Welcome to the Book Marks Questionnaire, where we ask authors questions about the books that have shaped them.
This week, we spoke to Mostly Dead Things author Kristen Arnett.
Book Marks: First book you remember loving?
Kristen Arnett: There was a lot about Little House in the Big Woods that I loved: the beautiful black and white sketches, the inset stories/storytelling from Laura’s father (something I think about a lot when I’m even building my own narratives), and also just the fun of making things? They killed a pig and played with its bladder like a balloon! I learned what head cheese meant! Maple sugar candy in the snow! Laura had a doll made out of a corn husk and she LOVED THE HELL OUT OF IT. Those kids were trapped indoors all the time and bored out of their minds. I related a lot to that book as a child. My family was also weirdly domestic and very religious.
BM: Favorite re-read?
KA: I actually wind up rereading a lot of Stephen King. Probably the book of his that I’ve read the most times is The Shining. It’s haunted house meets haunted person? Like the mental and the physical—also the idea of historical context being wrapped up all inside a place, but also deeply embedded in a family? I love to reread a book that makes me think about different things every time I crack it open, and The Shining does that for me. Makes me think about my own life in different ways, but also makes me reconsider narrative and form. Also as an aside, it makes me consider the ways that horror can translate so well across a page, but sometimes can’t make that jump into the physical/visual? And I like to think about if there are ways to circumvent that.
BM: Last book you read?
KR: Quarantine has been killing my brain and making it very hard for me to concentrate, but I did manage to read Jenny Offill’s latest—Weather. It was terrific. She has such a style that bleeds into everything she makes. I loved Department of Speculation, and while this book was different, it still had callbacks to the kind of formatting and voice that is exclusively her own. I am always so impressed when you read something and without knowing who the author is can say “Oh, this is a piece by so-and-so” simply based on how the sentences sit on the page.
BM: A book that made you cry?
KR: This is my answer every time I get asked this question, but it is without a doubt Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh. It’s not easy to make me cry—I joke around a lot online that it would make my insides rust because I am actually a robot—but this book got me. I read it on a plane and just sobbed the whole time, which I’m sure was super fun for the person sitting next to me! It’s just a beautiful, deeply tender book, on every level. Gorgeous writing. Makes me tear up even thinking about it!
BM: What book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
KA: I think I am technically cheating here because it’s been a little over a year since this book came out, but I am absolutely obsessed with Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. It’s so queer and so funny and also so hopeful? It’s a great look at the nuances in family relationships and how those dynamics eternally shift—what does it look like when you have to be the parent to your own parent? What does love look like when it is a struggle? It’s so gorgeous. Also it’s such a Florida book, and I always love that.
BM: A book that actually made you laugh out loud?
KA: I am about to tell another plane story, which is wild since none of us have been on airplanes in months! I received an advance copy of Sam Irby’s Wow, No Thank You and was reading it on a flight back to Florida from my fellowship in Vegas. There is this section in the book that’s like riffing on the “sure, sex is great” joke that people have been doing on Twitter and there was one she does that’s like “sure, sex is fun, but have you ever not invited one-half of a gay couple to ladies’ night just to set some shit off?” Reader, I lost it. I could not stop laughing. Sam Irby! How dare she be so funny???? Honestly, it’s rude.
BM: Favorite book to give as a gift?
KA: I am obsessed with Flannery O’Connor’s letters. The Habit of Being is a book I always wind up giving to people, because I think—hear me out—that it’s tremendously funny. She is so goddamn grumpy. There is this line from one of them that she’s writing to a friend and in it she describes herself in an author photo looking like she’d just bitten her own grandmother. I swear to God, what a wild way to describe your own face. Lots of the letters are very tender, too, and there is plenty to unpack about her relationship with her mother and her friendships with women and also her relationship to her own writing. This is an underrated collection, in my opinion.
BM: Favorite book you were assigned in high school?
KA: I read a lot in high school because I was a hellacious dork but also because I was deeply closeted in a very religious household and reading was one of the few escapes available to me. So I always was reading on my own as well as reading anything they’d give us in class. I remember particularly liking The Count of Monte Cristo, which is a book I probably wouldn’t have picked on my own? I mean, this entire book is about revenge. I got through it and read it again because it was just so satisfying? When you’re a teenager you feel so powerless all the time anyway and reading a story where someone takes years of their life just to finally avenge the life that was stolen from them? Incredible. Relatable content.
BM: Book(s) you’re reading right now?
KA: Again, quarantine has wrecked my attention span, but I have been really trying to get myself to set aside time every day to read—even if it’s not for very long. A few books that I’ve got open around the house include The Wilds by Julia Elliott (such a great short fiction collection and a reread for me, but I just love how bodied and gross she’s willing to get on the page), Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong (just a tremendous, incredible book—every single essay is phenomenal), and also The Carrying by Ada Limon. This last one is also a reread for me, but it’s one of my favorite poetry collections. So beautiful and tender. When I feel like writing is escaping me, poetry is the first source I turn to, and this collection allows me to sit a little with wonder.
BM: Favorite children’s book?
KR: My parents were very strict with what I was allowed to read growing up, so a lot of the time I hid stuff under my dresser. One of the few books they didn’t take away from me was Matilda, which is actually hilarious to think about now. Matilda is a girl who just wants to read so badly and her family doesn’t care about it? Anyway, I found this book deeply relatable as a child.
Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. Her debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, is now available in paperback from Tin House. She lives in Florida. Follow her on Twitter @Kristen_Arnett.
Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things is out now in paperback from Tin House