Kristen Arnett: Relationships? Writing? It’s All Taxidermy
The Author of Mostly Dead Things on The Maris Review
How taxidermy are like past relationships:
Kristen Arnett: It’s a very queer book, and coming of age as a young, queer person includes not understanding yourself and your sexuality and discovering that. It has that extra edge of being fraught, because sometimes those relationships are secret as well. It becomes this way that when we think about them, memory becomes extremely structured: very posed and put together.
Maris Kreizman: Remember that dead raccoon?
Kristen: [laughs] “Baby, that dead bull reminds me of you.” It made me realize that it has a lot in common with taxidermy, because taxidermy is taking what was once alive and dying in this kind of way and resurrecting it as a specific posed, structured memory. That’s past relationships, in a lot of ways.
On coping mechanisms:
Kristen: Writing is a kind of taxidermy, because you are constructing a narrative and you’re posing it in a certain way. You’re taking it and saying, this isn’t fitting my idea of how the memory should function, whittling it down and honing it down to the thing that you see it as.
Maris: You getting to narrate your experience is the ultimate “taxidermilogic.” The impression from the book, at least, was that I could see how control, both in taxidermy and controlling the narrative, were very important.
Kristen: Right, because I think too that it is also a book about grief and loss; specifically, this narrator struggles with control issues. Struggle is an interesting word, because when the book begins they don’t think they struggle with it.
Maris: No, not at all. For them, it’s a lot of coping mechanisms. In writing this book, it was like what does it look like when you’ve had these workarounds that might not be healthy and maybe not the best way of coping with things, but they’ve worked to a degree. You’ve developed them and you’ve used them. They are these workarounds so you can get through the things you don’t want to deal with, like what happens when an event occurs or something happens that makes it so those coping mechanisms no longer work anymore. They don’t function the way you need them to.
Specifically, Jessa in the book is very much a control freak who deals with emotions by ruthlessly shutting them down and being very present in the physical world. What does it mean when your brain no longer lets you do that because you’re too immersed in the event that occurred? What does that grief look like when it’s compared to other people in your life who are experiencing the same grief but maybe in very different ways?
On high art versus low art:
Maris: You do a great job in the novel of getting first impressions of what her mother is doing, and as a reader you think that her mother has lost her mind. We see before Jessa does, but we get there.
Kristen: Another thing too is that taking what is essentially domestic arts that we don’t take seriously because they were women’s work in a kind of way, it also pairs against utilizing taxidermy, which is something that I consider as high art versus low art or what’s tacky and classy. These are binaries a lot of the time.
Florida experiences a lot of that, right? Florida is considered tacky, in this kind of way. Central Florida is tourist central and includes a lot of these things. What does it look like for people who are creating taxidermy, which in the book Jessa and her father consider as high art, but looking on it when you talk to people about taxidermy it’s a low art. People aren’t generally considering taking a dead animal, scraping out its interiors, and posing it to be this kind of high art, but they’ve made it this thing.
This is very present in people that do taxidermy in these forums. They take it very seriously and they spend a lot of time on it, but it’s generally very masculine work. I would sit inside these web forums and chat rooms because I wanted to see how people talked about it. I wanted the language to be right in the book. What’s the slang they use? How do people talk to each other, and what actual tools do they use? Is there stuff they don’t use that’s known in the trade but people wouldn’t know otherwise unless they were making taxidermy? I got a lot of that stuff. People were like, use Windex because it’s cheaper. Amazing, right?
Ninety-nine percent of the time it was this very traditional kind of masculinity in these forums. They would post these pictures of things they made, and they would write how they did it. They were showing their art this way, and they were being vulnerable and tender about they made work. To feel emotional about something you created is a vulnerability, and it’s considered feminine.
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 is a columnist for Literary Hub, and her work has either appeared or is upcoming in numerous literary publications. Mostly Dead Things is her first novel.
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