Dealing with the loss of a loved someone is a hard thing. Some people try to control everything, others turn to alcohol and drugs and others decided to do taxidermy porn.
In Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, ‘Mostly Dead Things,’ the Sundial Book Club’s August pick, the main character Jessa-Lynn Maron is a queer taxidermist, who early on in the book finds her father has committed suicide inside the family-owned taxidermy shop. Jessa is quickly tasked with taking over her father’s legacy shop and keeping the financial struggling business afloat. “I wanted to write about a character who not only wants to control her own emotions, but also the emotions and the actions of everyone around her,” said Arnett on Sundial.
Jessa’s mother is grappling with her husband’s saddening suicide by taking taxidermy from the shop, breaking it apart and rearranging it in sexual ways and Jessa is not too happy. She consideres her mother’s art, ‘low art.’ Arnett’s novel is filled with dark humor, heart-wrenching moments and loads of taxidermy. She talked to Luis Hernandez on Sundial to talk about the research she did for the book, the reason she focused on grief and how essential it is to do more queer stories.
This has been edited ligthly for clarity.
WLRN: Jessa is the foundation of a very odd family. How did you go about creating her?
I was interested in creating a character who’s dealing with the trajectory of grief and what that looks like for the context of the narrative. But really I was trying to make a character who’s extremely controlling in every kind of aspect of her life. I wanted to write a character who not only wants to control her own emotions but also the emotions and the actions of everyone around her. It is frustrating to think about what it looks like to try to control everyone because it’s not humanly possible to do that. At the same time I also found that very funny. I’m a person that is interested in how humor functions. It’s extremely funny to think about somebody being that much of a control freak that they feel like they have to control not only how they deal with grief or loss but how other people around them do too.
Jessa is running the family taxidermy business. It was something that was passed on from her father. Why taxidermy?
Taxidermy was very interesting to me. As a writer I’m very interested in the physicality of things — tactile of things — and taxidermy is doing a lot of that stuff. I’m also like a third generation central Floridian and I write very extensively about Florida. I grew up around a lot of taxidermy. I didn’t make any taxidermy. They’re like was something that was deer mounts up in my church. They’re like in restaurants sometimes. There was some in my house and all my friend’s homes. I grew up with it kind of being present in my life but I never really considered the process and procedure of the actual production of making taxidermy.
Reading the book it sounded like you spent time in a workshop. The way you describe how to cut skin, mound animals… beyond research did you ever try it yourself?
I did not. I did spend a prolific amount of time doing lots of different kind of research because any animal that’s in this book I looked at that taxidermy specifically. What would that specific animal look like to open up — the insides — and what what would it take to taxidermy it. I spent a lot of time upfront doing that research, watching videos, going on web forums and chat rooms. I really immersed myself in it especially when I was on these kind of web forums and chat rooms. These were places where people who actively produced taxidermy ‘shop-talked’ with each other. I want to see the kind of language that they used with each other so that it would sound authentic in the book. It was very helpful to me to see that. But no, I’ve never done any taxidermy myself. I do own some and have taken it apart.
What do you own?
I own a baby duckling that’s a queen. I have some insects too. I had a squirrel on a bicycle. She was a Barbie beach cruiser and that’s the one I opened up. I mean I live in Florida. There are a ton of gator skulls and that are shellacked and some that are just the bone like the interior.
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