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Sex, Death, And Florida: A Conversation With Kristen Arnett

Books

Her new novel, 'Mostly Dead Things,' is a dark, hilarious, twisting journey into the lives of one Florida family

You'd be pretty safe in the assumption that Kristen Arnett's debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, has, within its pages, an abundance of dead bodies—the word "dead" is right there in the title, after all. Then, too, the novel is primarily set in a family taxidermy business, presently run by Jessa-Lynn Morton, who's taken over the operation after her father kills himself in the shop. But what you might not guess right away is the way in which Arnett prioritizes the body in all its forms—when it's dead, yes, but also when it's at its most vital; when it is pulsing with arousal, wracked with grief, thrumming with the business of being alive.

"I knew that this was going to be a physical book," Arnett told me. "I wanted it to feel like you were seeing the pores in someone's skin."

More than just seeing the pores, you see the sweat glistening within those pores, you see the hairs sprouting out of the finely etched map of a person's skin, you see—you practically smell—the fecund mixture of period blood and other bodily secretions that come together during a sex-filled Florida night. And then, more than just seeing these things, you feel them; in Mostly Dead Things, Arnett reflects the riotous experience of life and death—and everything in between—in a truly visceral way, offering readers a glimpse into an imagined world that feels grounded in a very specific reality.

It's the story of the Morton family, and of Jessa in particular; she's a young woman who has not just lost her father, but also her lover, Brynn, who walked out on both Jessa and Jessa's brother, Milo, to whom Brynn was married. It's a lot to deal with, and Jessa does so as imperfectly as do we all when confronted with true grief. But within those imperfections, within all that messiness, is a story of survival, of family, of recovery, of sex, of love, and of the wild weirdness of Florida.

Below, I talk with Arnett about all these things, about how she knew this narrative was worth exploring at novel-length, about the importance of writing about queer sex, and about how bodies are ugly and beautiful all at once.

Photo by Maria Jones

You've previously released a short story collection. What made this specific narrative stand out to you as being a novel?
Before crafting this particular book, I considered myself to be a short fiction and essay writer. [But] I was writing a short story about a brother and sister who decided to taxidermy a neighbor's goat, and they really just fuck it up. They have a terrible time with this goat. As I was writing that short story, I was completely enthralled with it. By the time I got to the end of it, I realized that I was having a strange feeling. I was like, What's this weird feeling? Oh, I'm not done with the characters. That had never happened to me while I was writing a short story, because, usually, I have the arc, it feels complete to me when I'm writing about characters. This was the first time when I had a realization where I wanted to know more about these people, I wanted to explore the relationship between them and wanted to think more broadly than I'd ever done before... I was fascinated by the dynamics between them, and it was really interesting thinking about the taxidermy. I was interested in researching that and finding out more. That was something that I couldn't let go of and decided that I needed to just go with it and stick to writing something that big—even though it wasn't something that I had done before.

The book goes back and forth between the present and past—many different points in the past. Was that always the structure you had in mind?
That was the one thing that I knew that I wanted to do. Usually, when I go into any writing project, I don't know what is going to happen in it. I think that's fun for me. I think that if I know how a story is going to end or I know what's going to happen in it, it feels like then maybe the readers will know that too. So, the one thing that I did know was that I wanted to do these alternating chapters where the present is moving forward in this very linear fashion in a specific timeline, but the past I wanted to feel like how memory feels. So, every other chapter would be something based around a specific type of taxidermy animal. I wanted [the characters] to pop around, and I wanted it to function how memory works for us: Seeing something or smelling something or hearing something brings up a memory, it jogs your brain. That was how the book was always laid out as I was writing. I would write a chapter in the present, then a chapter in the past, and I would work through like that. It was definitely the only thing I knew I wanted to do. Well, I knew I wanted it to be Florida; I knew the characters and the family; I knew I wanted it to be taxidermy. The layout was always there from the beginning, because it felt natural to me.

This is a novel that deals with grief and loss in a very visceral—a literally visceral—way. How does it feel for you, as a writer, to immerse yourself in writing about grief and loss and death for such a long time?
I think that, as I was writing it, I started out thinking about the physical aspects of death or the body, because that is something that I'm really interested in all the time. Taxidermy lends itself to allowing me to explore the parameters of what it means to encounter a dead thing, or to have to open a body to take something and position it and remake it; the physicality of it and the strength it requires—there's also mental strength required to do that. The more I thought of that and the more I thought about the practice and production of doing it, doing something repetitively over and over, it kind of makes you immune to it or not feeling it as much. I was thinking very deeply about the interior, the mind, and how people get through grief. In some ways, it's trying to ignore something, which can only go on for so long. In some ways, it's immersing yourself completely. I think there are different kinds of ways… I thought a lot about the idea of control, because I think that control is a way to handle a lot of things—maybe not the most healthy way, but to me, that was the most interesting thing to explore.

Spending all this time thinking about it was interesting because I began thinking, Okay, what does it mean to not allow yourself to deal with something? Does it mean you find workarounds? How many forms can grief take? The answer to that is myriad. There are many, many ways that grief finds a way to settle into you. It was interesting, and I think it was most interesting to me because starting out thinking about the physical form of death or how we physically handle bodies, and then from there going to thinking about being inescapable in your brain, the idea of cutting it off, it's still sitting there waiting there for you to deal with in some capacity. I feel like I spent a lot of time thinking about that, especially doing edits, I was really with those people all the time, and they were frustrating me. [laughs]

Reading this book is an incredibly visceral experience; it's so centered around bodies and their functions and how they are after they stop functioning. There's period blood, vomit, spit, crusty eyes; there's crusty lips and mold and stubble. What is the importance of putting that kind of physicality in your writing?
I'm fascinated by it. It's something that I think about a lot, the actual mechanics and the day-to-day movements of the body. The human body is beautiful but disgusting. There is beauty in that ugliness, I think, a lot of the time. It's not a binary, either, things aren't necessarily only ugly or beautiful... they're fluid.

Also, just specifically writing so much about women and anatomy, it was very important to me to have a period's function in there, it felt like something that a majority of the population deals with. I find myself, as a reader looking for it a lot in text and I hardly ever find it. But [menstruation is] something that women deal with alone or can deal with during sex; queer women, it can be something that you're both dealing with. It was very important to me to get the physical aspects of the body, because sex is very physical, and this is a book that has a lot of sex in it; it talks a lot about different kinds of sex and different ideas about how sex could or should function. When we're intimate with people, there is this thing where when someone wakes up next to you and they have bad breath or their eyes are all crusty, and it doesn't matter. The intimacy is that that person is there, there's a beauty to it. It's a tenderness.

Crafting this book, I knew that this was going to be a physical book, and I wanted it to feel like you were seeing the pores in someone's skin.

And things like grief, love, and lust all have physical ramifications on a person; your body changes when it's grieving, and it changes when it's in love. But sometimes those things are talked about in only cerebral terms. The body is such a tell in that kind of situation. The most obvious aspect of bodies changing in this book is the transformation that happened via taxidermy. Where did your initial interest in taxidermy come from? And what kind of research did you do?
I have always been familiar with taxidermy. I'm from Florida, third generation Floridian. Growing up, there was taxidermy everywhere I went. There was taxidermy in church, there were deer mounts on the wall. It was something that was always around, so I never thought about it too much. It was just a natural part of Florida or being around here. And also just knowing a lot of people who hunt, there is often a taxidermy component that can come along with that. I grew up with it around me. I never had hands-on experience with it because I grew up in a very evangelical household, and there were very specific gender roles enforced. I grew up taking sewing classes, and my brother went out and hunted and stuff. My family was very specific about that.

Because I'm so interested in things that can be gross or things that are physical, when I started the story that eventually became this book, I was thinking so much about how [taxidermy] was so physical and how that was so interesting to me. From there, I wanted to know more about it but also wanted to be accurate. I'm a librarian, I'm analytical when it comes to research. I was like, Okay, I'm going to make sure that I'm getting this correct. I did a lot of different research up front and then continually as I was writing the book and through editing. I looked up all kinds of YouTube videos. You'd be shocked about how many YouTube videos you can find about gutting, skinning, all of those practices. I ordered a million books for myself, especially because I wanted to focus on taxidermy for a specific era. Like, even though the book takes place in the present, I wanted the taxidermy shop to be still doing practices and procedures from an earlier time. I bought all of the old breakthrough taxidermy manuals, they came out in the '70s, so I was looking through a lot of those. I actually went onto a lot of web forums and chat rooms where people who were doing taxidermy shared tips and tricks with each other, because I wanted to see how people who actually perform it, what do they use? How do they talk to each other? I wanted this to be about people who actually perform taxidermy, so what language do they use? It seemed very important to me, to make it seem natural.

You mention being a third generation Floridian, and this book is very much rooted in Florida. How important was it to you to write a "Florida book"?
For me, it's very important. My whole life has been a reader of place. I love to read regional fiction, I love work that feels like that you can't separate the place outside of the other work, that if you took place away from it that it would not be the same book. One of my favorite books is Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, and that book is centered very firmly in South Carolina; it's very rich and you feel like place is just as much as a character as any of the other characters in the book. So, pretty much all of my fiction is very Florida. I've lived here my whole life. It resonates with me as a space for a lot of reasons, because when you live in Florida, you are living inside of Florida. Different parts of Florida are all very different. I grew up in Central Florida, so that's different than, say, Tallahassee or the Panhandle; very different than Miami, those are wildly different kinds of places. When I'm writing about Florida, I'm very much thinking about how it feels to be inside of it, being almost inside the belly of it. That's truly a thing, because we have hurricanes, we have really oppressive humidity and heat. We also have lakes and wildlife that gets in your home, vines that creep into the cracks in the sides of your house. It's constantly trying to reclaim itself. You have to scrape out space for yourself in Florida, and the land is always trying to take it back. Florida is a scrappy, hardy state. It's a fighter and wants a lot all the time, and I deeply understand that and sympathize with it. This is very much home for me.

So, when I'm writing about anything, I want those things to come through, I want the senses to be there, I want you to be able to smell what it smells like outside here at night in the summertime, what it feels like to be outside, what it's like to encounter a mosquito on your neck or the sweat that builds up when you get in a car after it spent all day in the sun. What is it? What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like here, with the cicadas and the bugs outside? Or, hearing some kind of rattling around in the bushes? That stuff is just as visceral to me as the guts of the animal or the people's bodies. I wanted it to feel just as gritty, because that's how Florida feels all the time. Very gritty and kind of dangerous, but also very beautiful and destructive.

I really felt that sense of danger and joy, all wrapped up together. Speaking of which: How do you write sex so well? Because, you really do.
If you're constantly thinking about the body and what the body wants to do a lot of the time, then you're thinking about sex or how sex functions. I'm also very interested in queer female bodies and how those work with sex. As a queer woman, I think about that for myself for sure. But I also just am interested in the ways that bodies can touch each other and find arousal and that line between pain and pleasure, what that looks like or what an ache would feel like for bodies.

So, I was thinking about the physical things of sickness, vomit, or period blood, but then also thinking: What does it mean to be aroused? Or like, How do you share that with another person in a way where you're seeing both sides of that arousal? I spent time on those scenes, because it's also very important to me as a queer writer to write queer sex in a way that felt authentic to me. Like, this is what queer sex feels like to me. So, that's not going to be everybody's sex situation, but I wanted it to show that you can read this, and even if this isn't the kind of sex you're having, you can see the eroticism in it. You can see the need and the ache below it, and that was what was important to me and very significant.

Mostly Dead Things is available for purchase, here.

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