This interview has been edited for flow, conciseness, and clarity.
Marissa Higgins: How, if anything, has the pandemic changed your writing life?
Kristen Arnett: It was different to think about creative work in different ways. At first it felt a little more like a luxury to be able to write, and then it just became the thing that made it feel like that albatross. I dont know. I have the feeling that my brain just doesn't process the language anymore, which I think many, many people have experienced.
It was very, very difficult to read. And I think when it's hard to read, it just makes writing unbearable. If you can't take the language on a page for the satisfaction of reading only, then you definitely can't write, which I did. I can't speak for other people, but it was very difficult. Then I felt like the more pressure I put on myself, the worse it got, and it felt very cyclical. As if I can't read, I can't write. I'll try to make myself do it. I can't do it, I feel worse about it. I will try again.
Things that worked for me before … Having a typing routine was something I always had to myself. I'm totally one of those people who think the process is different for everyone. What works for me is definitely not for everyone. But something that had worked for me was getting up every day and having a word count that I would write. Word counting wouldn't necessarily be all I would keep, but it was just a practice for me as a daily habit.
Lately I've just been like I have a project that I'm feeling excited about and just let myself get excited about it. I also took the liberty of just letting go of some projects because that was also one of the things that happened. I started working on a project in the middle of the pandemic and said, "This is not working. I feel like I can't get it to work." It felt like trying to put a fish in a pair of pants or something. I just said, "This doesn't work and I can't get it to work." I feel like I struggled with this because I was like, "Well if I can't do this job and that's what I want to do and I'm passionate and I don't really know what I'm doing." "
I think the greatest gift I've given myself was the gift of just saying, "It's okay to just let go of a few things." Maybe it won't work. It could work in the future, but maybe it just won't and that's fine. It's okay to just throw it. It's okay to throw a few things away. If I had this idea at some other point in my life it might have materialized, but wherever I am I have to agree to say, “I've written a lot about it and it just ain't like I won't work and that's fine. "Not everything has to be something … Maybe I'm a bit more of a control freak than I originally thought of myself, and that's when I discovered that and said," I literally can't control it. " it is. "I think it was messy, but I love chaos so I try to take the chaos of everything.
MH: I was wondering what you read. Are there any media you connected to during the pandemic?
KA: I started just trying to reread things that I knew I loved because I thought, "When I can remember what it's like to read something I know" almost the good feeling of watching this tv show have seen a million times. They put it on for a sense of wellbeing. It is not necessarily that you take in the novelty of the work. It is so that you feel comforted.
I tried to do that so I read a couple of books that I had read before that I loved. I've read a lot from Stephen King, which is funny because it's comforting to kill people. I read a lot to comfort Stephen King, but it was like remembering why I like to get lost in work and be transported that way. Then I really started. I said, "I'm just going to read all the new things that are just coming out." So I just had all kinds of things. So many really great short game collections came out like Daniel Boone's short game collection which is so amazing.
Laura van den Bergs I hold a wolf by my ears is so good. Then I just reread a lot of poems, which was so helpful to me in relation to my own writing, just sitting with pictures and things. Ada Limon – I can pick up on The Carrying or Bright Dead Things and I have the feeling that transport is not the right word, I don't know. I feel like I remember how amazing it is to see a sentence that is exactly the most perfect way to describe something, but I haven't seen it that way before.
This amazement at the language and the discovery of images, even if it is as small as dew on something or a bird as it is for a writer who writes so much about Florida and is in the open air, made sense to work too sit, the images conjure up the smallness within the greatness of the world. It was nice
MH: Can you talk a little about what inspired With Teeth?
KA: I've been thinking more about novels in terms of shapes and also things that I'm obsessed with. So mostly dead things are really obsessed with taxidermists. I've been thinking about it all the time. I said, "This is going to be something I think about all the time, that I'm going to write something bigger to capture the size that it occupies in my brain." I've thought a lot about weirdness, but specifically the familial weirdness in central Florida.
I spoke to someone on the phone and they brought it up … Because I said something about the fact that there are so many queer people, especially in central Florida, but there aren't many queer rooms for them, so strange that means. I can imagine, maybe on the spur of the moment, maybe three nightclubs, and just not a lot of rooms that are identically weird and most importantly not lesbian. But there are so many strange people. We all have theme parks and everything and so many people working in all of these places are weird.
MH: Oh, I had no idea.
KA: Yes. We have tons of queer people but not that many queer rooms and I said it would be difficult to be a mom and not have support and not have queer rooms. The person I was on the phone with said, "Oh. Well, why not just find a gay mom group?" You live in Brooklyn. I said, "That doesn't happen in Orlando. These things don't exist." There are no such resources.
There's this kind of weird divide about here, like, okay, you go out at night and maybe you can find that one nightclub and go out with people, but what happens when you have a kid? It's like there isn't that much room for you, and since you don't fit into that kind of niche of weirdness anymore, there just isn't … There's a feeling, "There's no support." That became very interesting for me to think about.
Another thing that I also thought about a lot was that I am always very interested in family dynamics. Queerness shouldn't fit into these small boxes, but here too everyone tries to cram it into heteronormativity. So you have a marriage between two women and it still falls into that gap who is doing this kind of duty here, or who is taking care of children and who is bringing home money? Because the differences still fall along these heteronormative types of things.
So I said, "Okay, I want to write about a budget where this is happening and it doesn't feel like there's a lot of outside support." But I'm also interested in the idea that everyone in a family is an unreliable narrator because all families have history, lore and stories to share, right?
People who are all there for different things, but then everyone in a family somehow manages to tell these stories, even though it's the same, very different. One person who was there describes a family event in one way and another person who was there describes it as follows: "No, it wasn't that at all. It was like that. Actually it was me, not you." said, "This is very fascinating to me." What if this is a household where the idea of weirdness is put in front of a microscope where it is already being watched from the outside to make sure you don't mess up. Because there's this idea that you're going to inevitably screw it up with two mothers with one son because there's no father figure, so the odds are already stacked against you.
Say you do it. You are these two mothers who are raising children and you have this beautiful family. Now you really can't screw it up because then you will ruin it for everyone else because you have to stick to that impossible standard. I said, “What if it's someone who – like everyone else because no one is able to meet that perfect gold standard of parenting – when it's someone who just isn't great, a fucking mother? Maybe she's a lesbian and she just isn't great at how many parents aren't great at being parents. "
All of these things together made the perfect storm for me to want to write this special book, this very messy book. I'm just very interested too. I said, "I'm very interested in discomfort. How uncomfortable can I make it that everyone and I still get some satisfaction and humor from it?"
MH: What do you think of travelers coming to Florida or tourist places to visit Disney or the beaches or clubs during the pandemic? How do you feel about places like Disney that are choosing to be open to travelers during the pandemic?
KA: The thing is, they should be closed, right? These things should be closed. I will tell you that as a Floridian, as a person who grew up in Orlando and lived in Orlando all my life when Disney World was closed, it was like for me … you know how people say you can see what's really going on in a place where the waffle house closes, that's the state of emergency? It's like Disney is closed. When Disney is closed, something terrible happens. So I said, "Oh, shit. This is really, really bad. Disney is closing." Because they just don't.
But of course I mean that it is. It has been proven that these places need to be closed and people need to stay at home. In my opinion, they know that all of these things should be closed and tourists shouldn't be able to come in and do things. It's like there's no control.
You go out everywhere and you can see how people are with their masks on. It's down under her nose. People don't pay attention, so there is no way to control these things. But we have a governor here who thinks the most important thing is that places are open for tourism and jobs and whatever. There is very little control anyone has over it.
MH: Although Florida is a Republican stronghold, openly queer and other marginalized people – such as people of color, people with disabilities – are gaining speed in smaller elections in terms of local, very small elections across the country. So I was curious about people who might just think of Florida as a Republican stronghold, if you have a peek into the local spaces, or if openly queer people are activists or advocates in ways that the national media might not highlight often?
KA: Orlando folks, it used to be a very specific thing: “There aren't any strange rooms for us here. God, I can't wait to get out of here. I don't want to live here. I want to be in a place where I feel like I am weird. I can feel like I am with my partner. I don't feel like it's that biased against me. "
When I stay there I definitely understand and feel this type of feeling, but there was a marked difference between young and weird people who literally chose to stay in Orlando without saying, "I'll go and see someone else." Go place. " "" They say, "I want to stay here and get the job done because this place matters to me and I will get involved." There was such a clear difference at the level of local elections. Even with candidates who didn't necessarily win, there was such a tight margin, and it has never been.
Because young people advertise. They stay, they show up. You get people talking on the phone and people who are all young queer people doing it. I've never seen this in central Florida. It's so wonderful to see just because it's like there are elections and the people in Florida are so mad. It's like, "Oh, Florida is full of the degenerate and everyone is the worst there. It's kind of a situation." It's like, "No, it isn't." It is also difficult when the people who are strange and would help us choose or vibrate in a certain way leave.
Orlando was really blue this way in the past presidential election and I know it's because of people who stay so sincere and work hard. It was really encouraging to see because like I said, it's just not something I've experienced as a person who decided to stay. This is a beautiful, hopeful thing.
MH: If you could correct a misunderstanding or harmful stereotype about Florida life, which one would it be?
KA: I think there's this idea that it's that particular type of white redneck that lives in Florida. I mean, I'd say the biggest stereotype is that Florida could even be just one type of person. Florida is so big. It's a huge state, and the parts of it are all so different. You even drive for an hour and you feel like you are in a different place because the landscape changes. It's such a diverse mix of so many different people, so many different people.
There's the idea that it's Florida Man all the time. But I think every state has Florida Man if we're honest.
You can read Arnett's new book With Teeth on June 1, 2021 here.