Tobias Carroll | Longreads | June 2019 | 18 minutes (4,707 words)
The writings of Kristen Arnett are a beatific study in contrasts. In her fiction — namely, the 2017 collection Felt in the Jaw and her new novel Mostly Dead Things — she grapples with unruly bodies, complex emotions, and relationships both familial and romantic that have gone awry. Arnett is among a cadre of contemporary authors, such as Karen Russell and Eleanor Kriseman, who remind readers of what a stunning backdrop Florida can provide for works of fiction. And she is quite possible the only writer to ever hold a book release event in a 7-Eleven.
Jessa-Lynn Morton, the protagonist of Mostly Dead Things, has not had an easy life when the novel opens. She’s dealing with the aftermath of her father’s suicide, and is endeavoring to keep the family taxidermy business in operation while also contending with her mother’s artistic ambitions and a burgeoning relationship with Lucinda, a gallerist whose perspective on taxidermy is very different from Jessa’s more quotidian understanding of it.
Arnett’s fiction perfectly captures unruly family dynamics, the way that the same person can take on very different roles in the eyes of those closest to them, and the subtle ways in which class and economics can reshape a community over time. I spoke with Arnett about her fiction, the role of Florida in her work, and the messy line between fine art and the lowbrow.
Tobias Carroll: You published an essay in Hazlitt at the end of last year talking about taxidermy, and obviously taxidermy plays a huge role in this book. So where did your interest in taxidermy initially come from?
Kristen Arnett: I think a big part of it is that in the South, there’s a lot of taxidermy everywhere already. In Florida specifically, I grew up around taxidermy. I knew people that did it. It was in all the houses I went to. In my house, we had taxidermy. My friends’ houses I went to, taxidermy was there. If you go to a Bass Pro Shop — in the South they’re just friggin’ everywhere — there are whole rooms dedicated to taxidermy. So it was something where I feel like it was already very embedded in my life, or in Florida culture, and it was one of those things that’s just around, that my eyes passed over, so I didn’t really think about it all that much, just with the understanding that it was part of my Florida experience.
I was thinking about the short story I was trying to write, and I wanted there to be this tactile physical activity between the characters. I was thinking to myself about the physical body and how we come into contact with it, and what it means to open a body and things like that. I started thinking a little bit about taxidermy, and the more I thought about taxidermy, the more I thought, this is a thing that’s just surrounded me all the time. I’ve been around taxidermy my whole life, I just never even thought about it because it’s so embedded.
In the process of trying to write this short story, I realized, this is much larger than this short story I’m putting together. I immersed myself because I am a research person, you know, as a librarian. So I started really going hardcore into it, looking at books and looking at online tutorials, and finding web forums, and chat rooms. There’s all kinds of conferences you can go to. There’s a million YouTube videos you can watch about actually seeing animal taxidermy done.
Do you feel that there is a connection between the meticulousness of taxidermy and having that similar attention to detail and structure that comes from being a librarian?
I’m always very fascinated by any kind of activity or thing, which is many things that have structure and a set of rules, like defined parameters. Even writing feels like that sometimes to me. Writing’s a monster, it goes where it wants. But as a librarian, certainly, a lot of the time I’m working within these restrictions about how I search, how I look for things, the process, the procedure — the best practices, if you will, of looking at trying to find answers and research for people. When you’re looking at taxidermy, there’s definitely that same kind of rule-following.
There are best practices for taxidermy and how you open something. The very rigid order of operations that’s involved with taxidermy felt very homey to me for a lot of reasons, because I am a person that’s very interested the physicality of things. But I’m also a person that’s also very interested in what are the best practices to put forth to have the best end product, the best result. You can think about them a lot like that, because they’re both things that require a lot of specific rules and following the rules, but then there’s also the broader questions in them, right? So librarianship is like following these rules, but then it’s also, “How do I expand on this? How do I open it up to figure out the question behind it?”
I think taxidermy is a lot of, okay, here’s where to start from, but then how do I work with this thing to make it my own? To work with this thing to make it into its own shape that it’s supposed to be?
How we choose to remember people in our lives, or how we choose to remember our interactions with them, is not necessarily based in factual behavior. It’s more about how we want them to be preserved in our mind.
And I feel like to some extent, that’s the central conflict between the narrator and her mother within the novel, too. Were you consciously evoking the question of rules to be followed, or not, within that conflict?
I was, because I do think that that’s also like a personality kind of thing. Like, maybe the different ways that we’re raised, for sure, but then also how we see our parents sometimes or what our minds allow them to be, or the space we allow them to have. I was interested in exploring how Jessa’s relationship with her father gets to just be this one thing because you know, he dies, and there isn’t anything that she immediately has to confront with that. She just keeps preserving him as this specific type of memory.
But with her mother, there’s the idea that she’s this thing outside of a mother, she’s not following the rules that have been set for how you should behave, and you’re not following the idea I have of how you should be. And that’s upsetting to a person who can only live in a way that’s extremely structured, because if it goes outside of the structure it feels like chaos, or it feels uncontrollable. And somebody with control issues would have huge problems with that.
Yeah. I mean, it also seems notable that — or it seemed notable at least to me — that like two of the major characters in the book, Jessa’s father and Brynn, are both basically defined by their absence rather than their presence.
Well, I was thinking a lot about the idea of intimacy and the idea of love, and how much of the time that can function as [a way] in which our memory functions. Like how we choose to remember people in our lives, or how we choose to remember our interactions with them, is not necessarily based in factual behavior. It’s more about how we want them to be preserved in our mind.
And I think because of the two biggest defining forces in Jessa’s life, it made sense to me that a person who would have control issues would think, I get to define my relationship with these people by that lack, right? They’re not here, I get to be the one to say how those relationships shaped me and what they get to mean. Whereas a lot of time you can say, but that’s not actually how intimacy or memory truly function. We can try and have control over those things, but actually having control of another person or what their life meant in conjunction with yours is not actually feasible.
It also seems like the way you’ve set up Lucinda’s situation in the book, where she’s sharing space with someone who she seems to have emotionally moved past, seems to be in pretty sharp contract to that, too.
I was also thinking a lot about preservation of things that we want to maintain, or these ideas about how we see ourselves; [and how] when it goes outside of that, it’s disorienting.
I always had a note next to me while I was working that said to make the present as interesting as the past. I didn’t mean that in terms of writing, I meant that literally in terms of how we think about things. When we’re in the middle of something, it seems so much less significant than the things that have already happened, than the memory of something, because we get to be the ones to shape memories. It made me think about what that means in conjunction with current relationships, like the day-to-day aspect of the present moving forward.
What does that mean for Jessa having a relationship with this new person? How is she able to put that in perspective? Is she even able to put it in perspective if she’s constantly just rolling around in the comfortable feeling of nostalgia?
It’s so much more comfortable to think about those things that were or could have been, or the memory of them, versus the actual hard, active labor of the day-to-day work with a person that you want to pursue something with. Those things are definitely very interesting to me, so I was constantly thinking about what it means to favor the past over the present, or what it looks like.
In terms of having the sections set in the past not necessarily be in linear order, did you know you were going to do that from the outset, or did that take some time as you were revising the book?
That was the one thing I knew I wanted to do. Aside from knowing what the title was, because I’m a person that titles first, and knowing I wanted to write about this family and taxidermy and Florida, the only thing I knew I wanted to do was for it to be this structure that every other alternating chapter would be the past, and I knew that I wanted the past to be jumping around in time.
I didn’t want those to feel like they were in any order. I didn’t want them to feel linear in any way because — what does it mean to encounter the past? Encountering the past usually means seeing an object and having that memory just swim up on you.
I also love the idea of, since all that Jessa interacts with or feels comfortable with are these taxidermy pieces, the idea that they would be thematically linked to moments in her life where she was working with the kind of animal, but how they linked up with the people that she was remembering these memories of. So that was the one thing I knew I wanted to do.
I didn’t have any other idea other than writing forward into these people’s lives, that I knew I wanted to do those chapters, and I wanted them to feel like little inset movie reels, maybe. That’s why I did the italicized text in there. I wanted them to feel almost like little home movies. I wanted them to feel like choosing to sit down and flip through a scrapbook at any given moment.
When we’re in the middle of something, it seems so much less significant than the things that have already happened, than the memory of something, because we get to be the ones to shape memories.
Mostly Dead Things has a very memorable and complex family dynamic, and in some of your short fiction — I’m thinking especially of the story “The Locusts” — there’s also this very intense interconnected family dynamic that feels very true to life. What are the challenges for you in terms of creating not just characters who are realistic, but also having the bonds between them also feel as messy as families in the real world?
It is something that I’m continually interested in. I feel like there are themes that crop up in my work a lot because it’s stuff I just continue to be interested in. I’m very interested in the lives of queer women. I’m very interested in Florida as a setting and space, and I’m very, very interested in domestic dynamics. You know, how queer relationships work in a space, but also how families interact with each other, which are also messy and queer a lot of the time. And the messy places are always the most interesting to me.
If family is anything, it’s just messy a lot of the time, so it’s the most interesting to me to sit in those spaces and think about people who love each other — or want to love each other, or try really hard to love each other — [and think about] how that actually works out with people. Because we’re so complex and the idea of family is so strange, and can be really strained — the idea that you feel like you know someone, especially growing up around a large family — there’s so much to work with in there. The inferiority of what it is you feel versus the people you grew up with, and how you impose how they have to behave, or what you expect from family.
I very much wanted to write about family in that way for sure. I like thinking about things that are uncomfortable. I like thinking about the ways that we hurt each other, and sometimes I think families do that the most. The people that raise you — whoever that might be, whatever that family dynamic looks like — the people that know you the best or feel like they know you the best can maybe hurt you the most. Or you can hurt them the most.
So I think there’s just a very broad space to interrogate and investigate. Like what it means to be a mother. What it means to be a daughter. What it means to have cousins or what it means to really be cruel to someone, but at the same time know that you love them. Those dynamics are eternally interesting to me, so I find myself gravitating back to them again and again. If one day they’re not interesting to me anymore then I’ll write about something else, but that hasn’t happened yet.
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In Mostly Dead Things, the taxidermy business is established as more working class, as almost part of a barter economy where you might get some food out of the process beyond just doing work for someone. And with the advent of the gallery and a more fine art-focused use of taxidermy, taxidermy is shown as potentially lucrative but in a very different way, and perhaps for a different class of people. Is that something that you’ve sort of seen yourself? It was very interesting having that in the background of all of this.
I thought about it twofold because it did feel significant to me. The first part of it is, I think that there’s the idea of thinking about taxidermy and thinking about art; taxidermy is traditionally this very gendered, traditionally masculine kind of activity, right Especially in the South or in very gendered, structured, specific households, a masculine-identifying person can actually do hands-on crafting work and have it still remain masculine, not feel like it’s been feminized in this way. Which was interesting to me as somebody who’s very interested in how gender functions and the roles that are established, especially in households where it’s so rigid. So looking at all these conferences and the way that 99% are just men going to these things, being like, “I made art” — being able to do it but not feeling as though they have been emasculated — that was interesting to me.
But then the other half of that is because specifically, I feel like I’m writing about central Florida, Orlando, the greater Orlando area. Like there’s this — I’m not going to say gentrification of space because that’s not accurate terminology. I’m a third generation Floridian, the third generation from Orlando, watching how this space has developed and what that means with new people coming in. We’re a tourist industry spot for sure, but it’s also about the memory of place, or like how restaurants function or family-owned businesses versus what’s coming in, and how do spaces continue to exist. Do they have to morph into this kind of new thing in order to remain? And there’s this way that, in Orlando specifically, if you’re not willing to do that, you are literally bulldozed over and something is built there, and then there’s not even a memory. So there’s this idea of morphology of how a business that used to work in this working class way turns into this new space; or does it live, or does it die? What’s the requirement for how it would have to change in order to stay?
So that was something I was definitely thinking about a lot when it comes to a family-owned business, even if it’s taxidermy; this idea of, what does it have to do to remain relevant or to stay.
Thinking about what you said about art, I’m now remembering a point where I was in college, and one of my roommates showed up at our dorm and grabbed one of our other roommates and I and told us that we had to see this bizarre art that was next to where he worked. And it was one of Damien Hirst’s mid-90s works involving animal bodies — but thinking about it, that’s not too far removed from the idea of taxidermy as art.
I think the intersections of those are fascinating, right? What’s considered high art? What’s lowbrow? What are those things? That’s something that, as a person who like, lives at 7-Eleven, I’m extremely interested in. What do we consider to be tacky? What’s considered acceptable? Where are the lines drawn? What gets to be art and what does not get to be art? I think that that’s extremely interesting. Because most of the time I think the stuff that I want to look at is the stuff that’s the 7-Eleven stuff, or the stuff that’s doing this very weird work. I’m most interested in that.
Taxidermy [is] like a memory, like a preservation of something, or how you wish that that memory would look.
This is a very tangential thing, but do think that’s sort of exemplified by like the weirdness of, say, Gritty becoming this huge pop culture phenomenon and being on the cover of Artforum?
Look at Twitter. People have this craving right now for the absurd. Or there’s things that are — I don’t even want to say ugly or pretty, because I think those are really binary terms. But I think that people are interested in this idea of, what gets to fit? Who gets to say what is this thing that’s art? Who gets to say something’s lowbrow? It’s more interesting to think about how something super bizarre or something weird gets to fit into the culture: “Okay, now this gets to be art,” or, “Now this is something we’re going to analyze and make broader.” I think people have a craving for that.
Maybe I shouldn’t speak for everybody else, but I know I’m the most interested in how something that’s stupid and kind of funny — how can we examine it or look at it, or have a broader conversation about it? They don’t need to be this very flat, dimensionless thing. I keep talking about 7-Eleven because I talk about it every day of my life, but that’s a community space.
As a librarian, I think about libraries as community space. The 7-Eleven in my neighborhood is a community space that serves a function, and it’s bigger than this idea of what a convenience store would be. It’s serving multiple purposes and trying to find that bigger conversation around stuff that’s traditionally seen as tacky or low-brow, but what is this actually doing? How much bigger is it? What does it serve? It is fascinating. I think people want to have more conversations like that, which is awesome.
I grew up not far from the Jersey Shore, so this is also resonating in a big way with me because of various aspects of that part of the world. Though it’s interesting, because I don’t feel like there was as much taxidermy around where I grew up, but I can also remember driving a few hours west to Cabella’s in Pennsylvania, where there’s just literally a mountain-sized diorama of taxidermied animals. I was not used to that, but I also think that might be due to New Jersey not having guns be quite as easy to buy as some other states.
I was just up in Pennsylvania. I went to Scranton, and I was having a conversation with people there about hunting or about taxidermy, and a couple different people I was talking with while I was there said, “Oh let me show you some stuff.” And they brought up pictures on their phone. This guy showed me a picture of his rumpus room that has a bearskin rug, and every deer mounted on the wall, and it was just like full-on mounted animals like [all] around, and then like a widescreen TV. I just thought, this is extremely interesting. Because it’s this sense of, this is the room, here’s the décor I decorated with, but it’s these specific hunted animals. I am extremely interested in this. I just kept asking everybody, “Does anybody else have pictures? Go ahead and show me. I’m very interested.”
Did your feelings on taxidermy change at all over the course of writing the book?
They did. I developed a much deeper appreciation for how difficult it is to actually do a good job with making an animal look alive, and kind of reanimating them. It’s hard, and it’s deeply physical labor. I was interested in the opening of this, the positioning, the making of something. The idea of taxidermy being like a memory, like a preservation of something, or how you wish that that memory would look.
I came into it with that; but I went out of it with the sense that taxidermy is deeply physical, hard labor. People who excel at taxidermy — it is a specific, hard, difficult, beautiful craft. It takes hours and hours and hours. And to make something like that and make it look alive again, it’s literally like Frankensteining something and making it look like you’re bringing something back to life. So I think I came out of it thinking, this is not something that just anybody can do. You have to be the kind of person that can literally have your hands in the guts of something. Which is not for everybody.
I also came out of it realizing that it is hard work to make something look alive again that has died. It is hard work to actually strip the flesh of muscle. It is hard work to reconstruct bone. It’s difficult labor, and the people that do that work are very talented and have a skill. It’s very much a skilled kind of craft. So I came out with a much deeper appreciation of what it takes to make those things, I think.
In Felt in the Jaw you have a lot of stories that delve into human bodies. With the novel you have this whole component of going very in-depth with the bodies of different animals and how best to prepare them, and reanimate them. Are there other aspects of writing about bodies that you’re hoping to cover in future works?
I’m always so interested in the physicality of things, or the tactile stuff. I’m a very hands-on person, I would say. And that’s how I see the world a little, with this hands-on approach or this tactile approach. I think all the time about my interactions with pets because I have a lot of animals in my house. Even living in Florida, with all the wildlife I’m encountering — things that are alive, and have movement, and have physical presence in my space.
Also, just the idea of having a female body and what it means to navigate in that and the changes of it, and what happens as I age, or just the different things of it — the body is constantly changing, so it’s constantly interesting to me.
The next project I have, I’m thinking more about the interiority of the body. Maybe the idea is, I’m still very much interested in the body, but I’m more interested in the spirit of the thing, or maybe that’s what I’m trying to interrogate a little more because I feel like it’s less familiar ground for me. I think my writing always is spurred on by a question or something bigger that I don’t know enough about or something that’s been bothering me. So maybe I’m looking a little bit more into how the spirit animates the physical body, if that makes sense.
You’ve written about growing up in a fairly religious family, so does that interest in the spirit come out of that experience, or is it more of a reaction to it?
I grew up in an extremely evangelical household. My family all still lives very locally, and they’re very Southern Baptist. I mean, I grew up going to church four or five times a week.
In writing stuff I think I avoided that for a while because I felt like that was what I was constantly being asked to consider growing up. The idea of the spirit, the idea of the unseen, right? Like the Holy Ghost, like the idea of a presence overseeing everything you do. That’s how I grew up, and so I think when I was writing a lot of things, I really tried to veer away from thinking about it, because that’s not something I wanted to explore.
I feel like that’s been something that’s been forced on me a lot; especially growing up female in an Evangelical household, you’re specifically not supposed to think about your own body. You’re not supposed to think about the actual manifestation of the flesh.
So I was more interested in that and I think now I’m looping back into, what does this mean in terms of me? Less about how was I forced to think about things and more like how I want to think about the spirit in terms of the body. So it’s becoming this bigger, different question, but I think I’m getting to get back into it now because I’ve allowed myself to have enough space that I didn’t have [before]. I didn’t want to think about that until I was ready to think about it, and maybe I’m still not ready.
I’m more interested in thinking about it now that I’ve had a good amount of space from the idea and [I’m not] being forced to only think about that. Now I get to think about it on my own terms, and what it means in conjunction with my queerness or the physicality of things. I get to think about it however I would like to, whereas I don’t think I had the distance from it before to do that.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky