Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, follows taxidermist Jessa-Lynn Morton as she attempts to navigate the various aftermaths of her father’s suicide. The novel is a darkly funny and moving look at life, death, art, love, Florida, and dysfunctional family.
A queer fiction and essay writer, Arnett has previously been published in North American Review, The Normal School, and Gulf Coast, and Literary Hub, among others. She was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction and also won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut story collection, Felt in the Jaw, published by Split Lip Press. Mostly Dead Things was released last week from Tin House Books.
Kristen was kind enough to grant me an interview via Skype. After evading some surprise Florida rain and introducing me to her dog, we got to talking about her transition from short prose to a novel, writing queer narratives, and the art of taxidermy.
The Rumpus: Until now, you’ve been mostly known for your short stories and essays. What was it like transitioning from writing short prose to a novel? How long have you been working on Mostly Dead Things?
Kristen Arnett: I would say majority of the time before writing this particular book, I considered myself mainly a short fiction writer—and essay work—but what happened was I was working on this short story several years ago—I guess like, five years ago now—and it was about a brother and a sister taxidermy-ing a goat and they fuck it up really bad, and it’s like this story of them trying to figure out what they’re going to do with this animal that they’ve basically destroyed and they have to give it to someone. It was the first time I came to the end of the story and I didn’t feel like I was done with them.
Usually in the trajectory of me working on a short story, I get to the end and I feel like it’s complete; I don’t feel the need to explore anything further. So, I just decided I’d use it as a kind of experiment. I didn’t toss out the short story, I just set it aside and said I’m going to open something else up and I’m going to write about these people and try and see where it goes. And I hadn’t ever written anything that lengthy before, so I gave myself—very librarian of me—I gave myself parameters to work within. So, I started in June and I was like, during the work week, I’ll write a thousand words a day in this document and by the time I get to a certain amount of words, I’ll look at it and see what I have. And I didn’t let myself go back in and edit, because normally that’s what I do with a short story and I knew if I did that with something this large, I wouldn’t be able [to finish].
Rumpus: You had an essay published in Hazlitt where you relate the poetic functions of taxidermy and some of your research process for the novel. I’m still wondering though: what got you interested in writing about taxidermy in the first place? Is it something you’d already had personal experience with?
Arnett: It’s a very good question, because living in Florida my whole life, there’s a lot of taxidermy. If you’re in the South, there’s a lot of taxidermy, but Florida has a lot of spaces where there’s little pop-up places for taxidermy, places like Bass Pro Shops and there’s a HUGE taxidermy display—so it was something I’d always had familiarity with.
I wouldn’t say I had hands-on experience with it, but I immediately began looking into everything I could about it. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. You would be surprised how many YouTube videos you can watch about legit taxidermy-ing something horrible, so there was a lot of that. I wanted to experience the taxidermy—not necessarily in its contemporary forms because there’s a lot of things now, these pre-made mold kits you can use—of twenty years ago, thirty years ago, so I bought a lot of old-school, vintage manuals that show you “how-to from your home,” like for the novice-type taxidermist. I went on a lot of old-school web forums where people go in and talk about like, oh, tips and tricks for how to do stuff. There’s also like, specializations that are super embedded in it: people who are very good at birds or their specialty is fish, or even people who just do mouths, like deer mouths or things like that. It was really fascinating. It spoke a lot to me about how I feel about crafting, or like making—it’s like makerspace.
And it’s also this way of masculinity being able to access crafting, but still being able to say, “Oh it’s not feminine, it’s a dead animal!” It’s a way that maybe some men are still able to access making or creating without feeling. So that’s interesting to explore also, I think, because taxidermy is something that traditionally, I would say, is mostly men performing in taxidermy ‘cause it has that correlation with hunting.
Rumpus: One thing I sincerely appreciated about Jessa’s story as a queer narrative is that (much like real life, of course) it’s more nuanced than “coming out.” I also thought this book does a great job of moving beyond the kind of trauma story that non-Southerners might expect to read in regard to a queer person living in the South. Could you share your opinion on the importance of moving beyond coming out stories?
Arnett: Yeah, that’s something that really speaks to me personally, because—well, first of all, there’s nothing wrong with coming out stories, right? They’re important; they serve a purpose. But for me, I felt like what I was missing all the time in reading or looking for queer narratives was just queer lives lived without the opening salvos of whatever’s happening with that. I just wanted to experience the daily lived experience. And also, it was very important to me to be writing a book where the person was queer, but the main through-line was not [her queerness], like that wasn’t the argument or the thing that she was dealing with with people. I wanted it to be something that affects the problems she has, but I didn’t want it to be a story where she has all these arguments with her parents about “you don’t accept me.”
But I feel like—and I think this is a big part of queer narrative also—that lots of times, it’s the thing that’s in the room that’s just not discussed? Like, it’s a known entity and it’s there, but it’s not something that people are sitting around and having a conversation about. So, the things that I wanted them to have conversations about were the relationship things; those things need to have conversation, but the idea of discussing sexuality in that way just doesn’t happen in a lot of households, especially not for the people I’m writing about. These aren’t the type of people who would be sitting around trying to have a heart-to-heart conversation about what it means to be queer in a family like that—that’s just not a conversation that would happen that way. And a lot of people don’t have conversations in that way; there’s just not an openness in that way. So I wanted it to be a book that was about trying to navigate being queer in a family where you feel like you don’t know your place in it, but also at the same time, where you feel like you are trying your best and it’s not successful, or the ways you’ve made for yourself to navigate it are no longer working and you have to reassess to try and see what ways will work. Because I think so much of the time, too, that trying to navigate spaces as a queer person is like, this thing that worked for me doesn’t work anymore and now I have to figure out something else—you know, those weird coping mechanisms that everyone has. So, I was very adamant that I wanted this to be a queer book, but I wanted it to be about a queer woman in a family, not about “how” she was queer; that was something I didn’t think needed to be talked about in that kind of way.
And that’s the thing, too. I just want to read more books where there are more queer people in them. Sometimes I do think—not all the time, but sometimes—who’s the audience for this coming out narrative? Or for this narrative where people are experiencing trauma? And sometimes it is just this kind of trauma porn, where we see queer people feeling bad or not loved because it’s a way for people to look at it and try to experience the pain of it. And I just don’t necessarily want to see the pain of something all the time, or at least, not in that kind of way. I want to see the broader spectrum of how queerness functions and sometimes it’s just… boring, you know? [Laughs] Sometimes it’s just stupid.
Rumpus: The novel is split into two major sections, SKINNING and MOUNTING, and then “present” chapters are interwoven with backstory scenes entitled with the Latin name of animals being worked on. How did you decide on utilizing this particular narrative structure?
Arnett: I would say that very early on during the writing of it I realized that was something I wanted it to do. I wanted it [the story] to be this back and forth of the present and the past. I wanted the present to be this linear line moving steadily forward, and I wanted the past, as it functions, to feel as if it comes to you like a memory. I also envisioned it as sewing, you know, the moving in and out of time; I wanted to feel that kind of jagged line connecting and pulling, like the thread pulling together.
So much of life for Jessa is remembering things in these snippets that come back to her in the memories of the animals that she’s worked on. It felt like it needed to be woven together that way, because then it felt like taxidermy, this kind of meshing of the things and then sewing it up. But it was easier to make those past pieces fit because I could move them around; I didn’t do too much moving of those, actually, but some—some didn’t make it in and some did. Those were easier because they’re memories and we can kind of decide which memories we want to like. I knew pretty early on I wanted it to be this back and forth of these things because so much of this particular family is living in this space that’s the past.
Rumpus: While reading the novel, I couldn’t help seeing the implicit comparisons between writing and working in taxidermy: the process of crafting a piece, of getting to know your subject from the inside out to extremes. Was this comparison present for you? How did it inform your writing?
Arnett: It is something I’ve definitely thought about, ‘cause I am a person who likes to make things. I like to embroider; I like to make crafts; I’m very interested in repurposing the domestic. So taxidermy, like I said, speaks to a lot of that, but so does writing, right? Like, so much as disassembling or trying to rebuild; especially for myself when it comes to writing personal essay or anything like that, it’s having a question and then trying to deconstruct that thing, to get at the heart of what it is that I actually am trying to ask—maybe that’s part of being a librarian, too [laughs] ‘cause sometimes at the reference desk, it’s like, what is this person actually asking me? So sometimes I’m asking that of myself: what is it that I’m actually trying to know? Maybe this is what I think I want to know, but when I get down into it and dig in, it turns out that the thing I actually am exploring is bigger or completely different or just tangential to what it is.
And I think that definitely is part of a writing process, right? Especially writing something where you’re discovering those characters as you’re building a world, it’s kind of like digging into them and trying to figure out how they tick or how they work, or what makes them behave certain kinds of ways, why do they make the choices that they make—and also sometimes trying to evade that. So, I would say it was just as hard trying to get to know these characters as it was to know what I think about anything. [Laughs] Because I don’t know what I think about anything a lot of times, so a lot of times I feel like [my characters] don’t know either. It was elusive to try and figure out why they would process things. I mean, so much of it is—especially in the editing of work, it feels like trying to stitch things together or collaging, trying to build the mosaic of a life or lived experience. So I think those art forms connect in lots of different ways, but it felt easy to write about taxidermy.
The parts that were hard were when I realized how much of the taxidermy reflects how [Jessa] feels about engaging with things, like the idea of control or being able to build and make it so it can be this steady thing that she can keep as memory, you know? Like, if I do the exact steps that I need to do, then I can preserve, and I keep this thing the exact way I want it to be. And that’s how we work with nostalgia, that’s how we work with memory, and sometimes we’re trying to maintain things in this kind of way. And it’s either not healthy or you know you just can’t; we can’t make things stay the way we want them to. Those things are dead; they can’t be resuscitated. I felt like it was an exploration while I did that; there was a lot of correlation, I think, between making and writing, and realizing that characters are hard to know.
Photograph of Kristen Arnett by Maria Jones.