Photo credit: Maria Jones
Kristen Arnett is many things — one of Book Twitter's funniest writers; a librarian in Orlando, Florida; a columnist for LitHub; a short story author; and a 7-Eleven scholar™ (according to her Twitter bio). Now she can add "novelist" to the list. Mostly Dead Things
is the utterly original story of Jessa-Lynn Morton and her family, taxidermy shop owners struggling after the shocking suicide of Jessa's father. Jessa, her brother, Milo, and her mother deal with their grief in very different ways — in her mother's case, by making sexually explicit art with taxidermied animals. Jessa and Milo are also grieving the loss of her lover and his wife, Brynn, and trying to raise the children she left behind. Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
, writes, "Mostly Dead Things
is one of the strangest and funniest and most surprising first novels I’ve ever read." And Alexander Chee raves, "If Heather Lewis and Joy Williams had a child it might be this — I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel like it. There’s a gunslinger cool to every sentence, like someone is telling you the last story they’ll ever tell you. Kristen Arnett is the queen of the Florida no one has ever told you about, and on every page she brings it to a steely and vivid life."
I recently read your essay
for Bon Appétit
about taking all your first dates to the Olive Garden, which was wonderful — funny and really moving. How did that essay come about?
Well, they had contacted me about maybe writing something for them for that "Red Sauce" series that they were doing, where they wanted to talk about people's favorite Italian restaurants. They had asked me if I had anything I wanted to write about. Immediately, I just thought about all the times I've gone to Olive Garden.
I said to them, I don't know if this is up your alley or anything. But I could write about taking dates to Olive Garden.
They were thrilled with that idea.
Then I started thinking about it and I was like, Oh, this is actually not that fun to think about.
] Now I've got to look sick and dwell on all the times I've taken a date to this restaurant, and what it feels like post taking them to that restaurant.
They were really open to me writing whatever I wanted, which was nice, because it allowed it to become something bigger than just small and funny. I was able to examine intimacy, or what I allow it to be, and how I use the Olive Garden as a framework for how I don't allow things to change by putting myself into a situation where they can't.
I do love the Olive Garden.
You bring up something in that piece that I did not know, which is that the Olive Garden began in Florida as an independent restaurant in 1982.
I don't think many people know that about the Olive Garden.
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You also write in the essay that you're someone who is obsessed with talking and writing about Florida, which anyone who follows you on Twitter or who has read your book would also probably be able to glean. This might be a hard question to answer — obviously you live there and you grew up there — but what is it that obsesses you about Florida, and what turned it into something that you wanted to write about?
It's a difficult question to answer, but it's one that I'm constantly interrogating for myself. The short answer is it's constantly interesting to me. The longer answer is a lot of different things.
For instance, I'm sitting outside talking to you right now in beautiful weather, and a huge cardinal just flew over and sat in a branch above my head. That's maybe one little thing. There's the idea that the outside of Florida is never just outside. The landscape and how Florida exists is constantly creeping into everything, like lizards in your house and plant life crawling into duct work. I always have a snake in my washing machine or something, a raccoon sleeping in the tree out back.
It is also where I grew up. I'm a third-generation Floridian. Not only was I born here, but my parents were, and my grandparents. A lot of growing up was hearing stories told about their experiences living here and dealing with the outdoors. Florida always feels a little bit like storytelling. There's always something happening here. I'm always wanting to investigate what that means to me.
Some people decide to interpret it like, Oh, it's weird
, or Oh, it's like Florida Man
, or ugly in this kind of way. I prefer not to look at it in a binary way. I think it's easy to be like, things are either weird or normal, or things are either beautiful or ugly. I think that Florida's a lot of all these things simultaneously. It adapts and works with everything; and the land is always trying to take the place back.
There's this very weird amnesia that locals have, especially in Central Florida, which I like to write about specifically. There are businesses here, and then they're torn down, then other places are built there, those places are torn down, and something else is built. And there's not really any place memory for those spots. That fascinates me.
You go to so many places that have a history to them; people who live there can tell you all about the place. But people aren't like that in Central Florida, and that's very bizarre to me. I don't know what that kind of purposeful amnesia is about. But as a person who's constantly trying to look at history here and understand my place in it, or what it means, it’s fascinating.
Florida's always interesting. It's always confusing. It's always kind of uncomfortable. Those are things I like to write about, too, the things that are uncomfortable or things I don't want to necessarily dig at too much, which means I probably should. [Laughter
] I guess I will continue writing about Florida until it's not interesting to me, but I don't know when that day will come.
Florida definitely permeates everything in Mostly Dead Things
in all the ways that you're talking about. I love the way that you describe how it wants to creep into everything and not have any boundaries between inside and outside. It's much more than just a setting in the book. It's integral to everything about the book.
Florida always feels a little bit like storytelling.
And as for Jessa, the main character, not only is she of Florida and from Florida, but she's only of Florida. She's never really traveled. Her family didn't take any vacations. She's never seen snow. She really doesn't have any other frames of reference or influences.
Yes. Some of that was me looking to see, what does it mean to be such a control freak about things that you refuse to go anywhere? You want things to remain the same.
To have the idea that you could possibly have that level of control over anybody or anything in your life is interesting to me. I know a lot of people here in Florida who, like me, are multiple-generation Floridians, and they just have been nowhere. And to hear them talk, a lot of times, this is the place. There's no other place like this. You'll hear them talk about the time they went to Fort Myers or something, and you're like, Ooh, you've traveled
I really was thinking a lot about that in the book, because I wanted Central Florida to feel like the backbone of Mostly Dead Things
. I wanted it to feel like that book couldn't be that book without Florida in it. The characters couldn't exist and couldn't be who they were without Florida defining them.
There's a quote early on in the book that I thought summed up Jessa's character very well: "Though I planned out everything, my life was somehow comprised of an endless series of unwanted surprises."
She is trying to control everything and everyone around her, but she's completely incapable of doing it.
It's sad, right, to think about somebody being so reluctant to change that they're willing to do almost anything to make it so it doesn't happen. But I also think it's kind of funny to watch people grip so tightly onto something because they can't stand the idea of thinking it'll change. And then when it does, because it always has to, just the shock, the constant surprise of people when they're like, Well, I didn't want it to do that.
] It’s just what happens with people, and things, and places, and the passage of time.
She’s so funny to me because she is a person who is continuously surprised by things that are normal, just because she wants to be able to control them so badly. The fact that she can't makes her feel nuts. Especially, too, because she's a person who thinks that she's being helpful to people by trying to get them to remain in this static state. She thinks she knows better than anyone else, which I always think is funny — people who think that they know what's best for everyone and then can't even handle the things going on in their own lives.
It’s interesting the way the reader learns that fact about Jessa’s character, because at the beginning, her father has committed suicide and Brynn has left her and Milo. In the aftermath of those things, she seems stuck because she has to pick up the pieces, but then as you get further through the book, you realize she was like that before those things happened.
She wanted to hold on to everybody even before the more recent losses and tragedies.
Yes, and I think that also, sometimes when things like that happen, it's a way to be like, Oh, look. I can't change because I have to uphold these things, or I have to take care of them.
It's a way to mask the idea that change is maybe sometimes scarier to people than even the bad way they've been living. Because Jessa is not enjoying her life.
So another sort of backbone, not to make a bad pun about the book... [Laughter
Please do. Please make a bad pun.
…is taxidermy. That's another piece that is essential to the story in so many ways. It's far beyond just a career. It's an art, an identity, and it's integrally tied in with this whole family. How did you decide to include taxidermy? What on earth kind of research did you do for that?
A lot of research. Actually, taxidermy is a thing that I've pretty much always been surrounded by but never thought about. In Florida, there are a ton of taxidermy shops. In people's homes, and even in the church my family went to, there was taxidermy. [Laughter
] It's one of those Florida things that I've seen so many times I don't think about it, like how there are lizards everywhere.
And then I was writing this short story. I'd been looking at bad taxidermy online and laughing at it, and I decided I wanted to write this short story about a brother and sister who try to taxidermy a goat and just completely fuck it up. It's for a family friend, and they're having this discussion about what they're going to do with this important piece of taxidermy that they have essentially ruined.
I had so much fun writing it, thinking about these people, and being engaged with them through the taxidermy, the hands-on tactile thing, but also with the arguments that they were having with each other that, when I was done with that short story, I was like, Oh, I'm not done with these people.
[Taxidermy is] posing, creating a thing and resurrecting it into what you want to remember it as being.
I'm very into the body, and the very physical-ness of the body, and what's more physical than taxidermy? It requires so much of the person manipulating it, but it's also about the body, the interior, the exterior, the idea of posing and being essentially elbow deep into an animal's gut.
So I was like, OK, I'm just going to start doing it.
I didn't know too much about the actual order of operations, what is required to do taxidermy. I started doing a lot of different research. I ordered a lot of books for myself.
I looked at old-school Breakthrough
manuals, because I was interested in taxidermy from the late ’80s to early ’90s, which is very different from how taxidermy is done now. I started watching a lot of YouTube videos — you'd be shocked at how many animals you can see being taxidermied on YouTube. [Laughter
I don't recommend looking at them at work like I did. I remember watching one where they were trying to do something with a pig and I was like, Who could be standing behind me, because this looks very murdery right now.
There were a lot of web forums, chat room stuff, where they basically had — pun intended — hacks [laughter
] for how to do things that maybe you wouldn't know. Those were really interesting. I ended up doing a ton of research and getting more, and more, and more interested.
The more I found out about taxidermy, the more I realized that taxidermy is so much about the dynamics of family, even the dynamics of writing. I was thinking about how memory and nostalgia function for people. Jessa’s family is so entrenched in the past, and so defined by the memories they decide to keep or that they don’t want to let go of. And taxidermy is so much about that. It's posing, creating a thing and resurrecting it into what you want to remember it as being.
Jessa wants to pose and erect all of these specific dead memories around herself. She's created them, she's fashioned them into things that they maybe necessarily weren't or couldn’t be, and they're not living.
I loved reading about it. I loved the physical aspects that you're describing, just the physical strength that it requires, the manual dexterity, and just how loving Jessa is with it. I will admit that one colleague was like, I'm a little bit grossed out by some of the taxidermy stuff.
I love that, though. That makes me happy.
The deer tumor and the many manifestations of gristle, I think, were what did it. [Laughter
Speaking of that, actually, I realized by the end of the book, there's quite a lot of vomiting in the book, between the taxidermy, the drunkenness, the hangovers, and the pregnancy.
I don't think I realized how often I was doing it [at first]. And then I was like, Oh, this makes so much sense.
Because I'm trying to deal with the interior, then also the exterior, and what's more that than vomit? [Laughter
] The idea of taking things in and rejecting them, and of trying to purge something and get rid of it, felt significant to me. Also, it was just disgusting and super physical. I love it so much. [Laughter
I love when things can be gross like that, and I love reading about different things that the body does. I want to read about vomit. I want to read about periods. I want to write about that. I want to read about that stuff because it occurs constantly.
I'm especially interested in things that are maybe considered too gross. Or maybe the things that are considered more feminine. Like that the idea of a period or writing about menstrual blood is impolite. It's insane to think about not talking about it when it happens so frequently. It's just such a completely all-consuming physical thing that occurs every single month for half the population. [Laughter
A central part of the book is the fact that Milo and Jessa were in love with the same woman, Brynn, who was Jessa's childhood friend and lover and Milo's wife. I feel like I've known someone like Brynn — you describe her as "curvier and funnier and meaner than anyone." She's totally irresistible in high school. I don't often ask if characters are based on real people, but I'm curious if Brynn was like someone you knew.
I love that you just said that she reminds you of somebody, because that's how it felt to me. She felt like this amalgam of women whom I've interacted with, especially when I was young, and queer, and coming out, this kind of woman I felt wrecked me just by existing. [Laughter
So she's not based on any one person. I wanted her to feel like a person that you've encountered, like you know a Brynn, maybe. As soon as I started the book, too, I knew that I didn't ever want to have any present tense interactions with her, because I also think she's a memory. She's only really active in the chapters where Jessa gets to remember her. Jessa gets to be the active agent presenting who Brynn is, because she's constantly in Jessa's mind.
She's an anchor dragging Jessa’s memory back.
Throughout the book, you see all these different facets of Brynn's character through Jessa's memory. I found the scene where Jessa's helping her get ready for her wedding, right before she gets married to Milo, really moving. It showed the depth of their relationship and how complicated it was.
Yes, and I also think it's one of the scenes too where Jessa allows herself to see the things that Brynn actually wants, because most of the time she's deciding what Brynn should want, because Jessa's kind of a bulldozer about stuff, even though she doesn't think that she is. In that scene specifically, Jessa has a moment where she realizes that another person gets to make decisions outside of what she decides.
That scene was very important, too, because they love each other. And they've been friends for their whole lives. There's a lot of sex, but there's also a lot of tenderness, where you're caring for and loving someone even when they're being gross or mean to you. What are the boundaries of that? And how can it change, or what can it encompass? That specific chapter felt very tender to me in a lot of ways.
Jessa can intellectualize and describe emotions, but she doesn't actually inhabit her feelings very much. It felt like in this chapter she was doing more of that than in the rest of the book.
I think Jessa feels like, If I make decisions, if I do these things, then I don't actually have to sit inside my feelings.
She's completely comfortable with the physical. She's completely uncomfortable with the interior. The physicality of things or the idea of being able to bulldoze feels comfortable and she can tell herself that's her being active, when in reality, a lot of times, it's her being very passive.
She's uncomfortable dealing with the actual intimacy of things, of opening up, the vulnerability of having a conversation that might make her feel too scared.
Something I found refreshing about this book is that the fact that Jessa is gay is treated very matter-of-factly, as is her sex life. I feel like that's not something I've read enough of, particularly for female main characters. So it's not because Jessa is gay that she doesn't want to share her feelings — she's just really terrible at sharing her feelings, period. [Laughter
I'm trying to deal with the interior, then also the exterior, and what's more that than vomit?
That was very important for me. As a reader, I am constantly looking for books that are queer and writing about relationships in the ways that I've experienced them.
I don't think there's anything wrong with the coming-out narrative, but I am kind of tired of reading them right now, and about the trauma or baggage that sometimes comes with being gay.
For me personally, I want to read — and I want to write about — the minutiae of the day to day. I want to see inside the domestic of what that means. I want to see sex between people, and I don't want a conversation about how this is significant in terms of coming out. I didn't want to write about a family dealing with their daughter being gay. There's a place for it, but it's not in this book and that's not what I'm interested in.
I wanted to write about this woman. She has intimacy problems. She's extremely in love with this other woman. She's averse to change and, yes, she is gay and she has sex. But I didn't want the narrative to be focused on those things, because I don't feel like that's what happens in life a lot of the time.
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. You get to read books where men do that all the time. [Laughter
] They just have sex, and you're not reading the narrative thinking, Oh, now the sex means they're getting married
, or, It means that they're two people who have found intimacy with each other.
It was very important to me to write Jessa's character and not have her deal with any emotional trauma regarding being gay.
It was refreshing to read — she's just having sex because she wants to.
Which is how most of us have sex. [Laughter
Speaking of sex and what it sometimes means, Jessa's mother's art sounds amazing. [Laughter
How did you approach writing about her art? How did you come up with the sculptures? Was it based on anything you've seen, or did you completely invent them?
Most of that was just invented sitting and thinking about what would make Jessa feel the most uncomfortable. But also, the more I started writing about it, I was thinking, too, Who is Jessa's mom?
There’s this dynamic between parents and kids where there's an expectation from parents that their kids are one kind of way and are going to stay that way. And there's also this very bizarre expectation from kids — even when you become an adult — that your parent is your parent. They're not this entity outside of what they meant to you raising you.
So when there are things that stick out, like the idea that Jessa’s mother would even be thinking about sex, much less enjoy making art like that, it’s so shocking and overwhelming to her as a person. That was interesting to me, and hilarious.
It's also repurposing the taxidermy in this way that makes Jessa uncomfortable. I was thinking about how Jessa thinks about taxidermy, which is like how her father thought about taxidermy, which is like, It's art. We're respecting the animal. We're going to bring it back, and it's going to look stronger, better, and as majestic as possible.
That's how people think about death; that's how we think about taxidermy; and that's how we think about memory.
So when her mother is taking these pieces and destroying them, opening them up and repurposing the parts... and then also thinking so much about sex in that way, what sex can mean, or how sex can be weird, or uncomfortable, or the power dynamics of sex between partners — that was fascinating to me.
When I was writing those art scenes, I was thinking about a person who has felt repressed and then is trying to take back the things that made them uncomfortable, maybe opening those things up to try and repurpose the parts. I thought a lot about discomfort, which I always think is the most interesting thing to write and read about.
It was also just really fun to write about the weird, interesting, completely crazy pieces that her mom was trying to make, and also about Jessa's really priggish response to them. [Laughter
How do you think about the humor in your writing? The book is so funny, but it is ultimately, too, about working through grief after a certain type of death and loss.
I love for things to be funny, for sure. If I'm on Twitter, I sometimes feel like I'm refining a stand-up routine. [Laughter
] Trying to see what works. It's like a pop, punchy, absurdist kind of humor.
In fiction work, you have to be a little more delicate than that because you're working with a lot of different themes and thinking about the different strings and how they're all attached to each other.
I think people are inherently funny. Part of that is maybe just being a librarian and being around the public all the time, and seeing how people just choose to behave and speak in ways that are continuously surprising, and how people react to those things that others choose to do.
So when I was writing this book, I was thinking about how even when people are going through trauma, or grief, or things happening that are beyond their control, and they feel frustrated or stressed, there are still things going on that are hilarious and weird that they have to interact with.
There's a scene that I really love because it's the epitome of that for me, where Jessa is at her apartment with Lucinda, and Lucinda wants them to eat breakfast on the balcony outside. Jessa doesn't want to for a lot of reasons; she's being really grumpy about it. But mostly, she's thinking about these frogs that are underneath the furniture and under the chairs. She's thinking about how she doesn't want a frog to jump out onto her leg. [Laughter
I found that to be so extremely goofy. For somebody who spends their time gutting animals and trying really hard to be a specific kind of butch personality and not have feelings about stuff to be afraid of frogs? I found that hilarious.
What was the most Florida thing that happened to you during the writing of this book?
Oh my gosh, that's a great question. I have a good one.
During the writing of this book, or the editing process of it, I guess, I went to my 7-Eleven, which I'm at all the time. When I went in, I saw a lizard sitting next to the coffeemaker.
The cashier jokingly said to me, "Don't worry about it. It's just Marvin. He likes the smell." I posted about it on Twitter, and it went insanely viral. People lost their minds about this lizard. 7-Eleven contacted me and they're like, Can you let us know the location?
And I was joking around, like, No, I'm not going to narc on my buddy.
And then that went viral. 7-Eleven was posting all this stuff about it. There were like half a million likes on this lizard tweet that I posted about my 7-Eleven. [Laughter
] The Miami Herald
interviewed me about it. People were trying to contact me to figure out where my 7-Eleven was. People sent me fan art. They drew pictures of the lizard in 7-Eleven. I was like, This is so extremely Florida right now, having to deal with the fallout of posting about a lizard liking to sniff coffee.
Because there are lizards everywhere! I'm standing outside right now talking to you, and I can count five lizards just where I'm looking. So it's not weird that a lizard would be in a 7-Eleven in Orlando. It'd be weird if a lizard wasn't in a 7-Eleven.
I spoke with Kristen Arnett on April 24, 2019.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw
, and was awarded Ninth Letter's 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. She's a columnist for Literary Hub and her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus
, and elsewhere. Mostly Dead Things
is her most recent book.