Skip to main content

'Sleep Donation': A Dark, Futuristic Lullaby For Insomniacs

Karen Russell's new book imagines a mysterious insomnia epidemic so serious that many are dying from lack of sleep. But the cure — sleep donations from babies — is hard to swallow.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on March 26, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 26, 2014: Interview with Karen Russell; Review of Phil Klay's short story collection, "Redeployment."


March 26, 2014

Guest: Karen Russell

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Imagine an America in the near future which has been plagued for years by a mysterious epidemic of insomnia, an infliction so serious that many are dying from lack of sleep. That's the premise of the new novella "Sleep Donation" by our guest Karen Russell. Her 2001 novel "Swamplandia!" was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Her first short story collection, "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," won the Bard Fiction Prize. Her short story collection "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," won the praise of critics including our own Maureen Corrigan, who calls Russell's work otherworldly yet emotionally devastating and daffy and daring.

Russell has also been the recipient of what's usually called the MacArthur Genius Grant. Her novella "Sleep Donation" was published this week exclusively as an e-book. Karen Russell spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about writing and insomnia.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Karen Russell, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to begin with a reading from your new novel "Sleep Donation." This is on Page 2. Why don't you just kind of set it up and give us a taste of it.

KAREN RUSSELL: Sure thing. Thanks so much for having me on the show. So this is set in an imaginary America in the near future, and there is an insomnia epidemic. We're seven years into this crisis. People for mysterious reasons seem to be suffering from what's getting called an (unintelligible) dysfunction, and they are just locked into states of unremitting wakefulness that eventually kills them.

There is this new technology, very recent, that permits dreamers, healthy dreamers to donate their sleep to these insomniacs. And a nonprofit organization, the Slumber Corps, that goes house to house taking these donations. So I think that might be enough of a setup. We're sort of entering this world where the crisis is, you know, stabilized is the wrong word, but there's - a system has been set up to receive these dream catches from healthy sleepers.

DAVIES: Right, and there's this - there's these two guys Jim and Rudy Storch(ph), who run this nonprofit, that's a name we hear...

RUSSELL: It's really fun to get to do the show with you, Dave, because this is set in my mind in sort of this Pennsylvania suburb. So - and the Storches are the local supervisors, the branch of the Slumber Corps in Pennsylvania.

DAVIES: Right, which is where we are. So yeah, go ahead.

RUSSELL: The Storches are celebrities in the sleep crisis community. Eight years ago, the brothers served together on the inaugural Slumber Corps board of directors at headquarters in Washington, D.C. Within months, the corps had established outposts in every major city, pullulating green offshoots of the D.C. base. Soon local branches began operating more or less independently, soliciting donations for money and sleep, whereupon the Storch brothers promptly requested a demotion to this low-prestige placement in their home city, a solar zone assignment.

We serve an urban core where the rate of insomnia is 22 percent higher than the national average. Our Pennsylvania city has one of the greatest REM sleep deficits on the East Coast, although we are certainly not the worst hit. Tampa, riddlingly(ph), current leads the nation in new cases of the insomnia. The governor's budget cuts in that sunshine state have meant that Floridian sleep scientists remain stalled at the dang/go figure stage of their research.

Hundreds of our old neighbors, friends, co-workers and teachers are new insomniacs. They file for dream bankruptcy, appeal for Slumber Corps aid, wait to be approved for a sleep donor. It is a special kind of homelessness, says our mayor, to be evicted from your dreams. I believe our mayor is both genuinely concerned for his insomniac constituency and also pandering to a powerfully desperate new voting bloc.

Currently the NCEH is investigating possible environmental causes in our city, everything from the water table to disturbed eagles' nests to the brilliance of the moon on grass to the antique screams of the historic monorail.

DAVIES: Karen Russell, so where did this idea come from, an insomniac epidemic?

RUSSELL: A couple places, I think. The most direct one was my own experience. I've always had a hard time sleeping, and I was traveling for "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" and just red-eyed and insane, you know, and sort of wandering around these strange hotels. And so I'm sure somewhere I myself was craving a sleep donation.

And then I got this assignment from the New Yorker, just a tiny thing. They did an innovations issue, and they asked a couple writers to come up with imaginary inventions. And one of mine that wound up actually on the cutting room floor was the sleep van. And I just had this image of sort of this ominous white van parked on a street not too far from - you know, I was living in Fairmount at the time, so I was picturing just this quiet suburban street, big white moon and the dreams glugging out of a donor, you know, this way to donate dreams to insomniacs.

And that was really it, humble beginnings, you know, but I think that that image really haunted me and seemed whimsical, too, at the time, somehow whimsical and dark. And I was thinking originally, oh, I'll just try to turn this into a vignette. Maybe I can do kind of a midsummer night's eve in Pennsylvania, you know, sort of very short story. And then it just took on a life of its own.

DAVIES: You know, when I mentioned the premise of the novel to people, they say - people who particularly have had young children, they say oh yeah, I wished I could borrow somebody else's sleep more than once.



DAVIES: Did you do research on what extended insomnia does to people, what happens to the body if you really don't get sleep for days?

RUSSELL: Yeah, I did, and I found out then that I better stop complaining about my own condition as anything resembling chronic insomnia because people who truly can't sleep - I mean, and I spoke to some longtime sufferers and read about, you know, fatal familial insomnia and just different, everywhere on the spectrum of sleep disorders, it's something that's fascinated me before.

In my first collection, I had a book about a sleep-away camp for disordered dreamers. So if your kids were insomniacs or bed-wetters, you know, could - you know, they had incubi or just sleepwalk, you could send them to this summer camp, you know, to correct their sleep trouble.

But I - this was a different process, you know, and it was horrifying just sort of how quickly cognitive delays set in. You know, most of the people who really can't sleep, who have this fatal familiar insomnia, die of multiple organ failure, you know, once - after the onset of total sleep loss. So that was - you know, the grim and real-world part of the research, to kind of give the underpinnings of this imaginary place, you know, its real horror and dimension. I thought I did have to do some research on the physiological effects of sleep deprivation.

DAVIES: Yeah, it is fascinating that at a certain point, your organs just won't keep going without the body refreshing. You know, there are some powerful descriptions of people in this book who have this chronic insomnia. Did you meet people who were suffering from it?

RUSSELL: I met nobody who really was sort of in these kinds of straits. You know, anecdotally I feel like we're living in a time where, you know, anybody that you ask will tell you, you know, more than you want to know about their difficulty sleeping. I think it's - you know, millions of Americans are already sort of dealing with this.

You mentioned your friends who are parents. You know, my friends who are young mothers, they look like these rattled veterans of war, and you notice, you know, slurred speech and - I mean, they really - like just they have this stunned look pushing these strollers around in the day, and that's something I'm familiar with, you know, when I'm not sleeping either, just that subaqueous feeling where you can't access language, you know, your mood seems so contingent.

I think that's something, too, that we often want to fight against, you know, the helplessness, the contingency of your emotional states on your biology, you know, and physiology. So that's something, right, the way a mood can swing around, and your entire perspective is colored by exhaustion.

DAVIES: In this world that you imagine, where there's this mysterious, you know, sometimes fatal epidemic of insomnia, people who just can't sleep for days, this process develops by which people can donate sleep. Do you want to just explain how that works in the book?

RUSSELL: Sure. This is an ask to the reader. You know, if I - I think this is sort of omission is also an art kind of is a lesson that I learned early on as a reader, reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy and wilder stuff. So it seemed important not to go into too much detail about how this technology actually works because I didn't want readers to be distracted by, well, is like black sleep glugging out of bodies, is he taking EEGs and somehow resetting brains, what's he doing.

But I just imagine that in this America, that's something that's possible, and sleep is extractable from bodies, and it, you know, the closest analogy I guess we have in our, you know, real world would be something like blood donation.

DAVIES: Right, and you have this van that rolls up, and the donor who agrees to donate their sleep I guess is given a sedative, and then something's attached to their head, and then kind of their breath or something comes out of a hose, and then it's preserved and can have remarkably salutatory effects on people who are terribly distressed by insomnia.

RUSSELL: Right, that's exactly right. You're sort of incubated and knocked unconscious by this ultra-sedative. So that rolls you under, you know, into a state of deep sleep. And through, you know, via some process of exhalation, you - and there's a silver I call it I think the catch, this catch helmet that also has like electrodes that you wear so they're, you know, monitoring sort of I thought like the way polysomnography works in our world.

And that's that, and then you find hopefully there's some insomniac donee who can receive your sleep donation, and these sleep transfusions in this world, you know, through some as yet not entirely understood mode of action can cure, in some cases, insomniacs, can restore them to their original sleep-wake cycles.

DAVIES: You used a phrase there I didn't know, polysomnography.

RUSSELL: So that's if you go to a sleep clinic, if you're - and there are hundreds of these places now, more than, you know, thousands I'm sure. I shouldn't speak out of class. But if you go to a sleep clinic, they'll sort of, yeah, mist your head like a cabbage, put these electrodes on you and send you to sleep, and they'll monitor your vital signs. They'll come back with these really sophisticated readouts about what your brain is doing in the night, you know, how long you're spending in these different sleep stages of REM.

And if I was really like a Daniel Day-Lewis researcher, I would've done that, right, but instead I just read about it.


DAVIES: Now in this world, I love the fact that people who are truly insomniac can declare sleep bankruptcy, apply for relief, and if they're lucky they get a transfusion. And in this world, of course some people's donations are more valuable and pure than others', and this partly revolves around the perfect donor. You know, describe her.

RUSSELL: Sure, so this I guess would be the Swiftian dimension of this place. The Supreme Court has ruled that babies can be donors. You know, in our America, most people would agree that an infant isn't, you know, doesn't have the capacities to make a legal gift, but I think the crisis is so severe, and then it's discovered that - and this just seemed in my own, you know, sleep-deprived state like of course everybody wants baby sleep. Wouldn't that be wonderful? It would be completely uncorrupted by adult nightmares. It would just some pure black flow, you know, from whatever void a baby came from very recently, you know, that kind of deep, pure unconsciousness.

So that was part of the original idea was this throwaway detail I guess in that first pressing that babies are donors, babies can be sleep donors. And this woman, Trish Edgewater(ph), who is the narrator of the novella, discovers accidentally a universal donor. Nobody knew that such a thing existed. You know, I was thinking about the horror and the pain and, you know, arbitrary way it seems that some bodies can't receive transfusions, you know, or organ donations, that there's sort of, you know, some congenital suspicion. There is an immune response, and you cannot - you just can't assimilate this gift.

And here is this tiny creature that actually, you know, for - everyone is elated to discover she's a match with every donee. Any insomniac can receive her dreams and sleep and that it's sort of a silver bullet, that she really has this curative property.

DAVIES: Right, the perfect sleep.

RUSSELL: The perfect sleep.

DAVIES: And she's known as Baby A, and of course she has parents, and your - the nonprofit's desire to get more and more of her sleep, you know, leads to some conflicts as the whole story develops. The story is told in the first person. Do you want to just tell us about your character, who you are, the narrator in this?

RUSSELL: Oh sure. So - and I, you know, things didn't really start moving for me or take on dimension until she showed up. I think if it was - if it had sort of stayed in this realm of, you know, kind of a prose poem about sleep states and wakefulness, it wouldn't have - the sticks wouldn't have caught, it wouldn't have kind of caught fire for me.

But this woman has - she's very naïve, I think, in some ways. I mean, she really wants to give her life undeservedly to a cause, and that cause for her is the Slumber Corps. And she's compromised, too, by her extraordinary grief. She has this just out of control survivor's guilt. Her own sister was one of the first victims of the crisis before it really had a name, you know, when it was - before Gould's Technology(ph) had showed up, so sort of before sleep donation exists.

And she sort of goes around now performing what I imagine is a pretty grotesque and accurate re-creation of her sister's death and using this story to solicit donations and that a lot of the story's heart for me ended up being about just that line between supplication and coercion, you know, what it really means to ask for and receive a gift and the context in which that request is made, the context in which a gift is made.

So a lot of this story also for me is in a story about people who are compulsively awake and desperately seeking unconsciousness and sleep. This is a young woman who's sort of coming awake to her own very murky motives, even as she's sort of discovering that this organization, the Slumber Corps, might not be what it appeared.

DAVIES: Karen Russell's new novella is called "Sleep Donation." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Karen Russell. She has a new novella that's an eBook called "Sleep Donation."

You know, in this world where people donate sleep to help others, just as when you donate blood, you have to be careful, because there can be, you know, things in your blood that can harm.


DAVIES: And so there's a screening process for people who give donations, and then somebody slips through. So tell us about this donor that causes such trouble.

RUSSELL: There's an anonymous donor in San Diego who manages to sort of slip through the screening process and makes a corrupted donation. And somehow this isn't caught in time, and this tainted batch of sleep ends up infecting so many insomniacs with a nightmare that is far worse, you know, according to their testimony, than the presenting symptoms in their insomnia, I mean, a nightmare that is so bad that many of them prefer death by sleeplessness to hosting it in their bodies, you know, to sort of remaking it every night in their sleep.

DAVIES: Right. And so you have this situation where there's this nonprofit that is telling the world we can help people by getting sleep donors, and a lot of people are saying, I'm not so sure. Who knows what this really does to you? And then, all of a sudden, that process itself kind of creates a terrifying epidemic. And then you have people who don't want to go to sleep, right, people who...

RUSSELL: Don't even want to go to sleep. Yeah. There's this wonderful word I learned while I was writing this novella: iatrogenic. It's my word of the moment. And it's just physician-caused harm or, you know, a secondary disease or problem caused by prescribed medicine or some treatment, you know, sort of the cure is worse than the disease, in some cases. And I think this is one of those cases.

And I just thought that somehow metaphorically, too, you know, there was something so rich there, the idea that there is this, you know, this cascading, sort of this chain reaction of corruption, you know, and the idea, too, that somebody's nightmare might really go viral.

I think we're living in a moment where everybody is so aware of thin membranes between minds and bodies, you know, and just the sort of interconnectivity that is the way we're living now, you know, thanks in part to technology like the Internet, too. And there is some corresponding fear, I'm sure, because of the velocity with which images and ideas are traveling now.

And it's sort of like this global game of telephone, right. It was really easy for me to imagine deformation traveling rapidly in this way, you know, becoming sort of a nightmare contagion, or, you know, we say going viral, right, but just having that kid of nightmare amplification.

DAVIES: Yeah, I wondered if, you know, this story was, in some ways, you know, kind of a metaphor for this, you know, perpetual hyper-awareness, you know, that we have in a digital world.

RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah. It's funny. I think there's something really perverse and right about it being a digital novella for that reason, you know. I think it was so interesting to me to think about how the means of transmission would be foregrounded if you are sort of downloading. I always think about stories and novels as the writer giving the reader a dream, anyways, you know. So there's - there is something to that.

DAVIES: You're alluding to something that I wanted to bring up, which is that this is an eBook, I mean, not a printed novel. And I'm wondering if - you know, I mean, I don't read eBooks. I mean, I'm sure I will. I'm sure eventually I'll get a Kindle and start doing all this, or some other tablet. But, yeah, I wondered if reading this on a screen would somehow kind of have the jarring effect that, you know, insomnia brings.

RUSSELL: Gosh, I hope it does, Dave.


RUSSELL: Man, I really hope it does. I really hope that everybody is gathered around that neon glow and implicated in a different way. I mean, I guess that was my secret, and now it's not a secret anymore. I guess that was sort of one of my hopes when we were engineering this thing together. And I'm excited to see how readers receive it.

GROSS: Karen Russell will continue her interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Her new novella, "Sleep Donation," was published exclusively as an eBook this week. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Karen Russell. Her new novella, "Sleep Donation," is set in the future, when an epidemic of insomnia is leaving its victims so sleep-deprived, they're dying. "Sleep Donation" was published this week, exclusively as an eBook. Russell's previous books include the bestseller "Swamplandia!" and the short story collection, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove."

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about your collection of short stories called "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," and begin with a reading from the title story, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." We meet a vampire - an old man - who's living his - he's been alive for centuries and is living in a lemon grove in Italy. And there's a reading we picked out. Maybe you can just set this up and kind of give us a taste of this.

RUSSELL: Sure. Somebody was just asking me oh, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," it's a metaphor, right? I'm like no, it's really about vampires in the lemon grove in this particular - nope, it's pretty concrete, literal. That's what they're doing there. This is a story about two pretty unsexy monogamous vampires. Their marriage is in crisis. They sort of can't agree with what to do in this purgatorial period that they're living in the lemon grove. They've discovered that lemons are a kind of analgesic. It's nice to do this on the heels of the night world. I mean they've sort of found a temporary for a really eternal problem, which is the resurgence of their bloodlust. They don't, they're not drinking blood anymore, you know, they're sober vampires. But they haven't really figured out exactly what to do with this desire. So I take it from there, maybe.

DAVIES: And they found that lemons will somehow quench or slake that thirst somehow.

RUSSELL: Exactly.

DAVIES: Right.

RUSSELL: Thank you. I'm sorry. So lemons - if they shove these lemons on their fangs, they sort of get a temporary reprieve. It's not - it doesn't seem like an enduring solution but they don't have to sort of, you know, run riot, backslide into their old murderous ways. And so they sort of have some fundamental disagreement at this moment about what they're going to do with the rest of their eternity as a married couple.


RUSSELL: This is from the husband's point of view. (Reading) Last night I went on a rampage. On my seventh lemon, I found with a sort of drowsy despair that I could not stop. I crawled around on all fours looking for the last bianchettis in the dewy grass: soft with rot, mildewed, sun-shriveled, blackened. Lemon skin bulging with tiny cellophane-green worms. Dirt smells, rain smells, all swirled through with the tart sting of decay.

(Reading) In the morning, Magreb steps around the wreckage and doesn't say a word. I came up with a new name, I say, hoping to distract her. Brandolino. What do you think? I have spent the last several years trying to choose an Italian name, and every day that I remain Clyde feels like a defeat. Our names are relics of the places we've been. Clyde is a souvenir from the California Gold Rush. I was callow and blood-crazed back then, and I saw my echo in the freckly youths panning along the Sacramento River. I used the name as a kind of bait. Clyde sounded innocuous, like somebody a boy might get a malt beer with or follow into the woods.

My wife chose her name in the Atlas Mountains for its etymology, the root word ghuroob, which means to set or to be hidden. That's what we're looking for, she tells me. The setting place. Some final answer. She won't change her name until we find it. She takes a lemon from her mouth, slides it down the length of her fangs, and places its shriveled core on the picnic table. When she finally speaks, her voice is so low the words are almost unintelligible. The lemons aren't working, Clyde. But the lemons have never worked. At best, they give us eight hours of peace. We aren't talking about the lemons.

DAVIES: And that's Karen Russell speaking from the story "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." A lot of people would say, I don't want to hear a story about vampires. But I have to say this really works. And it kind of begins with you describing this old guy. I mean he's this old, harmless guy who happens to have been alive for centuries. And as the story unfolds, we learn that kind of his habits in past centuries were different. In some ways he's sort of been governed by misconceptions that grew up about vampires. Do you want to talk a little bit about that part of his life?

RUSSELL: Yeah. Thank you so much. I think it is a risk in this day of Stephenie Meyer to use vampires. But I think they've endured as a monster for us because they really do serve as these emblems for parts of our own nature we're uncomfortable with. And for me the big one is appetite and desire. And this guy, he is, he's sort of mellow. You know, in that way that all grandfathers have mellowed?


RUSSELL: You know, they just seem so benign and sweet, yet you know that at one point mysteriously, they were like six feet tall and probably had fights in bars. Now they're just sort of sucking on a Jolly Rancher, you know, telling stories.


RUSSELL: I think he's sort of in his dotage and a little reluctantly. I mean so he gave out these ideas that he was taught. He sort of had this instantiated sense of his own monstrosity because he hears these villagers talking about, you know, vampires as being, they drink orphan blood cocktails, they're totally evil and he believes that for some of his centuries until he meets his wife who weans him off these myths about who he is and what he requires. So there's this sort of pink cloud phase - I imagine that it's kind of like pink cloud phase of recovery from addiction where he's thrilled. He can sleep in a hotel. He doesn't have to sleep in a coffin. He's got this lovely lady. He's not stalking prostitutes. He's just, you know, going on bicycle rides in the Botanical Gardens. It's a great time for this vampire. And now he's soured a little bit. Sorry. Oh, gosh, what a bad pun. But he really has. Things have soured slightly. He's in a kind of more bittersweet, melancholy phase because he's realized well, what are we going to do with the rest of our time here? And I think it's - I was just thinking about how difficult it is to keep a relationship going in, you know, the best of conditions or to make a promise like, till death do us part when you've got death on the horizon.


RUSSELL: So I think for these guys it's a real challenge, you know, to figure out how to get their goals to align as a married couple.

DAVIES: What I find about a science fiction story, if there's - it's a fantasy story in which, you know, the way people behave and the powers that they have and the rules that they live by seem arbitrary and made up, I get bored with it very quickly.

RUSSELL: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: But if it connects to the recognizable world, if I feel like what I'm seeing are human emotions and social relationships that are authentic, I mean I will ride that train wherever you want to take me. And some, and I think...

RUSSELL: That's exactly how I feel. Yeah.

DAVIES: Right.

RUSSELL: Yeah. Because you can feel, right, if something is inconsistent or merely whimsical or sort of gimmicky. And if it doesn't have the urgency - I'm not sure exactly where readers are sensing that always, but I think most of us can feel that something deeply mattered to the author, no matter how kind of comic or superficially crazy seeming that world is. That something had blood red stakes maybe for the writer and definitely for the characters, that they're - you're in a world of consequence, right? That there's something, it can be comic but it's also somehow consequential.

DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Karen Russell. Her new novella is called "Sleep Donation." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is writer Karen Russell. She has a new novella called "Sleep Donation."

You grew up in South Florida about an hour from the Everglades. Did that fire your imagination? And where did you get started writing this stuff?

RUSSELL: Oh, definitely. It's funny. For a long time I felt so bogus citing my literary influences first when I was just thinking about, you know, the shadow of the Parrot Jungle.


DAVIES: Right.

RUSSELL: You know, and you're just like a preverbal kid and you packing some hoagie sandwiches to go to land of, you know, land of Mesozoic lizards. I think that that probably was just sort of a generative moment...


RUSSELL: ... hen I don't know what kids in the Midwest were doing at that time, but that's definitely, you know, it'd be like let's get on your Huffy bicycle and just do, and just keep zagging because you want to be sure that you're not eaten by a monster. So that was kind of...

DAVIES: So you're talking about like animals that you'd actually see or these kind of like snake farms that would be there for the tourists or what?


RUSSELL: Both. I think both. I think the funny thing about Miami is that that line is awfully blurry. So you would go to some of these, you know, theme attractions - which I had a real soft spot for the weirdest ones, you know, the really eccentric ones, so not kind of the air-conditioned, factory model, you know, Disney princess kind of world. But it would just be someone's strange uncle's menagerie.


DAVIES: Right.

RUSSELL: You know, or just a, just a monkey eating white bread on a truck or something and it would just not, you know, no pretense at anything being, you know, no didactic purpose, just sort of a confusion of impulse that gave rise to like, you know, our Parrot Jungle, we loved because the parrots - I'm sure this is completely inhumane, you know, and I feel more ambivalent about it now as an adult. But when I was four, I just thought that was awesome that there would be a cockatoo riding a bicycle that would shoot off a cannon.

DAVIES: Wait. What is a Parrot Jungle?

RUSSELL: I know, I say it like everyone's been there. Forgive me.

DAVIES: Right.

RUSSELL: This was this - that was the closest park to us. It was sort of in residential Miami. So you could ride your bike there. And it was right next to, you know, just major retailers and schools and churches. And then there was this, there are a million places like this in Miami - this sort of eat and dream bubble where you walk through and, you know, eat a hamburger, feed some fish from the other side of the planet, watch a cockatoo ride a bicycle and shoot out of a cannon a viewfinder, you know. It was a wild thing to have weekly access to as a kid.

DAVIES: OK. So you said watch a cockatoo ride a bicycle and shoot a viewfinder from a cannon? I'm just trying to picture this.


RUSSELL: Oh yeah, let me explain that. I'm sorry. So there's like a tiny cannon. I'm mentioning this because I think this is one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me still. Because you go every week and the cockatoo - I want - I hope it's a cock - I mean I think I might mean a macaw. I should check it out.

DAVIES: So exotic bird. Right.

RUSSELL: It's what ever one has -it's the one with like a Mohawk and it's got like an existential, terrifying grin. You know, it just looks like it's laughing at the abyss or something.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

RUSSELL: Also, the parrots were all 70, which I thought was wild, that they were the same age as my Papa Lou. I couldn't really get my mind around the cosmic scale of that. So the parrot rides a bicycle on a tight rope wire, gets off the bicycle, uses its beak and its strange prehensile foot to shoot a miniature cannon. You know, like a pirate's kind of a cannon. Out of this cannon flies a prize. And so if you're a kid, it's sort of like I guess catching an autographed baseball, but so much weirder. You just try to catch this prize. And once I did.


RUSSELL: That was - and the prize was a viewfinder. I'm not sure. It's like sort of like one of those little kaleidoscope looking cameras...

DAVIES: Right.

RUSSELL: hold up to your own eye. Inside the viewfinder was like an infinite regress of parrots riding bicycles. I...


RUSSELL: And I just want to say I just don't - I think that this is one of the lucky aspects of growing up as a child in South Florida, that something like that could happen to you on a Sunday and then you'd have to hustle to get to church on time and then you'd, you know, do your math homework for school the next day and it was all part of a seamless reality. So when people talk about magical realism and, you know, narrating something that seems absurd or supernatural on the same register as something banal, I just think that was the tone of my life for a lot of my life. So it sort of makes sense to me that I'd be drawn to it as a reader and a writer.

DAVIES: One question about the writing process. I mean, you know, you are so skilled at writing these evocative descriptions of both physical things and people's emotions and interactions. And I find that with some writers they can get so in love with their own ability to describe things in an evocative way that it gets annoying because they start focusing on tangential things and it kind of slows down the narrative. And I'm wondering if that's something that you ever struggle with, that you have to know when to just let it go, and which things to apply that, you know, that craft to.

RUSSELL: Oh, absolutely. And I've been really blessed with great editors. I've had, you know, I worked with Frances Coady at Atavist Books on his novella and that was such a - that's almost my favorite part, I think, is going back and forth with another consciousness and getting things to alternate regularly and listening. You know, doing that kind of echolocation sound check so you hear how it's occurring to another reader's mind. I think sometimes that's opaque to me and probably every writer. You know, you have to have another reader come and let you know how they're experiencing what you've made. And Jordan Pavilin at Knopf is so brilliant and really helped me with "Swamplandia!" and with these stories. But that's been a learning process for me too. I think my brain really works by analogy so much of the time and the pleasure that I take line to line is often metaphoric or sonic. And you can, right? You can kind of...


DAVIES: Get carried away.

RUSSELL: Just get - yeah. Really.

DAVIES: Right. Right.

RUSSELL: Sure. I mean that can be that kind of Florida kudzu sprawl. And I have to...

DAVIES: When I asked that question I didn't mean I see that in your writing. In fact, that's one of the things I liked about it is there is an economy to it and you keep the story moving. But...

RUSSELL: Oh no. But I mean I think so much of that is an accomplishment of revision. You're absolutely correct because your strengths can be your weaknesses, right? And you don't want to waterboard a reader in 19 different metaphors for the clouds or something.


RUSSELL: You know, you want to get the story moving, so.

DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about "Swamplandia!," the novel that you wrote that, you know, that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This is about a family in a kind of a shabby amusement park in the Everglades. This a place that you knew? You speak in the first person. You're a little girl whose mom was a champion alligator wrestler.

RUSSELL: Right. I think I guess for legal reasons, I've been very clear to say this is a mythic Everglades.


DAVIES: ...girl whose mom was a champion alligator wrestler.

RUSSELL: Right. I mean, I guess for legal reasons I've been very clear to say this is a mythic Everglades.



RUSSELL: To avoid litigation. Now, I mean, seriously just to feel like I get to be the arbiter of this place. You know, I think other writers just have different pleasures and some people really groove on, you know, historical, you know, almost photographic realism. Peter Matthiesson has this gorgeous trilogy about that same region and his approach is so different. For me, I really had to kick it in to another octave.

You know, I really had to shift it slightly away from any kind of real world reference. But I did draw on stuff that I'm sure is recognizable to readers. I mean, there's this other rival theme park called The World of Darkness. I was thinking a little bit about, you know, just Disney and franchises...

DAVIES: Right.

RUSSELL: Orlando, you know, those kinds of super parks. And with "Swamplandia!" that there's no analogue, actually, that I was thinking of. I went to plenty - you know, we went to the Miccosukee Indian Village and we went to, you know, Uncle Bob's Swamp Adventure and places like that.

DAVIES: So you didn't wrestle an alligator (technical difficulty) the feel of that?

RUSSELL: No. Although we did go on annual fieldtrips to watch alligator wrestling when I was a kid.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

RUSSELL: So I'm sure that that had some kind of psychological impact. And I think the alligator was a real - you know, in the symbolic alphabet of my childhood, I think people from different regions probably have that relationship to who knows what. Like a deer or a cow. I don't know. But the alligator, for me, was just the emblem of everything sublime and ancient and, you know, mysterious and other.

So it had a lot of significance for me as a writer and then I just tried to translate that for readers.

DAVIES: And it's a novel where, you know, the mom dies early and the dad, you know, struggles. And in a way the kids become - they kind of drive the story.

RUSSELL: Yeah. They're sort of in this pocket of true neglect out there. The novel grew out of a short story where I just kind of ditched these girls in a moment of incredible peril. You know, their mother was dead and they were living alone in the swamp. One of them had conveniently decided she could contact spirits and was, you know, in fact dating ghosts.

And Ava, the protagonist, was sort of watching with, like, that, you know, child dilated horror this transformation. So, yeah, we're meeting them - I was thinking about just the cue ball break of grief. You know, everybody goes into their separate pocket and it's really a family that's struggling to figure out a new way to tell their story. They've been the Bigtree alligator wrestlers and their headliner has died. So they have to really kind of find a way for their show to go on.

DAVIES: You're now in your 30s, and as you get older do your ideas and interests in the characters in your stories change to reflect your life experience?

RUSSELL: Absolutely. That's been really interesting these past couple of years. Absolutely. I think my first story collection was so concerned with the threshold between childhood and adulthood because that was such a green season for me. You know, I was distant enough to remember being a child and I wasn't one anymore but it wasn't, you know, eons past. It was still right there in the rearview.

And now I think "Sleep Donation" was really exciting for me because that's the first time I've tried something that length and the first time I've had an adult female protagonist. You know, "Swamplandia!" is really concerned, again, with these adolescent narrators who are struggling to - they've got one foot in the door of kind of fairytales and myth and comic book and then they're kind of coming to terms with consensus adult reality.

So that - but I do think that my - yeah, my concerns are shifting and that's a funny thing. You know, I think writers are moving targets too.

DAVIES: All right. Well, we'll see where it all takes you next. Karen Russell, thanks so much.

RUSSELL: Thank you, Dave. That was so much fun.

GROSS: Karen Russell spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her new novella, "Sleep Donation," was just published exclusively as an eBook. You can read an excerpt on our website Coming up, our critic-at-large John Powers reviews "Redeployment," a short story collection about soldiers in Iraq written by a veteran who served in Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. It's been 11 years since the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. Most of the early stories to come out of that war were by journalists, but in recent years fiction writers have been exploring the war in such acclaimed novels as "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain and "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers. The latest to win acclaim is "Redeployment," a collection of short stories by Iraq veteran Phil Klay.

Our critic-at-large John Powers says that Klay captures the complicated experience of fighting in Iraq more completely than anyone before him.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Here is an old joke you may have heard. How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: You wouldn't know; you weren't there. This joke gets told in "Redeployment," a stingingly sharp short story collection that itself addresses the gap between the American soldiers who fought in Iraq and those of us back home.

It was written by Phil Klay who does know because he was there. After graduating from Dartmouth, he enlisted in the Marines and served as a public affairs officer in Anbar province during the 2007 surge. Klay's time there gave him something valuable that, consciously or not, he was surely looking for - great material.

Of course, countless writers start with great material and reduce it to mulch. Klay takes his experience and clarifies it, lucidly tracing the moral, political, and psychological curlicues of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Like Tim O'Brien and his great Vietnam book, "The Things They Carried," Klay is conscious of how lived life gets translated into stories.

His first-person tales take us inside an array of characters from a Marine who tells us about handling dead bodies to a chaplain offering guidance to soldiers whose closeness to violent death makes them skeptical about God. In the blackly hilarious story "Money is a Weapon System," a provincial reconstruction official tries to rebuild the area near Tikrit only to have a fortune in American aid be lost to local corruption and an American millionaire's demented mission to teach the Iraqis baseball.

The wrenching title story "Redeployment," begins the whole book with two short, chilling sentences: We shot dogs. Not by accident. And weaves this into a metaphor for both the war and for returning home. Now, writers in earlier times often took a grand, even god-like view of war - think of Tolstoy in "War and Peace" - or at least, they stayed comfortably inside the action in novels like "The Naked and the Dead" or "The Thin Red Line."

War stories these days tend to be fractured and self-conscious as if a grand overview would be false. Klay quite pointedly doesn't offer a big vision, only a mosaic of smaller ones. In fact, what makes him so good is the way he can carry us from the battlefield to the strip bar, from the funny to the harrowing, to the heartbreaking.

This may have something to do with the nature of America's most recent wars. Where World War II felt conceptually clean - our soldiers were fighting an evil enemy's army - the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been anything but. They've involved moving among civilians you're theoretically trying to save but who may try to kill you and whom you often kill back, sometimes accidentally.

Such warfare is more surreal than clean and it feels even more disorienting when stoked by video games, knocked out by Ambien, and speaking in the obfuscating patois of military acronyms, the soldiers are performing a dangerous and brutal mission they suspect their country doesn't really believe in and would rather not think about. Heck, Americans won't even go to movies about our ongoing wars.

Klay makes you feel the physical and psychic cost demanded of our soldiers in Iraq and he may be even better on what it means to return to an America that pays gaudy lip service to honoring the troops yet doesn't try to understand their service. Because we have a volunteer army, our soldiers and vets remain weirdly invisible to their fellow countrymen.

Some of "Redeployment's" keenest moments show us returning soldiers' frustration in trying to communicate their disturbing, often inevitable experience to people who greet them with cliches, however well meaning. As one vet tells us, there's a perversity in me that when I talk to conservatives makes me want to bash the war and when I talk to liberals, defend it.

"Redeployment" is so wonderfully written it's a pleasure to read, yet it's hard not to be sad about what an ill-conceived mess the war in Iraq proved to be. After so much money and sacrifice, you'd hope to wind up with stories happier than the ones Klay tells us. Which isn't to say that he smacks us with an obvious or strident political message; on the contrary, you're struck by the gnawing, sometimes stunned ambivalence that Klay's characters feel about the whole enterprise.

His vets usually wind up feeling diminished, even soiled, by what they had to do in Iraq but also superior to the America they were doing it for. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself, one explains, how many people can say that?

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and He reviewed "Redeployment," Phil Klay's new short story collection. You can read an excerpt on our website

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue