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Don't Shy Away From the Mess of Life: Brandon Taylor and Kristen Arnett

Brandon and Kristen on taxidermy, microaggressions, and their love of short stories.

We love a book that walks us deep into a specific world, with an outsider's perspective but an insider's knowledge. So it's no surprise we devoured Brandon Taylor and Kristen Arnett's debut novels—set in the worlds of biochemistry and taxidermy, respectively. They both delve into the messy parts of life, try to figure out what's really going on inside people's heads, and unpack minor annoyances and jokes to find much deeper truths. And in doing so, they turn us, as readers, into insider-outsiders, too.

-Aminatou & Ann

Author

Brandon Taylor

Brandon Taylor is the senior editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. He’s earned fellowships from Lambda Literary Foundation, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.

Author

Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett is the NYT Bestselling Author of the debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019) which was listed as one of The New York Times top books of 2019 and 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 and her work has appeared in The New York Times, North American Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Buzzfeed, McSweeneys, and elsewhere.

  • We love a book that walks us deep into a specific world, with an outsider's perspective but an insider's knowledge. So it's no surprise we devoured Brandon Taylor and Kristen Arnett's debut novels—set in the worlds of biochemistry and taxidermy, respectively. They both delve into the messy parts of life, try to figure out what's really going on inside people's heads, and unpack minor annoyances and jokes to find much deeper truths. And in doing so, they turn us, as readers, into insider-outsiders, too.

    -Aminatou & Ann

    June 24, 2020

    Brandon

    Hi, Kristen.

    Kristen

    Hi, Brandon.

    Brandon

    How are you doing?

    Kristen

    I'm good. I'm in Vegas still. It's a strange place to be in quarantine. You were here—that was the last time I saw you, when you came to do a reading on your book tour. Little did I know that would be the last event we would have here in Vegas. It is strange to be in Vegas, which is so tourist-heavy, bright lights, all of this stuff, and then be like: oKristeny, I am just in an apartment all day long, every single day. It's a disconnect that I was not anticipating.

    Brandon

    So, yes, I saw you in February. That was my first time in Vegas. I've only been west of the Mississippi five or six times in my entire life. Any trip out West is always, what strange land is this? But Vegas was particularly strange. It was like a theme park in ways that I both did and did not anticipate. I also found it kind of quietly beautiful. A lot of the municipal buildings are incredibly beautiful there. Yet, it also felt like a sad and melancholy place. I walked around the city while I was there. And it reminded me of some of my halcyon days and going to Florida as a child. There is something about a place that has a substantial economy built around tourism and strangers coming to town for short day trips. Florida, to me, is sad gray beaches, choppy water, slushies, those novelty T-shirts. Not the real Florida but the touristy…

    Kristen

    Consumer-driven tourism.

    Brandon

    The tourism that takes from your place of living, not giving anything back except money in a transitory horrible exchange.

    There was something about that that was triggered when I went to Vegas. There is a rhyme here and it got me thinking really sad thoughts about the ways that tourism is ostensibly an industry of consumption. You take up so much space in these places where people actually live. One of the saddest thoughts was: Who are the people who run the gas stations? All the people whose livings are predicated on strangers coming and disregarding their humanity? 

    Kristen

    It was a thing I noticed right when I came here. I've never lived anywhere other than Florida. I didn’t know what it would be like to move to the desert, which is hot but also very different. I got here and I was like, oh, this makes so much sense to me, because I'm from Orlando. It felt very familiar in this kind of transactional way in which people come in. 

    In Vegas, as well as Orlando, people come in and think that they can act however they want and then leave and have that not be connected to them. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, it's that mentality. You experience that a lot in Orlando when so many people work in the service industry. It's the same here. People work in the casinos. It is this industry thing. People are not treated like they are actually human beings with a life outside of their employment. 

    Brandon

    The scale shocked me the most when I was there. When I'm in Los Angeles or New York, I'm aware that they are big places. There is something about Vegas where the scale of it is dealt like it is accessible in the landscape itself. Oh, this place is vast. Not to harp on Vegas but what I also like about it is I feel like Vegas wears its history really openly. Places in the South are like this, too. You kind of have to be in the know in Los Angeles or New York to get the history of the place. In Vegas, I was aware. Rings in a tree. Ah yes, I can see...

    Kristen

    We both wrote place into our books. In my book I’m writing a lot about Florida, but your book has a ton of place in it, too, but it’s a place not where you’re from. You’re from Alabama. 

    I want you to talk about your process, too. I know you had a quick process for getting this draft out. What was it like to do that and to write about the Midwest?

    Brandon

    The book itself came out in about 5 weeks or so. It was a very, very brisk process. As far as choosing to set it in the Midwest, that was intentional. I am from the South, and have lived in the South my entire life—I left when I was 23 or 24 to go to a PhD program in the Midwest. My understanding of the way that people are in Alabama was filtered through my own understanding as a traumatized, sad child. I felt I could not access the ways that people moved through the world in an ordinary way because all my feelings about the South were so charged and so fraught. I had never lived in it as an observer—unlike the Midwest, where I came as an adult and had been an outsider, an observer. I had seen the way the people moved and I had all of these questions about why Midwesterners were the way that they were. 

  • Candles
    "When it came time to write the book, I could not write about the South—too much baggage. I know too much about it to feel like I ever get it right on the page. "
    Brandon Taylor
  • Kristen

    Too close. That makes so much sense to me. Thinking about the Florida I am sitting inside of now versus the Florida I was in at 18 when I lived with my parents, it is a very different relationship to the state and the idea of home. 

    Brandon

    It is hard to write about a place if you have never been outside of it. I lived outside of the South for about 7-ish years and I can now see it with more clarity because it is from a distance. I have developed my faculties for observation and am able to put that eye that’s been trained a bit more on the South and really think about that place. 

    You caught not just one Florida but all the different kinds of Florida. You bridge the way that class and the proximity to a certain kind of American ideal of Florida—all those things—influence what they want to show the world. All of the different Floridas slide past and rub against each other in this book in a way that I found glorious and really amazing. How did you get the space you needed to conjure the full thing? I feel like you bring all of Florida to life.

    Kristen

    That is very nice. Thank you. A lot of times, writing can start with different things—like a stupid joke, or a line, or something that's bothering me. Before I started writing this book, I was processing other people writing about Florida—specifically, in essay work. I read an essay that someone had written where they were talking about Florida and I know they got paid a boatload for it. They talked about the state within 10,000 words. They talked about the Panhandle, Gainesville, Orlando, Miami, all of these places. It was so frustrating to me because I have an idea about Florida—not only Orlando, but an idea about Florida—but maybe I feel like I don't know. I'm sitting inside of it. So, I began writing, what is my idea of Florida? How does it sit inside of me? I'm always so interested in writing setting because it's just as important a character. I was going to try to move through the book like I am physically walking—a sensory experience, textile. Maybe that's the fruit of home. I was going to force myself to encounter all the parts of Florida even if it's just messy or disgusting—which I like anyway. I like when things are messy.

    [LAUGHTER]

    Brandon

    Don't shy away from the mess of life. Something that I really responded to in the book is that you don't stick to the tropes when people write about Florida, where they are like, ah yes, it was humid and they describe their character’s sweaty shirt once, and then they go on telling the kind of story they want to tell. What I loved about this book was that the characters emerge from their setting in such a rich way that the weather and the fact of them being in Florida has implications on everything. It is done from the very beginning. The setting impinges so much on the plot and the way that the characters interact. The idioms are in the book without calling attention to themselves—because I feel sometimes when people are writing “regional literature,” they’ll be like, “here is a folksy saying” and they will plant it like a flag in the middle of the text. But in your book, the characters’ idioms all flow from this incredibly organic, natural place, and that, to me, is where the real work of setting-as-character comes from—all the quietly whispering work that is happening in the back without drawing too much attention to it.

    Kristen

    Your book is very much wrapped inside of the science of things. That is something that you were doing before you went to Iowa. When you were writing this, with research, was that something that you had to step back into or did you feel you were still inside of it to be able to topically put it into a narrative text?

    Brandon

    Quite literally, I was still inside of it. I was still in my PhD program, writing this novel. Late at night, I’d be waiting for my confocal microscope to run through its 20-minute scan and I’d be at my desk writing little bits of scene. 

    I wrote this novel because I had an agent at the time who was like, “How is your novel going?”—despite me having told him many times that I was a short story writer. It felt like I was never going to be taken seriously as a writer until I had written a novel and then people would be like, “Ah yes, he wrote a novel; now he can write stories and he's not just doing it because he can’t write a novel.” When I was setting out to write the book I thought, what is a novel that I can finish? What are the things that I have to do in order to maximize this moment? I was like, I am going to set it in a science lab because that is what I know. I can write that, front to back. I know all about it. Not just a point of being familiar with it. It is this thing of being an outsider. I always felt like I was a bit of an outsider, even in science. So, I had spent 4 or 5 years with scientists, observing them and having so many questions about their motivations. I was the only person in my building with any emotional intelligence. It's like on the Discovery Channel when you watch the rams butt heads over and over again and the rams aren’t aware of why they’re doing it. They're just acting in a behavior that's mysterious to them. It was like that. 

    Kristen

    I love that you're observing this as a nature documentary.

    Brandon

    It was fascinating watching these incredibly brilliant people not know how to treat each other with any kind of compassion or humanity, for 5 years. I had all these questions about why people do this in ostensibly liberal, progressive places where everyone is really smart and yet they have no wisdom. I felt like I had a juicy setting in a science lab. And I had a set of compelling questions, like what do you do when you wake up one day and realize that you made a set of concessions to survive your circumstances and you find that you’ve given away so much of yourself and it's no longer enough? 

    For me, the research wasn't so much how do scientists do science. I knew a lot about that. It was the research that had been happening all along without me knowing I was doing it—scientists as people—so mysterious. What's that about? It took being immersed in that environment and having the kind of questions that come up when you're hanging out with people who are doing things for reasons they don't understand but which you definitely do. My research wasn’t so much into the technical aspects of it. It was more into the people dimension of it.

    Kristen

    That is fascinating. What are the mechanics behind what is going on in people's heads? Which is what we are trying to discover as writers, and generally about ourselves.

    Brandon

    My family was a difficult family. No one really talked. For most of my life, I didn’t understand what went on inside of other people. 

  • Candles
    "To this day, it is really hard for me sometimes to feel that I know with any confidence what is happening inside of another person's mind."
    Brandon Taylor
  • My family had been so emotionally reticent. As a small rural community, we didn’t see anyone after we got off the school bus. At college, I was coming up against all of these different kinds of people. I was so frustrated and so confused. I remember very clearly one time I was talking to a friend in college, with tears streaming down my face, and I said, do other people have feelings inside of them too? Is it noisy in their heads? Yes, that is being alive.

    Kristen

    That's relatable.

  • Candles
    "For me, research is almost always other people. Do they have feelings? Do they have consciousness? Let's find out."
    Brandon Taylor
  • Brandon

    But your book, it has this incredibly rich technical language. In some ways, it is a taxidermy manual wrapped in a novel. I love any book where, one, characters have jobs. Love a job in a book—so rare. Two, I love books that are these meta-texts where there is a crisis at play within the body of the story itself. Your book has that. Instead of it being an “artist in Brooklyn doing post-abstract Expressionism,” it is making taxidermy. My question for you is, one, how did you come to this brilliant subject? And two, what was your research process for the novel?

    Kristen

    Honestly, I wish I could tell you it started as some beautiful genius thought I had. It truly started because I was looking around online at shitty taxidermy. I was looking at really bad pictures of it and found it funny. Sometimes, what starts as a joke, I like to unpack it. What makes it funny? Why am I getting so much pleasure out of this? The joke became—oh no, this is something I'm actually really interested in. I had grown up around taxidermy. Growing up in the South, it's just there. Even if you're not actively hunting, it's just places—it's everywhere.

    There's an antler skin, deer mount, gator skulls everywhere. I was like, “Oh, maybe I will write a short story about this.” You and I both have a deep love of short stories. So, I was like, “I think I will write a short story about a brother and sister who are going to incorporate taxidermy in this way.” The more I did research, the more I realized that this was much broader than I had anticipated. It started to feel like taxidermy wasn’t even just the physical process of it. Memory started to feel like taxidermy—this thing that’s posed, constructed, and set in a kind of way. We command memories; we are the ones that are controlling what they look like. I was doing this weird research. You start on Wikipedia and it just spirals. I went on to web forums where there were people who were professionals or amateur hobbyist-taxidermists. The go-to trade tips and tricks. I wanted to know how they talk. I wanted to know the language they used. I wasn't familiar with it.

    It was cool to see what they said. “You use Windex on eyeballs, it’s cheaper than buying the other stuff.” I was like, “Oh, interesting.” Then, people were presenting things that they had made—it’s a traditional masculinity generally that does a lot of hunting, a lot of taxidermy. It was these kinds of men in this forum sharing things that they had made in this way that was tender. They were so… look what I made, describing it lovingly, talking about the process, and discussing it in a way like it was alive. I was like, “Oh, this is where they can talk about art where they don't think it is feminized because it involves a dead thing.” That was the book. That is the thing. It was fascinating to me to think about. To think that these types of men who were finally allowed access to tenderness and creating something and feeling a love toward it—that was almost too much for me. 

    Brandon

    That's interesting. I come from a big hunting family. We did all the hunting. We didn’t do taxidermy but there are all of these ways in which animal parts were preserved and were just around. One of my uncles would shoot raccoons or trap them and then clean and eat them and stuff. He would chop off their paws and nail them to slabs of wood. By the end of the season, this strip of wood was just raccoon paws that are desiccated or whatever. Animal parts were just around, yeah. 

    Kristen

    If you grew up in these places, it's something you don't even think about. I think that something as writers that we end up trying to unpack when we are writing is especially about place. For me, I was like, what is the stuff that I no longer see because my eyes pass over it now?

    Brandon

    Yes.

  • Candles
    "What does a house actually look like? It's the part about re-recognizing what the space actually looks like and what the things are, which is horrifying."
    Kristen Arnett
  • Brandon

    People magazine had this issue dedicated to what is called house blindness, which is when you live in a space for so long that you just cease to be able to recognize the objects within it. I always find that that's a really rich exercise for me. Even when I'm writing a story, everything that a character notices in a story, you're telling the reader that it's a charged object. Sometimes I will be writing and I will casually have them notice everything in a room. I will be like, oh yeah that’s not real—I have to scale back so that when the attention of the character lands upon an object it is incredibly charged. 

    For your narrator, it is all of the tools—all the tools of her trade. You would assume that she had become acclimated to and no longer notice but they become these almost alive and incredibly important objects to her and that is the book in full, you find out that it's a gateway to memory for her. I found the way you use objects incredibly beautifully—both the tools and the taxidermy itself. It is a book that is almost cluttered, like their house, with memory and such.

    Kristen

    Just trying to make everything as messy as possible. It is like, I think one of my favorite things about it was that Roxane read the book and then said something about how “the book is so messy, I want to give everyone in it a shower.” I said, “Thank you, I love that.”

    Brandon

    Absolutely. I felt so uncomfortably called home by this book. I was like, “Oh yes, I’ve been to that overstuffed house. I have been to that place; I know what that smells like.” I felt like I could conjure it in my mind. 

    Kristen

    The spaces that are sensory where things are not actually that clean or good all the time. I love how your book starts with them all by this lake because that felt so specific to me and set me right away. Because you get such an idea of everyone in that friend group just from that first scene. I am all there. I feel like I know about everyone, I know exactly what you're like. But this is a book that is like a campus novel. You're a person who loves campus novels.

    Brandon

    I do.

    Kristen

    You love Curtis Sittenfeld, right? You like a campus novel. This is a book that also has things that are deeply uncomfortable in it. Not stuff that's overt, but stuff like microaggressions. There is a specific scene where everyone's at a dinner party and then something happens and then there is a moment of minor discomfort. It's not just a single moment of minor discomfort. It is many compelling moments of minor discomfort. What was it like for you to write about these microaggressions that continually occur to this character?

    Brandon

    It was incredibly difficult. I wrote the first draft of it—then I revisited it. I feel like it was too nice. I felt like I was holding back. And I realized that part of that was because it's so close to my own experience that I felt like I was trying to protect people who might have felt implicated. When you are within an oppressive system, you're like, “I must appease the feelings of the over culture. If I make white people uncomfortable, they won't want to read the book.” My revision process was about making the book more honest and really dwelling on those microaggressions, and making sure that they came across as painful to Wallace as they were in actual life. Without trivializing them or making them seem like, “Oh, now his life is ended because of them.” In actual fact, when you experience a microaggression, it's like a road bump. It's like, “Oh, oKristeny.” When they are linked end on end on end, which is often in these progressive spaces—you can't have peace because people are constantly causing turbulence. With their aggressions and accosts against you. I love a dinner party because it is like shoving a bunch of people with a lot of strange relationships into a space that they cannot escape.

    Kristen

    Right? We have all been at those dinner parties. 

    Brandon

    Absolutely. It was a lot of fun to bring everything to a boil. To let it all erupt into the open. But to me, the great tragedy of that scene is that the reader has been trained by that point to see it, and they then see how quickly whiteness goes into work to preserve the calm, the peace, and the order. The fact of it being this thing that was like, “Oh, that was really awful what happened to Wallace; oh, nothing is changing; oh, they are back to eating dinner; oh, they're just going to go out and lay on the lawn, oh.” The horror of that scene is not so much even what they say to Wallace so much as what they don’t say and don’t do—and what they do do, as they go about their pleasant Midwestern evening, because the weather is nice. Meanwhile, this person was just incredibly racist to their alleged friend. Writing the book, getting those landmarks down in place, and going back and sitting in each moment of discomfort, I thought, was I being fully truthful, was I being protective, was I really letting it fly, that sort of thing. It was a lot of work. It was incredibly challenging.

    Kristen

    Sitting inside, living inside, these moments.

    Brandon

    The emotional architecture of the book was incredibly important to me. Almost more than the plot itself, I wanted to make sure that the emotional architecture of the book felt authentic and true and real. The last thing I wanted to do was do disservice to other people who might feel that Wallace represented them in some way. I didn't want those people to feel let down by it, that I pulled my punch at an important moment. It felt really crucial that if I wrote myself to the genre of the campus novel, I did so with the full intensity of that experience and that I didn't leave anything on the table. It was really important to get it all in there.

    Kristen

    Yeah. Well, you do it. You brought up the fact that we are both people who write short fiction and we take it really seriously. 

    Brandon

    Yes.

    Kristen

    We both had novels that did oKristeny. But I still like to sit inside of short stories. I like to read them all the time. Inside the snow globe of a moment. Have you been writing more short fiction right now? You have a short fiction collection coming out, right?

    Brandon

    Yes, Filthy Animals. It's supposed to come out sometime next year. Who knows, time is mysterious.

    Kristen

    Time has no meaning anymore.

    Brandon

    In 2019, I wrote 2 books of short fiction. I am working on another one right now. I really love short stories. They are what my mind understands. I cannot write a standalone short story to save my life. All my stories are linked. I love recurring characters so much. 

    I will write a story, I will be like, “That is great, but that mysterious character I gave a name to but didn't use on page 8, what is their story?” I will give them a spinoff or something like that. I'm always working in story cycles. I love the completeness of it. But also, there's a lot of explaining in a novel that I feel I don't have to do in a story. In my stories, I get to experiment with tone and texture and voice and all sorts of different things. In a novel, it feels more restrictive. You have to throw the balls into the air for a novel and then you have to catch them at the end. Otherwise, the reader will be mad and will 1-star you on Goodreads.

    Kristen

    They might do that anyway.

    Brandon

    In a story, you can say, “…and then he drank tea”—you get to soft fade. There is a directness, an urgency to a story that if it were to translate to a novel it would feel like a shallow novel. Yeah, I just love stories. They are endlessly rich spaces to play. What do you love about them?

    Kristen

    A lot of what you said is what I genuinely love about them. I feel like my brain accepts it more as a form, versus a novel—which always feels so expansive to me. When you described it—the balls in the air and having to catch them all—that is brilliant. A lot of time when I am working, I don't know where I want something to go. I like to be surprised. I am a chaotic person. I thrive in chaos—in the idea of a short story, I love working toward some weird punch that I don't know where it's going. There's more flexibility for me to do that. Whereas, if you did a novel, you did this weird thing but what is the meaning of that and how does it fit into the larger narrative structure? It allows you to infinitely play with different things. Also, if something doesn't work in a short story, cool. I'm going to toss that in the garbage whereas working on something so massive feels like I have to try to make it work, or give it more effort. If it is a short story, it feels easier to jettison it.

    Brandon

    I also think that in a short story, if things don't work, you can leave them in and they end up working fine. The readers will be like, “Ah yes, that thing you did. Brilliant.” 

    I feel that I have this reverse understanding of stories and novels that a lot of people have. This commonly accepted paradigm that in a story everything has to earn its keep or it is out of here. Whereas in a novel, it's this big messy behemoth. I don't like big messy behemoths. I like structure and order in a novel. Everything has to be explained—otherwise it is just chaos.

    And in a story, I am oKristeny with mystery in a story. Mystery is one of the most elegant and interesting ways that a story can access what it is trying to be about. In a novel, you are kind of like, “Yes, that was beautiful, but what does it mean?” The burden of information in a novel is just so high, I try to avoid it at all costs. In stories, I don't have to explain anything.

    Kristen

    Yes, I love that. Yes, put it on my grave.

    Brandon

    I often tell my agent, when I send her a story and she has a logistical question—“I don't know, it was fun. I like it, let's leave it.” You know?

    Kristen

    Sure, it's mine. 

    Brandon

    It was so good to see you again.

    Kristen

    I love talking to you about writing. You are always so smart. I only get to see it on Twitter, so it's nice to be able to hear you talk about writing face-to-face.

    Brandon

    When people say, “I don't want to hear about writers talk about writing,” all I want to do is hear my smart friends say things about writing that I can steal and put into practice. 

    Kristen

    I think you said something the other day, that you miss being able to go into a bookstore or go into a café and sit and talk with people, and read and work in there. I miss the hell out of that. I truly do. This has been lovely.

    Brandon

    This has been a nice respite. I feel like I can go on again now that I've seen your face and heard your voice.

    Kristen

    This is good. I do, too. Thank you.