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An Interview with Kristen Arnett

[Writer]
by Nicholas Russell
June 13th, 2019

“I’m interested in working in so many different capacities and I think that’s how I’ll always work. I want my brain to be stretched out like taffy and in a lot of different directions. I want to be constantly thinking and re-thinking about how to engage with language and text.”

Kristen Arnetts mentioned in this interview:
Kristen Arnett, 7-Eleven connoisseur 
Kristen Arnett, pet wrangler 
Kristen Arnett, championship shitty beer drinker
Kristen Arnett, novelist

On a quiet evening in Central Florida last October, Kristen Arnett and I walked round a small neighborhood lake ringed by large, gaudy houses. There was water and memory in the air. We took turns talking about the sites of our respective childhoods, the messiness of remembered experience, how fickle the process of being recognized and published and known can be when such things can often feel anathema to the actual work of writing.  

It is not easy to talk, think, or write about being from a place, to delineate the features and experiences that render such a belonging as authentic and reproducible for tourists. It requires writers to craft a taxonomy of destinations and ideal times of day in which to visit those destinations and to cleave off smaller, finer details in order to reveal an easier shape to grasp. This knowledge has always been true to those of us who hail from disposable places, entertainment centers and family getaway destinations, seemingly ugly and diverting locations where part of tourists’ pleasure comes from being glad they don’t live there.

Kristen and I met during 2018’s Believer Festival, which was held in Las Vegas, where I’m from, and where brief conversations about what it means to grow up and live in such places became the catalyst for further conversations. A lot (justifiably) has been written about Kristen’s agile sense of humor, her earnestness, the dexterity with which she renders the world around her. When she invited me to come see her in Orlando at the end of the festival, and when she reiterated that she was serious about it, Kristen then excitedly and spontaneously organized a reading for both of us to speak at in her hometown. She read some of her older work along with an excerpt from her new novel Mostly Dead Things, published at the beginning of June, a visceral and writhing piece of writing that melds the queer, the irreverent, and the personal. In April, I spoke to Kristen over the phone about her influences, her daily life as a librarian and a writer, and what drives her curiosity.

—Nicholas Russell

I. Pun Intended

THE BELIEVER: What do you think of this: Kristen Arnett, novelist?

KRISTEN ARNETT: [Prolonged laughter] I think it’s funny to think that that is a thing attached to me now. Kristen Arnett, 7-Eleven connoisseur. Kristen Arnett, pet wrangler. Kristen Arnett, championship shitty beer drinker. It’s weird to think that it’s like… a whole ass novel is attached to me now. That is a funny thing.

BLVR: Do you find people seem to take you less seriously depending on the point of contact? Twitter versus your column at LitHub versus your essays versus your short fiction.

KA: I would say they’re kind of married a little bit more now. I would say, before, when a lot of people were reading my being funny or stupid or doing absurdist humor on Twitter, and then would happen to read an essay, they could connect it with that. But then if they read some fiction I did, especially when the short fiction collection [Felt in the Jaw] came out, I’d get very interesting feedback from people being like, “Oh, I didn’t know you wrote like this. I didn’t know you wrote seriously. I thought your work would be funnier.” I think at first when I was hearing it, it made me feel kind of… I wouldn’t say worried but like, Okay what is it people are looking for in my writing? Is this feedback that I need to take critically or think about when I’m writing fiction? Do I need to think about maybe making those two things come together? And then I was like, Actually no. There’s humorous stuff in the fiction that’s just doing a different kind of humor.

BLVR: I’m very curious about the way that violence functions in your storytelling and in queer storytelling in general. I see a lot of similarities between violence in, say, queer storytelling but also in storytelling by people of color, in marginal spaces. The relationship to violence for us is muchthe word that comes to mind is “stranger.”

KA: Yeah, I definitely see that with people who are doing that kind of work. And maybe part of that, too, is that we’re also very much thinking about the body and how our body moves through spaces. A lot of times moving our bodies through spaces means that there’s an inherent violence that happens to it. There are so many things that can happen to a body that are violent. And sometimes sex is violent and just the world around us and how we encounter the environment is violent. How we treat ourselves and what we do with our own flesh can be violent.

I do think that marginalized groups move through spaces with the idea that violence is kind of consistently following us around. It’s a constant possibility. I also think that sometimes it’s a way into the body for me, to think about how a body opens up, or the ways we can hurt. So sometimes when I’m writing, I’m thinking about how I get access to the trauma that’s happening with a character internally, to think about how a trauma can happen externally as a way to kind of dig into that. Pun intended.

BLVR: Especially in the sexual relationships in your work, you pay close attention to the violence that happens to the body. It feels as if two people are looking for each other in the dark even when they’re talking face to face. It feels like a game where they’re prodding each other.

KA: I think that’s sometimes what intimacy feels like, especially getting to know people or even realizing that we can never fully know each other. I’m especially looking at that with queer female relationships because there’s always this idea that women have more empathy. It’s supposed to be less about the body and more about making women more maternal. Most of the time I’m thinking about where the lack is. What’s the expectation? With lesbian relationships, as soon as you meet someone, there’s the U-Haul trope where you’re gonna move in together and you’re gonna understand each other and there’s gonna be a tenderness. I would say, looking at relationships like that, there’s the idea of feeling like you know another person and being like, Actually, I know nothing about them. And actually I know nothing about myself. And I don’t know anything about myself in my relationship to the world. And I don’t know anything about myself in relationship to other people. I think sex is this kind of way. When I’m looking at it, I’m thinking about this idea that you’re trying to find some kind of purchase. So I think “prodding at each other in the dark” is a good description because you’re completely at sea and trying to find purchase and trying to find some kind of concrete thing to land on so that you can feel safer, stable. But then a lot of times it doesn’t actually work like that.

BLVR: You’ve written before about sex between queer women, specifically in “Hand Operated Shearing Instruments,” which you wrote for The Rumpus. For anyone who hasn’t read your work, that essay is a good distillation of how humor functions when you’re trying to talk about something larger. You use scissoring as a way in—

KA: [Laughter.]

BLVR: Especially for so many heterosexual people who are like, “Yeah, scissoring is the weirdest thing, but I guess they make it work!” Heterosexual people are bewildered by sex between queer people.

KA: Because they need to be able to see it through a heteronormative lens, which is why you get people being like, “Well, which one of you is the man?” or something like that. That’s funny, scissoring as a way in because you’re just thinking about cutting a hole in something.

BLVR: You specifically address that conversation and thoughts about scrutiny and visibility in that essay, especially with the question, “Isn’t scissoring really meant for an audience?” You go on later and talk about how straight folks entry point for queer people is, “I have a friend who’s gay!” I wonder how that essay functions for straight white people who have no point of contact.

KA: I wonder about that too. I think that was my first really published-published piece. At the time, it was me discovering how I like to work in essays and non-fiction, which is  me having something that’s really bothering me, like a question I can’t stop thinking about. I really was thinking so much about my own queerness and how much of it is me, as a person, and how much of it is me performing for an audience. To be fair, I like to make people laugh, I like to have an audience, I like this idea of performing. But I was like, How much of my queerness am I using as a way to perform for people because I’m trying to make them comfortable? Being in a space with a bunch of queer people was an eye-opening experience because I couldn’t perform that for those people because they knew, they were in the same space as me. And what does it mean if I can’t perform queerness in this way? I had a lot of questions about why I choose to engage with it like that and so much of it is very embedded in us because culture is extremely binary.

BLVR: Immediately, Jessa in Mostly Dead Things comes to mind. There’s this constant internal thought process, tension between her love for her father and her frustration with him, trying to combat this sense that maybe he wanted Jessa to be the son he never really had in her brother, Milo. She’s also navigating the performance of queerness at the same time in that she doesn’t want to make it obvious to other people. There’s never a moment to relax.

KA: It’s an exhausting, continuous pattern of behavior and brain work. I think a lot of people, in many situations, like that experience. Like I was saying before, some of that is just embedded behavior. It’s subconscious, like Jessa’s relationship with her father. There’s pain and pleasure in a lot of those things, right? It’s painful for her to think about not being the exact thing that he wanted her to be, but also pleasure in thinking that she was the one that he wanted to spend time with. He did appreciate her more than her brother. There are these dualities occurring at the same time, which I think is also very human: to get pain from a certain thing that also makes us feel valuable. It’s very confusing.

BLVR: That confusion melds with the humor you have throughout all of your work. There’s the silly, absurdist humor, but there’s also this other vein. Hanif Abdurraqib has been here in Vegas for the past month and he did a reading where he said, “Good humor is like boxing where, if you stun someone with laughter, you have to keep going.” It’s almost like making people laugh to catch them off guard so you can then say something else at the same time.

KA: I was thinking a lot about that specifically in this novel, and in my short fiction, too. What is it I want to do? I love what Hanif said. I’m going to think about that all day now. It is this idea of stunning. Just because you’re feeling a certain way doesn’t mean you’re not going to think a joke is funny, right? Also, sometimes I think the ways that people behave or react to certain situations are just inherently funny. There’s different types of humor and that’s what makes engaging with text so interesting. There’s so many different ways to get at the heart of what can be funny or how it’s funny or what being funny is supposed to do in a situation.

Specifically, in writing this novel, most of the time I was thinking about Jessa. It’s her point of view and it’s her look at this family. She’s such a serious person. She takes herself so seriously and I think that’s hilarious. [Laughter.] It’s really funny when people take themselves very, very seriously.

BLVR: It’s one thing to be funny with other people. But how do you knowdo you knowthat you’re being funny when you’re writing?

KA: Hmm, yeah. A lot of times I don’t know. Or I come back into it later and think, That’s funny. When I’m writing in the moment, I’m just trying to get the characters to talk. I’m just trying to tell what I think they’re doing in their interactions with each other. And then when I come back later, and I’m looking or poking at it, there’s this little discovery of something that’s funny. If they feel like people, if they’re feeling authentic to me, then they’re probably doing something that’s a little bit silly. I definitely don’t know, when I’m writing something, if it’s going to feel funny. I do maybe more in an essay because I’m coming from a place of myself and I’m always trying to poke around at what I think is funny.

BLVR: It’s interesting that you say you have a better sense with non-fiction than fiction because it is coming from you. There’s also that thing with fiction where the audience is weary of reading too much into the fictional story as a reflection of the author.

KA: Just because I’m a certain kind of funny doesn’t mean a character in whatever I’m writing is going to be. They’re not me. not everyone is going to think you’re funny. Not everyone’s going to like your work. You’re writing for your audience. So when I’m working, I’m like, Who’s my audience? Who am I trying to write for? I’m writing for people that want to read queer fiction that’s looking at the kinds of things I’m doing. My work is not necessarily for everybody and that’s totally fine. It doesn’t have to be for everybody. It just has to be work where I feel like I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

II. Delightful People, Weird Minds

BLVR: You work at a university law library.

KA: Yes! So I’ve worked in several different types of libraries now. In each of those, there’s similarities and differences in how people use them. I did children’s services at the public library and let me tell you: you get the most directly interesting contact when you’re working with kids because they say insane things and also very smart things and also very brutally honest things. Then I worked at an academic library, which was more research-heavy, where I was learning to interact with questions. And then this law library job has been interesting because it’s such a genre-specific kind of thing. People are in there because they’re working towards a law degree. So the collection is very specific, the questions are very specific. It’s also been a management job for me, which is different. More of me being in charge of a staff, trying to direct them, and help them learn how to answer questions.

BLVR: In a previous interview with The Believer, Hanya Yanagihara really advocated for a day job because she said writing is inherently an interior kind of work and many writers are very interior. She said that if she didn’t have a job, she’d be spending all her time indoors, never talking to anyone. In your case, you write about your day job in a column at LitHub. What is it like to balance writing and “regular” work?

KA: Librarianship is very much a people-oriented type of career. It’s a public service job so I’m constantly interacting with myriad types of people. As a writer, it is delightful. People come into any library and they just lose their minds. They lose all sense of propriety. It’s been really helpful for me because, to be a writer, it’s helpful to look at people. How do they talk to each other? How do they treat people who are in service positions? How do they ask questions? I think maybe that’s a big thing for me: working in libraries, having people come up needing something from me, but not understanding how to ask for that thing. God, aren’t I doing that in writing all the time?

I think it’s helpful to see physicality: watching how people move, how they sit, looking at how their bodies are inclined towards each other, how they move away. I’m not going to say everyone needs to be around a boatload of people all the time. That’s exhausting. But for me personally, being around so many different types of people and listening to how they talk to each other and just the day-to-day workings of people’s weird minds in the library has really been helpful in my thinking about how I want characters to speak and act and move through the world I’m creating. Also, I do research for my job so it’s been helpful using that for any kind of thing. I did a lot of taxidermy research for Mostly Dead Things and I was better-equipped to do that because, professionally, I’m a researcher.

III. A Brain Stretched Out Like Taffy

BLVR: It’s an understatement to say you’ve talked a lot about Florida, and about being from a place that gets a very specific kind of scrutiny. It’s an inseparable feature of your work. What do you hope for when people read you if you’re writing towards an audience that does not really care about Florida?

KA: That’s a really good question. I think that a lot of times when I’m writing about Florida, I want the place to feel so embedded in whatever I’m doing that if you took it out, it wouldn’t be the same story. I want it to feel as essential as a character. I’m a person who definitely enjoys regional kinds of writing or place writing. I love books where setting is doing just as much as character development or plot. I’m looking to see how that adds richness or how it brings out character. Because I do think there’s things about us in where we’re from. How we’re raised influences us. Where we’re from influences us. For me, usually when I’m writing, I just want to know how I can get it to feel like it feels for me. How does it feel to be outside in June in Florida? What does it smell like? A huge part of me or anybody else living here is how we interact with the environment. The environment is this very creeping, invasive kind of thing. There’s animals that you’re interacting with all the time that are probably getting into your house. There’s plant life that wedges its way into your air-conditioning unit or through a window. If I’m reading my work and it strikes a chord with me and I’m like, “Yeah, that feels exactly like an experience that I had here,” then it’s doing what I want it to do. And maybe that’s not everyone’s Florida experience; it shouldn’t be because Florida is such a huge place.

I was Skyping into a class the other day and after reading my work, they were asking me when I was going to talk about Miami. I was like, “I’m interested in reading about Miami too but I can’t write about it. At least, not the way I can write about where I’m from.” They’re so disparate. I can write about Orlando. I can’t write about Miami and probably should not. Or the panhandle. I don’t live up there and it’s also very, very different. It’s a completely different culture and that’s also writing I would love to read. [My writing] is through the lens of me. I’m the one who knows what it looks like when it hasn’t rained for a while and you’re down by the lake and the water has receded and what that smells like. Or what the algae gets turned into or how the plant life looks after it rains and it’s still sunny and there’s a smell coming off the ground after it’s so, so hot and it feels like things got cooked. If I can write that, then I’m authentically writing my experience and that’s the thing I’m hoping people get. Maybe they can’t identify, but it’s the true-to-me thing. And they can be like, Oh, this is what it’s like. That’s what I’m trying to do with Florida. I want them to see or smell or hear the things that I have interacted with here in Orlando or Central Florida specifically.

BLVR: You write about the sense of superiority tourists have for a place like Orlando. As you write in “The Problem With Writing About Florida,” “your home serves the purpose of entertaining strangers for money” and thus they denigrate it. There’s a sense that people believe Florida to be a frivolous place. They perceive it as an almost debilitatingly liminal space.

KA: They’re looking for a curated experience, right? They’re coming in specifically for that, which is not a lived experience.

BLVR: You write about the body entrenched in specific space so evocatively. You also imbue that writing with a different sense of tangibility when you’re reading your work aloud. You get a real sense for how you’re thinking of your work. There’s an ownership that comes back to you in a way. There’s also a vast change between voices, especially when you’re reading in first and third person, which you’ve talked about before.

KA: It’s something I’ve been thinking more about as book tour comes creeping up closer and closer. There’s a discussion going on right now about how readings should work, specifically on book tours. It’s like performance. So, if we’re thinking about performance for an audience that’s there just to see you, then we’re thinking about what things keep people engaged.  There are ways that you can do this, so that regardless of what you’re reading, they’ll be engaged with it. I do think that, naturally, it’s easier for an audience to connect when someone’s reading an essay because they have an actual image in front of them of the person who’s reading. They’re able to connect the person with what they’re reading. With someone reading fiction, there’s already a distance there, someone telling you a story that does not have to do with them. If you’re telling it in first person, sometimes that allows you to come closer. I’m actually very interested in hearing people read in second person. I know people are divided on that. Some people love second person. A lot of people hate second person.

BLVR: It’s hard to do well.

KA: Yeah it’s very dicey. Length is something to think about, too. A short, poppy little piece of second person is interesting to me. The more I’ve been thinking about reading for book tour, the more I’ve been musing on what readings caught me. I remember seeing Colson Whitehead when he was down here touring for his last book. The way he read was so engaging because he gave so much of himself. He’d give these stories about how the book came about, funny anecdotes about the text and how he’d put the book together. Then, he’d read a small chunk of a book that’s very serious. Then, he’d come back out of it and tell some more contextual stories about putting it together and then read a little more. Hearing an author talk about their work and how they process it felt so textured. That’s successful and beautiful performance. And it’s hard to do.

BLVR: T Kira Madden did something similar when she read here, bookending passages from her memoir with poignant reflections on what it’s like now to read those things she’d written in the past. She also said she was trying to read a new passage in each place on her tour.

KA: Yeah, that’s hard! Wow: a continuing engagement with the work. That’s an interesting way to think about it because then maybe it feels like you’re not done. I love the idea of her still continuing to interrogate that work, but looking at it now from this specific point in her life. Choosing a different section each time would continue to force you to come to terms with where you are now.

BLVR: Do you see this new novel as a continuation of the work you’ve already been doing? Is there a difference between what the public gets to see as your debut versus what actually is?

KA: I’m always working on different projects and I want to work on the thing that speaks to me. One week, that might be something and the next it might be something else. I have a draft of the next novel put together now that the work with Mostly Dead Things is done and I’ve been able to separate myself from it. Which is difficult, right? You live with these characters. You live with them for years and it’s hard to stop thinking about them and being embedded in their world. It’s hard to let that go and say you’re going to invest in new places, new ideas. I’ve been engaging with these new characters in a new story. I’m interested in working in so many different capacities and I think that’s how I’ll always work. I want my brain to be stretched out like taffy and in a lot of different directions. I want to be constantly thinking and re-thinking about how to engage with language and text.

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