A Duo of Literary Stars Shine at the Aspen Institute

March 6, 2013  • Institute Contributor

The Aspen Institute’s Aspen Writers’ Foundation recently hosted a hilarious session of banter between friends and short-story standouts Karen Russell, whose debut novel Swamplandia! propelled her to literary stardom, and Elissa Schappell, whose new book Blueprints for Building Better Girls has made her one of the hottest editor-authors on the literary scene.

Russell, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a nominee for the Orange Prize, and Schappell, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, held court on the Institute’s stage at the Walter Paepcke Memorial Building for the third of four authors talks in the Winter Words 2013 series. They discussed the process of writing—and the gifts from the gods when it works—as well as the difficulty of being pigeonholed by critics. “I often get the coming-of-age label, because my protagonists tend to be young women…right at that threshold,” said Russell. “Maybe we’re wrong, but I always think it conjures sort of a Judy Blume acne and periods kind of thing.”

“For me, I really wanted this to be a much bigger story,” she explained. “Not even just about this one family, but about South Florida in general. A lot of the mourning in the book, which is connected to their mother, I sort of saw as an ecological mourning.”

While Russell listed a bounty of influences—ranging from science fiction to Victorian authors—Schappell spoke about for whom she felt she was writing. “I’m not interested in writing really happy stories,” she said. “I want to write about those moments where nothing is ever the same again. And I want to write stories that, yes, make people feel uncomfortable because there are a whole lot of people who feel uncomfortable in the world who read the same stories and say, ‘Thank you for writing that story, I didn’t know anyone else felt that way.’…That’s why I write.”

Watch a clip from the talk by these exciting writers—both with new books of short fiction out now—below.

Click here to see how you can attend the final author talk in the Winter Words 2013 series, Cheryl Strayed on April 12 in Aspen.