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?