Bookforum talks with Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett. Photo: Maria Jones

Kristen Arnett has an enviable knack for creating dark comedy. I’m often unsure of whether to laugh or gasp at her work (I usually end up doing both). When we meet Jessa-Lynn Morton, the narrator of Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, her father has recently died by suicide and she has been left in charge of the family taxidermy business. Jessa-Lynn and her brother are also dealing with another loss: Brynn, Jessa-Lynn’s sister-in-law who also happens to be her first love, has left her husband and her lover without warning, leaving the brokenhearted siblings to care for the children she abandoned. This strange, queer romp through love and loss is set in Central Florida, which Arnett renders with such care that it becomes its own humid, buzzing character. I talked with Arnett about taxidermy as an art form, her love of 7-Eleven, and the growing canon of Florida literature.

You had your book launch at your local 7-Eleven. Tell me about your love of 7-Eleven and how this kind of Americana informs your work.

There is a stigma attached to convenience stores that very much speaks to me—this idea of tackiness that is associated with them has also long been associated with Florida. I think a lot about what gets to be taken seriously and what does not. I am interested in places like this because they are looked down upon, but we also spend a tremendous amount of time in them. I love the hell out of my 7-Eleven. I love how it smells, how the lights sound all buzzing overhead, the noise of the Slurpee machine revving up. There is something so comforting to me about a convenience store. Mine particularly has felt like a home when other places have not—I spent last Christmas there, talked with them about my book getting picked up, shared champagne at the front of the store when I finally got an agent. We’ve shared success and loss. It’s essentially my Cheers: a place where everybody knows my name. Also, it’s the place they stock my favorite beer, so I’ll love 7-Eleven forever.

Florida is so alive in Mostly Dead Things that it becomes its own character. There’s a tenderness to how you describe the landscape, in all its mugginess and despair. How did you approach writing about Florida?

I really wanted to write about the specific Central Florida that I experienced growing up. I wanted to write about a Florida that was so embedded in the text that you couldn’t scrape it out without changing the book entirely. Living in Florida is so ridiculously physical and tactile. The air presses on you. Animals crawl into your home. Plants try and take back the yard. You hear bugs scream all night. It is a very in-your-face kind of physicality that is home for me.

There have been a lot of wonderful books set in Florida in the last decade, like Sunshine State, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Florida, and Swamplandia!, to name just a few. Do you consider yourself part of a new genre of Florida literature?

Florida is so broad and myriad. It contains so many of us, and I am truly lucky to be around and writing in a time when we’re able to explore its queerness and see how so many different kinds of people live and work and create together here. One book that I have been very excited about is Jaquira Diaz’s Ordinary Girls, which is a memoir about growing up in Miami.

For much of the novel, Jessa-Lynn is fixated on her ex-lover, Brynn, who is no longer in her life physically but remains alive in her mind. In her job as a taxidermist, Jessa-Lynn preserves things that are no longer living. You’ve written that “taxidermy is memory . . . a way to keep that one good moment with you, forever.” Do you see a connection between Jessa’s preservation of her past relationship and her work as a taxidermist?

I think so many of us preserve memories in this exact way. We take a specific time of our life with another person and we memorialize it and shape it in our heads. We view it through our own personal lens—one that’s not necessarily accurate to the other person’s experience. Similarly, taxidermy is posing, structuring, re-creating an event that may not have actually taken place in that exact way.

I also think that our first loves and romantic interests as teenagers have a way of shaping future intimacies and relationships, especially when you are young and queer. You’re already dealing with so much: trying to understand your own self, mind, and body, your wants and needs. Add another person into that equation and of course it would make things even more fraught and meaningful. It seems very natural to me that those first young, queer loves would absolutely be preserved in our memories and that we would carry them forward into many future relationships.

In an essay for Hazlitt, you write that “writing a novel about taxidermy meant that I was thinking about dead things all day long.” What was that like?

It was actually a lot of fun! I am a librarian in my day job, so it was great to spend so much time doing intensive research. So much of taxidermy is about death, sure, but it is also about process and procedure. It is a craft, an art that people take very seriously. It was interesting to think about death this way. With taxidermy, you’re not necessarily thinking about things being dead, but being resurrected. It’s a way to look at death as a rebirth—an opportunity to start again and make something from the remains.

Genevieve Hudson is the author of the story collection Pretend We Live Here and the forthcoming novel Boys of Alabama.