Today on the site I’m so excited to have Kristen Arnett, author of the flamingo-covered book everyone is talking about. (And if you think you haven’t heard about it, consider whether you’ve seen the words “lesbian taxidermy” cross your timeline at some point.) Believe the hype, because Arnett is a master of nailing that rare combination of brutal but funny, open and honest but dry and self-protective. It’s one of the most memorable books I’ve read in a long time, with an opening that knocked me flat on my ass. If you don’t believe me, you can go ahead and check out The New York Times or Autostraddle or any of Kristen’s brilliant essays, but you can also just go ahead and check out this interview, as long as you’re here!
First, though, let’s check out this debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, releasing tomorrow, June 4, by Tin House Books!
One morning, Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has committed suicide, right there on one of the metal tables. Shocked and grieving, Jessa steps up to manage the failing business, while the rest of the Morton family crumbles. Her mother starts sneaking into the shop to make aggressively lewd art with the taxidermied animals. Her brother Milo withdraws, struggling to function. And Brynn, Milo’s wife—and the only person Jessa’s ever been in love with—walks out without a word. As Jessa seeks out less-than-legal ways of generating income, her mother’s art escalates—picture a figure of her dead husband and a stuffed buffalo in an uncomfortably sexual pose—and the Mortons reach a tipping point. For the first time, Jessa has no choice but to learn who these people truly are, and ultimately how she fits alongside them.
And now, come meet the author, Kristen Arnett!
Let’s begin with the stuffed elephant in the room – your first novel! Mostly Dead Things has one of the most viscerally memorable openings I’ve read in a long time. How did this story of a lesbian taxidermist taking over the family business following her father’s suicide become The One after all your years in essays and short fiction? And please God can you share a little about your taxidermy research?
I was busy working on a short story about a brother and sister who attempt, and fail, to properly taxidermy one of their neighbors goats. At the time, I was doing a lot of weird internet deep dives into fucked up terrible taxidermy. It was funny to me, and I also loved the idea of writing about two siblings fighting over something as bizarre as a dead goat, so I sat inside that story for a while. When I was done, I realized I wanted to keep thinking about them: the characters, the setting, their relationship dynamics, all of it. So I decided to toss out that story and see what I could do with these characters in a broader sense. And that eventually became the novel!
With regard to taxidermy, I am a librarian, so research is a natural path my brain loves to take. When it came to looking up taxidermy, I spent a ton of time online: videos, chat rooms, web forums, etc. I also bought a lot of old school taxidermy manuals and read through them constantly. I wanted all the work I was having the characters do on any animal to not only feel authentic, but to seem hyper realistic. I wanted to make absolutely sure everything felt just right!
Speaking of short fiction, your fiction came a couple of years ago with felt in the jaw. For those who’ll be discovering you through Mostly Dead Things, what are some themes you see rising up in both works? Is there a particular story in that collection that’s closest to your heart, and if so, is it the same one you felt closest to when it first released?
I definitely want to write about the queer lives of women. By that I mean I am interested in something that I’ve called “the lesbian domestic.” I wanna see the day-to-day interactions of queer women in households. I know that theme filters into all of my work because it is something I also want to see as a reader. I am also deeply interested in bodies – tactile sensations, physical forms. That crops up over and over again in my work. Also Florida! I’d say all of these themes coalesce in much of my writing, but particularly in the title story from that first collection. I felt it exemplified all of the things I was trying so desperately to write about when it comes to queerness in a household: relationships between queer women, household dynamics and their breakdown, and the actual landscape of a Florida backyard.
Of course, you’re also well-known for your personal essays; I don’t think anyone could make the Olive Garden and 7-11 sound quite as poignant as you do. What’ve been your favorite and most unexpected reactions to your non-fiction work?
I would say the thing that has been the most surprising and what I have absolutely enjoyed the most in hearing from readers is that they have identified with Florida in my work. Specifically, I have loved hearing that from other Floridians. It is always so dicey, trying to write lovingly (or maybe not-so lovingly, maybe writing something in a raw, painful way) about home and the places where we live and live in us. So whenever I am putting my version of Florida out there, I always get that little worry that people won’t understand it, or maybe it won’t sit right with them like how I envisioned it in my own head. I have been so lucky in that, because the people who have read my work for place have all been so thoroughly encouraging about it. Not only that, but they share with me their own stories of Florida and home. That is very precious to me, so special. I feel like it’s just an even bigger kind of community, but through writing, and it makes me feel so glad.
Fellowships! Residencies! I’ve always wondered what it’s like to truly surround yourself with an environment dedicated to honing your craft and to experts in it. Do you have a favorite experience or anything that’s particularly notably emerged from those times?
I’ve been truly lucky to have experienced several residencies over the course of my writing career. I would say one that really stuck with me as a place that allowed me to get a tremendous amount of work done was my residency at the Millay Colony. It’s located in upstate New York and is pretty secluded. I decided to drive myself up there all the way from Florida, stopping midway in Virginia. I had never driven alone that far by myself before and took it as an opportunity to sit with myself and really try and think about things – my writing, my work, my relationships to those things. And when I got there I was able to still spend so much time in solitude. It truly gave me the time I needed to kind of fix my mind in the new directions I was trying to take it. I got so much from that residency. I know that I am lucky that I was able to do it – not everyone can afford to take time off from work like that, so I especially tried to appreciate every single moment of it.
What’s the first queer rep you saw that really resonated with you? Is there anything you’d still really like to see?
My first experience in queer reading was sitting down with Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina. It was the first book I’d ever read where I just sat and thought, “wow, here I am – I see myself in here.” The writing was so raw and bare. It was a revelation for me. It’s the book I read that made me know I wanted to be a writer. I love all of Dorothy’s work for sure, but I can think about that book any time and still have that feeling in my chest, that huge heart glow that made me feel just a tiny bit less alone.
I would say I am always reading looking for other queer writing that makes me feel like I am experiencing the day-to-day dynamics of queer relationships. I am much less interested in reading coming out stories and would just love to see more narratives that focus on how dynamics sit between queer people in a family, in a household, in a region, in a place. Those little moments of time, smaller pockets. I am forever searching for that as a reader. Also I would love to see more queer horror narratives!
There’s a lot of talk about how adult fiction, particularly literary fiction, is harder to find online, and as a blogger for a site that tries to cover it all, I certainly can’t argue with that. How do you stay on top of queer lit coming out, and is there any you’d particularly like to recommend, or are especially excited to read?
I would say that I try and search for it, for sure, but there are places I definitely go to hear about new queer lit. One of those places is Lambda Literary. I also have a large community of queer writers who I trust and value their opinions, so I am forever picking everyone’s brains when it comes to new work. There is also a ton of queer poetry out there now that I am obsessed with and I don’t think gets talked about as much as it should. Tommy Pico’s entire body of work is a revelation. I wish everyone could read every single book of his! I love T Kira Madden’s memoir that dropped in March, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. Also Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy that drops very soon! Jaquira Diaz has an essay collection dropping as well called Ordinary Girls. That’s very queer and also VERY Florida.
And finally, perhaps most important question: what is, technically, the best ravioli?
Human beings are the finest raviolis on the planet.
Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. 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. She’s a columnist for Literary Hub and her work has appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, McSweeneys, PBS Newshour, Literary Hub, Volume 1 Brooklyn, OSU’s The Journal, Catapult, Bennington Review, Portland Review, 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 and was awarded the 2017 Coil Book Award. Her novel, Mostly Dead Things, will be published by Tin House Books in June 2019.