In her debut novel, 'Mostly Dead Things,' the writer wants to introduce readers to a different part of her home than the one known through Disney or the Florida Man meme

Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, is populated with dynamic, three-dimensional characters — yet each is nearly upstaged by the vivid Florida setting, which the writer brings to such fully realized life that it’s almost surprising the book pages themselves don’t hang heavy with that state’s trademark humidity.

“I knew two things writing this book. I knew, one, that I wanted it to be queer, and I wanted it to be a very specific kind of queerness — not a coming out story, but the day-to-day lived experience of being queer. And the other thing I knew is that I wanted it to be a book about place, and central Florida, specifically,” said Arnett, who will take part in a reading at Two Dollar Radio on Thursday, Aug. 15, alongside authors Tommy Pico and Elissa Washuta. “And quickly it became, ‘How do I write that so that it’s so embedded in the text that you can’t pull it out?’ which, for me, turned into thinking about central Florida as a sensory experience. How do things smell when you’re outside? What does it sound like at night when you’re walking around and the cicadas start up? How does the air feel? Because the air in Florida is so dense that it almost feels like it’s physically touching you.”

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Entering into the novel, Arnett, who likes to work at a desk overlooking her lush backyard because “it looks very Florida,” knew that she wanted to write against the national narrative that has built around her home state, driven, in part, by the Florida Man meme, as well as the omnipresence of Disney.

“We have that weird stuff here, but it’s not the whole state,” said Arnett, who is one in a rising crop of Florida writers who have come up recently embracing different dimensions of the peninsula, joining the likes of Lauren Groff, whose 2018 short story collection, Florida, is imbued with a sadness that hangs as heavy as Spanish moss on the text. “I also made a very specific choice to never say ‘Orlando’ in the book, because anyone who hears ‘Orlando’ immediately thinks of Disney World or theme parks. … I was like, ‘It’s already hard enough to write against Florida Man, I’m not also going to try to write on top of Disney.’”

The exercise of deeply considering her environment caused Arnett to more carefully weigh the things she appreciated about Orlando, as well as the city’s flaws, which she said include a desire to raze its history in favor of flashy new builds. “Erasing your history means a lot of things, but it also means you’re keeping whatever history you choose to remember,” Arnett said.

This idea is paramount to Mostly Dead Things. Early in the book, main character Jessa-Lynn Morton discovers her father dead by suicide in the family’s taxidermy shop, and much of his presence throughout the remainder of the story is informed by the parts of him the family opts to preserve, much as in his chosen trade.

“Truly, when I started out writing I was just interested in taxidermy itself. I wasn’t thinking too hard about, ‘What does this mean in the grand scheme of the book?’” said Arnett, who spun the idea for the novel off an abandoned short story about a pair of siblings who taxidermy a goat, believing there was more of a tale to be told around the characters. “I was just interested in writing about the physical and the body and the tactile, but the more I did research and thought about taxidermy, and the more I was writing about this particular family and this protagonist who’s very reliant on these constructed memories … the more that I was like, ‘This is very much taxidermy,’ because taxidermy is made, posed, constructed and turned into a memory.”

Eventually, Arnett started to view even her own writing in similar terms. “I’m crafting the narrative, carving out things that don’t work and the dead parts, and I’m trying to shape the story in the same way someone might shape or pose an animal,” said Arnett, who would set a goal to write 1,000 words a day Monday through Friday, at a minimum, while working on the novel. “Towards the end of writing that book, there was nothing I could do. It was just like, ‘Oh, I’m talking about taxidermy again and again and again…'”

Arnett said she's finally shifting the conversation with her next novel, a draft of which she recently submitted to her agent, pulling back to examine "the broader expanse of a relationship and how it changes.” As with Mostly Dead Things, however, events will remain firmly anchored to her home state.

“It’s a very different kind of book, but it’s still very Florida,” Arnett said. “Florida is very much a place where the natural world and the environment is trying to take things back. Plants will grow into the cinder block on the side of the house, and animals are inside the house. It’s a place that’s constantly creeping and invasive and alive. It’s a physical experience to live here, a sensory experience. … I’m excited to see what else people do, because I think there’s so much more to write about Florida. I’d read a million books set here.”