Queer household buildings, COVID-19, and the notorious Florida Man
This interview has been edited for flow, concision, and clarity.
Marissa Higgins: How, if at all, has the pandemic changed your writing life?
Kristen Arnett: It’s been different to be thinking about creative work in a few different ways. First of all, it used to feel a little more like a luxury to be able to write, and then it just became this thing where it felt like this albatross. I don’t know. I feel like my brain just would not process language anymore, which I think many, many people have experienced.
It was very, very difficult to read. And I think when it’s difficult to read, it makes it just unbearable to write. If you can’t embrace language on a page for just the satisfaction of reading work, then you’re definitely probably not able to write, which was the case for me. 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, so it felt very cyclical. Like I can’t read, I can’t write. I’m going to try and make myself do it. I can’t do it. I feel worse about it. I’m going to try and do it again.
Things that worked for me previously … Having a writing routine is something I’ve always had for myself. I totally am one of those people who thinks the process is different for everybody, so what works for me is definitely not something that works for everybody. But something that had worked for me was getting up every day and having a word count that I’d write. The word count wouldn’t necessarily be even anything I’d keep, but it was just a practice for myself, as a daily habit.
Recently, I’ve just been like if I have a project I feel excited about, just letting myself feel excited about that. Also, allowing myself to just let go of some projects because that was a thing that happened, too. I started working on a project mid-pandemic, and I was like, “This isn’t working. I feel I can’t make it work.” It felt like trying to put a fish into some pants, or something. I was just like, “This is not working and I can’t make it work.” I feel like I struggled with that because I was like, “Well, if I can’t make this work and this is what I want to do and I’m passionate about and I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
So I think the biggest gift I gave myself was the gift of just being like, “It’s okay to just let some stuff go.” Maybe it’s not working out. It might work in the future, but maybe it just won’t and that’s fine. It’s fine to just toss it. It’s fine to throw some stuff away. Maybe if I’d had that idea at a different point in my life it would’ve come to fruition, but where I am right now, I need to be okay with being like, “I wrote a lot of this and it just isn’t going to work and that’s fine.” Not everything has to be something … Also, just maybe I’m a little more of a control freak than I’d originally thought about myself, and that’s something I discovered through this and being like, “I literally can’t control it, so it is what it is.” I think it’s been messy, but I love mess so I’m trying to embrace the mess of it all.
MH: I was wondering what you’ve been reading. Is there any kind of media that you’ve been connecting with during the pandemic?
KA: I started off just trying to reread stuff I knew I loved because I was like, “If I can just get back into that memory of remembering what it’s like to read something that I know,” almost that good feeling of watching that television show you’ve seen a million times. You put it on for a feel-good feeling. It’s not necessarily that you’re absorbing the newness of the work. It’s that you’re feeling comforted.
I was trying to do that, so I read a bunch of books that I’d read previously that I loved. I was reading a lot of Stephen King, which is funny because killing people is comforting. I was reading a lot of comforting Stephen King, but it was like remembering why it is that I like to get lost in work and be transported in that kind of way. Then I really started. I was like, “I’m going to read just all the new stuff that’s just coming out.” So just been having all different kinds of stuff. There’s been so many really great short fiction collections that have come out, like Daniel Boone’s short fiction collection, which is so incredible.
Laura van den Berg’s I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is so good. Then just rereading actually a lot of poetry, which has been so helpful to me in terms of my own writing, just sitting with images and stuff. Ada Limon—I can pick up The Carrying or Bright Dead Things and just feel like, I don’t know, transported isn’t the right word. I feel like I’m remembering how astonishing it is to see a phrase that’s the exact most perfect way to describe something, but I haven’t thought of it that way before.
This astonishment with language and discovery of images, even if it’s something as small as dew on something or a bird, which is like, as a writer who writes so significantly about Florida and being outdoors, it’s been meaningful to sit with work that conjures images of the smallness inside of the bigness of the world. It’s been nice.
MH: Can you talk a bit about what inspired With Teeth?
KA: I’ve been thinking more about novels in terms of shapes and also about things that I am obsessive about. So Mostly Dead Things really obsesses about taxidermy. I was thinking about it all the time. I was like, “This is going to become something that I’m thinking about all the time that I’m going to write something larger to encompass the largeness that it takes up in my brain.” I was thinking a lot about queerness, but specifically the familial kind of queerness in Central Florida.
I was talking with somebody on the phone and they had brought it up … Because I was saying something about there are so many queer people, specifically in Central Florida, but there’re not a lot of queer spaces for them, which is so strange. I can think of offhand maybe, maybe three nightclubs, maybe, and just not a bunch of spaces that are identifiably queer and especially not lesbian-centric. But there are so many queer people. We have all the theme parks and everything and so many people that work all these places are queer.
MH: Oh, I had no idea.
KA: Yeah. We have tons of queer people but not that many queer spaces, and I was saying about it’d be difficult to be a mother and not have support and not have queer spaces. The person I was on the phone with was like, “Oh. Well, why wouldn’t they just go find a gay mommy group?” They live in Brooklyn. I was like, “That’s not something that is happening in Orlando. There are not those things.” There are not those kinds of resources.
There’s this kind of weird divide in terms of here, like, okay, you go out at night and maybe you can find the one nightclub and go out with people, but then what happens when you have a kid? It’s like, there’s not that kind of space for you and since you don’t fit into that kind of niche of queerness anymore, there’s just no … There’s a feeling of, “There is no support.” That became really interesting to me to think about.
Another thing I was thinking a lot about too was, I’m always very interested in family dynamics. Queerness is not supposed to fit into these little pigeonholes, but again, everybody’s trying to stuff it into heteronormativity. So you have a marriage between two women and it’s still kind of falling into these divides of who here is doing this kind of duty, or who’s doing child care, and who’s bringing home money? Because the divides still fall along these heteronormative kinds of things.
So I was like, “Okay, I want to write about a household where this is happening and there doesn’t feel like there’s a ton of outside support.” But then also, I am interested in the idea that everybody in a family is an unreliable narrator because families all have history and lore and stories that they share, right?
People who are all present for different things, but then everybody in a family somehow manages to tell those stories, even though it’s the same, completely differently. So one person who was there describes a family event in one way and another person who was there describes it like, “No, that wasn’t it at all. It was like this. Actually, it was me, it wasn’t you.” I was like, “This is very fascinating to me.” What if this is a household where it’s this idea of queerness being held up to a microscope, also, where it’s already being watched from the outside to make sure that you’re not fucking up. Because there’s this idea that with two moms with a son, you’re going to fuck it up inevitably because there’s no father figure, so already the odds are stacked against you.
Say you are doing it. You are these two moms who are raising a kid and you have this picture-perfect family. Now you really can’t screw up because then you’re ruining it for everybody else because you have to be held to this impossible standard. I was like, “What if it’s somebody who—like everybody, because nobody is capable of being held to this perfect gold standard of parenting, I’d imagine—what if it’s somebody who’s just not great, kind of a shitty mom? Maybe she’s a lesbian and she’s just not great at it like many parents are not great at being parents.”
All these things combined to be the perfect storm for me of wanting to write this specific book, this very messy book. I’m also just very interested. I was like, “I’m very interested in discomfort. Like, how uncomfortable can I make everybody and me still get some satisfaction and humor from it?”
MH: How do you feel about travelers coming to Florida or touristy places for things like Disney or the beaches or clubs during the pandemic? How do you feel about places like Disney choosing to be open for 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 has lived in Orlando my whole life, when Disney World closed, for me, it was like … You know how people say, you can see what is really going on in a place when the Waffle House closes, that’s the state of emergency? That’s like if Disney’s closed. If Disney is closed, something awful is happening. That’s when I was like, “Oh, shit. This is really, really bad. Disney is closing.” Because they just don’t do that.
But I mean, obviously, this is the case. It’s proven that these places need to be closed and people need to stay home. My opinion is they know all these things should’ve been closed and tourists should not have been able to come in and go to do things. It’s like there’s no control.
You go out anywhere and you could just see how people are with their masks. It’s down below their noses. People aren’t paying attention, so there’s no way to control those things. But we have a governor here who thinks what’s most important is having places be open for tourism and jobs and whatever. There’s very little control that anybody has over that.
MH: Even though Florida has a Republican stronghold, in terms of local, very small elections across the country, openly queer and other marginalized people—like people of color, people with disabilities—are gaining speed in smaller elections. So I was curious, for people who may see Florida as just a Republican stronghold, if you have any insight into local spaces or where maybe openly queer people are activists or advocates in ways that maybe the national media doesn’t often highlight?
KA: People in Orlando, it used to be this very specific thing: “There are no queer spaces for us here. God, I can’t wait to get out of here. I don’t want to live here. I want to be someplace where I feel like I can be queer, I can feel like I can be with my partner. I don’t feel like it’s as prejudiced against me.”
Staying there, I definitely understand and feel that kind of feeling, but there’s been a marked difference of people who are young and queer literally deciding to stay in Orlando, not being like, “I’m going to leave and go some other place.” They’re like, “I want to stay here and do the work because this place is meaningful to me and I’m going to get involved.” On the local election level, there’s been such a marked difference. Even with candidates who haven’t necessarily won, there’s been such a narrow margin and it’s never been like that before.
Because young people are canvassing. They’re staying, they’re showing up. You get people phone banking and people who are all young queer people who are engaged with it. That was not something I ever witnessed in Central Florida before. It’s so wonderful to see just because it is this thing where it’s like whenever elections happen and people get so pissed off at Florida, it’s like, “Oh, Florida’s full of degenerates and everybody is the worst there. It’s some kind of situation.” It’s like, “No, it’s not.” It’s also hard when the people who are queer who would help us vote or swing a certain way, leave.
This past presidential election, Orlando skewed really blue in this way and I know it’s because of people who are so sincere about staying and doing a lot of work. It’s been really heartening to see because as I said, it’s just not something I had experienced as a person who has decided to stay. That’s a nice, hopeful thing.
MH: If you could correct one misconception or harmful stereotype about life in Florida, what would it be?
KA: I think there’s this idea that it’s this certain kind of white redneck that lives in Florida. I mean, I would say the biggest stereotype is that Florida could even be all one kind of person. Florida is so big. It’s a huge state, and the parts of it are all so different. You even drive an hour, you feel like you’re in a different place because the landscape changes. It’s such a broad mix of so many different people, so many different people.
There’s this idea that it’s Florida Man all the time. But I think every state has Florida Man if we’re being honest about it.
You can check out Arnett’s new book, With Teeth, out on June 1, 2021 here.