KAREN RUSSELLConverge Lecture Series, 7 p.m. Friday, Ent Center for the Arts, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 5225 N. Nevada Ave., $13-$66.50; 255-3232, convergelectureseries.org, uccspresents.org
Many writers are haunted by their obsessions.
Those compulsions show up in their stories and words, time and again, directly and indirectly, noticed and unnoticed, by the author and reader alike.
Karen Russell is obsessed with ghosts, adolescence and the inherent darkness that’s part of the human condition.
The Portland, Ore.,-based writer will speak Friday at Ent Center for the Arts as part of the Converge Lecture Series, in which nationally known authors and poets are invited to speak in Colorado Springs. They’re tasked with expounding on the theme of moral beauty: How should we live? And can our way of living be lovely?
Russell has tussled with the idea since learning it’s the suggested topic of her lecture.
“The question couldn’t be more urgent,” said Russell, whose first novel, “Swamplandia!,” about a 13-year-old girl who lives with her family at a gator wrestling theme park, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. “As a reader and a writer, I’m often drawn to things that are not, on the surface, beautiful at all.”
She verbally noodles through her thoughts on the topic, touching on a memorable “Moby Dick” seminar taught by Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Robinson read a passage from the book that tore through Russell with its violence and beauty.
“What’s beautiful about something that is also frightening?” Russell asked. “I tend to write about ghosts. I’m ghost-obsessed. I’ve always felt ghost stories, as terrifying as they might be, the kind of ghost story I’m attracted to, is a profoundly moral story.”
By ghosts, she doesn’t necessarily mean the ones that stalk the halls of abandoned buildings and go “boo” in the night, though she always has loved Stephen King, and doesn’t think he’s gotten enough credit: “He’s influenced everybody. This man has had some hand in your imaginative apparatus.”
By ghosts, she also means the apparitions from your past, whether in human form or experience, that can show up in your present, and haunt the heck out of you.
“Some of the fiction I love the best can be incredibly dark, and there’s an opportunity to make an acknowledgement of the darkness, to wake up a little bit and change course,” she said. “When movies or writing feels sentimental to me, it’s lacking some acknowledgement of that darkness inside people.”
Russell came on the scene in 2006 with the short story collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” A second collection followed in 2013 with “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” and a third collection, “Orange World and Other Stories,” is set for a May release.
“Ms. Russell deftly combines elements of the weird and supernatural with acute psychological realism; elements of the gothic with dry, contemporary humor. From apparent influences as disparate as George Saunders, Saki, Stephen King, Carson McCullers and Joy Williams, she has fashioned a quirky, textured voice that is thoroughly her own: by turns lyrical and funny, fantastical and meditative,” wrote New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani in 2013.
JENNIFER MULSON, THE GAZETTE, 636-0270, JEN.MULSON@GAZETTE.COM