Change Is Necessary: A Conversation with Kristen Arnett

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If you’re on Twitter, you probably know Kristen Arnett for her love of junk food, hilarious possum photos, awful dating advice, and adorable pet family. But if you don’t know Kristen Arnett’s fiction, you might be surprised. The humor in these stories is dark and understated, and the prose is laden with an ache and nuance not found in a mere 140 (or even 280!) characters.

Arnett’s debut collection Felt in the Jaw (Split Lip Press, August 2017), presents the reader with a cast of characters—primarily queer women—grappling with intimacy, loneliness, and family in ways both large and small. In the title story, a spider bite prompts an encounter between the main character and her ex; elsewhere, two women approach a pastor about holding their wedding in his church, and a research librarian attempts to connect with her son via text message. Throughout, Arnett renders the delicate balance of vulnerability and strength, beauty, and ugliness that animates the lives of her characters.

Last fall, while the Florida writer weathered the perils of Hurricane Irma, I emailed with Arnett.

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The Rumpus: One thing that excites me is that this is a book that is unapologetically, and almost without exception, about the lives of queer women. For you, what makes queer literature? Queer characters, but what else?

Kristen Arnett: A lot of time I’m thinking about what “queer writing” means. Most of the time I’m not sure. So it’s something I’m trying to suss out in my work, with my characters. I think there’s a lot of confusion in identity. In how we feel about our bodies and our sexuality, in how we feel about intimacy with other people or how we express it? Queerness, to me, is all these things. Mostly I’m trying to figure out how people relate to each other.

Rumpus: Your epigraph is from Dorothy Allison, a queer, working-class writer from the South whose aesthetic resonates with your own: “Change, when it comes, cracks everything open.”

Arnett: Dorothy Allison is the person who made me want to become a writer. I first read Bastard Out of Carolina when I was fourteen years old. I remember sitting down to read that book, scrambling through it in a night, kind of clawing at the pages, needy, and just sobbing the entire time. It was the first time I read work where I could feel myself in the pages. The first time I encountered writing and thought, oh God, this is what I want. This is what I need to do. So when I thought about something to use as an opener, I immediately thought of that quote and of Dorothy. Change can be a destructive force, certainly, but it’s also this cracking open to the new, a world builder. Most of us struggle against change, fight it hard, but it’s the thing that always comes regardless of what we want. So change is painful—in the body, in the mind. But it’s also necessary.

Rumpus: Flannery O’Connor, whose interest in the experience of being an outsider, in the paired ugliness and beauty of Southern life, feels relevant to these stories, too. Are you the kind of writer who considers your influences?

Arnett: I think anyone who reads can’t help but be influenced by writers we admire. Reading is so integral to writing. I’d say that writers that I admire absolutely have influenced me over the course of my life. I can see it in drafts of stories I’ve done. How a phrase turns out. Images I’ve chosen. Dorothy Allison is one of those writers, certainly. I greatly admire the work of Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Randa Jarrar, Danielle Evans, Lori Ostlund, Amelia Gray, Joy Williams, Alexander Chee. I’d be proud if anyone saw influences of them in my work, but mostly I just feel lucky that I’ve had the privilege to read any of them.

Rumpus: The story “Blessing of the Animals” contains the best (and, okay, maybe the only) description I’ve ever read of a character grappling with menstrual cup. Besides commending you on what is obviously an important literary accomplishment, I want to point to this an example of the way that you’re so frank in your portrayal reality of women’s—and particularly queer women’s—lives. As ridiculous as it is, I think we’re still trying to throw off this idea that stories about women’s lives or the domestic sphere are these pastel-toned confections, and I admire the way that, in so many of these stories, you’re really clear about how gruesome the domestic can be.

Arnett: I actually workshopped this story a couple years ago at Tin House with Sam Chang and we talked a lot about the fact that most stories don’t include menstruation—which is kinda wild, if you think about it. Half the population is bleeding all over the place one week a month and yet there aren’t any stories that involve it? I mean, think about how many stories you’ve read where you have to read about some dude’s morning boner. I’m very interested in menstruation, for sure, but I am also super interested in the body. How it tricks and confuses us. I wrote this story after my first experience using a menstrual cup. I remembered thinking how weird and private it was, but also thought about how many people were using them? Wondered about the idea that women use public bathrooms and are grappling with things seated inside their bodies—only to pretend that nothing happened once they come out of the stall? So for me the domestic has become this thing I am examining with an eye on how we try and hide these private moments, even though we maybe shouldn’t.

Rumpus: Your writing catches the reader off guard—the way that we might think a story is starting to proceed according to a certain convention, and then you can surprise us with some turn. “The Locusts” begins with this beautifully rendered, idyllic description of kids playing in the fall, and just at the bottom of the first page, the little boy, Charlie, puts a whole acorn in his mouth, and his cousin, Brandy, smacks him on the back and interrupts this lovely autumnal scene with this line, “Don’t be gross… What if a dog peed on that?”

There are so many things that I love about this turn—one, the way that it seems like a realistic portrayal of a kid, in all her inelegance—but at the same time, the way it serves as a really elegant microcosm for so much of the story’s tension: between the innocence of these child characters and the ugliness that the story contains.

Arnett: This is something that speaks to me, I think, when I wonder about human interactions. This idea that intimacy and beauty are snuggled directly up against the butt end of something ugly. In that story, specifically, I was remembering being a child in Florida and how so many things that were just lush and lovely and verdant were also, at the same time, deadly and swampy and ready to smother you. Florida, in turns, is this gorgeous, miracle of a land that’s also ready to kill you. So I think a lot in these dichotomies, these instances of pretty/ugly, or of safety/danger. It feels very natural to me.

Rumpus: Anyone familiar with your Twitter knows that you are an extremely funny person, but these are not what I would call funny stories. What is the role of humor in your writing? In your writing life?

Arnett: Here’s what I think about being funny: it’s hard to do on a good day. Trying to be funny in fiction? Jesus. Also I’d say that in fiction, I’m usually thinking a lot about the interior narrative of characters, and let’s be real, the interior of our narratives is not usually funny. What is it like for anybody on a regular day? Boring. Annoying. Usually something they’re just trying to get through. It’s all fucking bonkers bad. It’s terrible. Why do people use humor? Man, I dunno. I know why I use humor a lot—so I can bypass a lot of the unwanted, very uncomfortable shit in my life. I think writing that into fiction is very good, very important skill—definitely not one I have access to, at least not at this point in my life. A lot of the time I’m thinking about fiction as a way to look at intimacy, and even though intimacy is funny, it’s not always funny ha-ha, it’s usually funny like oh SHIT my life is going wrong in a bad kinda way.

Rumpus: Place is obviously so important in this collection: on virtually every page, I can feel the what you call in your essay, “The Problem With Writing About Florida,” the “wet, sticky, violent” energy of the setting. What are the ways that Florida shapes these stories?

Arnett: Listen, I am always up to talk about Florida. I think place informs my fiction because it’s something that’s so entrenched in me. I think about Florida, I live in Florida, I wanna write about Florida. I don’t really know any other place to write about because this is the place that’s all sunk into me—and I’m not sure I’d wanna write about anywhere else? I’d say that place shapes most stories. Home, or this concept of a home-place, is something I’m always looking for. Nature and wildlife and weather and everything in Florida creeps into your house, into your car, inside every building and nook and cranny. It wouldn’t be feasible to write stories that take place here and not have them invade everything! My favorite Floridas in literature are ones that embrace the fact that Florida is myriad and shifting—Karen Russell does a great job with this, and so does Lauren Groff in her short fiction. It’s not rooted in any one thing. I hate all the tropes that skew Florida as skeezy or cheap. Ones that treat the peninsula as one big city without considering how many different kinds of people live here, how varied our culture really is.

Rumpus: And of course, in keeping with the setting, we get quite a few animals in this collection—the birds flying constantly into the windows in “Aberrations in Flight,” but also squirrels and cats and dogs and lots of insects, the spider in the title story. Why are animals so important to your fiction?

Arnett: First of all, I just absolutely love animals. So that’s an easy answer. Also, bringing it back to Florida, you can’t live here without experiencing them. You live with them, they live with you. Especially bugs. They’re in your food and your house and your bathroom. There’s no avoiding them. So a lot of the time now I try and think about animals in writing as taking up just as much space as the human characters.

Rumpus: There are plenty of stories where the animals are reduced to a symbol or a device, but you seem to have a knack for using them in ways that feel organic. How do you approach that?

Arnett: I’ll be honest—I have no idea! I’m glad they read organically, though. Maybe the closest answer I can give about that is animals are just always around us—around me—so they kind of flit in and out of focus. A good example of this, for me, would be lizards. They’re everywhere here, all the time. I just hardly even see them or notice them anymore. But when a person comes from out of state to visit, they’re always struck dumb by the massive quantities of them and suddenly I’m seeing them, too. So maybe animals work like that in fiction. They’re just present and they squirm in without me even realizing what’s happened?

Rumpus: When is it appropriate to kill a fictional dog?

Arnett: Oh GOD! I can’t answer that—maybe never??

Rumpus: What’s the relationship between your stories and your essays? There are certainly ways in which a piece like your “The Queer Erotics of Handholding in Literature” intersect with your fiction writing about women’s relationships with one another. And the kind of scene-setting and storytelling you do in the “Florida” essay is absolutely of a piece with what happens in the stories here. So when do you find yourself moving toward nonfiction rather than fiction or vice versa? How do you approach these different registers or modes?

Arnett: This is something I’ve been grappling with a lot—how do I write these two things and how do I work inside them? Recently, I’ve been examining my process for writing fiction. I know that when I work on an essay, it’s generally because I have a question that’s been bothering me and I write to work through that, to try and come to some kind of conclusion. It usually blooms from the inside out. I wind up with more questions, usually. With fiction, it will start with an image. Some sentence. A billboard I see at the side of the road. I work through that in a completely different way, usually like word vomit, getting a draft done in a day or so. I feel immersed inside my essays, like my self is inextricable from them. In my fiction, I usually feel like I am hovering above it, bird-like. Lately I’ve been wondering how to apply practices I use for essay toward writing fiction. See if I can apply that immersive quality to writing it. So far, it’s been a challenge.

Rumpus: And now you’re working on a novel… Can you give me a sneak preview?

Arnett: I can definitely talk to you about that! I’ve been working on my novel for the last two and a half years. It’s about a lesbian taxidermist in Central Florida who takes over her family’s taxidermy shop.

I would say that writing the novel was… interesting for me. I’m primarily a short story writer, that’s how my brain wants to process fiction, so this book was a surprise to me. The way it worked out was I was writing a short story and when I got to the end of it, just felt like there was more to say. It didn’t feel complete. Like there was more to discover with the characters? So I just decided to go with it.

Rumpus: What do you see as the relationship between the time you spend on Twitter and your writing life? Can Twitter have a productive role in the life of the modern writer?

Arnett: Godbless, Twitter is a real time suck for me! I’d say I use it for a few reasons, but the top two would be for a little bit of a release—like a good way to just sit and bullshit around and look at things that are funny or weird—and another way I’ve felt it’s been helpful to me is to find and make friends with other writers and to get access to work that maybe I wouldn’t see if I didn’t use the site. I think it’s easy to use Twitter as a distraction from writing, and I am very guilty of it. I don’t tell myself I can’t use it, at least not yet, but maybe that’s in my future if I can’t step away from the possum pictures!

Rumpus: There’s your star turn in the New York Times, which ran an article on your planned book launch, taking place in your neighborhood 7-Eleven. One angle on this, of course, is that it’s the greatest small press publicity stunt of recent memory—however, I believe with utter conviction that, given your deep and genuine love for 7-Eleven, what is actually happening here is the gorgeous coming together of true passion and a top-notch human interest story.

First, can we talk about what it was like to find out Felt in the Jaw would be mentioned in the New York Times? And then, can we take a second to get deep about the sociological significance of having a book launch in a convenience store?

Arnett: I’d say that it was completely surreal—still feels like a funny dream I had! So it was a really nice experience. As for having the launch at 7-Eleven, it all stemmed from just wanting to feel comfortable. I was thinking a lot about the experience of putting a book out in the world, how time consuming it is, how much of yourself you put into it, so when it came time to launch, I just really wanted it to be somewhere that made me feel happy and good. For me, that’s 7-Eleven. I think a lot of people maybe related to the piece because we are all very committed to these types of spaces in our lives. I think art should embrace the actual nuance of people’s lived experiences. For me, that is my life, and I’m happy for it. There are probably lots of great ways to do this—lots of places outside of the normal established practice that would be fun for readings and for presenting work. To be honest, though, I just really wanted to be in my happy place.

Rumpus: While we’re talking career, I’d also like to take this opportunity to point out that you’re a great example of a really successful, exciting, well-connected emerging writing without an MFA. Can you talk a little bit about your education in writing outside that? What advice do you give to people who want to end up where you are?

Arnett: I don’t have an MFA—I have an MLIS (Masters in Library and information science). I’d say that if you want to write, you’re gonna write, regardless of a degree. That is maybe my best advice, aside from reading anything you can get your hands on. Reading makes you a better writer, and writing makes you a better writer. For me, I just decided that no matter what, I was going to write every single day. If you’re passionate about something, if you really want to do that thing, you’ll find a way to make it happen.


Maggie Cooper is a fiction writer and maker of fruit pies. She graduated from the MFA University of North Carolina at Greensboro and attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop in 2016. You may follow her on Twitter @frecklywench. More from this author →