LIANE HANSEN, host:
Karen Russell writes short stories. Ten of them are being published in her first book this month. In one of them, the main character's father is a Minotaur, and the family migrates west by a wagon train. Another character lives on a swampy, backwater alligator farm. One sings in a boys choir and every spring their high notes make the first cracks in a glacier. The title story of Karen Russell's new collection is the last one, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
Russell is 25 years old, was born in Florida and now lives in New York City, where she joins us from the NPR bureau there.
Hi, welcome to the program.
Ms. KAREN RUSSELL (Author): Hi, Liane. How's it going?
HANSEN: It's going very well. Must be going pretty well for you. You've got 10 of your stories published under one cover. You've got a big publisher, a lot of attention.
These 10 stories are the ones, obviously, that you've polished and chosen to put in here. How did you choose them and how many do you have left?
Ms. RUSSELL: Oh, there's a whole B-side...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RUSSELL: ...situation on my computer right now. These, I guess, were the stories that I felt most committed to and most interested in, but there definitely was a sad story massacre to get to get to this stage.
HANSEN: It's easy to invoke the metaphor of the pack mentality when your book is titled St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. What are you exploring about that, about the idea of being true to yourself or being accepted by the pack, as it were.
Ms. RUSSELL: I just think that's such, you know, at any age such a tricky predicament, but especially when you're trying to transition from childhood to adulthood, the idea that part of growing up is being kind of indoctrinated into this pack. And I mean in that story there's a character who just - God bless her - doesn't get it. There's this wolf girl Mirabella(ph), just never manages to culturally indoctrinate into human society. And I think that in my own experience that was one of the more painful parts of growing up, is trying to negotiate this new self in relation to the pack, or other kids, or other adults, other people in the world.
There's also sort of a sadness. You know, every step forward you take the terrain behind you changes, kind of, in a way that makes it impossible to go home to the home of your youth, I guess.
HANSEN: There's a passage I'd like you to read from that story, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Jeanette, who's wolf name was Quarrr(ph)- you write with lots of R's.
Ms. RUSSELL: Quarrr.
HANSEN: Quarrr. Quarrr. And she's got a sister. But she's managing to make the transition to a young woman as opposed to a wolf. And this passage begins on Sundays.
Ms. RUSSELL: Okay.
On Sunday's the pretending felt almost as natural as nature. The chapel was our favorite place. Long before we could understand what the priest was saying, the music instructed us in how to feel. The choir director, aggressively perfumed Mrs. Valuchi(ph), gold necklaces like pineapple rings around her neck, taught us more than the nuns ever did. She showed us how to pattern the old hunger into arias. Clouds moved behind the frosted oculus of the nave, glass shadows that reminded me of my mother. The mother, I'd think, struggling to conjure up a picture. A black shadow running behind the watery screen of pines. We sang at the chapel and next to the home every morning. We understood that this was the human's moon, the place for howling beyond purpose. Not for mating, not for hunting, not for fighting, not for anything but the sound itself. And we'd howl along with the choir, hurling every pitted thing within us at the stained glass. Sotto voce, the nuns would frown. But you could tell that they were pleased.
HANSEN: You have such a vivid imagination. Is this something you cultivated from your childhood and then channeled into your writing?
Ms. RUSSELL: Yeah. I directly credit being terrible at sports. I think if I had even an ounce of skill at like kickball or something, I would have been on the field with other kids, you know, getting picked first for teams and stuff. But because I'm sort of short and graceless, I just always felt more comfortable reading. You know, it seemed safer. It seemed like I was better at like kind of sitting in a corner and imaging things, you know, than dodging a ball.
HANSEN: You create stories, though, that we absolutely suspend our disbelief. You create a story, for example, where a kid has a minotaur for a father. And by the end of the story, I mean, they're going West by wagon train; it's your typical western story and we're meeting the people in the wagon. But this guy is - is pulling the wagon. And - but we accept that and...
Ms. RUSSELL: Oh, I'm so glad to hear that. That's really heartening. I mean I - I sort of have an aversion to stories where, you know, they feel - just innovation for it's own sake or kind of gimmicky, and I really do want readers to buy into the world of these stories. You know, I don't want it to feel like here's a child trapped in a giant metaphor. I hope that there's a - you know, like a real peril or some sort of emotional truth to these characters, especially, you know, the minotaur.
HANSEN: Where are you when you write? I mean physically and mentally?
Ms. RUSSELL: Well, geez, a lot of these stories I wrote in the computer lab at Columbia University next to sleep-deprived Eastern European graduate students. So that - and all of us just swilling coffee under florescent lights. So not the - not the most glamorous setting, I guess.
HANSEN: But don't you have to travel to some pretty amazing places in your imagination to get these characters to come to life on the page?
Ms. RUSSELL: Yeah. That's the best feeling. It takes a while to get there sometimes, because I - I mean I guess I have to get to a place where I suspend my own disbelief sort of, and you know, shed this hyper-awareness where I'm like I'm not a 14-year-old boy, I'm not on an ice plane headed for a glacier. And then - and then it's, it's fun. It's like dreaming on the page. It's like flying or something. That's a great space to be in.
HANSEN: Dreaming on the page.
Ms. RUSSELL: Yes. I know that's not mine. I'm sure I've stolen that from - I don't know, Nabokov of someone. But whoever I read that - wherever I read that - that's what it feels like.
HANSEN: Yeah. How's it been to deal with editors and publishers and teachers and channeling, you know, all of this into the form? I mean you've got your Master's degree, fine arts, you've got a fellowship. You've been published in New Yorker, you've been published in Granta. Now you've got this collection published by Knopf.
Ms. RUSSELL: Yeah.
HANSEN: Has it been difficult or a process that you've easily acclimated to? You know...
Ms. RUSSELL: Oh wow, it's been really, really dizzying. I was telling a friend it's sort of like a boa constrictor feeling. So all this amazing stuff happened, and so it sort of was like, yeah, like a boa constrictor lump that I think I'm still waiting to fully digest and process.
HANSEN: Karen Russell's first collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published by Knopf. And she joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks and good luck to you.
Ms. RUSSELL: Thank you so much.