Posted by Nicole Sheldon, Fiction Reader for Issue 4.1
After a warm welcome from Professor Lytton Smith, visiting author Karen Russell took the stage in the MacVittie College Union Ballroom on Wednesday, October 14. Russell’s connection with the audience was instantaneous. From the moment she began reading her short story “Reeling for the Empire” from Vampires in the Lemon Grove, she had her audience’s rapt attention. The story examines young Japanese women forced to grow silk inside of their bodies, and then reel the silk for kimonos. Fantastic and magical, this story celebrates female empowerment as the young women eventually stand up for the rights to their own bodies.
During the Q&A following her reading, Russell explained that setting is often an inspiration for her stories; she molds characters and a plot that she imagines would coincide with that particular setting. I found this surprising, yet inspiring. It reminded my of the literary journal The Common, which focuses on place and which we’ve been studying this semester in the Editing and Production Workshop.
Indeed, setting is a clear focus in “Reeling for the Empire,” as the story itself takes place in Japan, and largely in the small factory room in which the Japanese silk girls are entrapped. They have no way to escape the tiny living space or their life of producing silk. Russell captures the claustrophobic nature of the girls lives through her detailed description of the setting.
Near the end of the Q&A, Russell commented on the importance of endurance in writing and how revision is a strenuous, but vital aspect of writing. “Committing to radically revising something, that’s a big undertaking,” she admitted. She was honest, yet encouraging about the struggles of revision, and advised young writers to ask themselves during the revision process “Is this worth my time?” and “Am I interested?” Ultimately, this is what helps an author decide whether or not their piece is worthy of their endurance.
Karen Russell had an endearing and relatable sense of humor; she was eloquent and down-to-earth, and surprisingly humble given that she is an acclaimed author and winner of numerous awards, such as the MacArthur Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts. Russell didn’t pretend to be all knowing; she remained modest throughout the event, and was an inspiration to all in attendance.