Victoria Rucinski, online fiction editor at Columbia Journal, spoke with New York Times bestselling author Kristen Arnett, writer of the debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, upcoming novel, With Teeth, and the fiction judge of the 2021 Columbia Journal Spring Contest.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Columbia Journal: I figure I should start with the way every meeting starts now, with asking how you are and how you’ve been doing during the pandemic.
Kristen Arnett: I’m sure that everyone has some kind of variation on this answer, which is, weird? For me particularly it was already going to be kind of a strange year. I’ve only ever lived in Florida and for the beginning of 2020 in January, I got awarded a fellowship in Vegas. I was leaving to go out and live somewhere else outside of Florida for the first time in my life, and then I got to Vegas and two months later the pandemic happened. And I was like, ‘this is a strange way to start this.’
CJ: I would say so.
KA: And I had just moved in with my girlfriend. We decided to move in together, and were living together for the first time in a new place. We were like, ‘okay, well now I hope we really, really like each other.’ But I mean outside of those things everything has worked out pretty well. We ended up having to move back to Florida in the middle of stuff so we’re in Miami now. I’ve been prepping for my book to come out in the summer and then just trying to work, but I think it’s weird. There’s not really a good way to describe it. I feel like language has been failing me, but probably, I think, failing a lot of people. There’s not words that adequately cover what it is to be alive now and try to make things. I was like, ‘oh it’s hard to make art.’ It’s hard to even watch a television show.
CJ: You’re kind of touching on my second question for you which is, how has it been for you as a writer? Has your process been impacted in any way, and have you found any way to adjust?
KA: I think it definitely has. I feel like I thought I had ideas about how I worked previously, and those same ideas about how I worked and my processes before aren’t necessarily the same stuff that works now. I don’t know if luckily or unluckily for me, right before the pandemic started I had finished the draft of the novel that’s coming out this summer, so I had sent that away from me to my editor over at Riverhead and I didn’t have a big project that I needed to be working on. I just was waiting to get edits back from him, so then when I got those back I was able to focus on doing them just because I didn’t feel like I was making anything new, I was sitting with something I had already worked on. But after that was over and it was time to start thinking about making new work, like many people – I know this is not isolated just to me – I really struggled because I think the thing that I took for granted, that added and enriched my creativity and how I was able to live inside worlds I was creating, was that I was out in the world and being around other people. Being in a coffee shop; or, I used to work full time at libraries for my whole life, and just being in a library and hearing people interact; or dealing with people or coworkers; or being in a restaurant or at a bar listening to people say stuff. I was like, ‘this stuff is all gone for me,’ and I didn’t realize how much I was absorbing it and how it reinvigorated my thinking about dialogue, or how people move their bodies with each other. So it’s not been until, honestly, truthfully, very recently, within the past couple months, that I felt something click over in my brain and I felt like I was able to write again. It’s almost been like a mass purge. Everyday I’ve been word vomiting in a Word document, so I feel like it’s finally starting. I don’t want to take it for granted, who knows how long it’ll last for? Maybe it’ll shut itself off again, but only recently have I been able to really feel like I’m making anything, or not feel like my mind is wandering or just a bowl of jello, like I need to watch a rerun of a television show and just have a beer or something.
CJ: I think weird is pretty much the only way to sum it up.
KA: Yeah, because it’s a lot of different things, so it’s hard to contain it all in language, which is a funny thing for writers to feel like they can’t do. I can’t parse it. It’s weird because sometimes it’s very bad, and sometimes I just feel total apathy, and then other times I feel overwhelmed with feeling, and other times I feel good before I feel really horrible again. It’s very weird.
CJ: Did you find it stressful when you felt like you couldn’t quite write like you used to?
KA: Yeah, it’s one those things, too, where for my whole life until this past year, I’ve always had a nine to five job since I was eighteen years old. I had left my full time job at the library to be like, ‘okay, I’m going to go into writing full time, it’s going to be my career now.’ It’s a nine to five to me. I try to think of it as my work, and I know that I’m extremely lucky to be able to do that. Not a lot of people get to, and I wanted to take it very seriously, but because that makes it now my career, I’m thinking in that mindset, so not being able to work I was like, ‘what does this mean for the future? What does it mean for my brain? Does it mean next year I’ll feel like I can work again, or is it permanently broken?’ Also I think there’s times that, I don’t know, I’m like a chill dad a lot of the time, like, ‘let’s chill out and have a beer,’ but when it comes to work and things like that I’m extremely anal retentive. I like to have processes and things put in place for myself, like I work in this font and I wake up at this time and then I do this and this and this when I work. Not being able to do that made the control freak in me really start losing it a little bit, so it was very stressful and overwhelming at first to be like, ‘oh God, what does my work look like now,’ you know? I’ve been so grateful to finally feel like whatever happened up in the old noggin click over. It felt like trying to start a car maybe. You just keep trying it, hoping that the engine is going to turn over, and on that one time it goes and you feel it go and you’re like, ‘oh shit, the car started.’ That’s kind of what it felt like. I was like, ‘oh my God it’s on, I can’t turn the car off, I have to keep driving around.’
CJ: So it sounds like you have a pretty controlled process when it comes to writing. In that way, do you find that you plan or outline your stories a lot before you start writing? There’s that question: are you an architect or are you a gardener? Are you an architect then?
KA: I think that that’s a really good question because when it comes to actually writing novels and stories, I don’t outline or do anything like that. I have things put in place for myself, but every book has been different for me and I’ve been relearning every time. The process I used writing Mostly Dead Things was not the same kind of process and thought that I used writing With Teeth, and this new book is a different thing too, so each time I think each book, for me, requires its own kind of process. But I definitely am a person who, if I know what’s going to happen, I get bored and then won’t write it. So there have been times where I’ve thought maybe I would use some kind of outline, but then if I do that, nothing that happens in the outline actually ends up happening in the work because I’ll just write away from it, or around it, or into something else just because I get bored or my brain doesn’t want me to do whatever I’ve told it that it’s going to do. I usually have general ideas, or what I’ve been thinking about is that a novel has a shape to me. When I was writing Mostly Dead Things the shape I felt in my mind was this idea of sewing. It’s like a linear line running straight through the middle and then I kind of zigzagged back and forth, like how memory functions, overlaid over it, so that to me felt like sewing. I could see it in terms of shape, and then I could move forward into it. As long as I feel like my brain has the shape, then that’s the thing I need to write into, with whatever kind of surprise is going to happen. So I’m either super anal retentive, or I don’t outline.
CJ: A good combination of the two. What you said about shape is so interesting because I think you can really see that in the structure of Mostly Dead Things, with the way the chapters flip back and forth between the present and the memories we get as well, so the readers can see that shape, too. What do you think is the shape for With Teeth?
KA: The shape for With Teeth is a very interesting kind of shape to think about, because for me it started off as these humps, these increasing arcs that didn’t necessarily connect and move up, but bled into each other. I saw it as this idea of time passing, but also time progressing, and things building on each other. Something that had layers to it, not like a cake but more like shale, some kind of rock element. So that had an easier shape for me to think about. That’s a book that has technically four sections, but really only three main sections, so it felt like I could see it and how they all rely on the layering of each other to sit neatly, or not neatly, I guess, very messily, on one another
CJ: I’m really fascinated by that description of the shape, it makes me really want to read it.
KA: Well that’s good!
CJ: I would love to talk about if you see any through lines between your two books. Mostly Dead Things is a novel about grief and love and queerness and family, and the ways those all kind of get twisted up with one another. Do you see any similar themes running between Mostly Dead Things and With Teeth?
KA: Yes. I think as writers, or as artists or creators, we always have things that feel very important to us and migrate into our work. For myself, I think Florida is a big part of my work, so With Teeth contains a good amount of regional space writing, writing about Florida and being inside this physical space of Florida. Also, I’m super obsessed with families, especially queer families, so it has a lot of stuff with families in it as well. And I’d say there’s a through line of this idea that people and families are all unreliable narrators. Everybody in a family might know a family story, but the ways that they tell it are going to be different even if they were both there at the same time. The way I would tell a family story versus my sister, even if we were both in the room when a thing happened, is going to be colored by our own personal perspective, and by just how things live in our head. So maybe also a little bit of the idea of how memory works, and how memory is definitely skewed in how we actually personally experience something. I think that stuff is all in there, plus any kind of weird Florida junk. If you liked the weird Florida stuff from Mostly Dead Things, then With Teeth is going to give you that same kind of weird stuff, I think.
CJ: Everything you’re saying about people in families being unreliable narrators really reminds me of that line in Mostly Dead Things when Jessa says, “Nobody can really know another person.” So it feels like maybe that idea of trying to know other people, specifically within your family, is running through With Teeth as well.
KA: Yeah, I would say that that is the case. With Teeth is more focused on, very specifically, a queer household of two moms and a son. I wanted to really focus in that book on this idea about what it’s like to live in central Florida and be a queer mom of a son, and feel that pressure of people looking in on you and seeing two moms raising a son, and thinking ‘something’s going to be wrong with that kid, there’s no dad.’ Also this idea about this little family and the ways people are like, ‘wow, look at you, a perfect little queer family,’ and this idea that you need to be like, ‘don’t ruin it for everyone else.’ You have to be successful and you have to be perfect because the stakes are so high; if you screw it up, then the response is ‘well, we knew that this was going to happen,’ and then it ruins it for anybody else. So I was really focused on that what it’s like to be a queer mom and have that kind of pressure and then, you know, maybe not be a great mom, maybe be kind of a shitty mom. I wanted to think about what that would be like, what that would look like and that household. It was very fun to write.
I think Mostly Dead Things had a level of discomfort in it that readers relayed to me; I got a lot of feedback saying the discomfort for people was with the dead animals in it. In With Teeth, the kind of humor and thought process I was focused on was like, ‘how uncomfortable can I make the people in the book, how uncomfortable can I make Sammy, the protagonist, or the people around her and still get a laugh out of it?’ I have this scene towards the end of the book where it’s just a dinner party from hell and it’s deeply uncomfortable for everyone involved. For me, I was delighted writing it because it’s never funny when you’re there, but it is funny. I always think about those things that I love to hear about or see on reality TV, like when you’re watching the Real Housewives of somewhere get together and have some kind of horrible meal where something ends up happening, or even if nothing happens, there’s this underlying tension that everyone at the table knows but no one can talk about it. I wanted that kind of stuff to be really present in With Teeth, and I think it is. It’s deeply uncomfortable, which I know is just what a reader wants to hear, that I want you to feel deeply uncomfortable reading the book.
CJ: I love, as a reader, when books push at my emotional boundaries a little bit.
KA: That’s good to hear.
CJ: I love what you were talking about with this idea of queer families and what that complexity means, which leads me to my next question. What does being a writer of queer fiction mean to you?
KA: I think it means a lot of things for different people. For myself, I’ve always written from a perspective that I’m trying to write the thing I want to read, so I’m always really interested in queer women, as a queer woman, and about messy queer women, people who are deeply flawed, like most human beings are. I’m also interested in reexamining my thought process, which I think is good for everybody to do. Here’s my thoughts, and now I’m going to reexamine them as I move through time and my work, and hopefully continue to grow as a writer. But I’ve always been less interested in coming out stories. I’ve always been more interested in the daily lived experience. I used to say there’s a million coming out stories, they’re just not interesting to me. But something that I’ve become more and more aware of is that there’s plenty of cis, white coming out stories, but there hasn’t been as many other kinds of situations, like what it’s like for a young black lesbian to come out. There hasn’t been as many of those stories, so my frame of reference has expanded. But for me personally, I just feel like in my own work I’ve been more interested in what’s it like for a person to be queer, and kind of a bitch sometimes, and maybe horny, and guess what, she’s mom – what does that look like? So I’m interested in reframing queerness in those spaces, and also examining how would we put queerness into those heteronormative spaces, or how we as people try to fit queerness into the heterosexual narrative, which is the opposite of what queerness is supposed to be about. For example, with two women in a household raising a son, thinking about those ideas that are like, ‘well you’re more the dad and I’m the mom, so you do this and I do this.’ Thinking about how these roles form because of how heterosexuality frames so much of our way of thinking. It’s something I want to consider all the time. And that’s interesting to me when considering just messy gay people.
CJ: I want to pivot now to what made you write a novel in the first place. Before Mostly Dead Things you were mostly a writer of short stories and essays, and you published a short story collection called Felt in the Jaw. What made you want to write a novel to begin with?
KA: The thing is that I didn’t want to write a novel. It felt like it happened to me. It wasn’t that I was like, ‘I’m never going to write a novel,’ but it just wasn’t something that I was thinking about. I do love, deeply love, short fiction as a writer and as a reader. I love sitting down with a collection or just reading one online. I’ve thought about short fiction in terms of a snow globe, like everything neatly contained within the world of this small thing. It felt like a form to me that is so interesting, because you can make anything inside the snow globe, so it always felt deeply changeable and never stopped being interesting to me.
What happened with Mostly Dead Things was that I started trying to write a short story about a brother and sister who are attempting to taxidermy this family friend’s beloved pet goat that’s died and they really fuck it up. They destroy this goat, and they’re like, ‘what the hell are we going to do now?’ And that story, which started off as a funny thing because I was interested in the taxidermy part of it, very quickly became more interested in the underpinnings of the relationship between these two siblings. I was interested in their back story, because they obviously have tension with each other and outside of the two of them, and wondered what their relationship looked like. It was the first time where I was thinking of it outside of the snow globe. I wondered what their childhood was like, what their larger world looked like, what their house looked like, what their family dynamic with their parents was like. Those are bigger questions than can’t fit inside of the snow globe, so I was like, ‘I need to maybe consider thinking about making this into something bigger.’ It had always seemed overwhelming to me to write something that long so I had never done it before. I decided to try it because I was really, deeply interested in these characters, and felt invested. It seemed like it was worth me taking the time to see if it was anything. I was like, ‘what’s the worst case scenario? I work on this for a while and it’s nothing, then at least I enjoyed it.’ Because I had never written anything so long before, I had very rigid rules in place for myself. At the time, I was working my nine to five at the library, and I was also doing my master’s for library school at night, so I told myself if I’m going to incorporate this project into my day, I need to put ground rules in. Monday through Friday, I have to write a thousand words a day on this. If I write more, cool, but I can’t write less, and if I want to write on the weekends, fine, but I don’t have to. At the end of the week I’ll have a minimum of five thousand words; by the end of the month I’ll have twenty thousand words; and by the end of several months I’ll have something. Will it be a novel? Maybe not. But it’ll be something length-wise that I can look at, and that’s what I did. But I never thought like, ‘oh, I’m going to sit down and pen a novel now,’ because it was just something that had never popped into my brain before. And each book has been different. I tried to do the same thing for With Teeth and it did not work the same.
CJ: How did it work for With Teeth then?
KA: When With Teeth went to auction, I had written forty single-spaced pages, maybe seventy-five double-spaced pages of it. I also had a short fiction collection which I had already put together, so people were looking at that and forty pages of a book that was not finished yet. I had to talk on the phone with everybody, and answer plot questions and I was like, ‘I don’t write like that, I’m sorry, but this is the shape I see and here’s thematically what I think is going to happen. Hopefully that sounds okay to you, an editor that maybe wants to purchase this.’ Then it went to Riverhead and I was on a deadline to finish it, and I’ve never had any kind of situation like that before. Since I had such a specific deadline, I had a two thousand word, every single day deadline for myself. That was different because it wasn’t a deadline I had just put on myself, I also had an actual, real deadline where this needed to go into an email to a person. With myself, if I fucked it up it was like, ‘oh Kristen, you didn’t do your words,’ but now it was like, ‘you are in trouble if you don’t do this.’ So that was a whole different experience, and also really fast. When I wrote the draft of Mostly Dead Things, I spent a significant amount of time on it. I started writing it in 2015, and then it got published in 2019, and in between there were revisions from me, and then working with my agent on it, and just more time for it to sit. It never really changed too much, but more was added and it got fleshed out. With Teeth was a different experience, very go go go, write it, finish it, send it away, which was very strange to think about. Now I’m in a position again where I’m just working for me. My next book with Riverhead is a short fiction collection, and that’s a different thing we’re still working on, but the new book I’m working on right now is me just trying to figure it out now that I’m like, ‘oh shit, I can write again, let’s see what happens.’
CJ: It’s great to hear that you also have another short fiction collection in the works. Is there one you prefer writing more, a novel or short fiction?
KA: If you’d ask me the same question before I had written Mostly Dead Things, I probably would have said short fiction. Now where I am in terms of writing, I don’t know if I would pick one or the other. I think they both use different parts of my brain, it’s a different kind of process for me. Novels for me feel like a lot of word vomit, and then looking at it and seeing what’s in all the mess. Whereas the way that I’ve always approached writing a short story, that starts to me less like a shape and more like an image. It feels like I have an image stuck in my brain and I can’t stop thinking about that. Then I sit down and write it, and a draft of it usually happens pretty quickly, within one to two days. I write a short story in the way of what Kelly Link calls the typewriter. When she described it, I was like, ‘that’s what it is,’ so I’m snaking this from Kelly Link. She described it as, she writes a sentence and keeps going, then comes back up fiddles around with what she already wrote. Then goes back down and keeps writing, before going back up, fiddling again, and then goes down. That is exactly how I feel about my process, because I’ll write three or four lines, and then jump back up and fuck around with it. I’ll keep going and then jump up and mess with it on a sentence level, a granular level. Whereas when writing a novel, the draft does not feel that granular, and maybe it can’t, or at least not for me. Being that granular with it would have meant that I would have never gotten through the first chapter because it’s just so unwieldy and messy at first. It’s like a big, ugly baby and it doesn’t know how to act. But a short story to me is so contained; you have that snow globe, so it’s like trying to build the inside of the little doll house and putting all the pieces together. Both are really fascinating to me, but they’re really different. I think previously might have said short stories, but now I have a love in my heart for both of them. Both messy but in different ways.
CJ: For this Spring Contest you’re going to be judging short stories. Is there anything that you particularly look for in a successful short story?
KA: I think, like any reader, I want to forget about the world I’m in, and be really pulled into whatever world the writer’s created. That world can look like anything, but I’m always definitely drawn to stories that have fully, vividly rendered physical spaces. I’m definitely a writer, and a reader, who loves place stories, stories that are firmly entrenched in place no matter where they are. Isn’t it wonderful, especially right now when we can’t leave our homes, to feel transported? I want to feel transported to whatever the world of the story is. It can be a messy, ugly, weird little world, but I want to feel transported there and like I’ve finally left my apartment.
CJ: This will be the last question for today. Do you have any advice for emerging writers, short story writers or novel writers?
KA: With advice, take it with a grain of salt because different practices and processes work differently for everyone and that’s what’s most important. For me, I just make sure I try and write every day, even if it’s garbage, even if you don’t have any time, even if it’s early in the morning or super late or you’re on a lunch break. It can be something stupid you’re just going to throw out, but I think the practice of those things builds up in us. It’s like building a muscle or a habit, so it’s good practice for me to do that, and it’s something that I definitely say to other people. And to read as much as you can, even though I know it’s really hard right now. Maybe I would make a caveat to that. Consume art in whatever way you’re able to. Any kind of art or creative thing you’re able to consume and feel invested in is something that can enliven your work. Let yourself listen to a comedy podcast that makes you feel good or makes you feel creative. Whatever art you like that you’re able to engage with right now, try to engage with it because I think that can only help a writing process. It only brings something good, I think. I hope.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kristen Arnett