Karen Russell's "Swamplandia!" novel, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is named for the fictional gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades it depicts. For the wildly imaginative novel, Russell retraced her childhood trips. Here is an edited chat:
Where in the Everglades would you go as a child?
My family would always camp in the Ten Thousand Islands. And when we did the same a few years ago, the mangrove tunnels felt just like the labyrinths I remembered, like portals to some other world. ... There's something spidery and ominous about them. You get so turned around there because it's so densely foliated; there's not always a horizon to consult.
How do you navigate around the islands?
On a motorboat. My uncle, the mad madman that he is, has gone camping on chickees, these little huts with thatched roofs on stilts in the water. They're scattered throughout the islands, so rangers have to give you a map. You sleep on the platform, listen to all of the alligators and fish and mosquitoes at night, and hope you don't roll out.
Any place to stay on relatively dry land?
Chokoloskee Island. It's bigger and more elevated than the other islands because its bedrock is a mound of shells. I don't think many people think of Florida as frontier, but it really was. In the early 1900s, a handful of people lived on Chokoloskee Island, people like Ted Smallwood, who set up this Indian trading post. His descendants have kept it as it was then: the door a certain angle for hoop skirts and all sorts of dyed alligator skins. As a kid reading about these pioneers, I thought they were so cool -- all the outlaws and crackpots who started the thing up.
Was that site the inspiration for "Swamplandia!"?
One of them. There are so many places that resemble that ticky-tacky, mom-and-pop theme park. In Florida, we're candid about the fact that we're selling you history or a fantasy. We're like, "This is our treasure, and you can have it for four bucks."
-- Emily Brennan, New York Times