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Karen Russell

Author of the acclaimed bestseller Swamplandia! and Orange World

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  • About Karen Russell

    Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, was chosen by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2011, was the winner of the NYPL Young Lions prize, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Russell has been featured in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. In 2013 she was named a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2012 and 2018 winner of the National Magazine Award for the Fiction category, and a 2013 finalist for the Feature Writing category. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American series, optioned for film and television, and adapted for the stage. Her latest book, Orange World, is a stunning new collection of short fiction that showcases Karen Russell’s extraordinary, irresistible gifts of language and imagination. In February 2023, The Night Falls, an evening length work of dance theater developed by librettist and lyricist Karen Russell, the composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, and the choreographer Troy Schumacher, will premiere at Peak Performances.

    A captivating speaker, Karen Russell has spoken at libraries, universities, lecture series, and conferences around the country. She has been a visiting professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Bryn Mawr College, Williams College, and served as the Endowed Chair of the Texas State MFA program from 2017-2020. She is the recipient of a New York Public Library Cullman Fellowship and the Mary Ellen von der Heyden Berlin Prize and was awarded a fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin.

    Karen Russell is also the author of the celebrated short story collections St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and the illustrated novella Sleep Donation, published by Vintage in 2020. Russell graduated summa cum laude from Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University in 2003, and received her MFA from Columbia University in 2006. She was born and raised in Miami, Florida and now lives with her husband, son, and daughter in Portland, Oregon.

    Contact us for more information about bringing Karen Russell to your next event.

  • Speaking Topics

    Fantasy for Sale: Colonialism, Capitalism, and Ecological Crisis in Florida

    Fantasy is the big industry in Florida, Karen Russell’s home state and the inspiration and setting for much of her work. This lecture weaves Florida's history of conquest, land scams, ethnocide, genocide, and dispossession of Native peoples, the evolution of Flordia's tourist economy and the disastrous toll of urban encroachment on its wetlands, with excerpts from Swamplandia! and “The Gondoliers,” a story set in a flooded South Florida where four echolocating sisters sing their way around the ruins, mapping a new way of living with other-than-human nature. She will discuss the truths that fiction can tell about our shared history and uncertain future, exploring the paradoxes of a state where tourism and development imperil the very ecosystems that draw millions to Florida, where the Everglades has been cut off from its headwaters, where Disney World looms above the drained and paved swamp, where the Seminole Tribe and Miccosukee Tribe of Indians continue to fight for environmental justice and sovereignty, and where many different kinds of Floridian artists, journalists, and storytellers are presently working to expose the gulf between what’s for sale and what is true.

    The Paradoxical Usefulness of Non-utilitarian Motion, a.k.a. Play

    A lecture that explores the radical freedom of the imagination, drawing on fiction, poetry, and essays as well as neuroscience and biology. After writing about a revolutionary stroke rehabilitation therapy for The New Yorker, premised on the importance of play, surprise, and joy to motor learning, Karen Russell became interested in the transformative role of play in our everyday lives. Aided by a sometimes goofy slideshow, Karen Russell will play around with different notions of play and improvisation, considering excerpts from Gregory Bateson’s “A Theory of Play and Fantasy,” Moby Dick, Ross Gay, Italo Calvino, Helen Oyeyemi, Mary Ruefle, Charles D’Ambrosio, among others. She will discuss the role of play in both the generative and editorial phases of writing fiction, and its subversive power in a for-profit world.

    Ghost Stories

    “The ghost,” writes sociologist Dr. Avery Gordon, “represents a something-to-be-done.” When a ghost appears in literature, "The present wavers. Something will happen." The haunting is an appeal (or a demand) for action. The ghost’s uncanny light exposes the rigging in the architecture, the violence of dispossession, exploitation, repression. It also illuminates pathways forward, alternatives and opportunities heretofore excluded from our view. In this lecture, Karen Russell will discuss some of her favorite haunted literature, considering a diverse group of ghosts spanning centuries, continents, cultures, and species. Excerpts from Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, Mariana Enriquez, Aoko Matsuda, Kevin Brockmeier, Mavis Gallant, Kelly Link, and Stephen Graham Jones. She will also discuss the role of hauntings in her own short stories, why we need to hear from voices that sing beyond extinction, and the revelatory power of humor and horror.

    Engineering Imaginary Worlds

    What craft decisions undergird an imaginary world? What role does research play in the construction of a fictional universe with its own laws and logic? What kinds of sensory and emotional details transport the reader to places like Ray Bradbury’s Mars, or Monique Roffey’s fictional island of Black Conch, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, or Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea? How do storytellers get their audiences not only to believe in these unreal realms, but to care about them? “The truth is not distorted here,” writes Flanney O’Connor, “but rather a distortion is used to get at truth.” This lecture will explore the techniques "literalists of the imagination" use to give their alternative worlds the ring of truth. Karen Russell will also discuss her own approach to genre-straddling tales, and describe the process of moving from a dream blueprint to a finished story.

  • Video

  • Praise for Karen Russell

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    Karen was a DREAM to work with! We had an amazing week, and it was such a wonderful return to in-person events. Thanks for working with us.

    Chattanooga State Community College
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    Karen’s visit was a tremendous success from all angles. Karen’s attentive generosity with students–the time she spent with them at the book signing; her graciousness in handling some difficult questions from our younger, more politically active undergrads–was remarkable. Many of them had been assigned her work in classes, leading up to her visit, and it was clear that she won not only new admirers but hardcore fans. She is GREAT with undergraduates and I would recommend her highly for any colleges and universities looking to inspire their budding writers.

    Emerson College
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    Our experience with Karen Russell was lovely from start to end. Karen was hugely generous with her time (we had a lovely dinner with her on arrival to Colorado Springs, CO and she was welcoming to every person that approached after the lecture for a signed book). Our project has an ambitious theme: moral beauty. Karen Russell took on the theme with real intention. Her lecture was thoughtful, well delivered, and featured poetic turns of phrase and impressive argument. Notably, Karen was kind to our whole team – it felt like she really saw all the work that we are doing and made space to celebrate our wins.

    Converge Lecture Series
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    Karen Russell was adored by all. She is magnificent. She’s kind and funny and generous and unassuming and smart and game and willing to speak with students. All I have is praise.

    Hofstra University
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    Karen was marvelous. Such a joy to work with. She did an amazing visit at the school and really engaged the students. Her reading and conversation were fantastic. She held the audience rapt and the book signing was great.

    Lannan Foundation
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    It was a HUGE success. Karen was utterly delightful and gracious.  She signed a lot of books and talked with every single person who handed her a book. It was amazing.

    University of Missouri
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    Our audience is discerning about the content of the authors’ talk and what was especially appreciated about Karen’s was that it was original, and felt appropriate, personal and serious to our attendees, as well as whimsical and humorous. My personal take was she was like a rock star! After the lecture and Q&A some audience members rushed the stage to ask her questions. Karen sat on the stage, feet dangling and proceeded to have a conversation with them; very sweet and engaging! I have never witnessed that happening before and I have attended many lectures over SAL’s 25 years! Karen’s appearance the following day at Sealth High School was equally successful. The students loved her and soaked up every word.

    Seattle Arts & Lectures
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    The event went wonderfully. Karen was hilarious. She was gracious and open with students and it was a thrill for me to get to know her better. Since I’ve been here (last five years) it was the best-attended event we have had for a visiting writer. Really was a pleasure having her here!

    Wabash College
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    Karen Russell was amazing—funny and smart and insightful. She’s so warm and engaging that our students forgot they were talking with a writer they’ve read and admired since her debut story and collection. You should be besieged with requests for this one-of-a-kind writer and wonderful person.

    Purdue University

    Praise for Sleep Donation

    [Written] with Twilight Zone-like inventiveness and the energy and brio of a natural fantasist with a proclivity for blending the real and surreal, the psychological and the sci-fi. . . . [Russell] creates a fully imagined world with its own rituals and rules, and deftly satirizes the media and governmental responses to the plague of sleeplessness. . . . Another testament to her fertile powers of invention.

    Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times Book Review

    A starkly dystopian novella reminiscent of George Saunders in its bleak humor, the directness of its prose.

    Los Angeles Times

    Russell wrote Sleep Donation over half a decade ago, yet her nightmarish vision of a nation keelhauled by an insomnia epidemic now registers as shockingly prescient. . . . [Russell has] the finest imagination in contemporary fiction. Sleep Donation is Russell at the height of her formidable powers, at once an eerie evocation of a country whose sins have come home to roost, as well as a deeply personal story of grief and terror.” —Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire

    Russell’s gift is to provide deep immersion in the details, and in Trish’s haunting, urgent emotions. . . . Russell offsets . . . expertly induced unease with humour and wry social commentary.

    The Guardian

    Wonderful. . . . Like George Saunders, Russell writes with a Swiftian sense of satire. . . . Russell has a keen sense of dramatic timing and an even sharper ability to turn an internal state into its own weather system.

    The Boston Globe

    A tense but captivating read, eerie in its prescience. . . . [A] philosophical meditation on dreams and consciousness, and a moving examination of love and empathy.

    BuzzFeed

    The combination of Russell’s dazzling imagination and virtuosic prose adds up to pleasurable sensory overload.

    Entertainment Weekly

    Russell handles the extraordinary in a humorous manner. . . . Sleep Donation's magical realism flare makes it not your average dystopia.

    GQ

    A tense but captivating read, eerie in its prescience. . . . [A] philosophical meditation on dreams and consciousness, and a moving examination of love and empathy.

    BuzzFeed

    Russell specializes in creating fantastical worlds that hum with recognizable rhythms. She excels at marrying the commonplace with the extraordinary.

    Miami Herald

    Signature Russell: a fanciful, droll, elaborately thought-through allegory with a dark center. . . . Russell’s language . . . is acrid, luminous, and deft. . . . She will chase down every flicker of ordinary experience and return with descriptions of uncanny aptness. . . . Her sentences both resonate with familiarity and startle with beauty.

    Slate

    Weird, hilarious, and brilliant.

    The Millions

    An audaciously allegorical novella. . . . As engaging as it is provocative.

    Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    Praise for Orange World and Other Stories

    Amidst the leading pack of talents Karen Russell writes the most like she’s on fire, as in: this close to revelations. Orange World is her best collection yet. Her imagination’s baroque syntax has been planed down to the absolute essentials, allowing the power of her vision to speak for itself...This is prophetic work written with clarifying fury.

    John Freeman, LitHub

    Virtuoso Russell, gifted with acute insights, compassion, and a daring, free-diving imagination, explores the bewitching and bewildering dynamic between "the voracious appetite of nature and its yawning indifference" and humankind's relentless profligacy and obliviousness.

    Booklist [starred review]

    Eight crisp stories that will leave longtime fans hungry for more. Since her debut more than a decade ago, Russell has exhibited a commitment to turning recognizable worlds on their heads in prose so rich that sentences almost burst at the seams. Her third collection is no exception, and its subjects—forgotten pockets of violent American history, climate-related apocalypse, the trials of motherhood—feel fresh and urgent in her care...A momentous feat of storytelling in an already illustrious career.

    Kirkus Reviews [starred review]

    [A] brilliantly inventive... wonderful new collection of short stories...Russell grounds each story in human experience, both poignant and hilarious in turn... Underlying all of this is the exquisite beauty of Russell’s sentences, which will repeatedly surprise readers with their imagery and masterful language.

    BookPage

    Russell is a master of landscapes exterior and interior, with Orange World moving as deftly through a future Florida underwater as through 'that topography of the early weeks and months right after childbirth'... She has always used a phantasmagorical road map to chart her way through emotional terrain.

    Portland Monthly

    Is there a colorist in American fiction with the same vivid talents as Karen Russell?... Her stories read like a moon-lit fantasia of these wrenching days when up is down and nature is in full revolt. These eight fabulous yarns span the globe, from the Dalmatian coast to Florida in the near future, when Miami is a watery grave... These tales are not short, but they feel even roomier owing to the way Russell cracks open narrative space with humor. Her descriptions are 21st century Dickensian genius... Russell is also the greatest user of verbs in American fiction since Annie Dillard... In these stories, though, Russell reveals we don’t have to be silent. We can shout as does this book. Look for it, with its color, it won’t be hard to find. It’s a beacon.

    The Boston Globe

    [A] masterpiece... Incandescent... horror always cohabits with humor... [A] superb collection.

    The Wall Street Journal

    Another set of masterpieces…Russell’s language rockets off the page…one of our most entrancing storytellers.

    Vogue

    Praise for Vampires in the Lemon Grove

    Astonishing. . . . Vampires in the Lemon Grove stands out as Russell’s best book . . . with prose so alive it practically backflips off the page.

    San Francisco Chronicle

    From apparent influences as disparate as George Saunders, Saki, Stephen King, Carson McCullers and Joy Williams, [Russell] has fashioned a quirky, textured voice that is thoroughly her own: lyrical and funny, fantastical and meditative.

    Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
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