Books
6:37 am
Sat February 9, 2013

Life, Love And Undeath In The 'Lemon Grove'

Originally published on Sat February 9, 2013 12:11 pm

Karen Russell has a new short-story collection out, her first book since 2011's best-selling Swamplandia! The stories range from senior citizen vampires sucking lemons and wondering about their future, to a war veteran whose wounds are both locked up inside, and bright and bold across his body.

The book is Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and Russell tells NPR's Scott Simon that she's a little ambivalent about her role in giving vampires a sheen of literary respectability. "I should say these aren't really Twilight vampires; these are pretty unxsexy, elderly, monogamous vampires." Monogamous, that is, unless you count sinking your fangs into a stranger's neck as cheating.

And while the titular vampires have each other, Russell makes it clear that being a vampire is a lonely business. "The history of the monster tends to be that you're the only child of a species," she says, "so I think that made this romance even more miraculous."

The seed of the story came from an experience Russell had with her siblings in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy. "We saw this really small, leathery, tan old man, who appeared to be sucking on a lemon ... I think I just said, offhandedly, you know, wouldn't it be funny if that guy was a vampire, and that lemon that he's sucking on was like vampire methadone? No one thought that was funny but myself, as frequently happens in my family," she laughs. "But that idea of a temporary fix for a bottomless, eternal hunger, and whatever methods you've discovered — it's duct tape, or in this case it's lemons, or it's a really temporary solution."

But lemons don't always do the job. Even though Clyde and his wife, Magreb, spend much of the story musing on their 130-year marriage and the nature of existence, there's a startling moment when Clyde takes a young girl into an alley and drains her. "I was thinking about how difficult the commitments that we make to each other are, just how sort of beautifully insane it is that you can turn to someone and say, 'I will love you until death do us part,' " Russell says. "And so, I guess, the additional difficulty of making that promise really for eternity, the panic that would accompany that, maybe." And Russell says she does think biting another woman constitutes cheating.

Clyde and Magreb have hit what Russell calls a "sour patch" in their marriage, "a place where your dreams aren't aligned anymore." Clyde sees the two of them committed only to starving together, while his wife hopes there may still be a solution to their tortuous hunger. "I think sometimes these stories which sound so outlandish, maybe, if they work at all, they become a way to think through kind of universal, really human problems."

In another story, "The New Veterans," a masseuse named Beverly becomes part of a government program offering treatment to veterans. She meets Sgt. Derek Zieger, whose body is covered with livid, nearly supernatural tattoos. "It's a desert scene, U.S. soldiers on patrol, and there's a farm with jammous, which are these water buffaloes, so it's a really detailed, pastoral scene. And at the very base of it there's fire, there's this sort of explosion, and that's meant to be the red star that engulfed his friend at the moment that this IED went off."

The tattoo moves, permitting Beverly to change the story on Derek's back with her massage work. "And as she's doing this, he's sleeping better, he's sort of re-entering civilian life, he has a girlfriend, he himself is coming back to life." But, says Russell, it's not clear whether this is Beverly's fantasy of being able to heal, to erase the effects of war — or whether she's really having an effect.

Russell has written both novels and short stories, interspersing them throughout her career. "I spent most of my 20s with these alligator wrestlers in the swamps of South Florida, she says of writing Swamplandia! "While I was writing the novel, which took me a really long time ... I would sometimes take a break from the swamp and write a story, and that felt kind of like a fling." The title story in Vampires, in fact, was written during a period when "Swamplandia! had become an inhospitable place, and I didn't want to go back there for a while."

"I really try to write every day," she says. "It's hard, but it's my favorite thing to do, so it's usually not too, too hard." Then she catches herself, and laughs. "As soon as I said that, I was like, 'You dirty liar!' Because sometimes it's the most excruciating thing to do. But when it's going well, yeah, absolutely."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Karen Russell has a new short story collection out, her first book since the bestselling "Swamplandia!" in 2011. The stories range from senior citizen vampires sucking lemons and wondering about their future to a war veteran whose wounds are both locked up inside, and bright and bold across his body. Her new collection of short stories is "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." And Karen Russell, who has been one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, and whose novel "Swamplandia!" was also a New York Times Best Books of the Year selection, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAREN RUSSELL: Oh, hello, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: First, have vampires become the kind of intellectually respectable page-six swimsuit photo?

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: I hope not, I really hope not. And I feel ambivalent about my role in that transformation if that's what indeed happening. And I should say these aren't really "Twilight" vampires. These are pretty unsexy, elderly, monogamous vampires.

SIMON: Well, monogamous if you don't count a tendency to sink their fangs into necks.

RUSSELL: Actually, we should talk about that later, if that constitutes cheating. OK. It's a good question.

SIMON: (Laughing) Please. Several things you appreciate about reading this story, and the first one is, although these vampires are lucky - if we may say blessed, to have found each other - being a vampire is lonely business.

RUSSELL: I do think that it's a quite lonely business. The history of the monster tends to be that you're the only child of a species. So, I think that made this romance even more miraculous to Clyde.

SIMON: Help us understand what lemons have grown to mean to them.

RUSSELL: Sure. The kind of embarrassing origin story is that I was with my siblings in a lemon grove in Sorrento and we saw this really small, leathery tan old man who appeared to be sucking on a lemon, some kind of, like, lemonade drink or something. And I think I just say offhandedly, you know, wouldn't it be funny if that guy was a vampire and that lemon that he's sucking on was, like, vampire methadone. No one thought that was funny but myself, as frequently happens in my family. But that idea of a temporary fix for a bottomless eternal hunger and whatever methods you've discovered; it's sort of - it's duct tape, or in this case it's lemons, or it's really a temporary solution.

SIMON: Well, it is a startling moment in this story because you get so caught up in the whole idea of this couple trying to contemplate the nature of existence and their love for each other and where they stand after, is it 130 years of marriage or something?

RUSSELL: Yeah.

SIMON: That it's kind of startling when Clyde, the narrator, takes a young girl down an alleyway and reminds you he's really a vampire.

RUSSELL: Yeah. I was thinking about how difficult the commitments that we make to each other are, just how kind of beautifully insane it is that you can turn to someone and say I will love you until death do us part. And so I guess the additional difficulty of making that promise really for eternity, the panic that would accompany that maybe. It becomes problematic, obviously, for Clyde, that promise.

SIMON: So, how intimate is it to sink your fangs into somebody's neck?

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: I was thinking - I think that's such a funny question. I do think that that would constitute cheating in my book, if I was dating a vampire.

SIMON: On the other hand, as Clyde says, the lemons, after a certain point - and, what, he tried - they've tried rubber balls at one point, too?

RUSSELL: They tried apples, they've tried root beer. You know, I think too, there's the sort of, they've hit a sour patch in their marriage where, you know, there comes a place where your dreams aren't aligned anymore. Clyde's sort of bleak idea of marriage is just we're committed to starving together. He says we're twin hungers cleaved together. I can kind of sympathize with his wife, who's hoping there might be a better answer to the hunger that still afflicts them. But I think sometimes these stories, which sound so outlandish maybe, if they work at all they become a way to think through kind of universal, really human problems.

SIMON: Let me focus in on another story you have in this collection, "The New Veterans." Beverly, a massage therapist, begins to provide therapeutic services under a special federal program to veterans. And a Sergeant Derek Zieger walks in and his body is covered with tattoos. Describe the tattoos for us, if you can.

RUSSELL: This is sort of right at the edge of, I think, what would be possible to do with a needle on skin. And it's a desert scene, U.S. soldiers on patrol, and there is a farm with jammous, which are these water buffaloes. So, it's a really detailed pastoral scene, and at the very base of it there's fire. There's this sort of explosion. And that's meant to be the red star that engulfed his friend at the moment that this IED went off.

SIMON: Yeah. Without giving away any plot points, I have to ask: do the tattoos come to life or does Beverly animate them?

RUSSELL: Well, I'm glad that that's a question 'cause I really wanted, hopefully, the story can support both readings, you know, that this tattoo is actually moving around, permitting her to change the story on his back. And as she's doing this, he's sleeping better, he's sort of reentering civilian life. He has a girlfriend. He himself is coming back to life. It's not totally evident if she's a little nutso. You know, she's really - this is a fantasy of healing, a fantasy that you could ever erase the war from somebody's body and mind. Or if in fact, like, there's something actually happening to the tattoo itself, that the picture's changing in a way that makes the story more bearable for this soldier.

SIMON: Do you, Karen Russell, write short stories between novels or do you write short stories that kind of talk their way in your mind into becoming novels?

RUSSELL: Well, let's see. I spent most of my 20s with these alligator wrestlers in the swamps of south Florida. While I was writing the novel, which took me a really long time - you tell me if this is cheating, Scott. I would sometimes take a break, you know, from the swamp and write a story, and that felt kind of like a fling or something. I mean, "The Vampires in the Lemon Grove," I wrote that during a patch where "Swamplandia!" had become an inhospitable place and I didn't want to go back there for a while.

SIMON: I wouldn't call it cheating. I would call it a human flirtation that loving relationships understand.

RUSSELL: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: That's a generous view. I'll tell Swamplandia you said that.

SIMON: Please. Do you write every day?

RUSSELL: I always lie about this. It's like when you go to the doctor, you know, and you're like, yeah, I exercise every day. So, yeah, sure, I write every day. I really try to write every day. It's hard, but it's my favorite thing to do. So, it's usually not too, too hard.

SIMON: Is it your favorite thing to do, writing?

RUSSELL: As soon as I said that, I was, like, you dirty liar, because sometimes it's the most excruciating thing to do. But when it's going well, yeah, absolutely. I mean, when it's not going well then my probably my favorite thing to do is eating lunch. So, at, like, 10:30 A.M....

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: ...when it's really not going well.

SIMON: Karen Russell. Her new collection of short stories, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." Speaking from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

RUSSELL: Thank you, Scott. That was so fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.