Paths: Karen Russell '03

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Karen Russell

From Aspiring Author to Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

By Sherry Thomas

Those familiar with Karen Russell’s tales and tomes might not be surprised that she refers to her time at Northwestern in terms that are, well, otherworldly.

“I should be a vampire,” says Russell, whose writing career skyrocketed soon after graduating in 2003 with a double major in Spanish and English. “It hasn’t been that long since I was at Northwestern but I still have the glow … a kind of elderly person’s nostalgic affection for that writing program.”

Before her first story was selected for The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue, before she made the magazine’s prestigious “20 under 40” list, and before she was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, Russell was just another 19-year-old hopeful at Northwestern — ­carving out characters and experimenting with bizarre ideas under the guidance of creative writing program icons Brian Bouldrey and Sheila Donohue.

“I was totally writing whacked-out stuff,” Russell says with a laugh. “But Sheila and Brian were so encouraging when it came to risk-taking.”

The “lightning bolt” that was the 2005 publication of her short story in The New Yorker, and then the 2006 release of her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, was so unexpected that Russell still gets nervous talking about it.

“I still don’t understand. I thought that was the pinnacle of my career. I was ready to just retire.”

Fans of her best-selling novel Swamplandia! (a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize) and her latest short-story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, are likely pleased that she didn’t. But the few years in between were not always as smooth and magical as her fresh-out-of-Northwestern publishing success.

Russell, who had moved to New York City to pursue an MFA at Columbia University, says after the story appeared in The New Yorker, she worked at a veterinary clinic and taught creative writing — at times feeling “sort of fraudulent.”

“I had no idea how to proceed. I was just trying to do what had worked so well for our program in undergrad, which I still believe is as good as any graduate program in the country. I still teach a lot and find I wind up teaching the stories that were taught to me at Northwestern.”

Currently at work on her second novel, Russell is still in touch with many of the writers she met at Northwestern and credits the creative writing program for her success today.

“It was nice to have the opportunity when I was 19 to spend so much time reading and writing with these other writers. There was such a serious sense of purpose,” she adds. “That’s a testament to Brian and Sheila and the rest of the faculty. They really could create a community.”