Author Karen Russell on Winning a MacArthur Genius Grant: “It’s Going to be Interesting to Publish New Work in the Wake of This Insane Luck”


Yesterday the MacArthur Foundation named its 2013 recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. No fewer than nine of the 24 fellowships awarded went to residents of New York. One of them is Karen Russell, an author and writing professor whose first novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and whose second novel is already well underway.

“I just printed out a hot steaming mess from the Clinton Hill Printers!” Russell told Runnin’ Scared.

At 32, Russell is one of the two youngest recipients of the award. The other youngest, Tarrell McCraney, also 32, is a playwright. Both he and Russell are natives of Miami, a point a proud Russell is keen to point out.

Though the announcement was made only yesterday, Russell says she has known for about a week and has managed, mostly out of fear, to keep mum. “I thought, ‘I could jinx this and it could dissolve.'”

Besides being a sign of past success and future potential, the fellowship also comes with a $625,000 stipend over five years. Though the award comes with no strings attached, the hope is that the windfall allows its recipients to indulge more of the same passions that got them nominated in the first place.

But the prize is not without its drawbacks. For one, people read too much into the colloquial name for the fellowship: The “genius grant.”

“I think that it’s going to be interesting to publish new work in the wake of this insane luck,” says Russell. “I feel like, ‘let’s all reset our expectations.'”

But the money frees her to get back to the work that she really wants to do: Compose more short stories.

“I think I would have probably would have done that [anyway] but with more self-loathing and terror.”

Besides the creative latitude, Russell is grateful because the award might also help her settle in someplace. She only arrived in New York this month from an adjunct teaching position in Philadelphia. And in January, it’s off to another teaching position at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. “I’d like somewhere where the mail comes,” as she puts it.

Perhaps Russell demurs too much when it comes to her talents. After all, the company she keeps is nothing if not impressive: This year’s class includes an astrophysicist who has pioneered the search for planets beyond our solar system, a paleobotanist uncovering the evolution of cosystems, a physicist-cum-jazz musician who moonlights as a digital media artist, and a historian of the material cultures of Roman Britan.

And though Russell admits she is intimidated by her class of MacArthur honorees–“I’ll try to set a story set on the moon and then I’ll meet an astrophysicist who discovered a planet behind the sun”–she has never met any of them.

“Will there be a League of Extraordinary Gentleman prom?”

Watch Karen Russell’s interview with the MacArthur Foundation below: