the rigorous m

bits and bobs, quotes and catching up

Posted by rigorousm on October 9, 2014

BOLLEN: I have to say, your story set in 19th-century Nebraska, “Proving Up,” is one of the best short stories I’ve read in the past decade. It had this gorgeous Willa Cather-like attention to the scenery and characters on this merciless frontier land.

RUSSELL: Frontiers are always interesting. For the story that I did a million years ago when my first collection came out about this minotaur who pulls his family to the west, I just happened to have picked up this book called Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey. There’s something about the stoic acceptance of these women at the most brutal losses. It almost doesn’t seem possible, like it’s an artifact of a different way of being in this world. It feels very foreign to me, their toughness. You could lose five children and have that sort of resilience. There’s something of a horror story in it for me too—what you can endure and survive. It’s Book of Job style. There’s a situation that is absolutely unlivable, intolerable, and yet your body continues. I feel like such a sap in so many ways. I’m terrified of losing my loved ones. So there is almost this morbid fascination and respect for what these people were able to absorb and continue existing.

BOLLEN: In “Proving Up,” the family is hoping to be approved for a land section title from the inspector, and of course they are desperate for land that’s mostly unlivable. It’s sort of a torture of commitment.

RUSSELL: If you’ve buried three of your children on that land, and you’re mortgaged up to your eyeballs, what’s the tipping point after all you’ve sacrificed? Whatever dream that brought them out there had become so nightmarish, and yet there was a commitment to that land.

BOLLEN: I liked that one of the conditions of receiving a title was having a glass window in the home. The whole story revolves around the glass window shared among the neighbors to “prove up.”

RUSSELL: On the one hand, the idea that it exists in the legislation seems so arbitrary. But to make a window a prerequisite for a house to become a home was also so metaphorically terrific. There’s something about having a transparent membrane of seeing in and seeing out and being part of this community. And I liked the idea of something being in glass as being so rare that it becomes a luxury commodity, and this community is swapping it around, in a way, like a fragile unity.

BOLLEN: There’s an actual murderer on the loose in “Proving Up.” How did you dream up this ghostly killer?

RUSSELL: In an earlier draft, the zombie homesteader was more of a tragicomic figure. He’s much more terrifying now. In the earlier draft, I had this strange compassion for whatever the figure represents. I was thinking about a hope that outlasts any possibility of its fulfillment, this undead hope in a landscape that just completely inhospitable to it, this hope that has kind of gone rancid and killed its host and killed anything the host cared about and continues to. I must be obsessed with stories of people in conflict or deep mismatch with nature, because it comes up in Swamplandia! too. I was working on that novel while all of these dream communities in Florida were foreclosing. They were what is called arrested developments. There would be a beautiful gate to a place like “Paradise, Florida” and the gate would lead nowhere, just to a half-built development. So in a way it isn’t as if “Proving Up” isn’t a contemporary story with the same kind of blind delusional optimism. The dream of owning a home or owning land is still somehow part of our mythos.

BOLLEN: I think there was a safety to the world when I was little, and books allowed so many edges into that world, so many opportunities for terror and fear and desire and greed that just wasn’t available to me in Ohio at age nine.

RUSSELL: Yes, and it’s also confirmation of some real ugliness that you’re always aware of when you’re younger but have no vocabulary for. Or to speak it feels too taboo—to admit that you know what’s going on. There’s that strange beautiful impulse to think, “I better protect these adults from my knowledge of what’s actually happening. I have to chloroform my own inner knowledge of what’s happening because it’s too threatening to this really unsteady equilibrium we’ve brokered here.” Whether it’s within the classroom or within the family or wherever.

— “The Nature of Karen Russell,” Christopher Bollen interview with Karen Russel for Interview. (link to full text)


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