The Messy Queer Beauty of With Teeth: Interviewing Kristen Arnett
I devoured Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things and With Teeth in my bathtub during a depressive spiral a few months back as I waited for my COVID vaccine to kick in to start experiencing life outside my apartment again. Reading, along with gaming, has taken up a fair chunk of my pandemic life and these books were just another wonderful window into a different world. They were at once close to home, both set in Florida, but far enough removed from my own life experiences as I’ve never been a taxidermist or a mother (though I’d admittedly love to try both).
More than anything, they were just the kind of queer art I loved: works about messy people doing messy things and thinking messy thoughts. There is something comforting in reading about other queer individuals who make mistakes and often dig themselves deeper into the holes they created for themselves. It is the knowledge that “representation” doesn’t always have to be positive to be meaningful.
I was thrilled to have a lengthy conversation with author Kristen Arnett at Books & Books on a Monday afternoon, my first in-person conversation about art since 2019. A large portion of our conversation was published in Miami New Times and this piece will serve as something of a second act to that, further diving into her work. Some minor narrative spoilers for scenes in With Teeth will be mentioned.
Let’s pick up right where the other piece left off: Real Housewives.
JB: Real Housewives has been my go-to for the last few months.
KA: Yes! I had never watched any of that before Kayla [Kumari Upadhyaya] showed it to me and I was like, “Oh my god.”
One of my best friends convinced me to watch and I watched all twelve seasons of New York and loved it.
We were doing that and I started having dreams that involve these people and was just like, “This is my whole world now.”
One of the things I find really interesting about With Teeth is that there’s a line that specifically brings up Real Housewives where Sammie outright questions, “Am I turning into one of them?” It’s a reference to their drinking habits and white wine and it hit me in context with the show and how it navigates both the politics of escapism and the politics of alcoholism. It’s clear with Sammie that she’s using alcohol as an escape and I don’t think she always realizes it just like the women of Housewives don’t often understand that.
I think it’s a thing that plenty of people use as escapism and love the idea of thinking about how the housewives do that because it’s definitely true. I also think they have a mistaken idea about how their bodies can function. They have this ongoing joke about [RHONY cast member] Ramona’s body being in crisis all the time, but they have this mistaken notion of their tolerance level, what their bodies are capable of, how old they are, and how they function as people.
Not to mention how they react, like [RHONY cast member] Dorinda’s refusal to acknowledge that she has a problem in season twelve and how that impacts everyone around her. Depicting that in art without being judgmental is such interesting territory, so how did you navigate that as a writer?
Writing for Sammie specifically I was just letting her not realize any limits for herself. She loses track of time and how much she’s had to drink, but I think in reality she purposely doesn’t want to think about it. If she doesn’t think about how many drinks she’s had, maybe she didn’t have that many to drink. When she’s at the restaurant drinking with her son, how many beers has she had at that point? She obviously drove the car there, so how are they getting home? She’s not paying attention, so who knows? Or when she goes and has an uncomfortable horrible night at a lesbian bar.
For me, this book was like, “How uncomfortable can I make things while still getting some humor out of things?” Her showing up there and having all these drinks because she feels uncomfortable in her body, she feels uncomfortable in her queerness, she doesn’t understand anyone around her. She thinks, “The more I drink, maybe I won’t feel uncomfortable,” when in reality, she feels weirder and disembodied. It never works in the way that she wants it to. And she’s so committed to trying because she doesn’t have any kind of other idea or alternative to her wandering around and getting progressively drunker at the bar while she’s on one.
The bit where she literally kisses someone on the back of the neck who has already told her no. It just got worse and worse.
That was specifically written in for me because I am very interested in the way that sometimes in queer spaces there’s this idea that, because everyone is queer, it means that everybody is going to respect boundaries and consent, and that is not the case. And because we don’t have conversations about it, sometime sit makes it way worse. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in some place and there’s some baby dyke who is really drunk and gets really handsy, and everybody makes a lot of excuses for stuff like that. “They don’t know any better.” “They’re just coming out.” “We have to support them.” And I think we have to have conversations about how boundaries function because, if not, people get away with behavior that is really inappropriate.
So it was important for me to write that in, because Sammie already has boundary issues, obviously — she’s going into people’s yards and spying on them in their house. It’s not just that it’s illegal, it’s that she doesn’t respect other people’s boundaries but then expects others to have them for her. Here’s her limits but there’s none when it comes to yours for me. So it absolutely seems like she would do something like that. She would also be in that place and only see the young people there because she has blinders on. She’s going into a reverse puberty, wearing clothes she would have worn a billion years ago and seeing young queers because that’s how she sees herself even though she knows that’s not who she is. That’s not her life.
Her realization that she’s actually surrounded by older women but didn’t notice they were there until she’s too far gone. Did you ever have any hesitance on leaning into that delusion and making her — I hate saying this because I love this type of character — but “unlikeable” or what people perceive as such?
It’s a question that I kind of asked myself as I was doing it because this was a really hard character for me to sit with at the time of writing. The draft of this book happened pretty quickly because Riverhead bought it based on like 40 pages, which, okay great! But then they were asking about what happens and I was like, “No, I don’t know.” [laughs] A draft happened quickly enough but it’s a hard person to have to sit with. She doesn’t even want to sit with herself. So, myself as an observer, it’s just like, yes she makes messy decisions and makes bad choices and behaves in ways that are like, if you knew the person, you’d be like I don’t want to spend any time with them.
But it’s interesting for me to sit with people like that. I don’t want to necessarily hang with someone like that, y’know, but also we all have super messy friends that bring a lot of drama to our lives. I have many close friends like that, and they probably say that about me too [laughs] “Kristen’s a fucking mess.”
We’re all someone’s mess [laughs]
Yeah, but I asked myself first: “Am I invested enough in this story to stay with this messy human” And the answer to me was yes. I also wanted to write a book about discomfort where Mostly Dead Things was about grief and processing the messiness of grief. This felt like processing the messiness of just not being a great person but feeling like you’re different than you actually are. It felt important to write this person and to show how, even though they felt like they have no impact on the world around them, they had a significant impact on the world around them, specifically her kid and her wife Monika. It’s about what those choices look like and how the toxicity can get to a place where it’s almost on the edge of violence.
Here’s the thing: I’m never going to go on the Goodreads for this book. [laughs] There’s plenty of people who just don’t like to read women who are unlikeable. Male characters get a little more of a free pass a lot of the time.
Men can be antiheroes, but the second you get a flawed woman it changes things.
There’s a reason there’s always people talking about how they hate, like, Skyler from Breaking Bad and people hated her. People really hate female characters who do things that are deemed as unlikeable. But, you know, the book isn’t going to be for those people.
A review for Mostly Dead Things popped up the other day that I hadn’t seen before and it said something like, “This is one of the worst books I’ve ever read and everybody is so unhappy, but I love Kristen’s Twitter! And she’s so funny, so I’m going to try this next book!” And I was like, oh sweetheart, I don’t know how to tell you this but you are gonna hate this book. But I’ve also gotten a lot of feedback from people being, like, “Oh, you’re so funny on Twitter and you make such goofy fun jokes, why isn’t that your book?” And that’s just…
It’s not as interesting.
Yeah! And also, like, you try expanding a 140 character tweet into a novel. [laughs]
You can only take a joke so far and there has to be more to it.
Also I contain multitudes and one of the things I contain is nasty, unlikeable women. So yeah, it’s not going to be a book for everybody and if you’re a person who doesn’t like what you dub an unlikeable character, I think you’ll know from the spine that maybe you don’t want to read it.
I think the breaking point for some people might be early on when Sammie and Samson just bite down on each other and are marked forever. That was the moment I was all in though.
That was one of those scenes where, as I was writing it, I was like, “I guess this is happening. I guess I’m going here.” It was very surprising and I remember a time during story time at the public library — because I did that for about eight years or something — and sometimes it was really fun but sometimes it was like, “Christ, please, just save me.” There were times where you could see a look on a parent’s face when their kid would be acting like an unholy terror and they’d be looking at them and you can tell they wanted to scream right back in their face, or were thinking, “God, if I could just shake this kid for like one second.” They don’t do it, you know, but then I thought: what if you actually decide to cross that line and do that thing? In that moment with her, it’s just like, “Damn, she’s going to bite this kid.”
And you buy into her characterization enough that you know she will do that. To close things out: obviously both your books actually feel like someone who has existed within Florida and knows how to express that in their writing without lazy references. How is it to navigate bringing that flavor into the text?
With Mostly Dead Things, I was thinking a lot about that as a sensory experience. So for myself as I was writing about it, I wanted to feel like a person moving through Florida outside; it’s a very physical experience. The weather and things that are outside are always touching you. It’s not just you going out and being outside in a space, you have to prepare for the weather every day, even in your house. I wanted it to be about the senses. What do things smell like at any given moment? In Central Florida, there’s a stagnant water kind of stench about places and there’s that minerally smell of lakes or the way grass smells in the morning. There’s what things sound like too — birds, or cicada shrieks — or what time of day is it, or where you are. I just wanted to move Jessa through the world and see what it’s like for Floridians to be outside and it’s like sweltering, sticky, tacky, frizzy hair and just mess.
With Teeth, I wanted it to be this kind of thing where it’s almost a little more claustrophobic. Sammie’s not outside as much as Jessa, she’s in her house a lot or viewing the world through her car.
She really only moves from Point A to Point B and they’re almost always enclosed spaces.
Yeah, I wanted her to view Florida through this kind of insulation. She’s going to see it through the window of her house or taking her kid somewhere. This feels like many mothers in Florida’s experience though, like, “I’m your chauffeur and I’m taking you from this place to this place and this place, and here’s what I see.” The world is green and brown streaks passing by in the window or passing a strip mall. Or here’s a puddle in a parking lot or a lizard that jumped out of a bush outside the doctor’s office. It’s still going to be Florida, but it’s going to be this almost claustrophobic feeling because that’s how she experiences life.
She doesn’t get to experience the adventure of something different, except for when she throws things out of whack, like going to another mother’s house. It’s depressing how trapped her life is.
And it was interesting to write this from the place of her experiencing these things and it’s such a fun messy thing to do too because it was like she’s out there acting like and reverting into a stupid teenager again. She’s hanging out and drinking with this lady and heading back to her apartment, and she doesn’t really want to make out with her, but now she’s there so she guesses she’ll just do it. And she also feels like her life is so claustrophobic and there’s nothing new to explore, so she manufactures this horrible drama for herself. It’s a toxic way that people deal with the fact that they are unhappy. Instead of doing anything to change their life, they just kind of blow it up a little.
With Teeth is available for purchase at Books & Books and other retailers everywhere.