Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett had me rushing through my daily responsibilities to find time to pick this novel up again. I carried it around like a purse, savoring the moments I could crack it open and read a few paragraphs. It’s that good.
Jessa-Lynn Morton’s beloved father commits suicide in the family’s Florida taxidermy shop, where she finds him one morning. Riddled with grief and a little bit of anger, Jessa takes over the failing business as the rest of her family continues to fall apart. Still mourning her father, who taught her everything about skinning and mounting an animal, she is also grieving the loss of the only woman she has ever truly loved. Brynn, a childhood best friend and later the wife of Jessa’s brother, Milo, walks out without a word, leaving behind her two children Lolee and Bastien. Jessa, once again steps up to the plate to take care of everyone, as she herself is slowly unraveling under the weight of loss. (Read our full review here)
I spoke with Kristen over the phone where we had a wonderful discussion about place, the tactile experience of Florida within her novel, writing about queerness beyond the coming out narrative, as a lived experience and how much she loves the delete button. Check it out below!
Kailey Brennan: I was connected to Jessa’s fear of vulnerability. I think everyone has that to an extent, but the way you wrote about it resonated with me. As a writer, how do you deal with vulnerability?
Kristen Arnett: I can speak from personal experience because I'm not sure how everybody else would handle it. But as writers, we write in silos. We are writing alone. Whether I’m writing nonfiction, or a short story or writing this novel, it’s a solo activity. It’s being alone with these kinds of characters and world-building and creation. Even in an essay, asking myself questions and trying to delve into the kinds of answers I’m looking for, for myself, is a very private kind of practice of creating. The idea of having the work end up being something that your planning on giving to people becomes very vulnerable, I think. It’s a kind of intimacy that you're sharing —to create that kind of work and then decide that you're going to allow readers to engage with it because the work is no longer yours anymore. Which is good, but it also means people get to have their own experiences with it, good or bad. People get to take on these characters you've created and decide what they think about them or what things might mean. And that' a kind of vulnerability, right?
Especially if you're writing about things that might be very close to you. I know in creating this book, I was writing about things that are very close to me specifically the kind of queerness that I was looking for in writing and then also Florida — things are very dear to me. I'm writing about them in this very open way in the storyline. So I think there's an innate kind of vulnerability when it comes to creating any kind of work or art because at first it's just yours and then it's something to be shared and sharing anything is very vulnerable.
KB: Definitely. Did you ever have a moment when writing Mostly Dead Things that you thought, maybe I don’t want to put this out there?
KA: There were times where I thought, this book is garbage, so I don't want to put it out there. I mean, we're our own worst critics when it comes to our writing. There was never anything I was worried about where I was like, oh, I don't want anybody to read about this content. But there were often times when I was just really being hard on myself. But, I'm usually very hard on myself. I'm not sure if I've ever written anything and been like, wow, this is great. It’s hard to get myself to a point where I think this feels ready because nothing ever feels ready for me. But content-wise, no, I didn't have any kind of qualms about what I was talking about. It was more of how I was writing.
KB: We are definitely our own worst critics. When it’s our own work, we can be so judgemental.
KA: We are so harsh on ourselves. Something I’ve been trying to do this past year after completing the novel and throughout the process of publication is when I'm working on other work to be a little gentler on myself.
I know this sounds a little funny, but I'm my own worst critic and I might be my own biggest stumbling block. Right? In terms of creation, I give myself such a hard time that I make it harder for myself to work. So that's a thing I've been trying to do. I'm never going to be the kind of person that's 100% gung ho about my work. But just to be a little more forgiving or a little easier on myself that way I can create more or work more.
KB: I feel that. I’m always trying to get out of my own way. (Laughs) You touched on this briefly, but one of the things I liked about this novel is that it wasn’t a coming out story for Jessa. She's very confident in her queerness. Was this a conscious decision going into writing the book or did it evolve with the story?
KA: That was very purposeful for me. As a reader who is queer, I'm constantly looking for books that are doing that in the text. Where queerness is just embedded in it. I'm not as interested in reading or writing coming out narratives. There are lots of them for sure. It’s also just one moment. I know people have to come out over and over again, like I have to come out constantly. But that’s one defining moment in a coming-out narrative, just one pinpointed part of an experience. That's not what I'm looking for in reading or writing about queerness. I'm looking for the lived daily experience. What's it like to have problems with your family and you're also gay. What does it mean to work a job where it's a struggle and maybe your business is failing — also you happen to be gay. Those are the kinds of things that I want to read about, so I wanted to write the things I wanted to read.
Also, a thing I've been thinking more about lately, and as I created the book and thought more about the kind of queer literature I'm looking to read, is that a lot of times coming out narratives are centered very much on trauma. Or this kind of specific experience that I'm not sure who they're being written for. It seems to me like maybe they're being written for a straight audience. It’s kind of like rubbernecking at a car crash sometimes with some of them. I don't necessarily need to see the trauma to understand or enjoy the queerness in a text.
Specifically, in this book, I didn’t want that to be the center. She's a queer person who moves through the world as a queer person, but she's also a person who has control issues. She's a person who has intimacy issues with people in her life and with her family. She's a person who's dealing with loss and grief. Those are the stories I was interested in.
I'm also very interested in writing about sex, specifically with women who are queer. I didn't want that to feel like the kind of traditional way of, oh we have to sit and examine the emotional repercussions of people having sex. Which happens in coming out narrative sometimes. But I was just thinking, okay this is a person who just fucks sometimes, who has indiscriminate sex occasionally, as many of us do. That was also a big part of me trying to write about that specific kind of queerness in this book because I knew I wanted it to be a book where the protagonist has sex. But I didn't want it to be entrenched in that coming out narrative thing.
KB: Florida plays a huge role in this novel. Were you born and raised there? Can you speak about your connection to Florida?
KA: I'm third generation, Orlando —central Florida. So I've grown up here. My parents grew up here and my grandparents grew up here. I've never lived any place other than Florida. I've lived here in central Florida and then also close to the Gainesville area. So writing about Florida feels very specific to me just because it's been my whole life and my family's whole life.
I'm very interested in writing about place. Writing about Florida is kind of like trying to write about home because writing about home is writing about the love-hate relationship with it. Place very much feels like character to me. I knew I wanted to write a book where Florida was so embedded in it that if you took Florida out it would not be the same book. I wanted central Florida to be just as important as a character, just as important as a plotline. That's how specific I wanted place to feel —so intrinsic to what was happening in the narrative that you felt the physical presence of it.
I realized that I’m also writing about a place that traditionally gets made fun of a lot. People are always thinking about Florida man and weird Florida and things like that. And that stuff is here, but I wanted to write about place and my lived personal experience. So I’d say that this novel is very much Florida but through the lens of my eye and my physical movements through this part of the state. I wanted it to be a tactile experience.
Being in Florida, the air is so heavy, it feels like it's touching you. It feels like hands on a body. You know what it smells like to be outside with like the kind of rot or mildew or what it's like after it rains and the heat kind of like breaks the water off the pavement. Those are all specific Florida things. I also wanted to write about Florida in a way that is ugly and not as nice. I wanted it to be authentic. That was very important to me.
KB: You talk about loss in two different ways —the death of a beloved parent and the loss of love. Where these difficult subjects for you to tackle? Have you experienced grief in your own life?
KA: I'm not a person that knows a lot of the plot that I'm going to be writing when I work. I don't outline. I don't know what I want to do because I get bored so easily. If I'm writing and I feel like if I'm bored then maybe a reader is going to get bored.
So there's only a couple of things I knew going into this book. I knew that I was going to have Jessa’s father commit suicide at the very beginning of the book. I wanted to look at what it looks like when a person who has moved through life with these shitty coping mechanisms. Unhealthy coping mechanisms, that might not be productive necessarily, but they have worked around them so they can just get through their day to day life. What happens when an event occurs that finally makes it so those don't work anymore? What does that look like?
For this specific book, that event that made it for these things to not work anymore was Jessa’s father committing suicide. She's in this place where she's like, the things I've thought about myself or the ways I've been allowing myself to live and hold myself are no longer going to function the way I need them to. What does that trajectory look like when those things stop working specifically if also the other people around you in your life are also experiencing the same kind of loss and grief? What does that look like for each person?
So I'm sitting and thinking about how people process things or choose not to process thing. I don't have a specific experience like that, but when it comes to the other thing, the other thing, the loss of love, especially like first love, that's something I think that's just universal.
Being on book tour and talking to people, I hear over and over again that everybody has Brynn. Everyone has that person. You don't need to be e a queer person to be like, oh I experienced this very formative thing that now informs how I experience intimacy.
First love specifically is a thing that kind of trains us up in how we think about ourselves and other people and sometimes it's hard, especially if it's something that ends very badly. I think for specifically very young queer people being closeted —you're already trying to figure out who you are and it's confusing. Am I gay? What's going on? This is confusing and different. Then at the same time finding that first person to experience that with makes it an extremely specific kind of thing that trains us how we experience intimacy with future partners because it is this sacred thing, and first thing and very special. So the loss of that can have repercussions well into the future.
The other thing I knew writing this book was that I knew that I was never going to have Brynn be in the present. She was never going to be in any of the present tense. She was only going to exist in Jessa’s memory because she very much informs how Jessa lives and experiences intimacy and love, not only with like romantic partners but like with her family.
KB: You mentioned that you don’t outline. What does your writing process look like?
KA: I’m a person that's usually working at a bunch of projects at one time. I like to sit and work a lot. Before I wrote this novel, I considered myself to be a short fiction essay writer. Not because I didn't want to write a novel, but there hadn’t been a compulsion before. Ideas for stories would come to be as short story ideas. So the genesis for Mostly Dead Things was when I was at Kenyon Writer’s workshop. It’s a generative workshop and I was looking at a lot of really shitty pictures of taxidermy online just for fun. I decided to write this short story about a brother and sister who taxidermy a beloved pet goat for their family friend and they fuck it up really bad. I get to the end of the story and I realized I was not done with these people. I was still thinking about them all the time and not in the context of that specific story but the broader context of their lives and experiences. I was still thinking about the place I was trying to create and I was still thinking about the family and taxidermy all the time. I was like, I don't know what this means because I've never written anything this long before. But I guess it means that it's something bigger. And I don't know if that means a novel or what. But I wanted to allow myself to try and write into it.
So writing his specific book, I gave myself two rules. (I'm also a librarian and so I was like, oh, process procedures) The first was write Monday through Friday, a thousand words a day.
I can write more than that a day if I want to, but I can't write less. I can write on the weekends if I want to, but don't have to. Every week I'll get 5,000 words done, 20,000 words a month. By the end of several months, I'll look and see what it is at the end of it. The other rule I gave myself was, I didn’t let myself edit as I wrote the draft. I would only let myself read the last paragraph I wrote and then I couldn't touch it. I thought that if I let myself edit like I do on a sentence level or a short story that I would not finish or I would delete it.
All I cared about with just getting the draft of it out. I knew it was going to be a garbage pile when I was done, but it would be something that I can go in and look at it.
By the beginning of November, I had like a hundred thousand words or something in a word document. So I was like, okay, close this up, look at it in the new year — look at it in January, and then maybe you'll feel a little more inclined to be kinder to yourself while you're looking at it. I opened it back up in January and it was a dumpster fire. But I feel like that about all my work. I went through for the next six months, daily, just editing it. So basically, the process for this book was that I just had to get it out and then whittle it down.
KB: Do you have any advice that you heard over the years or any advice that that has helped you, that you would want to pass on to other younger writers who are kind of in the beginning stages of writing?
KA: Yeah. Don't be afraid to delete stuff. I've been talking to a lot of people about this recently and I've heard very interesting responses. I just love to delete shit. I love getting rid of stuff, cleaning up, tighten up and scraped stuff out. A big part of that is I'm a person that repeats myself, in my daily conversational life but its also habitual in my writing. So when I'm going through I'm trying to delete those instances of repetition because I think a big part of writing fiction, even I do this in essay work, is I'm trying to figure out what it is I'm trying to say. So it's me writing the same thing, a lot of different ways and then realizing I've written it that many ways because I want to see the best way to say it so I have to go back through and delete.
Also sometimes you can think, oh, if I delete this, maybe I'll never be able to write this thing again. I won't write it as well. That's not how it works. We're writers and we'll be able to write it again. I think people have this grasp of the things they've written, and they don’t want to lose them.If you can barely to hit delete, keep a document and you just chuck it in there. Think about it like leftovers. Hitting delete is not a problem for me. But I know people do have that problem. They need to have a security of it being in there just in case.
But I think it needs to be okay to just delete stuff. Because I think, again, we’re so harsh critics of ourselves. We write this thing and people are like, well maybe I'll never write a sentence that's like that again. Even if the sentence doesn't fit in there, they keep it.
I think that's like deceptive to us. We're working and we're writing, and we are going to write lots of different kinds of things, so deleting that one thing isn't going to kill you, right?
Kristen Arnett is the NYT best selling author of the debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, '19). She is a queer fiction and essay writer. She was awarded Ninth Letter's Literary Award in Fiction and is a columnist for Literary Hub and her work has appeared at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, McSweeneys, PBS Newshour, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her story collection, Felt in the Jaw, was published by Split Lip Press and was awarded the 2017 Coil Book Award. You can find her on Twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett