In Conversation with Kristen Arnett
by Brittany Coppla
Kristen Arnett 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 bimonthly columnist for Literary Hub and her work has appeared at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, McSweeneys, Electric Literature, Bennington Review, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, will be published by Tin House Books in June 2019. You can also find her on Twitter.
Brittany Coppla, LUMINA Journal’s digital editor, reached out to speak with Arnett about her debut novel.
Brittany Coppla: Congratulations on being selected for The Sonder Press’ best small fiction, that's so exciting! The first topic I want to tackle from Mostly Dead Things is taxidermy in general. Can you talk a little bit about how you got introduced to and learned about taxidermy in the first place?
Kristen Arnett: I'm from Florida, and Florida has a prolific amount of taxidermy here. Growing up I'd be in friends’ homes, and different members of my family's homes, I was used to having pieces like that around me. I think it's a part of how I try to process Florida.
I'm also very interested in the body and the physicality of things. Taxidermy forces you not only to dig into the actual, physical meat of a thing, but then to reconstruct it and to pose it into whatever kind of shape or movement that you feel is appropriate. Taxidermy was definitely interesting to me because it felt like a very “Florida” kind of phenomenon, but it also felt bodily, like something I wanted to explore.
Taxidermy is also a very gendered thing, which I tried to explore in the book. It's this gendered thing where men are usually the people who are doing taxidermy, and it's also a way that men are able to perform art or be able to make art without it being feminized. I think taxidermy for some people, for some men, is a way to create without the threat of someone saying, “You’re being feminine about this.” It’s a way to experience art.
I'm always trying to look at how gender roles work in a household, how they're forced, or how maybe we can subvert them. Taxidermy was a very specific way to explore how gender works in a household, or how we [can] re-examine it. How masculinity functions in these ways where it's restricted.
BC: In terms of the way that you talked about the body and its relationship with taxidermy, could you discuss how you approach “natural” death versus “inorganic” death in this book?
KA: I think when we're talking about natural versus unnatural death, it's a very weird way to process grief. Jessa has to deal with this death that's occurred, but she has no control over anything. Control is a big issue for her, but it's this thing where she not only has no control, but she feels like the memory she had of her father gets subverted.
So much of the death that Jessa deals with in the book is through things that are already dead and are being brought to the taxidermy shop. She goes about the process of reconstructing them and posing them. And her father killing himself in the shop constantly makes her mind go back to: “What's the expectation here?”
This is death. She happens upon him and he's dead, but this is not like those animals. She can't process it in the same kind of way. She can’t physically pose him and make their story something that it isn't. I want that to be the catalyst for her as a way of trying to understand that feelings and intimacy and emotions can't be controlled and processed in that kind of way.
BC: The book is so rich with anatomical metaphors, even when the reader doesn’t realize that they're happening. Did you feel that you needed to handle discussing animal bodies differently from human bodies? Or did you approach them in the same way?
KA: I felt, very naturally, that I wanted to discuss them in the same way.
I was already doing a lot of research into taxidermy, like the kind of muscle it requires and what kind of knowledge a person has to have for that job. While they're never taxidermying a person, it really is the same kind of thing. Somebody who works all the time in processing muscle, skin and flesh, and the bones of the body is naturally going to, when they look at others, assess them in those kinds of ways. When you hold someone’s hands, thinking about the bones and how they fit together and the joints and the richness of the flesh, I think those things would naturally occur. As I was writing, it felt natural to me to make Jessica see others how she sees work because that's her solitary lens. That lens of work is the one place she feels capable.
BC: I would imagine there was so much research required here with understanding the art of taxidermy. Did learning about taxidermy as a craft ever inform your writing? Were there other lessons that you extracted from taxidermy and applied it to how you write?
KA: I think anytime you're doing a tremendous amount of research on any kind of topic you like, if you're doing the research you need to do, you're going to learn something from it. I did a lot of reading for research, I watched a lot of videos, and I went to a lot of different web forums because I wanted to know the different ways that people interacted with taxidermy.
I would say that it definitely impacted my writing—my writing for this specific book certainly, but also my future writing. I did think a lot about how often I, as a writer, go toward the physical. How often I want to talk about the exterior and what it means to dig into the interior. As I was writing this book and then doing revision processes and editing, I found myself having to stitch down into a lot of spaces, dig into and pull up, “What is here?” I think that was a very taxidermy kind of process. How do I need to pose this? How do I have to make it work to show the animal and its entirety? Here's the body, where's the heart? Here's the body, where's the interior?
BC: Did you have any obstacles or anything that you didn't expect needing to overcome when writing about sex and family in such close proximity to each other?
KA: That's a great question because those relationships are all tied very closely together, especially when we're thinking in terms of how [the characters] are related to each other, but also in terms of physical proximity. When you’re all living in a household together, and when you're all working in the same kind of space, how does intimacy function?
I am really interested in the places where it's uncomfortable. The places that always feel the most interesting to me are where I say, “This feels uncomfortable to write,” or, “This idea makes me feel uncomfortable,” and then I interrogate that. I want to ask, “Well, why does it make me uncomfortable? Why can’t I sit in this?” That's usually the thing I need to be writing.
I want to make the space uncomfortable because I also think that there's room for things to feel multiple ways. Things can be very sexy and also awkward. Things can be erotic and also scary. Things can be ugly and also pretty. Most of the time, we're all experiencing those things simultaneously, especially with sex. Sex is usually this very uncomfortable thing.
BC: Were there any parts of the book where you had a particularly hard time leaning into that awkwardness?
KA: There's one particular scene, but as soon as I wrote it, I knew that it had to stay there. It was definitely the hardest thing I wrote, which was a flashback scene where Jessa encounters her father in the bathroom and he's attempting to masturbate. That, for me, was extremely uncomfortable. But I wrote it. I wrote it quickly, I wrote it like word vomit. It felt like it was the thing I needed to be writing, but it was extremely uncomfortable because it's a weird taboo. It’s uncomfortable for everybody. It's uncomfortable to think about, and definitely uncomfortable to sit and edit.
I asked [myself], “Is this too much?” And then I said to myself, “Does this move the story forward? Is it discomfort just to add shock value, or is it discomfort for a specific purpose?” For me, it was [purposeful]. Jessa having to see her father as this sexual creature felt significant to me. It mirrored her discomfort with seeing her parents as these rounded individuals instead of “Mom and Dad.” They're people.
BC: In this book, and in your writing in general, Florida operates like its own independent character. Were there other texts that you looked towards when it came to establishing a setting that functions, at times, as though it were a protagonist itself?
KA: I’m very drawn to books that use regionalism. My favorite book, the book that made me want to be a writer, is Dorothy Allison’s Bastard in Carolina. That book is one I think back on all the time, or that I may even open when I'm trying to think about how she is making a place just as important as the people. That story is important because of where it is. It's not the same story if it's not in South Carolina. When I was writing this book, I was asking, “How does Florida function here? Is it the same story if I take place out of it?” A lot of times, I can't take it out. I can’t take place out of it. It’s in how the characters’ bodies feel. It’s in how they're interacting with each other. It’s in how the weather is.
Something I'm very interested in is the domestic in Florida. A lot of the time, the outside is trying to take back. The land is trying to take back all the time. It wants to creep in. There's vines creeping into the house, there's animals coming into your house, there's hurricanes trying to smash your house down. There are all kinds of active parts of Florida that are just as present as a human body.
I definitely looked at Dorothy Allison, but also there are other writers, like Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!. That book is extremely Florida. I remember opening that book up and reading the first chapter, and you feel it. You feel the weather, you smell its smells, you feel the sweat on their bodies, you understand the kind of clothes everyone has to wear. There’s even the discomfort of touching another person's hands because of the heat, or the rain, or the humidity. When I read it, I thought, “This is doing place-work.”
BC: Your Twitter account is so unapologetically writerly, but it's also hilarious. Has being so active on that site taught you anything about writing?
KA: Sometimes I do think about it in terms of workshopping stuff, especially jokes. I am a person that likes to repeat myself a lot, and I think I don't do that for other people. I do it for my own benefit. I'm trying to work out a problem. I'll try and talk things [through] out loud and I will repeat them. And I think I try to do that with humor, too, because I'm always very interested in seeing how many different ways I can tell the joke and still squeeze something out of it.
Those kinds of jokes I do—like the m’lady jokes, or ravioli tweets, or when I do some pet puns, or when I do some sort of thematic “last night I had a dream and I woke up and I wrote down this thing” and I try to repurpose—those things are embedded in my own life. This stuff is actually happening to me. But I wonder, “How many ways can this still be funny?” I don't even think about how many ways it'll be funny for other people. I ask, “How many ways do I still get something out of this? Is it still funny for me?” And once I reach the point where I can't laugh anymore, I set it aside.
As a very emotionally, gushy kind of aside, Twitter's a sentimental space for me. I've met many very dear, great friends through that site. There are definitely writers that I've gotten to know and I'm actually in real-life friendships with now. There's my reader that reads my work, I met him through that site, and he's one of my dearest friends. I have close relationships and friendships that I've built through that site because I was able to use it as a communication tool, not only to tell jokes, but also to connect with other people in a way where I'm down here in Florida, and maybe I wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.
I definitely can go on there and act like an idiot, or say stupid stuff, but it's also a space where I can say “friends” or “buddies” and I really do think that. I think of it as a place where if I really didn't like using it, I wouldn't use it anymore. I think that's just how I am. But for me, it really feeds something emotionally. I'm able to foster these very important, tender kinds of friendships and feelings with people, and also be stupid and tell a joke about beer and talk about my 7/11. I feel lucky that I've been able to have that, been able to interact with people, and make such good friends.
Brittany Coppla is a nonfiction candidate pursuing her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, where she is the digital editor for LUMINA Journal. She often writes poetry and nonfiction about in-between spaces, sleep, memory, and bodies (but also has a bad habit of writing about earlobes). Her work has found homes in the anthology The Anatomy of Desire, Red Queen Literary Magazine, Asterism, Colonnades, Visions, and more. She likes when people call her B, and her day-to-day words can be found on Twitter.