving together, while his wife hopes there may still be a solution to their tortuous hunger. "I think sometimes these stories which sound so outlandish, maybe, if they work at all, they become a way to think through kind of universal, really human problems."
In another story, "The New Veterans," a masseuse named Beverly becomes part of a government program offering treatment to veterans. She meets Sgt. Derek Zieger, whose body is covered with livid, nearly supernatural tattoos. "It's a desert scene, U.S. soldiers on patrol, and there's a farm with jammous, which are these water buffaloes, so it's a really detailed, pastoral scene. And at the very base of it there's fire, there's this sort of explosion, and that's meant to be the red star that engulfed his friend at the moment that this IED went off."
The tattoo moves, permitting Beverly to change the story on Derek's back with her massage work. "And as she's doing this, he's sleeping better, he's sort of re-entering civilian life, he has a girlfriend, he himself is coming back to life." But, says Russell, it's not clear whether this is Beverly's fantasy of being able to heal, to erase the effects of war — or whether she's really having an effect.
Russell has written both novels and short stories, interspersing them throughout her career. "I spent most of my 20s with these alligator wrestlers in the swamps of South Florida, she says of writing Swamplandia! "While I was writing the novel, which took me a really long time ... I would sometimes take a break from the swamp and write a story, and that felt kind of like a fling." The title story in Vampires, in fact, was written during a period when "Swamplandia! had become an inhospitable place, and I didn't want to go back there for a while."
"I really try to write every day," she says. "It's hard, but it's my favorite thing to do, so it's usually not too, too hard." Then she catches herself, and laughs. "As soon as I said that, I was like, 'You dirty liar!' Because sometimes it's the most excruciating thing to do. But when it's going well, yeah, absolutely."
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