Fathom Questionnaire

Meet Writer and Professor Karen Russell

by Karen Russell

Photo: Michael Lionstar 

Hometown: Miami

Occupation: Writer/creative writing professor

Favorite destinations: Anywhere in Spain; I lived in Seville for a year and used to lead these language learning trips for Putney Student Travel from Llanes down to Cadiz. I was just talking with a friend about how much we miss tinto de verano, which is red wine mixed with Fanta limon that everybody drinks en masse in an intergenerational party in the plazas of Seville in summertime.

Dying to visit: I would really love to go camping in the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.

Bizarre travel rituals: Because most of my travel abroad has been with large, rowdy groups of seventeen-year-olds, mine mostly involve compulsively counting heads in buses or patting my pockets for the journal, the camera, the fanny pack of passports.

In-flight relaxation regime: Well, the truth is that if I'm traveling with teenage students the flight always feels relaxing, just because everybody is safely on the plane and I can physically see all of them. I.e., I don't have to worry that they are trying to get forty liters of Cruzcampo and wander towards the ocean. Watching bad movies is a secret pleasure of airplanes. Recently, I was watching a Queen Latifah movie terrestrially with my friend Chris who said, "dang, I feel like we're back on the plane!"

Always in carry-on: A book — long flights can feel too short if you pack the right book. It's rare to have that unbroken time for daydreaming, pleasure reading. I was reading Francine Prose's My New American Life on a recent flight and felt shocked when they announced our descent.

Concierge or DIY? Oh, DIY, but it's always nice to check out your plan with the concierge. I definitely once made a concierge in Buenos Aires laugh at the stupidity and illegality of my plan to take our students to see a tango show at an establishment that, it was revealed to me, catered to foreign gentlemen in the market for, lets say, "nude tango."

See it all or take it easy? Somehow I always wind up structuring my trips so that the first half involves waking up before daybreak to go on a six-hour vertical hike up a mountain called "The Devil's Spleen" or something (you know those hikes where all these ashen people are coming back down the mountain that you are trying to summit and they tell you kind lies? Twenty more minutes! It's really worth it!), then going to museums, bazaars, "secret" buena vistas, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that turn out to be chock-a-block with Germans carrying my same edition of Lonely Planet. Then, after my eyeballs are raw from all this wonder, I am forced to take it easy and collapse on sand somewhere. But it's not exactly wallowing in sybaritic splendor, it's more like, "I died on this chaise!" I can't really take it easy until I've at least made an attempt to explore a new place.

Drive or be driven? I like to take public transporation wherever possible, in part because I always feel so good figuring out how to get from the hostel or hotel to the train station — it's like my lamer version of an Outward Bound exercise, figuring out how to use the foreign subway system to go buy some deodorant.

Travel hero: My uncle, Alan Romanchuck, hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and emerged forty pounds lighter with a long Santa beard and crazy eyes. I think about him all the time when I find myself retelling the day I spent stranded at O'Hare as if it were The Perfect Storm.

Best hotel amenity: I really like taking the wrappers off those tiny soaps. The tinier the soaps are, the more decadent it feels to me; at fancy hotels there seems to be an inverse correlation between the size of the soap and the effort it takes to unwrap it.

I dream about my meal at: A part of me would really like to say the shrimp diavolo at the Bronx Applebee's, and it sadly wouldn't even be a lie. But a more distant meal that I still dream about all the time is the aloo gobi masala and palak paneer at an Indian restaurant in Christchurch, New Zealand. Which as I write it just now sounds sort of insane, like a meal that maybe only happened in a dream — New Zealand Indian cuisine? But that day we'd taken the students skiing, and I think my elation that we'd all survived somehow flavored the food.

Everywhere I go, I check out the: Bookstores! I find that I can be on the lip of a sacred 10,000 year-old volcano and still want to spend all my time in the book store. I really love thumbing through other travelers' abandoned paperbacks, too, the discard pile on hostel bookshelves. Whole libraries are continuously evolving there. I stayed in a youth hostel in Amsterdam that had two of the same James Patterson novel, The Bible, the third Harry Potter, and a fifteen-pound Anne Geddes book of photographs in which human babies appear dressed as bees and worms inside of gigantic foam flowers. You've got to wonder where that particular youth was going to or coming from that this book made his packing list.

When I arrive in a new place, I learn the lay of the land by going on a long walk or jog, winding up by some kind of scary dock or in that foreign land's McDonald's, begging strangers for directions.

I always bring home hotel keys! Big, Gothic-looking keys, keys on rings, a key on a wooden paddle that I still somehow neglected to turn in to the hotel.

I travel for too many reasons to bore everybody with here, but I think the major one is probably less to relax than to wake up. I think many people love to "sightsee" because it is such a different experience than ordinary sight, where we are so inured to our surroundings that we actually stop seeing them. That's been my experience, anyway, and I love the feeling of stepping through the airport doors into a totally changed world — a radically different weather than the one you left, jungle steam or snowfall, or impenetrable languages on all the signs. The first glimpse you get of the sea anywhere.

That's the romantic version — but even when you're greeted by the smell of fish and a bunch of cab drivers trying to rip you off, I think you still get jolted out of your habitual responses. Colors look keener, and time seems to expand. My sharpest memories were all drawn abroad. I also really love the anonymity of travel, that sense that you might at any moment dissolve into the crowd or the new landscape, become anyone.


Books: St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Swamplandia!
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