Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Tin House, Kenyon Review, and Lambda Literary Foundation. She was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction, was runner-up for the 2016 Robert Watson Literary Prize at The Greensboro Review, and was a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Fiction Prize. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Volume 1 Brooklyn, OSU’s The Journal, Catapult, Bennington Review, Portland Review, Grist Journal, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her debut story collection, Felt in the Jaw, was published by Split Lip Press in 2017.
I met Kristen Arnett at a writing workshop in 2015 and was struck by her unique and profound voice. I’ve followed her work and publishing career with interest since. One of the aspects I most admire about Arnett’s work is the confidence with which she writes about homosexuality. As a queer writer myself, I know how hard that can be to do. When I learned that Arnett’s first novel, Mostly Dead Things, centers around a lesbian taxidermist and her immediate family, I was anxious to talk with her.
Meredith Doench: I’ve followed your work as a short story writer and essayist for some time now and was surprised (and excited!) to learn you were working on a novel. How was the experience of writing your first story collection, Felt in the Jaw, and your first novel, Mostly Dead Things, different? Did one method of writing offer you more struggles than the other? Which method of writing do you most prefer—essays, short stories, or novels?
Kristen Arnett: I like them all, and I also kind of hate them all. I think that it’s nice to have different types of styles I can go into because I process these genres all vary differently. For instance, the way I’d work on an essay is absolutely not how I’d work on a short story is absolutely not how I would work on a novel or something broader. When I work on an essay, I have some kind of question or a response that’s been bugging me. I like to compare it to a grain of sand. It’s not that the work always turns into a pearl or anything, but that grain is something that’s been bothering me. And then I interrogate that and soon the original question becomes larger questions. When I write essays, I also like to write it in pieces so that I can move them around until it speaks to me. I then can expand sentences and delete a bunch of stuff that doesn’t seem to fit.
When I write a short story, I usually write it all in one go, for the most part. I take a day or two to get it all out, whatever it is. Then I edit as I go, very much in a typewriter-y kind of style. And with the novel, I basically did it the same way and just wrote. I like being able to like jump around within the genres, and I wouldn’t say I like any one genre more than the other.
MD: The first chapter of your book is beautiful! Jessa’s voice is so haunting and clear—it stuck with me from the moment I read it. It reminded me in some ways of the short piece you wrote, “Gator Butchering for Beginners,” an equally beautiful piece. Did you write this chapter first for the novel, or did it come after work in other areas of the book? What was the process you used to put this novel together?
KA: This book originally generated from a writing workshop where we were prompted to write a multi-chapter piece that we worked on every day. I’d never written anything like that before. I was working on a short story about a brother and sister who are trying to taxidermy a goat and they fuck it up. When I was done with the story, I was like, Oh, I really am not done with this! I felt very attached to the characters and I wanted to know more about them. I set the writing aside for some time before I decided to write something longer than a short story. I gave myself some writing rules. For instance, I’m going to write a thousand words a day, Monday through Friday. If I want to do more than that, great. But I can’t write less than a thousand words. If I want to write it on the weekends? Cool, but I don’t have to. And then I also gave myself the rule that I wouldn’t let myself edit the work as I went along; I only let myself read/revise the last paragraph written the day before. Other than that, I was not allowed to edit because I thought if I did, I would not stop working on it. In a couple months I had something book length.
Yes, I started off with that first chapter, actually, because I just sat down and I wrote everything all in a row. I didn’t have an outline, but I knew a couple of things I wanted to do with the book. I knew I wanted it to be about that family. I also knew I wanted it to be Florida and that it would alternate chapters between the present and the past. After a couple of months, I had this sprawling, messy, ugly looking manuscript that eventually turned into this book.
MD: Wow, that’s amazing! Did you follow through with what you like the writing rules you gave yourself?
KA: Yes, absolutely. I’m a very chill person in regular life, you know. I’m a “Let’s chill out and have a beer” kind of person who might not return your texts all the time. When it comes to work, I am very type A. And I like to write every day. It’s been a little harder now with the new book and having to do essays and interviews and different things. It’s harder to get as much writing done as I would like to, but I am a person that likes to work every single day.
MD: The novel uses a structure that links the past with the present. The weaving of these two time periods is captivating. Was it difficult to keep these two time periods separate in your writing? How did the characters’ refusal to let go of the past make their lives interesting to write about?
KA: It felt natural to me. The present was very linear. There were no gaps in time in the present, for the most part. When I wrote the past chapters, it was very much like thinking about how memory functions. A memory is triggered and pops up for us. Maybe an image or sound or a song brings it on, but we don’t get a say in how long it stays. I wanted those chapters to pop around and I wanted them to be just like how memories function. So, this part of the writing felt very natural—I thought of it like sewing, a kind of weaving of back and forth. It felt like very much connected to how taxidermy functions.
MD: Grief is so present in this work—each character deals with the emotional pain of loss in their own way. I found it very interesting to see the connections made between taxidermy and dealing with loss. How did that “container” for exploring grief come about?
KA: Taxidermy is very natural to me. I paired it up because grief is a thing that people process in very different kinds of ways. Also, grief is very much tied up in memory and nostalgia. How we choose to remember a person is a lot like taxidermy, right? It’s the way we choose to preserve something no longer living; we’re deciding how it gets to be remembered. We pose it and say this is how it will be remembered. Grief functions in the same kind of way. It’s how we choose to remember a person or reconstruct who that person was in our life. For this particular family in the novel, they lived and worked with death. I wanted to know what death actually looked like in that family. How would they process it? So, it was interesting to think about that and unpack it.
MD: The taxidermy scenes are quite detailed, and I loved reading them. Do you have experience working with taxidermy or how did you go about researching the topic?
KA: I grew up around taxidermy. I’m a fourth generation Floridian, and taxidermy is all over Florida. I had it in my house and my church growing up. It was in my friends’ houses. There was no place you could go that didn’t have it, so I grew up not even thinking about it. I started this short story, which became chapter one, because the night before I had seen a bunch of really bad taxidermy on the Internet. I thought it was really funny. But it made me think about the processes and procedures of taxidermy. So, I started researching it and was very fascinated because I didn’t realize how involved taxidermy is. For instance, there are different types of taxidermy. The way you taxidermy a bear is not how you would a fish. There are different schools of thought for it, which is very fascinating to me. I’m also a person that’s very interested in the domestic and arts and crafts, so that factors into things.
Taxidermy is traditionally very masculine, and it’s a place where men are able to do this kind of art and be creative. I like to think about how gender roles function in art and the domestic. Taxidermy is rife with all those things. So it’s also just very much dealing with the physical in the body. And I love to think about the tactile sensations how we interact with things on a physical level.
MD: One of my favorite aspects of this novel is that Jessa is a lesbian and that this is not a coming out novel. While I like to read those stories, I also long for those where a character’s sexuality is simply a fact and the focus of the narrative is on other aspects of the character’s life. Your novel does that so well. In what ways do you see your work expanding the conversation of sexuality in literature?
KA: This is definitely not a coming out novel! Writing one of those didn’t interest me. I’m not saying there isn’t room for it in the canon, but it’s just not something I want to do. Sometimes I feel like the coming out part of these stories is the most sensational or it has the most trauma attached to it. It’s almost like being a voyeur, eavesdropping on the trauma of it. But that is only one moment in time. I’m interested in the broader experience of queerness and less about that pinpointed moment in time. As a queer reader, I’m always kind of desperate to read work that has queerness embedded into the text. Sometimes I wonder who the coming out novel is written for. Sometimes I don’t think it’s for queer people but for the straight reader, so that they have an understanding of it. As a queer female reader, I’m interested in the day-to-day kind of living. How does being a lesbian manifest itself in the daily household? What does that look like in a day to day life at work? What does it look like interacting with like your family? And what about with romantic partners? In this novel, I really wanted to show sex between women as fucking. They didn’t need to necessarily sit down and have a conversation about it or be very emotional. Sex happens in a lot of different ways, and sometimes it’s just people fucking, you know? It’s very important for me to have that be in the work because that’s the kind of stuff I’m so hungry for. Like when I’m reading things I like, I just want to see it in the text. I’d love it if my novel could spur other queer writers to write the same kind of things because I would love to read them.
MD: As a queer reader and writer, one of the elements I’ve always admired about your writing is the realism regarding lesbian relationships/longing/love. This novel is no different. In an interview with Jill Owens for Powell’s Books, you said, “I wanted there to be sex in this book because I want to read more books where women are having queer sex that’s not necessarily emotionally informative. I want to read about sex happening in a narrative without all the strings attached to it.” I wanted to high-five you when I read this! It’s rare to find this level of reality in lesbian literature. Do you see this as an issue of gender, sexuality, or are they symbiotic of one another?
KA: I think it might be both. With queer sex, there is usually a discussion or something about it within the text that is meant to help out the readers. But who exactly is this helping out? There doesn’t need to be a discussion of it. There are these embedded ideas about women having sex, right? There’s the idea that women are more emotional about having sex, and it’s all about intimacy and connection. These are preconceived ideas about how women’s fuck. There’s the idea of that, but we can also write the opposite end of that spectrum. For instance, there’s the idea that men only fuck and it’s not emotional. Especially for gay men, sex is thought of as fucking without any emotional ties. People aren’t like that—sex is a whole spectrum of different things. And, in particular, when it’s lesbians or women having sex with other women, there’s an idea that it’s going to be very tender all the time. There is that, but sometimes sex is just sex. Sometimes you don’t necessarily even need to talk to that person again, and you just want to get off. It’s very much about gender because there are so many books where men are portrayed as fucking indiscriminately. Sometimes emotion is shown, but I just feel it isn’t as often.
MD: What else would you like to say about your novel?
KA: It’s been nice to talk to queer readers and hear from them about the connections they had with the book. If anything, I hope there’s that. I also hope people will read it as a Florida Book and understand the kind of Florida that I’m trying to write. These things are meaningful to me as a writer because I do write for queer readers. And I am a queer reader! I also want to write for Florida because I love Florida—it’s special to me. So, I’m hopeful these things come through and people take something good away from it.
MD: What’s next for you?
KA: I have a draft of a novel I’d like to get back to working on. Things are kind of crazy right now, but I have a number of speaking events and readings coming up. I will also be some book festivals. I am speaking at OutWrite DC in early August and will also be at the ALA conference. Readers can find a detailed list on my website.