Kristen Arnett: “I Always Want to Write Something Messy. What’s the Fun of Being Clean All the Time?”
This Week from the Thresholds Podcast with Jordan Kisner
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan Kisner talks to Kristen Arnett about her new novel, With Teeth, and the luxurious, totally confusing, kind of wobbly transition from being somebody who wrote in little stolen moments of the day purely for pleasure, like an affair, to someone who wrote full time for capital-w Work.
From the episode:
Jordan Kisner: It seems like chaos is something you really enjoy using—as a plot device, as an ethos, as a way to push and test your characters, maybe. Which is funny, because you’re talking about this totally non-chaotic attitude towards work in general. And I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about how you want chaos to sit with you or in this book more generally?
Kristen Arnett: Yeah, I am a huge fan of people. People are so fucking messy. People are just wonderful and awful and just so messy. I think my time as a librarian has shown me the deep well of messiness that humanity sits inside of. And in writing this book, I’m always fascinated with families and things like that, so I was just like, I want to think about the deep messiness inside of family. And I was like, what’s more chaotic than families? I don’t know.
But specifically, everybody in a family to me feels like an unreliable narrator. Because even if you all share stories—like, oh, I remember the story of that one Christmas where Uncle Leo’s donkey broke free and knocked over the baby Jesus manger—even if that’s a shared family narrative, every person who was there and witnessed it tells it differently. The stories all touch each other, but they are also very different from personal experience. It’s all connected, and it has this point of control where they’re all attached, but then a point of chaos where the narratives completely diverge.
I also think there’s things that happen in a household that we feel like stay in a household, or just messiness or weirdness or stuff that happens. And I was just deeply interested also about writing a very messy, uncomfortable book from a viewpoint of a woman. I’m not as interested in likable or unlikable characters because I think that’s a weird binary we can put on things; it’s like a weird gray area of humanity. Nobody’s completely likable. And if somebody is completely likable, then they’re really portraying a kind of brand, maybe.
But what it looks like to be in a position where you’re being judged no matter what you do. If you’re a queer mother, you have people looking in ready to find fault with whatever you’re doing. And then also simultaneously the other side of that coin being like, you can’t fuck up because you will ruin it for everybody else. If you do fuck up, they’re going to be like, well look at that. See, we knew that this was bad and it was not something good. And then throw that into the mix. Maybe the person is not a great mom. Maybe they’re a shitty mom. What does that look like? There’s plenty of shitty moms. So I don’t know. Households are chaos, regardless. I always want to write something messy. What’s the fun of being clean all the time? Clean feels boring to me.
Kristen Arnett is the author of With Teeth: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2021) and the NYT bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019) which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in fiction. She is a queer fiction and essay writer. She was awarded Ninth Letter‘s Literary Award in Fiction, has been a columnist for Literary Hub, and was a Spring 2020 Shearing Fellow at Black Mountain Institute. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, The Cut, Oprah Magazine, North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Buzzfeed, Electric Literature, McSweeneys, PBS Newshour, Bennington Review, The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her next book (an untitled collection of short stories) will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House). She has a Masters in Library and Information Science from Florida State University and currently lives in Miami, Florida. You can find her on Twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett.