JUNE 20, 2019
GROWING UP ON A FARM in the rural South, I had lots of early experiences with loss and death. Pets went missing. Farm animals died — or were slaughtered. It was how things went: here one day, gone the next. It’s a funny thing to experience these feelings so intimately as a child, when you have no real understanding yet of life.
In Mostly Dead Things, Kristen Arnett takes us to Florida and introduces us to the Mortons, a family of taxidermists. There are plenty of dead animals around, sure, but that’s merely one of the manifestations of loss Arnett articulates in her beautiful, transcendent debut novel. As we slowly get to know the family, especially Jessa-Lynn, the young woman who narrates the novel, Arnett artfully suggests that it’s loss that teaches us what life is — it’s what grounds and guides us, and even, perhaps, what comforts us. I realized while reading the Mortons’ story and recalling my loss-filled childhood just how true this is of my own experience.
Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer and Literary Hub columnist whose debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, won the 2017 Coil Book Award. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, Bennington Review, the Guardian, Salon, and elsewhere. During a recent email interview, she spoke with me about the universal ache of loneliness, the many uses of Twitter, and the strange nature of resurrection.
BRADLEY SIDES: You have one of the most active and engaging Twitter feeds in the literary community. Do you see Twitter as an escape, or do you consider it a genuinely valuable resource for your writing career?
KRISTEN ARNETT: I use Twitter a lot of different ways. It’s like how I think of libraries, and by that I mean I see it as a constantly morphing community space. It’s a platform to interact globally with a group of people. Sometimes that conversation is about writing or about books, and other times that conversation is just making a lot of bad jokes (my favorite use, for sure). It’s also a great place to vent, which can still be jokes (please see every dumb Tweet I have ever made about my writing process). I would say I get different things from it when I use it, for sure, but oftentimes it’s less an escape and more a way to throw my voice out there and see what hits. I wanna yell something into the room and have people laugh back at it, or at least groan.
This is probably weird to admit, but the initial thing that drew me to your book wasn’t the early press or even the cover; it was the title. I saw it in your author bio after I read your story “The Graveyard Game” in Guernica last year (which I arrived at via Twitter, by the way). The moment I read those three words — Mostly Dead Things — I was captivated. What led you to the title?
I was thinking a lot about the idea of taxidermy — you know, this way to preserve an animal and give it life again, but in this fully controlled way. It’s dealing with death, right? But it’s also dealing with the idea of reconstructing life (or some semblance of life) from that dead thing. It’s a kind of bizarre resurrection! So when I was thinking about the title, I knew I wanted it to talk about dead things, but I wanted it also to encapsulate the idea that these things aren’t fully dead if we’re invested in them as recreations. They’re only mostly dead.
Then when I thought about the relationships these characters had with each other, the same kinds of considerations we have for resurrection still fully applied: recreating what we had with another person, shaping it into something new, maybe something that’s not fully what that relationship was before. The title came to me immediately from that and it just … felt right. I never considered naming it anything else!
You populate Mostly Dead Things with a captivating group of characters. I love these people. More than that, I know these people. The one I have to ask about is Jessa-Lynn. She’s vulnerable and she’s tough. She’s self-sacrificing and she’s selfish. She’s complex and she’s real. What do you hope readers take away from her?
Mostly I just wanted readers to be able to identify with the fact that we all contain such multitudes. I think it’s easy to see ourselves in these kinds of positions, like how Jessa-Lynn does, where we consider ourselves to be a certain kind of way and that’s how we choose to believe we are. We’ll say: I am a provider, or I am emotional, or I am a person who can only be in x-y-z kinds of relationships. The breadth of human experience means that oftentimes we can be all these things at once or sometimes not any of these things at all. I wanted readers to look at Jessa-Lynn and understand that she makes decisions based on who she thinks she should be, not who she actually is a lot of the time. And that’s a very human kinda thing. We’re all guilty of that!
Do you still think about the Morton family? Or did they leave you once you finished writing their story?
I definitely still feel very invested in their little pocket of the Florida universe. They were more than a single character. I wanted to understand their family. Their large, lived experience in the world I’d created. Since it’s my first novel, it means that I spent more time with them than I have with any other characters in my short fiction. It’s been kind of a weird letting go? Those characters have to live their own lives now, and I have to let them interact with everyone out there! That’s a good thing, I think. Means I can have a little room in my brain now to embrace other characters and start digging at their stories. Get to know some other people a little better.
The Mortons certainly take up a huge space in the heart of Mostly Dead Things, but they are not there alone. The Florida setting pumps so much life into this book. You can feel the Sunshine State. You can sense it. You can taste it. Do you consider Florida a character in Mostly Dead Things?
I absolutely consider Florida a character! Setting means so much to me: place, home, the dynamic between the self and environment. When I was writing the book, I wanted readers to think they could put their hand on a page and feel the humidity. Florida has an impact on us — on our bodies, on our lives. It’s in how I breathe in the damp and how I feel it on my skin. It’s the smell of things, the taste of them. It’s mildew and burning sunshine. It’s a godawful wreck of plants and lizards and birds and rain and then three rainbows perched directly over the highway. The environment of this book was so important to me. I would say I spent as much time developing setting as I did developing the Morton family, because I think that Florida is always wedged in there, insinuating itself. Very needy.
Thematically, loneliness shapes the lives of most of your characters. Jessa-Lynn is lonely. She says to her mother, “Nobody can ever know another person.” Then, just a few lines later, she goes further: “Nobody knows me. I don’t even know me, Mom.” Milo has feelings of loneliness. Brynn does, too. So do Jessa-Lynn’s parents. It seems like such a common feeling in their world. Do you think loneliness is just as prevalent in the world in which we live?
I think it is very easy to get lost in the solitary feeling of a lived experience. It’s hard to sit with yourself sometimes. We get trapped inside our brains, and it’s lonely to know that our real thoughts and authentic selves will never be fully translatable to another person. We touch it, sometimes, with writing. We’re able to share little fragments of it with each other and feel a small bit known.
But overall I think it’s hard for people to understand that loneliness is universal, because so much of it feels like a personal experience. It feels like something that’s just ours, even if everyone is feeling some of the exact same ache. That’s something I wanted to tease out in the book. That feeling of loneliness, and how it makes us weak sometimes. How it makes us forget that other people have just as much hurt.
While Mostly Dead Things is dark, it also has moments that are very, very funny. How important was it to you to balance the darkness with some moments of lightness?
So much of life is just really, truly dumb and funny. Even the stuff that’s bad, or can be awful, feels like it’s often bookended by the absurd. So much of my life feels like this — that I’m looking past the thing that hurts and trying to understand that there is simultaneously joy, or even just goofiness in things. It felt natural to write moments of brightness into those dark pockets of the book, because there is just so much in life that’s always trying to poke through and make us smile, even when we’re feeling our worst. I want to remember those light spots in my work.
I think it also helps us illuminate the ways we can work out some of the darkness. If we’re able to see, maybe we can work on those things a little better. We can understand our hurts more and deal with them. Or at least try. That’s all I’m ever really looking for, you know? To try. Well, that and a quick laugh.
A writer and English instructor, Bradley Sides has written for Electric Literature, Chicago Review of Books, The Millions, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. His recent fiction appears or is forthcoming at BULL, Ghost Parachute, Literary Orphans, Occulum, and Rose Red Review.
Banner image by Valters Krontals.