In Karen Russell's debut novel, Swamplandia!, set in the middle of the swamps of southern Florida, we find a fictional amusement park full of high-diving gator wrestlers. The park, the "number-one gator-themed swamp cafe" in Florida, is run by the Bigtrees, a family that invents their own mythology of being gator-wrestling tribal royalty. Swamplandia! closely follows the youngest sibling, Ava, who takes it upon herself to rescue the park from ruin after finances go south and family members disappear.
The 29-nine-year-old Russell grew up an hour from the Everglades, in a time when projects to dike and dam the swamp led the way for taming some of the swamplands — but her older family members had memories of a more unrestrained place.
"I grew up in this world sort of perfumed with nostalgia for a much wilder version of South Florida," Russell tells Melissa Block on All Things Considered.
The title of the novel includes the emphatic exclamation point, Russell says, because it fits the high spirits of the novel. The Bigtree family members have created their own fantastical history springing from their alligator-wrestling tradition, but in reality, they're just the lowly operators of a shabby tourist attraction in a swamp. Including the exclamation point hints at the manufactured enthusiasm to be found in such a place.
"[It suggests] something about the incongruity between how badly they want this fantasy to be the reality," Russell explains. "It's all there for me in that exclamation point."
The swamp itself does have its mystical qualities, though. Swamplandia! begins with Hilola, Ava's mother, diving into a deep black swamp-water pool full of alligators as the crowd watching her bursts into applause. But things take a darker turn after Hilola is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Ava eventually has to navigate the haunted, dank Everglades swamplands on her own, in a raft.
"The Everglades ... to me have always looked like an appropriate setting," Russell says, "because the swamp is an absolutely uncanny place. It's neither sea nor land; they're these mangrove tunnels that really do feel like something out of Dante."
As Ava watches her family's alligator theme park start to crumble, she sets off on her own through the swamp's mangrove tunnels and carpets of mosquitoes to find her sister — who was possessed by ghosts and disappeared to the underworld.
This premise, the author says, was a hard sell when she was explaining the novel to friends over the years. Family members suggested moving the setting to Hawaii, or a boat, or "somewhere more pleasant."
While writing, however, she became fascinated with the tricks of the trade of alligator wrestling: For instance, although alligators close their jaws with 2,125 pounds per square inch of force, the muscles used to open them are so weak that simply wrapping a fist around them can keep them shut.
Russell feels that her unique consumption of books as a child influenced her drive to write such strange tales. She made an early bargain with her mother, wherein she would read a children's version of Jane Eyre or Charles Dickens, and would then be allowed to check a Stephen King book out of the library.
"I really think that diet has influenced everything I've written since. ... I loved both; I mean I really loved these sort of lyrical, realist stories, and I definitely listed towards the weirder books," she says.