Kristen Arnett's scalpel-sharp prose kicks off Winter Park literary festival

Only two things are certain: death and taxidermy

Kristen Arnett
Kristen Arnett
Winter With the Writers: Kristen Arnett
Thursday, Feb. 13 Master class 4 p.m., SunTrust Auditorium
Reading 7:30 p.m., Bush Auditorium
Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park

Orlando's own Kristen Arnett, New York Times best-selling novelist and Orlando Weekly's "Best We Told You So" success of 2019, is heading up Rollins College's 2020 Winter With the Writers slate.

After the rapturous critical reception for her first book, a collection of stories called Felt in the Jaw, Arnett's 2019 debut novel exploded onto the summer reading scene, finding its way onto "best books" lists from the New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly. Mostly Dead Things tackles a story of growing up gay and closeted in Central Florida, pairing ruminations on grief, friendship and family with lush descriptions of familiar locales that would make Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings swoon.

Much of Arnett's writing centers queerness, a focus based on her own experience as a young lesbian woman. As a teenager in the '90s, Arnett was in denial about her sexuality, even though she had a secret girlfriend. Her evangelical family and their close friends based most of their social time around religion, so Arnett didn't feel they would understand her struggle. It would be years until she would come out of the closet. She remembers wishing Orlando had more of a place for her then, and she hopes we will continue creating spaces for young queer folks.

Likewise, Mostly Dead Things follows taxidermist Jessa-Lynn Morton as she struggles to cope with being left by the woman she loves. Jessa-Lynn, too, spent many years in the closet. At her 2019 book launch at Park Ave CDs, Arnett read a moving scene of young Jessa-Lynn and her best friend drinking at a high school party down by the river. Arnett's description, buzzing with mosquitos and dripping with Spanish moss, transported the audience to the Florida summers of our past.

Mostly Dead Things interplays memories with the more pressing present narrative: Jessa-Lynn is forced to take over the family taxidermy business after her father's suicide. Grief and sincerity mix with the wacky and weird, giving the novel a lot of heart as well as a keen sense of place.

Her next two books, Samson: A Novel and With Foxes: Stories will be published by Riverhead Books. Arnett has been mum on details, but if Mostly Dead Things is any indication, they will be earnest and darkly funny.

A third-generation Floridian, Arnett grew up in Orlando and went to Winter Park High School. After graduating, she attended Rollins, then earned a master's degree in library science at Florida State University. She was a librarian at Barry College of Law when Mostly Dead Things became a best-seller.

Although Arnett has forsaken Orlando briefly for Las Vegas – she won the prestigious Shearing Fellowship with the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada Las Vegas – she will be back in Winter Park to hold a master class workshop Thursday, Feb. 13, from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the SunTrust Auditorium at Rollins. A reading and book signing will follow at 7:30 in the Bush Auditorium.

Other speakers in the 2020 Winter with the Writers series will include poet Claudia Rankine, National Book Awards finalists Kali Fajardo-Anstine and Ilya Kaminsky, and National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas.

This story appears in the Feb. 12, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Orlando news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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