The PEN Ten: An Interview with Kristen Arnett
1. Where was your favorite place to read as a child?
My parents were very strict about what I was allowed to read—they were very conservative evangelical southern Baptists—so a lot of the time I had to hide the stuff I brought home, kindly offered up by teachers and the media center. I would put a lot of those books under my dresser and sit on the floor beside it when I had moments alone so I could read them. I wasn’t allowed to close my door growing up—at least not until I was a teenager—and then only when I was changing clothes, so I’d read on the floor next to the dresser very furtively and at the slightest sound from the hallway, would chuck the book back under my dresser. It made reading feel very secretive and sly!
I truly loved to read at school, though. Those were times when I knew I could completely immerse myself in a book and no one could sneak up on me and make me stop. Thank you to all those teachers who let me read in their classrooms when I was done with my work. I really needed that.
2. What is your favorite bookstore or library?
My favorite local bookstore in Miami is Books & Books. They are just terrific. I call that place my Cheers—everyone knows your name! And I love the Orange County Library System in Orlando, especially the downtown branch. I hardly ever got to go to the library as a kid, but when I did make it there, I just fell in love. It was huge, for one thing. Just filled to the brim with books. I liked to imagine myself spending the night there, just staying up with a flashlight and reading all night long.
“Quite often when I’m working, I’m trying to figure out the right way to ask a thing so that I can tease out what I’m really trying to say. Library work has helped me with this immensely.”
3. Speaking of libraries, some of your readers may not know that you have a master’s in library and information science (MLIS). Is there a takeaway from your studies that you feel fellow writers would find especially useful, compelling, or interesting?
I think there’s a lot about working in libraries that I bring to my work, for sure. A lot of that is held in my love affair with research and research methods. An MLIS certainly helps with that. Another thing is just time I’ve spent working the reference desk. It taught me that when people are asking a question, they’re generally not really asking the thing they need help with—as a librarian, I’m looking for the question below it, what I’ve started calling “the question under the question.” That is directly applicable to writing. Quite often when I’m working, I’m trying to figure out the right way to ask a thing so that I can tease out what I’m really trying to say. Library work has helped me with this immensely.
4. What’s something about your writing habits that has changed over time?
Oh god, probably everything? Every single time I work on a new project, I have to go through a period of struggle where I realize the practices I put into place for the previous book just don’t want to work for the new one. It seems like every new project has its own learning curve! I think that’s probably a good thing, though. I don’t want to ever feel like I know what I’m doing (because I absolutely have no idea—I never know what’s going on). Don’t want to get too comfortable!
5. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison was the book that made me want to become a writer. It was the first time I really saw myself reflected in fiction. A book that was very queer, but without explaining any of the queerness. A book that was so much about place, that put so much significance into how landscape and home affect the work. I was profoundly moved reading that novel. It’s one I return to again and again, without fail. It holds a very special place in my heart.
“Florida is a sensory experience. Lots of smells and tastes. Lots of tactile sensation. It’s a place that reaches out and touches you, literally. . . . Knowing Florida so intimately means that I write about it like I would a family member. Something I can sometimes love and sometimes loathe, but at the end of the day, it’s mine.”
6. You often return to the Sunshine State of Florida in your writing. It’s also where you live now. What about your home state is most captivating to write about—whether it’s the people, its history, its contradictions? What are the differences in experience between writing about a place you know intimately, versus one that might be fairly foreign to you?
Florida feels very embedded in me, so it makes sense that it winds up becoming enmeshed in my work. I mean, it’s the kind of place that kind of sinks its teeth into you. It’s very physical. I consider it to be as important as character in my stories. It’s fairly bodied.
Florida is a sensory experience. Lots of smells and tastes. Lots of tactile sensation. It’s a place that reaches out and touches you, literally. The humidity here is enough to feel like an embrace. It’s also just digging into your personal space. Florida doesn’t care much about boundaries. Lizards in your house. Weeds growing in the cracked foundation. I love that. All that messiness.
Knowing Florida so intimately means that I write about it like I would a family member. Something I can sometimes love and sometimes loathe, but at the end of the day, it’s mine. Writing about a space you’re not as familiar with is a different kind of animal, I think. I’d be a little more hesitant to write from a place of experience. I’d want to respect that.
7. In your novel With Teeth, you write about motherhood, midlife regrets, and complicated family dynamics—tropes that often figure heavily in narratives centering straight women. We’re all familiar with the resentful (straight) housewife character who feels tied down by her children, but perhaps have not gotten to know the version of this character who is not married to a man. What are some things that you feel gets added to the conversation about motherhood, as more queer family stories enter the mainstream?
I feel it’s really important to allow for a breadth of stories, and that means encompassing the “good” and the “bad” of everyone, including queer people. I use quotes here because I think it’s strange to speak in binaries when it comes to morality. It’s such a gray area.
I would say that I have deep fondness for messy characters. In writing Sammie, who is a queer stay-at-home mother, I wanted there to be this look at what it’s like to know you’re being watched because people want you to fail—two gay moms raising a son in a red state—but the opposite side of that coin are the queer people watching it unfold as well, a kind of pressure to not mess things up for everyone else. It’s a kind of pressure cooker.
There’s this way in which heteronormative standards wiggle their way into queer relationships, especially when kids get involved. That would be hard to sustain. Queerness chafes at that kind of bridle. I wanted to look at how uncomfortable that could get.
8. There’s so much humor in With Teeth. Even in scenes that were objectively devastating—where the emotional wellbeing of a kid is at stake—the absurdity of a cat being chased off a balcony by a demon of a child (or something comparable) always managed to bring some comic relief. How do you bring levity to moments that are serious, without compromising their feeling of consequence?
I am the kind of person who is constantly looking for the joke in everything. Part of that might have come from my time as a child in a completely stifling conservative environment, but I think it possibly also came from my queerness.
As I was coming out and feeling deeply uncomfortable about it, I was constantly looking for ways to turn those situations into something I could joke about. Ways to bring levity to the situation. That has definitely migrated into my work. When I’m writing messy, dark characters, or characters that continually make bad choices, I instinctively turn toward humor. I think it’s a very human thing, to want to make jokes when we’re uncomfortable or sad or even angry or grieving. It feels very natural to me to work it into my books.
“As I was coming out and feeling deeply uncomfortable about it, I was constantly looking for ways to turn those situations into something I could joke about. Ways to bring levity to the situation. . . . I think it’s a very human thing, to want to make jokes when we’re uncomfortable or sad or even angry or grieving. It feels very natural to me to work it into my books.”
9. Your book is about family dynamics and relationships, so it’s hard to avoid writing about intimacy and sex. What is the most difficult part of writing intimacy? What advice do you have for writers who feel that they have trouble getting it right?
It’s important to kind of lean into the messiness, maybe? Whenever I’m writing sex or tenderness or bodies or love or shame or grief, my first thought goes to how I can make it even messier. Because I think human beings are deeply messy. So I like to just kind of barrel headlong into all that stuff, because that’s what makes humanity so interesting. The gross parts!
But seriously, I think there’s a reason that people love to watch reality television. Part of that is people often crave drama, even the manufactured variety we find on TV. But there is something so satisfying about being a voyeur of that drama of human relationships. Think about overhearing people at bars or out at dinner. Novels should give us that, too.
10. With Teeth is being published following more than a year of pandemic restrictions. Though writers with new works might usually be on book tours and filling their schedules with speaking engagements, most of their lives probably look a little different this year. What are some things you had to give up as a writer working during this time? Conversely, have there been any surprising advantages to getting a book ready for publication during a pandemic?
The first thing I had to give up, for a while, was writing. I really struggled getting my head back into work in a creative capacity. I don’t think that’s unusual, either—I know so many writers were struggling! I think I am just now finally able to work in a way that feels “normal” again, whatever that means.
But something that I have loved, as a writer and as a librarian and advocate of accessibility, is the fact that so many readings and panels and workshops are now offering online components. As a person who spent so much time in Central Florida without access to things (money, transportation), it is wonderful to see this as an ongoing option. I am huge fan. I hope it keeps moving forward. I want to see all kinds of people at events, even from far away, well into the future.
Kristen Arnett is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Mostly Dead Things and the story collection Felt in the Jaw. A queer writer based in Florida, she has written for The New York Times, Guernica, BuzzFeed, McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Salon, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and a winner of the Ninth Letter Literary Award in fiction and the Coil Book Award. Her new novel, With Teeth, is on sale now from Riverhead Books.