Kristen Arnett is incredible. I first became aware of her on Twitter. People were constantly retweeting her into my feed, and then I blinked my eyes and was following her too, delighted at the stream of screaming possum photos, and updates about her French bulldog, the ticker tape of mundane beauty from the POV of someone working the help desk at your local library. For a while, I didn’t know she was a writer, especially a writer of literary fiction, because the things she would say in 140 characters were both hilarious, brilliant, and often tinged with a bittersweetness that is usually the hallmark of the best kind of standup comedian. What else is new, I was dumb. After a couple investigatory clicks, I found out that Kristen is also one of the best literary writers I’ve stumbled upon in years. Her stories have a swift depth to them that usually deal with relationships gone awry, lives gone belly up, or are about to undergo some glowing transformation. Her writing, like her Twitter, is full of bright, shining life. The collective dispatches of a person doing the important work of constructing art about the bizarre, the mundane, the hurt that hangs around everyone’s shoulders, like a fog. She’s also the kind of writer, making truly serious work, but at the same time, maybe not taking themselves completely seriously. She’ll put her dog in a raincoat and send her out into a tropical storm. She’ll write a short story about a person who has grown to love their tumor (“Biddenden Maids”). I reached out to Kristen and asked if I could interview her about her story collection Felt in the Jaw, and other assorted adventures in her life. We bounced this interview back and forth, over the course of a few weeks, and while that was happening, Kristen created a Facebook event for her book launch at her local 7-Eleven. The launch happened in Florida, and was covered by the New York Times. Why? Well, two reasons: #1, it’s badass to have your book launch at your local 7-Eleven, especially if you actually do love it and actually do love the people who work there, and #2, it shows that you aren’t a stuffy robot writer person and there is no better way to get everyone’s attention than by doing something completely different than what the stuffy writer people usually do.
Bud: Where did you grow up? What was it like there?
Kristen: I grew up in Orlando! And I still live here! I was born in Florida and I’ve never left this place, god help me. No, I’m kidding, I like it. It’s got a really weird vibe, Central Florida. Completely different from down South in the state or up North, which are both odd and good, too. Feel like all I ever talk about is Florida because it’s honestly what I’m steeped in. The viney, twisting embrace of it. It’s got a lot of assholes, but there are a lot of wonderful people here, too. A thing I really liked about being in Orlando is it’s always trying it’s hardest to build some kind of community. It works through its failures. Everyone is just…. always trying so goddamn hard. And I appreciate that.
What’s your family like?
Oh buddy, this is a tough one. My family is Southern Baptist and extremely conservative. They also live locally, like 10 minutes away from my house. Needless to say, I’ve had a very… complicated relationship with them. Over the past year I’ve pretty much cut them off completely. It’s probably one of the healthiest decisions I’ve ever made, and that’s saying something from a woman who keeps 7-eleven in business. Also over the past year I’ve been feeling out the borders of what the term “family” means. For me, that’s been maintaining relationships with individuals who care about me and accept me. So my family is my writing community, the friends who’ve been there for me, my queer community. And that’s a lot of good fucking people.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say, “Oh thankfully my family is Southern Baptist.” I’m sorry they’re so irrational to you. What was it like growing up with them?
It was… weird. I guess all people say that, though! Maybe all families are just really fucking weird. We went to church a lot, like 4 or 5 times a week, but I still went to public school. Went to a lot of church camps and attended a lot of very strange retreats – true love waits conferences, student life camps, etc. At the time, it seemed normal. It’s always hard to describe how it feels to people who don’t grow up that way. It’s a very immersive culture and one that most people just kinda stay in. I know almost all of my friends from that time are married with like 100 babies and they still all attend their home churches.
Besides being very religious is your family funny at all? Are any of them big readers?
Growing up, I always thought my Dad was the funniest person ever. Like, he would make jokes about any stupid thing. Our dog. The weather. My Mom. And I freely admit I am partial to dumb dad humor. That’s my wheelhouse, if we’re being honest. Just straight up dumb jokes, stupid stuff that makes you want to groan until you can’t hear yourself being an idiot anymore. My Dad is definitely not a reader – once I told him I was working on an essay about sonnets and he only got interested because he thought I’d said Sonics, like the restaurant. My Mom is a reader, but all she reads are romance novels. When I was young I asked her why she only read those and she told me it was because they always guaranteed a happy ending. That maybe tells you the most about my family in a single sentence than anything I could say about them.
Florida is a state I’m constantly hearing about. New Jersey was like that for a little bit with the Sopranos and the TV show Jersey Shore, not to mention Bruce Springsteen. I can’t go through a week without hearing about those things. What’s the equivalent of that for you?
Constantly get the Disney World and theme parks. Giant Alligators. Wild animals eating people. But there’s stuff about that I can definitely get down with; like I post possum pictures daily now because it’s the Florida content I’d like to see. There are a bunch of weird stereotypes about Florida that don’t hold up or are only partially true, but probably the thing I hear the most is Florida Man and the idiotic headlines. Like, I get it, we’ve got a bunch of strange shit, but there are weird headlines everywhere. It’s pretty lazy to make Florida jokes, I think!
Oh yeah, those possum posts are gold. This might be my favorite one. You’re a librarian now? Tell me about that.
I started out working at a public library part time and they just never let me leave. Once you’re in library work, you’re in it for life. Wish I was joking about that one! I never necessarily saw it as my career, per se, but it was one of those things that snowballed. Now I don’t think I could do anything else! I like reading and research. Believe it or not from my Twitter, I like public services. I was working a staff position doing circulation work and thought, huh, I could go to library school for this and make twice the amount of money for essentially doing the same job. So I got my Masters and shifted around from public to academic. It’s always interesting, and that’s the truth. There is never a single boring day working at a library, but mostly that might be because people are always creatively jamming the copy machine.
What do you learn in library school?
Oh God! I think the thing you really learn in library school is you don’t need library school. I mean, you need training, for sure. But so much of librarianship is very practical and hands-on. You learn reference by sitting reference and answering endless boring terrible questions. You learn public services and circulation by working those stations, too. There are definitely subsections of library school where you can glean particular knowledge – like archives and cataloging, those classes help with very skillsets. But nobody needs to go to library school to learn crafts and how to make a holiday ornament out of someone’s old AOL CDs. You just have to sit down and do it in a library, have a library job.
Where else have you worked? Worst job, best job, hardest, and easiest.
Honestly, aside from high school jobs, I have only worked in libraries! It would be extremely bizarre to work at any other kind of place now, I think, just because it’s basically been libraries my whole life. My weirdest job, hands down, was my public library job. Those stories are outrageous. My favorite, if I can share it with you: once the youth services librarian (who was a righteous pain in the ass) decided to put a basket of sand dollars out at the circulation desk – which is very, extremely Florida. She’d gotten them as a free gift for buying a bunch of stuff for summer reading program or something, I dunno. Anyway. This elderly gentleman comes up to check out his books and she’s like, “Hey you want one? They’re free,” and he says, “Sure” – this man proceeds to stick the entire sand dollar in his mouth. He crunched it up to bits. He thought it was a mint? I almost died!
I bet he almost died too, haha. And yes! That is maybe the most Florida thing I’ve ever heard, hah.
I read a book of short stories by Wolf Puppy because I really like that Twitter account. I came to your writing the same way, a huge fan of your Twitter. Have you ever sought out a writer because of a Twitter account?
There are so many writers I discovered through Twitter! I’d say like half the people I’ve read over the past year are people I discovered through that hell site. Also I made 99% of my friendships there. Not embarrassed to admit that! Okay, kind of embarrassed to admit that. I know I found Alex Chee that way – found his Twitter, then read his work, and it blew me away. Edinburgh! I cry maybe 2 times a year and I used up my yearly allotment on that book, no joke. Same with Randa Jarrar and Christine Lee! Both people I found and loved through the app, and then discovered their brilliant writing. I’m constantly in awe of having fucking limitless access to such talented, incredible people. I might spend an ungodly amount of time on Twitter, and maybe it’s destroying my brain, but it’s given me friendships with some of the best human beings on the planet. 100% worth it.
Do you think you’ve become a better writer and editor from getting better at Twitter?
I think I’ve gotten better at procrastinating thanks to Twitter! Maybe a little better at joking around. I’m not sure if it’s made me a better writer, but it’s put me in touch with people who are GREAT writers, so I’ve gotten better by reading their work. Maybe every few months I ask the internet why I can’t just stuff all my tweets in a word doc and just send that to my agent. Man, I dunno! I’ve gotten better at leaving out punctuation so I can cram a joke into 140 characters, that’s for sure.
What about editing? When I had to learn how to squeeze as much information as possible into 140 characters, I think that’s where I learned what prose can actually do. Did you have an epiphany like that?
That’s something, maybe. Possibly! I know that I scrutinize a lot harder on a sentence level now, way more scrutinizing than I did before. Although some of that might just be extreme writerly self-loathing. I think in terms of editing, I definitely look at a sentence and think about how I can make it funnier by consolidating. Or maybe word choice/selection. I think Twitter has helped with that, in a way. It’s definitely made me think about language and how malleable it is, how much mileage we can get out of punctuation, misspellings. Meme culture, if I can be annoying and use that as an example. Like, I look at that stuff and think “what makes this work” and then try and think about my writing that way.
I think it’s so interesting to hear you say that your writing (maybe?) prioritizes humor. You don’t hear many literary fiction writers say that, but hearing you say that rings a bell with me, too. Why do you think being funny is so important and where does it come from?
I definitely equate being funny with getting attention, and god knows I like that. Being the funniest person in the room or at a party or at a gathering means people listen to you. Growing up, that was something I really wanted. That kind of attention. Also I absolutely know that I have huge problems with intimacy and emotions, sometimes humor is my default. It’s a defense against having to deal with a lot of stuff that makes me wildly uncomfortable! See, now that I talked about this I wanna joke about drinking. Hahahahaha. HUMOR!
Who did your book cover?
My very good friend Alana Questell did that cover for me. She is a great artist who’s done a lot of very cool work (album art, etc). People should check her out!
Yes, I love it so much. There is a story in the collection called “Felt in the Jaw,” and all during the story, I was tense because I thought the characters are about to be attacked by an alligator, but the attack turns out to be much smaller, if not just as dangerous. I would say that most of your stories have this glorious moment where it’s apparent that not only all the main characters are unprepared, but maybe the readers are too.
That’s always very interesting to me – these moments of sudden awareness. I think most people feel that way. About change: how rapid it is, how unexpected, even when there is a level of anticipation. We never feel ready for the big stuff. I don’t think anyone’s ever really prepared for those kinds of moments. Most of the time when I’m writing about it or thinking about it, I compare it to bodies. How we never really know what’s going on inside these weird flesh vehicles (all hidden, all working mysteriously), and we never really know what’s going on in our brains, either.
You recently had a release party for Felt in the Jaw at your local 7-Eleven. Can you tell me how that came about, and how the New York Times came to cover it …
As most people know, I love the hell out of my 7-Eleven. When it came time to decide to do a launch somewhere, I started thinking what places make me feel comfortable. What would I like to be doing. I’d like to be eating snacks and buying beer at my 7-Eleven, with my dog, was the first thought that popped into my head. So I just went in one afternoon like I normally do and asked them and they immediately agreed to it! I was so excited about it I posted about it on Twitter. Afterward I got a very nice DM from John Williams over at the New York Times book review asking if he could pick my brain about it, and it just went from there. It was honestly extremely fun and I’d do the whole thing over again. I’ve never felt better about a reading or more comfortable during one. Just felt very homey.
What did you read at the 7-Eleven? Did the employees at the 7-Eleven like it?
I knew people would be standing around for a little bit in the store, so I decided to just choose a short segment to read from one of the stories in the collection. I actually wound up reading the section of “The Locusts” where the kids steal some beer and drink them in the dog house. That seemed appropriate for the occasion! It was a fucking blast. The people at 7-Eleven are always really chill and very kind to me. They were very nice about it and supported the whole thing, even let my dog in the store for the duration.
How do you do readings in general and how can they be more interesting?
I think it’s really hard to read fiction aloud, especially if it’s 3rd person. There can be something very distancing about that for the listener. Very removed. Usually I wind up reading part of an essay, or if I do something that’s fiction, I try and read 2nd person. I dunno, I will tell you it’s hard to get up in front of people and expect them to be interested in anything I have to say. Most of the time I bore myself, so maybe that’s why I’m always trying to entertain people on the internet. Readings should have something active in them, something that pops. It should be punchy and interesting and, most of all, short. Alcohol helps, godbless.
Can you tell me the story you told me over the phone about the Florida essay on Lit Hub and what happened after the essay went up, the creep …
Hooboy, yeah. Most of what I experienced from that Lit Hub essay was just wonderful. Lots of people who love Florida responded very positively to it, and that made me feel relieved because it’s something so near and dear to me. The only weird thing that happened was I got an email from some dude asking for my “used/worn clothing.” I mean, that was something. But sincerely, women have to deal with that kind of shit all the time. It’s nothing new, sadly.
The first story in Felt in the Jaw is titled after famous English conjoined twins who start their own business … the story is about so much more than that though, and that’s why it’s my favorite in the book. So much is unsaid in it. The protagonist has a lump/a cycst/an undefined whatever that she doesn’t want to have removed from her body. Can you tell me your thoughts on twins, and how it relates to the story?
I am super interested in twins and mirroring, the idea that there could be this other person that’s made up of the same material as you, that formed in the womb with you. This person that you have a deep, intimate connection with – who looks exactly like you. Also the story of the Biddenden Maids is rooted in a lot of mythology, and I found that fascinating. I think there’s a lot of mythologies we create about ourselves – our lives, who we are, what we’ve done. I liked the idea that this person would be so interested in twins, in that created identity, and at the same time subconsciously creating her own mythology: with her mother, with her queerness, with her body.
There’s a lot of writing about ‘the body’ in Felt in the Jaw. What interests you so much about the physical?
Bodies are just fucking… weird. It’s so hard to understand how and why they work, what’s going on inside them. Also I think a lot of the time physical things occur in our lives (pain, hurt, pleasure, etc) and those same things are happening on an emotional level. I like to see the physical mirrored in the emotional. But again, maybe I am just preoccupied with blood and guts!
Can you tell me the story about safety in spaces and in your car (in relation to the final story in the collection, the man pelting the car with coins)?
When I was writing “See also…” I thought about this story a friend told me about how they were driving past a bar and some drunk dude randomly threw change at her car. She talked about how surprised she was by it. After she told me that, I thought more about driving as a woman. How there aren’t places you’re actually safe, but you can be lulled into a false sense of security. Cars are this little pocket – you’re in a bubble. Listening to music, maybe. Air conditioned. Comfortable. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone scream at me from a nearby car. Some dude hurls slurs at me, or yells for almost no reason. Just truly hateful shit. So I was thinking about that. How we trick ourselves into believing spaces can be safe, when in reality it’s this easily punctured thing. Comfort is really so easily taken from us.
What are you working on now? What’s coming up?
Right now I’m completing final edits with my agent (Serene Hakim, Pande Literary) on a novel we’re about to shop around! It’s about a lesbian taxidermist in Central Florida who takes over her family’s taxidermy business. So hopefully it’ll be out in the world soon!