Anyone who follows Kristen Arnett on Twitter knows that she’s a dependable source of hilarity. From elevator conversations with her neighbors to fantasy bar names, she’s literary Twitter’s favorite gay dad. Whereas Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, lives in the weird world of Central Florida taxidermy as a metaphor for grief (yes, there’s a meme for this), With Teeth (Riverhead), her latest novel, is gay parenting as suburban lesbian gothic. The book opens with a terrifying event that plants a seed in protagonist Sammie’s mind, the fear that there’s something deeply wrong with her son. As her wife Monika becomes increasingly unavailable, Sammie is left to navigate the world of queer parenting in a community devoid of queer spaces.
It feels like a revelation that Arnett has written about the persistent need for queer community in all phases of life. She understands that when we don’t see ourselves reflected in the people around us, how easily we can lose sight of who we are. Like Mostly Dead Things, Arnett’s second book is darkly comic, and this is the real talent of Arnett; she writes into discomfort until it becomes comedy. With Teeth is an invitation to grab a bottle of cold beer and ride shotgun in a minivan full of self-sabotaging, irresistibly tender characters years before we’ll have enough distance to laugh at those traits in ourselves.
Arnett called me from her high-rise apartment in Miami, where we talked about her obsession with “lesbian domestic,” voyeurs of queerness, and Pet Sematary as craft.
Leigh Hopkins I love that we’re talking during Lesbian Visibility Week, which I have to say, I had forgotten existed until I saw it trending.
Kristen Arnett (laughter) I think most of us forget, actually. Like, Oh god, it’s that time again.
LH We joke about it, but it’s a thing for a reason.
KA I think it’s a celebratory kind of thing. I don’t have a relationship with my family anymore, and there’s something so uplifting when you’re able to go into a social media space now and see that you’re not alone. It’s an opportunity to say, This is the life I’ve constructed for myself and I’m very happily lesbian.
LH I remember so clearly the day you announced your multi-book deal. It reminded me of the way Philadelphians felt when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, but for the queer community.
KA (laughter) Honestly, the trajectory of Mostly Dead Things was shocking to me. As writers, we’re making work, hoping that our audience will connect, and we know that our work is not necessarily for everyone. I have never in my life felt such an outpouring of love for my queerness or my queer work. It wasn’t something I had envisioned for myself as a writer. I write the work I do because I’m a gay reader, and it’s such a fucking delight to open up the book releases any month and see so many queer books, so many fascinating stories that are totally different than mine. If you can crack the door open and let more people in so that more stories can be written, then that’s super fucking exciting.
LH With Teeth taps into many queer people’s fears about parenting. Especially that we’ll be thrust into heteronormative, gendered roles. What felt important to you about the topic of gay parenting?
KA The genesis came from an interest in looking at voyeurs of queerness. As a gay woman, I have to think a lot of the time about how people are looking at me. When I was working at the public library, it was kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation, and I had to be very careful. I think that’s lots of gay people’s experience, right? It becomes this bizarre self-doubt.
LH Many of us carry the fear of public perception into adulthood, and that tension is everywhere in this book.
KABeing a new parent means that people are judging your choices, and you wonder, are you doing everything right? Then add into that mix that you’re a queer parent, there’s a goodly amount of the population that doesn’t think you should be in charge of a child. This boy needs a father, you’re going to fuck him up. There’s this scrutiny there that’s not there for parents in heteronormative relationships. I often describe my writing as “lesbian domestic,” because I’m interested in how lesbian queerness functions inside of a household. There’s this pressure not to be a shitty gay mom, because then you’re going to ruin it for other gays. When I was in the middle of writing, somebody said to me, “Well, why wouldn’t Sammie go to a gay mom group, and then she could just find other gay moms?”
LH Because gay mom groups are so easy to find.
KA Yeah, I was cracking up, because this is Orlando, it’s not Brooklyn. With Teeth is very explicitly Central Florida, because so many LGBTQ+ people work for the theme parks. There’s this huge divide between being a queer, childless person, and then being a queer parent. I think with every project that we work on as writers, there has to be some kind of obsessive element, and that was the one for me. That, and the idea that everybody in a household is an unreliable narrator, something I’m fascinated with.
LH There’s a huge disconnect between the family Sammie believes she should be able to create, the kind of parent that she wants to be, and what she actually becomes.
KA Sammie is a deeply problematic, interesting character. I’m also interested in bodies and messiness, and I can’t think of anything messier than child rearing. Messiness is built into kids, and messiness is built into the body. Sammie’s her own worst enemy, and it felt the most interesting to write about someone whose queerness didn’t change, but because she had a kid, she feels like she’s not able to understand herself or her life or any part of it. There’s also this scrutiny and these microagressions that would happen in Central Florida, if you’re a gay mom and straight-passing, and you’re with your baby and someone says, “Oh, is your husband showing up?”
LH You’re continually coming out.
KH Right, but now there’s a child attached to it. So I was interested in writing into that discomfort, which I also find funny. I love to put people into uncomfortable situations to see how much humor I can still manage to get from it.
LH In Poets and Writers, you wrote that you don’t consider yourself a craft expert, but you’re an aficionado of how to write the dumb stuff that makes you laugh. In Mostly Dead Things, your humor carries the reader through the intensity of the subject matter. You were writing about suicide and grief, and then there was sexy taxidermy. How did you set out to approach humor in your second book?
KA In Mostly Dead Things, Jessa is the straight man—pun intended. She doesn’t get the joke a lot of the time, and that’s funny to me. In that way, With Teeth is different. My idea of humor often came from conflict itself. I’m definitely a Sagittarius. I’m a get-along guy, I want everybody to have a nice time. Forcing myself to sit with Sammie, who is making her own life harder than it should be, was frustrating. In the scene where Sammie was making this stupid Golden Child image of her own son—and I loved the absurdity of seeing everything covered in gold paint—she was experiencing this maddening feeling of “here’s who I used to be, and now here’s who I am.” I’ll speak for myself, but I think queer people are masters at self-deprecating humor. There are so many times where I’ve mined my own pain and hurt for the sake of humor. In retrospect, I can flip anything and get a laugh out of it.
LH Sammie named her son after her. I was creeped out by that choice at first, and then I thought about the number of kids I know who are Joey Jr. or Little Eddie, and I got the joke. It sets up a complicated experience for the reader. Sammie and Samson, Samson and Sammie, page after page.
KA Actually, the original title of the book was Samson. The naming of things feels significant to me. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a very Evangelical household where biblical names were important, but I also just really liked the idea of Sammie not having control over a lot of things in her life, though she did have control over this particular thing. She feels like she owns him: This kid came from me, he’s part mine, and if I named him part of me, then he’s literally part of me.
LH With Teeth opens with a terrifying scene where Sammie wonders, Is my child going to just walk away with this stranger? A seed is planted in her mind that continues to repeat throughout the book: have I given birth to a monster? There’s a Frankenstein-like element to it.
KA Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, Sammie and Samson. He’s her creation, so often, we’re only seeing things through Sammie’s lens. That’s why I have these interstitials throughout the book, where there are people who are having completely different interpretations of what they witness and how they view the household. It’s easy to think, This kid is the worst, he’s a monster. Or: Sammie is the worst, she’s a monster. Maybe human beings are just kind of monstrous.
LH There’s a beautiful physicality to your writing. In your first book, you went into exquisite detail as you described skinning an animal, and in With Teeth, the physicality in your writing is applied to motherhood. I remember reading that when you did research for Mostly Dead Things, you spent time in taxidermy chat rooms. What was your research process like for this book?
KH I think sometimes as writers we use research as a way to avoid doing the writing. As a librarian, I’m used to being able to do the research and find what I need, but so much of what I needed to know in With Teeth didn’t exist. I couldn’t look up how to scrape out the inside of a raccoon, I had to sit and think about what it’s like to be alone at home. My timeline on this book was pretty tight, so I felt like I was living with Sammie. We were unwilling roommates. A lot of what I did was to think back to when I worked at a public library for eight and a half years. I ran storytime, so I spent a lot of time watching the parenting happening in front of me. You become an observer of the human condition, especially when you see moms almost come off the rails, where they’re on the last of their reserves, and they’re not allowed to be on their last reserves.
LH I described it to a friend as “gay parenting as a horror story.”
KA Actually, I love that. I might sneak that from you.
LH Go for it.
KA I think parenting, in general, is a horror story, like anything in life that is painful or hard or messy or gory or scary. I wanted to write about a woman who was failing at being a mom. I wanted you to want to root for her, but to have you also think, Damn, she’s kind of fucking this up. I think it’s a mistake to pigeonhole queer people into a space where everything has to be a success story. There’s a breadth of stories for heterosexual people, there should be a breadth of stories for lesbians.
LH I read the opening chapters of With Teeth out loud to my wife in the car. We were on a road trip, and at the end of the second chapter, she looked over at me at a stoplight and said, “This book is terrifying.” (laughter) I was reminded of the sort of terror I felt as a kid the first time I stayed up all night reading Pet Sematary.
KA Oh, wow! That’s a compliment. I am a huge Stephen King fan actually. I love his old shit. I talk about Pet Sematary all the time from a craft perspective, so that comparison to my book makes my fangirl heart thump. In Pet Sematary, there’s a level of discomfort that he doesn’t let you cut away from. In the scene where he goes to the graveyard because he’s decided he’s going to dig up his son, he makes you stay with him the whole time. Shovelful after shovelful after shovelful, it’s like King is saying, if this character has to sit there with this discomfort and experience the intensity of emotion, so do you.
LH Another big incentive for reading King’s books when I was a kid was the sex. He wrote about boobs, and I wanted to see boobs! I don’t know how old I was when I realized that my understanding of sex had been framed by a straight white man, but when I figured it out I was pissed. What’s important when you’re writing about sex between women?
KA Sex is just as messy as everything else is in life, so I want it to feel as authentically weird and hot and stressful and sometimes, you know, not good? I also want to lean into the idea that so much of sex relies on power dynamics. Tops and bottoms and that kind of dynamic, absolutely—but also the idea that to get off means that our minds are taking in the plethora of what is erotic. Sometimes that means getting eaten out, sure, but sometimes that means thinking about how pain fits inside sex, or choking someone, or it means faking an orgasm for some people, or it means lackluster fucking on a couch, and sometimes it means surprisingly hot sex with a cicada shell? I like to think about bodies a lot, so writing queerness to me means writing sex.
LH What are the chances that we’ll see your work on the screen?
KATechnically, I’m allowed to say that Mostly Dead Things is with a [TV] network, and that there’s some talk. That’s what I’m legally allowed to say.
LH Then that’s what I’ll write! What would the comp titles be? Schitt’s Creek meets—
KA —Six Feet Under is one that they’ve used a lot, and I love that show. It’s a family, it’s funny, but it’s also dark humor because it’s taking place in a funeral home.
LH I saw last week that you finished your third book?
KA Yeah, actually, this is the first time I’m talking about that. I wanted to write my “library book,” because I am a librarian and everything I write is about lesbians, this one’s a Florida lesbian librarian.
LH Librarians are my heroes. I’m all in. As we wrap things up, I remember that one of my favorite tweets from you was about wanting to create a bar called Writing Prompt, where you walk in and the bartender hands you an anecdote of something weird that happened that week…
KA Yeah, and then you have to do the prompt, like write three paragraphs, and then you get a beer. I can’t wait for the day when I can finally go back to a bar. There’s that dynamic of being inside some kind of divey, yeasty, beer-smelling, dark bar, listening to someone next to you have the worst date of their life. I can’t wait to encounter it again.
LH If you walked into a bar and ordered a With Teeth cocktail, what would be in it?
KA Oh wow. It would be probably a plastic Zephyrhills bottle with a lot of shitty vodka in it and a touch of orange juice.
LH I think my stomach just started cramping.
KA I know, it hurt me, too.