Kristen Arnett is the NYT bestselling author of the debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, ‘19). She is a queer fiction and essay writer. She was awarded Ninth Letter’s Literary Award in Fiction and is a columnist for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, McSweeneys, PBS Newshour, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her story collection, Felt in the Jaw, was published by Split Lip Press and was awarded the 2017 Coil Book Award. You can find her on Twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett
To label Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, a Florida book is both its most accurate categorization and a well-intentioned misnomer, because there are simply too many moments of universal humor, recognizable oddities, familial honesty, and self-discovery to bind the story to one region. When Percival Everett notes, “You can’t write an everyman’s story. You write a particular person’s story who’s from a particular place, who either lives there or is visiting another particular place,” there’s an underlying insinuation that the specifics develop a bigger picture, and that is certainly the case here.
Of course, the love letter to Florida is also imbued on every page. Set primarily in a family-run taxidermy shop, Mostly Dead Things showcases a veritable Noah’s Ark of local critters, a sense that wildlife doesn’t abide indoor spaces. This story could take place nowhere else, but still manages to transcend its humid borders.
It is unsurprising then that a novel this lovely was written by such a big-hearted person. Arnett is famous on Twitter for her running jokes and community support, a tireless champion of public libraries, and the number one fan of dogs everywhere. Having recently published her work at TriQuarterly, I can say firsthand that she is easygoing and kind in her communications and dedicated to her craft. She is the working writer that does it all and her hustle is contagious. I was lucky enough to speak with Kristen over the phone. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Aram Mrjoian: We are both dog people. There was this article that came out recently in the New Yorker by Karl Ove Knausgard suggesting writers shouldn’t have dogs. I found it kind of silly, the idea that a pet could somehow ruin your focus, but I was wondering how your dogs play into your writing process?
Kristen Arnett: I’ve talked about this a little bit with my friend Jami Attenberg, because we’re both big dog people and I think our pets factor into how we produce work. Not all the time, but for me they’re an active priority when I’m home and working. I’m generally interacting with them throughout that process. It’s either getting up to do something with them and then sitting back down or maybe going outside and taking them with me. I’ve started working outside more often so that I can interact with the wildlife, and they’ll interact with the wildlife, which helps me look at my work, since so much of what I’m writing about is place and the place I’m trying to write about is Florida. Watching how they interact with the environment bleeds in to how I process the senses.
They force me to move around. I’ll get up and eat or leave the house to take the dogs on a walk and it helps me get out of my own head for a little bit. It’s also nice not to be alone when I’m working, because sometimes writing is an unbearable feeling. It makes me feel stressed out or this kind of incompetence that happens, where holding a cute little dog that loves me helps with that too.
AM: That makes total sense to me. I’ve found getting up and walking the dog is the best writing break. When I look at your fiction, and when I check out your Twitter as well, I’d say one of the delights in following you is that you tend to build jokes over time. You’re really good at refrains and returning to things in a way that is interesting and funny. I was talking to another writer at Florida State the other day about this interview and he said, “Oh yeah, Kristen does the m’lady jokes on Twitter.” Building this type of material is a difficult thing to do, so I was curious how you think about refrains or returning to specific themes and how you build them up over time? What kind of thinking goes into those returns?
KA: When I think something is funny or interesting, for example the m’lady joke, it’s partly because I like variations on things. It’s kind of like exercising a muscle to see how many different ways I can do it and still have it resonate. When I’m writing, there are ideas that function, a kind of echoing, in that way for me. That’s the way that my brain wants to process language, to see that thing and reword it, or look at it from another angle and flip it over, because that’s how I want to talk about things. That’s how I want to interact with the world, looking at the same thing in a million different ways (and that could be a library thing too, because I feel like that’s what I’m doing when I’m trying to discover what’s at the heart of a question). It can be funny, but it’s a way of uncovering all the different ways something can be.
On Twitter, I’m discovering the ways something can be funny by manipulating language. In my fiction, it’s also about discovering all the different ways we feel about something. My writing tries to ask how many ways we internalize the same feelings. Frustration, being despondent, longing, a kind of ache. My brain wants to repeat over and over again, so it just kind of naturally filters into my fiction. I know it’s present sometimes in my essay work too, because I’m circling around a question and trying to poke at it to see what it can show me or tell me.
AM: Having read both your short fiction and your novel, it always strikes me how you give your characters esoteric and well-researched jobs. I had a creative writing professor who, sort of like a workshop mantra, used to say, “all characters need to have jobs,” so that you could think about what they were doing all day. And thinking again of those repetitions, you’re better than any writer I can know of at revealing characters’ daily routines. How do you think about jobs in your fiction, especially in this novel where so much of the story is set around a taxidermy shop?
KA: I’ve had a job since I was fourteen or fifteen years old. I’ve never not worked and so I think that’s something that is part of my life, and right now library work is a big part of my life and it’s also a big part of my writing experience. When I’m thinking about people, me for instance, my library work is my job but it’s also part of who I am. Writing what people choose to do and how they spend their time helps characterize them. You work a forty-hour plus workweek. What you’re doing, who you’re working with—that’s how you spend a majority of your lived life. So that’s part of who those people are. That’s how I feel about myself. Work kind of navigates our days. It’s why we’re getting up, when we’re choosing to do stuff. There’s mandated things embedded within it.
Specifically in the novel, there’s a back and forth asking what makes duty and what can be a passion? That’s something I like to think about because there can be this mix of emotions. How I feel about library work is varying. I do it because it’s a job but also because I love it and I also hate it sometimes and it’s very rewarding sometimes, it takes a lot from me. I like to explore that. Many people have a weird relationship with what they choose to do for a living.
AM: Thinking about that within the novel, did you have a previous background in taxidermy? What kind of research did you have to do on taxidermy?
KA: Luckily, living in Florida, there’s already a ton of taxidermy here. Before I wrote this book, I didn’t have any kind of hands-on experience, but I have relatives who hunt, in the south there are usually people around you who do that type of thing. Hunting often has a taxidermy component. I knew people growing up who had taxidermy in their homes. Just like a family portrait in the hallway, there’s a deer mount or a shellacked bass somewhere.
I’m a huge fan of research in all types of capacities, so I started doing a huge amount as a person who’s interested in the domestic and crafting and the gendered construct of crafting. I grew up in a family that was very specifically gendered. I had to take sewing classes and my brother had things he had to do. Those things were embedded in the culture of our family. When I think about taxidermy, it allows men to participate in this specific kind of crafting, because of the implicit violence in it. It’s a dead animal, something that’s been killed. It’s a trophy. But a lot of people who do taxidermy consider it an art. They spend a ton of time trying to craft something that is visual art, but it’s a way that you can do it that’s still considered masculine.
Since it was already really interesting to me, I watched a million YouTube videos. You would not believe how many YouTube videos you can watch about taxidermy and if you watch them at work you have to be careful in case someone comes up while you’re watching a video of someone slicing open a pig or something. I’m also very interested in the old-school taxidermy of the 70s and 80s. Breakthrough manual kind of stuff. I bought and borrowed a bunch of old manuals to look and see the process, but there are so many other things involved in it. There are specific tools and steps and procedures to taxidermy. There’s a lot to know, especially for different kinds of animals. I went on a lot of forums too, so in all I did a lot of upfront research, but as I was writing the book found myself continually having to do more. My brain wanted to engage with it as I was having my characters engage with it. I wanted to be just as involved in the process as they were in touching those things.
I felt familiar with it, but in a way, I wanted to reimagine it or rethink it, which is what I’m always wanting to do in my work.
AM: Thinking about that idea of gendered crafting, at the center of this novel there’s Jessa, a queer woman who is essentially taking on the role of a family patriarch or what we would traditionally call the head of the household. This role is male-dominated in literature. From my reading, the narrative core of the book really challenges and reconsiders that notion.
KA: Household dynamics, especially those involving queer women, is something I continually want to examine. What are the roles we are assigned and how do we make them our own? Which ways do we not allow ourselves to change? I wanted to look at how Jessa felt she had to take her father’s place, but also how she felt it was owed her. This need to have control, which I think is a significant thing, a dynamic thing, in any family, control of the self or the people around you. I liked looking at how Jessa thinks I am able to do this best. My brother is not the person who can do it. I’m best suited for it. That was a way to examine how gender functions. Who takes her seriously in this traditionally masculine taxidermy role? Does she have to behave in certain ways to be taken seriously? How do other people see her and how does that affect how she behaves? That kind of bleeds out to other areas, being this kind of figurehead and feeling like she can’t have emotions or do other things that would make her more traditionally feminine.
Those questions are so embedded in any kind of family structure, but specifically for queer women you’re still comparing yourself to these dynamic roles. Women in relationships will still subconsciously be like who’s taking out the garbage and who’s doing the dishes? Who’s mowing the lawn? It’s so ingrained in society we fall into them even if we don’t want to. That same type of stuff happens in family roles. Jessa’s brother is more emotional and she is more stoic, so Jessa sees herself as the more masculine of the two of them, whereas she sees her brother as the more feminized version. It’s a kind of swapping. Jessa sees how her father says her brother is too sensitive and then she models herself after that. There’s lots of ways to look at it, but the household dynamic of any family is ripe for looking at how we choose to behave.
AM: Maybe to switch paths a little bit, you mentioned you’re writing about place. This is a very Florida novel and you’ve written about the state both in your fiction and nonfiction and also what it means to write about the state. From my perspective, you are right now one of the Florida writers and I wondered (especially since Florida is often misunderstood or poked fun at) what it means to kind of be a representative of the state in your work?
KA: I think it changes for me all the time. It’s something I think about because I have a very love/hate relationship with home. Florida for me is home in a lot of ways. Maybe Florida is like family to me, you can have a love/hate relationship with your family too. I do know that I find Florida to be continually fascinating. I like to think about it in as many different ways as I can. Florida is a myriad, shifting place. You can be in Miami and feel like you’re in a different state than say Tallahassee. It’s wildly different culturally and community-wise, but also even in landscape or what kind of animals you’re dealing with. The breadth, the largeness, the wideness of Florida always interests me.
I feel lucky that I get to write about Florida and I want to be a good ambassador. Sometimes that means feeling frustrated by the ways other people talk about Florida, but it can mean feeling like it’s mine too. I want to be part of a larger conversation about it. There are so many great Florida writers talking about the state right now and it’s a Florida that’s completely different than the one I’m writing about. I’m writing it in a certain way, Jaquira Díaz is writing about a Florida that’s different from my experience and it’s beautiful. There’s just so many different kinds of work. For me, I don’t know that I’ll ever get to a point where I don’t want to be writing about it. Maybe when I get to a point when it doesn’t interest me anymore or I don’t feel like I need to be constantly flipping it over and looking underneath, but it hasn’t reached that yet. I still always want to see what I can dig out of it.
AM: I feel the same way about Michigan a lot. I don’t know that I can stop writing about Michigan. When you have somewhere that feels like home, it takes on so many different complications in the writing process. One of the aspects that I love about Mostly Dead Things is that while Florida is at the center of it, there’s so much more to be said. We get the setting, we get the animals, we get characters who are very much residents of Florida and call it home, but we can expand on those themes and think about some of these other larger issues.
To briefly discuss your short fiction, Felt in the Jaw, is one of my favorite recent collections. It was interesting to me when I started Mostly Dead Things that I thought, oh this feels like a Kristen Arnett story, but once I was fifty pages in or so I was completely immersed in the novel and no longer thought about it in those terms. What challenges did the novel bring? How did you vary your approach?
KA: This was the first time I’d ever been able to sit down and put something this lengthy together. Before drafting this book, I’d never written anything say over 10,000 words. I considered myself a writer of short fiction and essays. Short fiction is a space that was comfortable for me, as comfortable as writing can be. It’s a place where I feel like I’m navigating something I can get my mind around. Generally, when I reach the conclusion of a short story it feels like I’m done with the characters. The journey has been completed. I’m through interacting with them.
The way this book came about was I had written a short story about a brother and sister who are taxidermying a goat and they fuck it up super bad. It’s a neighbor’s goat and they’re supposed to give it back. They have a big argument about what they’re going to do, but as I was in it and trying to complete it, I couldn’t get myself to stop thinking about the characters. That was the first time that had ever happened to me. I wanted to have a bigger view of their lives. That felt like the incentive to acknowledge it was a bigger story.
I didn’t toss that short story, but I put it aside and started writing other things. I was kind of nervous about it, and being the librarian that I am, I gave myself a set of rules to navigate it. I thought, Monday through Friday, every one of those days I have to write at least a thousand words and I’ll give myself the weekend. I started in June and was going to give myself until I hit whatever length felt right, then close it and come back to it later. I also made the rule I couldn’t go back and edit. I knew if I did I would mess around with it and maybe stop. I wanted to see what I could come up with even if it was nothing. I only let myself read the last paragraph from the day before, just to see where I left off, and by the end of November I had around 100,000 words in a document. I closed it, left the document until January, and figured I’d see whatever the hell this is when I reopen it. Of course, when I came back to it, it was garbage. It was a wreck, but it still felt like there was something there. I was still interested in touching it. I had to make rules because I had no point of reference, but I wanted to see if I could finish and it ended up being something that I wanted to keep.
AM: I will probably steal these rules! They sound super useful.
KA: It was helpful to have some parameters! I mean, not a lot, I didn’t want an insane amount of rules, but I figured if I give myself these specific things and stick to them I can maybe get through.
AM: That’s certainly something I struggle with. I feel like I’m just constantly opening a bunch of documents and throwing things in at random. One last question here. When Felt in the Jaw came out you had this awesome book release party at your local 7-11. Mostly Dead Things is scheduled for the beginning of June 2019 and I’m wondering how are you planning to celebrate?
KA: Tin House has been very nice to me and has given me a lot of freedom. I probably am going to do some kind of 7-11 thing, but also another event that’s a bit broader. They were cool with me last time, but it was a lot of people in 7-11 and I don’t know that I can get away with it again.
I do want to do an event that feels like mine, something essential to the book and myself, where I can be comfortable and with the people and places I feel support me. There are places that are like family, and that is always my 7-11 for me. We’ll do something a little bigger, but I still want to do an event that feels fun and doesn’t feel stuffy and feels like I’m having a conversation with friends and the community. I’m going to wear shorts!