Friday, October 17, 2014

Singing in Her Natural Register: Karen Russell’s Talk-Talk Talk

By Nick Fuller Googins
New York, NY, Oct. 8, 2014

Author (and prop master) Karen Russell
Karen Russell kicked off Columbia University’s 2014-2015 Creative Writing Lecture Series last Wednesday armed with a pair of props. “Ninety-nine percent of people have no issue using this kind of phone,” she said, holding her iPhone overhead. “Um, I can’t do it. I can’t hear or be heard. The shape of my face is either wrong, or when I smile I turn it off. And poor Adam, the first name in my phonebook, fifty times a day.”

The game changer, she explained, was the Talk-Talk, a bright pink cell phone plug-in made to resemble a land line handset that she found at a Portland, Oregon, gag store. Russell, a Columbia Writing Program alumna, showed off her Talk-Talk to the lucky hundred-or-so of us who’d crammed into an art-studio-turned-reading-space in Columbia’s Dodge Hall, accepted mini sandwiches and plastic cups of Vinho Verde from current MFA students, and avoided making eye-contact with the the unlucky hundred-or-so milling in a long line outside. In the front rows of the audience sat a few of Russell’s former instructors, including authors Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, and Alan Ziegler.
Kickin' it old school: A better fit

“Now talking on my phone feels like a game,” Russell said, holding her Talk-Talk to her ear. “It alleviates me of a certain kind of self-consciousness. It’s totally humiliating to bust out on the street, but I have to tell you, it makes it feel like play. It narcotizes, or anesthetizes one kind of self-consciousness so I can hear people more clearly and be understood.”

At this point Russell looked at her pink handset, its curled cord, and must have realized that she was well into her lecture and still on the subject of Talk-Talks. “I’m actually getting sponsorship money from them,” she said. “So I’m going to spend the next forty minutes doing demonstrations. Okay?”

We laughed, but then came the point to her prop, the crux of her “Talk-Talk Talk”: Karen Russell, a New Yorker “20 Under 40” wunderkind, the author of a novel that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and two short story collections, and a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, had once (not so long ago) felt very uncertain as to which direction to take her writing. While a student of Columbia’s Writing Program, she struggled to write what she felt compelled to, not what she felt she was supposed to. “One thing I felt really self conscious about was that I was writing stories. A lot of my peers were writing novels, and I felt like they were in these happy marriages and I was like, definitely not a guaranteed good time, but just some floozy. And I felt weird that all my stories tended to be from the point of view of these male adolescents. If they weren't effeminate, hyperverbal, bewildered boys, they were these stunted tomboy girls. That was my continuum. They tended to be in first person, and I felt really bad about that and maybe unduly mad. But in retrospect, those were the stories I knew how to make live. Those were the things I was genuinely preoccupied about.”

In order to accept that it was okay for her to write how she wanted, Russell said she had to seek out role-models, learn from them how to turn off (some) of the self-criticism and make writing fun again. She credits Carson McCullers, Italo Calvino, George Saunders, and Junot Diaz, among others, for doing just that: “opening all these doors” to her while she was an MFA student.

From Junot Diaz, and what Russell terms his "voicey I narrator," Russell learned that, “You can have [a character] who’s hyper-verbal on one plane but just such a dodo elsewhere, stunted emotionally or living in a blindspot.” Realizing that she was allowed to write in such a voice, Russell said, “felt just like a Talk-Talk.”

At first, Russell said, while studying at Columbia, she was embarrassed to be writing what she considered “these lame ventriloquies of the writers I loved.” But looking back on that time now, she sees it as only natural for the voices of others to creep up into the work of any writer. “Maybe it’s okay if your story contains audible and sub-audible and superficial and bedrock resemblances to other stories. Because how could it be otherwise? Of course your story is going to contain echoes and the shapeliness of other stories you read and loved. What else would you be extrapolating from? Those are the materials that live in you.” Russell suggested that writers shouldn’t beat themselves up when inspired by others. “Maybe there’s a happier way to be haunted by the people that influence you. Maybe there’s a happier relationship to have to all these voices where it makes sense if your voice on the page sounds a little bit like them, because it’s a synthesis. If you’ve been a reader your whole life, that’s just the spooky acoustics of the project.”

To demonstrate how those spooky acoustics inform her work, Russell quoted from Ben Marcus and Harold Bloom, then read the beginning of Calvino’s “The Dinosaurs,” a story she’d found radically instructional while developing her writing chops. “It was glorious to read this because it was like, Ah! You can be a goofball and you can still talk about annihilation and loss and you can crack some dumb jokes! You can have this kind of direct relationship with the reader.”

She then read from Saunders’s “Sea Oak,” and reflected upon a visit of his to Columbia while she’d been in the program: “I remember him saying that he’d had some similar issues—he’d been trying to write what he thought was literary and highbrow and eventually he realized he was playing against his strengths. He’s fantastic at dialogue, at writing these bizarre alternate spaces. Singing in his natural register was something that he discovered.”

Lastly, to bring her point home, she read the beginning of “Reeling from the Empire,” from her recent collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. When reviewing the story earlier that day, Russell said, “I was like, ‘Jesus, I really should send checks in the mail to Calvino’s estate, and Saunders.’” They’d helped her find what she calls her, “access point” into fiction, the mode of writing which comes most naturally and feels most fun. She described the feeling as one in which suddenly, “I sort of see how maybe I can access something that feels true to me that I really can’t do in other registers. I’d spent a lot of time singing outside of my natural octave. There’s something to be said for discovering in this program what is your access point, and it might be that you have to set it up so that it feels like a game.”

If Russell has turned writing into a game, it’s obviously one game that she excelled at even during her MFA years; by the time she graduated from Columbia in 2006 she’d already landed an agent and seen her work published in The New Yorker. The “game,” as she seems to have learned it, involves not only writing very, very well, but having confidence in what feels natural, even when what feels natural is very, very weird. Russell, at the beginning of her lecture, admitted that she’d thought twice about using her pink Talk-Talk as a prop. “I knew that this was an indefensibly dumb way to start the talk, but I thought: 'No, I’m going to do it anyway, I’m not going to ask anybody.' And I may have no other advice to give tonight, but I think that’s useful. In every case, with every story I’ve ever written, I always thought: 'This is indefensibly dumb.' But if you have an indefensibly dumb idea that you’re still—for reasons mysterious to you—really committed to, maybe go for it.”