We have something to admit: Karen Russell is one of our favorite authors. She is an absolute master of—for lack of a better word—weird fiction. Her stories ooze strangeness, and, just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on things, she flips the world around on you. Her latest short story collection, Orange World and Other Stories, is now in paperback, so we took the opportunity to ask Russell a few quick questions. Read on to discover the word she hopes to never hear again and why her first celebrity crush was “the coward’s choice.”
Reading Group Center: What’s your go-to book recommendation?
Karen Russell: I never tire of recommending Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.
RGC: What song do you wash your hands to these days?
KR: Daniel Tiger, a PBS cartoon tiger cub, is the soundtrack for most of my life right now, including handwashing.
RGC: What’s the first thing you do after waking up in the morning?
KR: Nurse our baby daughter (the tiny, hungry alarm clock that wakes me up).
RGC: What TV show do you watch for comfort?
KR: The Simpsons.
RGC: You’ve just received amazing news—who do you call?
KR: My husband, my siblings, my best friends, my parents, in whatever order I can reach them
RGC: How do you take your coffee?
KR: Black and strong enough to take the roof off a house! I need coffee medicinally right now, very addicted.
RGC: Is there a quote that inspires you?
KR: From Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower:
“The world is full of painful stories. Sometimes it seems as though there aren’t any other kind and yet I found myself thinking how beautiful that glint of water was through the trees.”
And here’s another one that feels right for this difficult time:
“There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.”
RGC: Chocolate or vanilla?
KR: Chocolate, but only because peanut butter was not an option.
RGC: What do you do when you can’t sleep?
KR: These nights, I try my best to stay off the internet. Sometimes I read—Maureen McClane’s poetry, Morgan Parker’s YA novel—are my most recent 4 a.m. reads. But most frequently I’m either nursing my daughter or patting my son’s back to reassure him after a nightmare. He’s afraid of “the outside,” and who can really blame him?
RGC: Which word would you like to never hear again?
RGC: Name one person you would love to read your books.
KR: Anybody’s mother. I’m always really flattered when somebody has me sign a book to their mother.
RGC: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
KR: A writer. It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted.
RGC: If you could choose your last words, what would they be?
KR: Oh my goodness, I can’t answer this question. I hope I am lucky enough to say goodbye to the people I love. I imagine if that’s the case, my last words will be some version of “I love you. Thank you for our time together.” Lately, as we all wait in the hopes of holding each other again, I’ve been thinking a lot about how that cliché “our time together is precious” is absolutely true, and that “precious” is another word for “finite.”
RGC: Other than people and pets, what would you save if your house was on fire?
KR: You know, recently we had to evacuate our home because of a small fire—nobody was hurt—and so I can answer this question with an honest: nothing. We fled, and as we fled, we had a brief conversation about returning to get important documents out of the fireproof safe in the basement before my wise husband pointed out that this was the entire purpose of storing documents in a fireproof safe, that you could flee without them and trust they would be safe. I would have said photographs but mercifully all of our photographs are now online.
RGC: What is your favorite scent?
KR: My daughter’s smell. Baby shampoo and sweet milk. Something like the human equivalent of freshly cut grass.
RGC: How do you sign off your emails?
KR: Well, for a while I fear I was driving up the hyperinflation of “xoxoxoxoxoxo” as a send-off. So I still do that, but have been trying for a more sedate “Yours,” in professional correspondences, or “Big love,” for friends. Sometimes, lately, “warmly,” even though I shudder a little as I read it now, as I do at the word “moist.” I wish we had a better alternative! A way to communicate goodwill and affection that didn’t accidentally evoke a humid breath on your face, or a sweaty high-five.
RGC: Who was your first celebrity crush?
KR: It was a New Kid on the Block. But only because this was a social necessity at that time, not because I felt anything resembling desire for a New Kid on the Block. I believe it was “Joey,” the coward’s choice, the most mainstream of the already mainstream crushes available to one at that time. Then, you know, in private, I feel like I had “crushes” on my elementary school English teacher, or my fifth grade pal, Ignacio Lorenzo (hi, Iggy!).