How we slice the skin: Carefully, that’s a given. Cutting with precision sounds like the same thing, but it’s not,” is how Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, opens. Meant as instruction on how to taxidermy a deer, it’s also an accurate description of how Arnett renders her characters — not just precisely, but carefully — as they navigate love and loss in this quietly devastating story set in the Sunshine State.
The novel opens with a gruesome scene, as protagonist Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has killed himself on the metal table, blood and brain matter spilling onto the floor. Reeling from the loss, the Morton family descends into chaos: Jessa’s mother starts creating pornographic art out of taxidermied animals as a creative response to her repressive marriage, while her brother, Milo, offloads responsibility of his kids in favor of day drinking. Jessa, at the center of it all, tries to keep the family business afloat and move on from the long-departed Brynn, her childhood best friend and lover — who happens to be her brother’s wife.
What ensues is a tragedy-comedy-romance that forgoes cliche in favor of messy reality. Mostly Dead Things is strongest when it leans into the Morton’s pain — their anger, reconciliation with the past, and realization of each other’s full humanity. But the story, which alternates between flashbacks and the present, doesn’t always wallow. The Morton’s undoing is suffused with a sharp observational humor and vivid sense of place (the novel is set in Central Florida) that makes this debut a pleasure to behold.
I spoke to Kristen Arnett about the magic of place writing, queerness in domestic life, and her deep and abiding love of 7-Eleven.
What kind of research did you do into taxidermy for the novel? What drew you to it?
Taxidermy is inherently interesting because it’s very physical. It’s very much about the body, the movement, and how things are posed. Growing up in Florida, there’s a lot of wildlife and taxidermy around everywhere, so it wasn’t unusual for me to think about or research. And it was fun — I felt like I learned a lot about taxidermy that I just didn’t know. There’s so many different types and techniques, like how you would taxidermy a fish isn’t the same as how you would taxidermy small mammals or a bird or even a deer mouse.
It was interesting to do that research and think about how it informed the family that I was writing about, performing that work. And then also the juxtaposition between how people retain memories or what they choose to keep. It was interesting to see how it fleshed out — pun intended [laughs] — when I was writing about taxidermy in contrast with the people performing the work.
The novel was really grounded in the physicality of both the animals and the people, especially how Jessa sees people. It’s visceral.
Like I said, I’m very interested in the physical functions of the body. Also, as a reader, I’m interested in how things are made tactile — more concrete — by instances of the body. I also like the idea of how the body performs — not even necessarily in sex, which I think is interesting — but queer female sex and how that operates.
But also just as a reader and a writer, I like to see people write about things that are more physical, like characters vomit, they fuck, they have their period. I’m mostly interested in how bodies actually are, so I like to see them written in a very physical, very grounded ways.
Some of your other work delves into those themes of death and decay. Why those themes?
I think because I’m very much a Florida writer, those things are part of being a Floridian, right? There’s a lot of things that are alive in Florida — things that are growing, creeping — but [you also see] a lot of the mechanics of death and how that functions. Usually when I’m writing and I’m thinking about how I want the body to open, sometimes that means sex and birth and those kinds of things, but sometimes that means how things decay and how they stop functioning and what that looks like. For me, it feels very Florida. There’s never a time when I’m in my neighborhood or outside walking around and encountering some kind of death or in the midst of things that are also flourishing or growing.
I think it’s something that I’m always constantly going to be interested in because I’m constantly interested in Florida. I think if it ever stops being interesting to me, I’ll stop writing about it, but it continues to be something I like to think about or roll over in my mind and poke at and interrogate and continually re-question again.
You write about Central Florida in a way that captures the beauty but also the less savory parts. The characters’ feelings often alternate between cynicism — at one point, Jessa comments that Central Floridians “pave over everything so they could forget what had been there before” — and also disgust and reverence. Why was it important to incorporate Central Florida as a setting?
I really love trying to write about Florida in everything I’m doing because I feel like I’m a place writer, I would say. I’m definitely a regional writer, in that a lot of the time, I want place to feel as important as one of the characters, like a throughline that’s just as important as the plot. I want my work to feel like, for instance, if you read the book and place is taken out of it, it couldn’t be set somewhere else.
Writing about Central Florida is not the same as writing about, say, Miami or the Panhandle or the Keys. They’re very different parts of the state. I wanted the book to feel like Orlando. I wanted it to feel like how I experience it here, like how it feels to be around the lake at night or how cow pastures butt up against businesses.
I wanted this book and most of my writing to feel like you’re immersed in place. You feel like you’re there with the characters, like you’re experiencing the actual scents and smells and tactile sensations of being in Florida. It’s important to me for it to be very visceral, like you’re feeling the humidity.
Your novel alternates between the present and past. The chapters in the present are numbered, but the chapters in the past are denoted by the scientific names of animals. What made you decide to write book in this manner?
That was the one thing I definitely knew I wanted to do right away. I knew it was about taxidermy, I knew it was about the family, but other than that, I feel like as a writer I’m trying to decide myself. I want the reader to feel surprised in the way that I’m feeling surprised as I’m writing it. I knew I wanted the present to be very linear and very straightforward without breaks, but I wanted the past to feel like how memory functions, in the way that something pops up that reminds you of a scent or an image or hearing a sound or a tactile sensation.
It’s the space that Jessa gets to be like, here’s a memory I have popping up. She’s the person who gets to guide what people get to see about these people, specifically Brynn, who’s not ever in the present. We only get to see her how Jessa interprets her, and Brynn is constantly on her mind, a person who would pop up continually. I knew I wanted to do that, I didn’t know how it would look when the book was finished, but it was important for me to have memory function in a way that felt organic. Memories function completely differently from how we experience present time.
I like that the title of the book, Mostly Dead Things, describes not only the taxidermy aspect of the book, but the emotional repressions that the Mortons experience in the wake of the father’s death and Brynn’s abandonment. How did you decide the title?
A thing that was interesting to me in writing about the animals, alongside memories, was they get to be posed and remembered in this way because that’s how we choose to remember them. And that’s maybe how we deal with relationships that are complete or have not ended in the way that we would choose. We try and preserve these memories like how taxidermy functions.
And also the idea of control and thinking that we can determine how we feel about something — that’s just, sadly, not how things function. We don’t get to decide when we stop hurting or when grief gets to end. We don’t control it. Trying to repress those things or covering them up, you can only function for so long.
What are some things you had considered when writing about Jessa, who is queer? What did you want to do differently with your story from other queer narratives?
It’s interesting to me to read stories that aren’t necessarily coming out stories. There’s definitely a place for them, but I also feel like, as a reader, I was continually looking for stories of the queer and domestic in contemporary [life]. Just looking at a family and one of the people is queer in it — what does that look like? When I was writing the book, I specifically didn’t want to write about Jessa coming out at any point. I don’t want to write about that. I want to write about queer women who are having sex; I want to explore that and have it look like what it looks like for me.
That’s not going to be for everybody, but I wanted to write the work that I was hoping to read. When I was writing queerness, I wanted it to feel like the everyday workings of a queer household.
I noticed that 7-Eleven features in your novel once or twice. Since you became a bit internet famous last year for your dispatches from 7-Eleven, could you tell me what you like about it?
I love convenience store culture. I talk all the time about how my 7-Eleven is my second home. Like, I’m there on Christmas Day. There’s a sameness, like a smell you can even think of when you think of a 7-Eleven — what the light looks like, what you’re going to find in there.
As a person who works in libraries and tries to think about bringing people together, I think 7-Eleven is its own community space. I always end up writing about it because all of us go to convenience stores. We put gas in our cars, we’re buying snacks, we’re getting beer in the middle of the night. It feels natural as a setting. Also, it’s just a thing that I love so much.
Have you seen Marvin lately? How is he doing?
[laughs] The thing is that there’s a million Marvins in any 7-Eleven in Florida, because there’s lizards everywhere. It would be weird to go in a 7-Eleven in Florida and not see a lizard.
This interview was condensed for length and clarity.
Mostly Dead Things
By Kristen Arnett
Published June 4, 2019
Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. She’s a columnist for Literary Hub and her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.