Interview with Kayla Rae Whitaker

 © Mark Bennington. Used with permission. 

Originally from Eastern Kentucky, Kayla Rae Whitaker has an MFA in fiction writing from New York University. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Bodega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly, and others. She is a regular contributor to American Microreviews and Interviews and Split Lip Magazine. Kayla won the first Still: The Journal fiction contest in 2010. After many years of living in Brooklyn, she returned to Kentucky in 2016 with her husband and their geriatric tomcat, Breece D’J Pancake. They live in Louisville.

            The Animators, her debut novel, was released in January, 2017 from Random House. The story illuminates the 10-year friendship and partnership between Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught, two women who meet in college and form a successful animation studio.

            Publishers Weekly
praised The Animators: “Whitaker skillfully charts the creative process, its lulls and sudden rushes of perfect inspiration. And in the relationship between Mel and Sharon, she has created something wonderful and exceptional: a rich, deep, and emotionally true connection that will certainly steal the hearts of readers.” 

            The New York Times
writes: "The Animators covers familiar debut-novel territory: the search for identity, the desire for success, the bewildering experiences of small-town misfits leaving home for the bright lights of New York City. But Whitaker turns these motifs on their heads simply by changing the direction of the road and populating it with women. New York success is left behind in favor of rural America — 'where a man will hit a woman in public just as easily as he’ll open the door for her' — a place sketched out with convincing ease by Whitaker, a Kentucky native. Sharon, who begins as an updated version of Sal Paradise or Nick Carraway, manages to draw herself (literally) into the starring role of her life and work, instead of simply chronicling the lives of those around her."

            The Animators was selected as one of the Spring 2017 Discover Great New Writers Picks from Barnes & Noble. The novel was also the January 2017 Featured Title from Quarterly Literary Subscription Box.

            We asked Kayla Rae to answer some questions about her love of storytelling, animation, hillbillies in cartoons, and Kentucky. 

Still:   Let’s start by talking about a couple of the “big ideas” that are explored in your novel. The Animators is about two women artists, Sharon Kisses (the narrator) and Mel Vaught, who live and work together as award-winning animators. We’ll let the characters speak. First, Sharon Kisses’s mother says to her that she was “the only member of the family harebrained enough to get a scholarship to a big fancy school and then waste it by ‘drawing pictures all day.’” Sharon gets a similar reaction from her instructor in a high school arts program who inspects her artwork and says, “‘I like the little cartoons, but how about we fit your skills into a more serious framework?’” So, you seem to be exploring a dual dilemma here: women, generally, are discouraged from making art, period, and cartoons and animation are often discounted by academics as an art form. Could you talk about those ideas and why they are important to you?

Kayla Rae Whitaker:   It’s an issue of voice appointment – who gets to speak, who is heard, whose perspective matters. Women making art, and the art they are making, are parallel issues in The Animators. For a lot of women, growing older means gaining a deeper realization of how deeply and implicitly (and often explicitly) they have been taught to be “worthy” or “appealing” by couching themselves in silence, in acquiescence. To make art is a direct strike against the effort to silence. The story of every female artist is a story of a counter effort to that woman being told not to speak –and if not being told to not make what she’s making, then being instructed on content or technique in a way a man may never experience. This is why a man who writes or creates presents his work. A woman who writes or creates defends her work. To tell a story about two women making art, and living lives that are, in large part, about creating art, was crucial to me, for this reason.

            And it is deeply personal to me; this is my story, in a sense, and the story for many other women. We need to allow women to live lives in service to their passions, something men have been doing for centuries, without shaming or disparaging them. We begin to tell these stories, we can move forward. I’m heartened to see women and men both increasingly value female voices and work by women. I’d like to think it is happening more. The story of Vaught and Kisses - that they happened, period - is a testament to the bond they forge with one another as female artists. 

            I’d like to think that those discounting the art status of cartoons are just incredibly out of touch. There’s a lot of study and criticism focused on cartoons and animation, now, because this is the art that is touching the masses. This is what widespread, American cultural education looks like, and I doubt much is to be gained by excluding work on the basis of taste. I’ve long believed the best stories come from cracks in attention – people doing work under the radar, in their own worlds. The Animators operates largely on the basis of this perspective.

Still:   When we first met you, you were finishing up college at University of Kentucky and you had written your honors thesis on the cartoon hillbilly, particularly in Squidbillies, from The Cartoon Network. Did your academic work on that project (and other work you’ve done on Appalachian cartoon images and stereotypes) inform your creative work at all in The Animators? How so?

KRW:   There’s the content overlap – I felt, after watching so many cartoons and reading cultural criticism about cartoons in the context of social inequity, that I could at least somewhat speak Sharon and Mel’s shared language. That thesis on the hillbilly as visual motif pushed me to notice stylistic aspects of animation I might not have noticed otherwise.

            And it may have informed the plot in certain ways, now that I think of it: when Sharon and Mel meet, it is at a very small, very expensive liberal arts college in the Northeast, the kind of place where most of their peers would have graduated from places with titles that end in “Day School” and would be horrified at the sight of pickled bologna at the gas station. When they bond, they bond over what Mel calls their shared “white trashiness” -  class. They are hyper-aware of class; where they are, they have to be, because they are the minority. Region, too. This awareness surfaces later on in their work. I’d like to think that this occurred to both Mel and Sharon as they wrote.

            I’ve always been interested in the covert power of images and sounds that we experience, repeatedly, and almost unknowingly. That hillbilly characterization is shockingly, alarmingly pervasive. It conveys, covertly, so much about America, and class, and about a cultural habit of blaming those on the receiving end of trouble instead of investigating the larger socioeconomic systems that create inequity. From Hillbilly Hare to the first Mountain Dew commercials with Willy the Hillbilly right on down the line to Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel. Put a barefoot guy in overalls, at least one missing tooth, and a glazed look in his eye, and the audience will know in half a second who this character is, what he’ll be doing, and the pool of values he represents. It’s the easy joke to make, an extremely convenient image and association that tends to not have the protection of cultural awareness.

            Representation matters. It shapes our perceptions quietly, often while we’re unaware of it. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a pleasure to see a show like Squidbillies, to see Early Cuyler, say, witness his son Rusty play a Satanic guitar solo (after selling his soul to the devil for the ability to play, á la Robert Johnson), and then summon the fiery ghost of Roy Clark to accompany him on banjo. (Great episode.) It’s seeing that icon used, and then smashed with absurdity. The Animators owes a lot to that act. This book’s roots, as far as its author is concerned, really do go back over a decade. 

Still:   Can you relate an interesting or revelatory anecdote or moment that occurred to you while you were doing research for the novel?

KRW:   This is hard for me to admit, so it must be important – relative not to the book’s research, but to its overall evolution. I shouldn’t reveal how the book ends – probably not a savvy business move – but in an early draft of this book, I wrote a terrible, terrible ending that, thankfully, I trashed. The ending involved Sharon accidentally getting pregnant and, after the exhaustion and struggle of her twenties and early thirties, essentially excusing herself from her life. It wasn’t framed as a happy ending, either. It was framed as a surrender. Pretty rotten script, right?

            I can’t help but wonder, however, if part of this ending wasn’t the power of influence – of absorbing, despite myself and my tastes, so many movies and TV shows and books in which a woman finds redemption through the larger forces around her – usually, getting a man, or a baby. And knowing, in theory, that it was a crappy, reductive formula put in place by: a. powers that be that mean to create a social narrative in which a woman only has value in connection to the men surrounding her, and b. large corporations that want money and know that this formula sells– and shocked and disappointed to find that a part of me held onto that kind of ultimate “ending” as a viable option for my character. There was this feeling that I had been conditioned, covertly, implicitly, and I’d never even realized it. And I still adopted that formula, though it was obvious that I did so not just with ambivalence, but with outright anger and disappointment.

            It was a moment when I realized that, at my worst, I’m not the optimist I should be. I struggle for optimism. Moving forward and producing art requires that a part of you, even a slim part of you, believe that different futures are possible. Writing about Sharon and Mel required me to nut up and have some faith. 

Still:   What was it like for you, an eastern Kentucky native, schooled in Kentucky, to leave, move to Brooklyn and study writing at New York University?

KRW:   It was very lonely and very difficult, at first. I had been living in Lexington; aside from about half a year of living and working in Berlin after college, I’d been in Kentucky my entire life. At age 18, about the biggest town I’d seen was Lexington. I did not want to move to New York. But I’d gotten into NYU and it was, and is, such a stellar MFA program that I thought, okay, I can survive New York for two years for this MFA.

            I lived in Bed-Stuy, right off the A/C train line. It was so expensive it was like a joke. My immunity was toddler-weak - every germ in Brooklyn jumped on me, so I spent most of the year in bed, suffering from flu after cold after flu, reading and watching The Wire. And I wrote about home. Oh God. I was so homesick. I did most of the work on a book that is still sort of stewing- a story about a woman and her three grandsons - not quite done, but it will be, someday. I treated my loneliness and homesickness with work, and I found refuge in that work, even when it was difficult.

            And then, after about a year, I shocked the hell out of myself by making a life there. I made a lot of wonderful friends, met a lot of writers, worked jobs – some awful, some great – and came to love the section of Brooklyn I eventually settled in, Sunset Park, right above Bay Ridge (Saturday Night Fever/bridge to Staten Island territory). And after seven years, my book sold. I did what I went there to do. I could leave. I’ll never forget that first year, though. I learned a lot from that year.

I think the best stories, or beginning of stories, came from instances when my view of what home was, what Eastern Kentucky was, was complicated by something. This place has layers, and that’s where the stories are. Like going to punk shows in Eastern Kentucky. . . . Nothing makes me happier than seeing a kid with both a very thick Kentucky accent and an enormous Mohawk. 
Still:   In your novel, the narrator has a revelation when she goes back home to eastern Kentucky for a visit. She’s watching coal cars pass at a railroad crossing and says: “How could I have missed this? This is the kind of beauty that gives you the fever wish to make things. How could I have not grown up wanting to draw? I feel a flash of shame. I used to hate it here. How could I have possibly hated this? This is me. I sprang from this place.” Can you talk a bit about how growing up in eastern Kentucky has influenced your writing life?

KRW:   Growing up, much like Sharon and Mel, I saw nothing of the world outside my hometown and immediate region, and I wanted to leave, badly. The joke, here, being that, after a lifetime of wanting to leave, I could only write about home once I did.  And there’s a lot of that place in my writing, probably because what I first discovered of human nature took place in that setting. We’re extremely lucky: people from this part of the country tend to be good talkers, good storytellers. We grow up with language in the ear. I don’t think I’m biased in that argument.

            I think the best stories, or beginning of stories, came from instances when my view of what home was, what Eastern Kentucky was, was complicated by something. This place has layers, and that’s where the stories are. Like going to punk shows in Eastern Kentucky. All-ages shows staged in American Legion halls, places where the space could be leased cheaply. Like this band from New Jersey that performed a lot of songs about union culture, screaming into the crowd, “Never cross a picket line!” and the kids really responding, because there was something in the shared history there that sparked them. Two very disparate things, in my mind, were connected. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a kid with both a very thick Kentucky accent and an enormous Mohawk.

            Making that realization about human nature, wherever you are – its idiosyncrasies and surprises, its odd little kindnesses and hurts and secrets – lays down an initial road for fiction. It makes you hungry to envision the lives of others, imagine their days and their thoughts. It is the origin point for stories. 

Still:   Which is harder to write, New York City or rural Eastern Kentucky?

KRW:   Hard to say. New York has been done more, which doesn’t make it easier. In both cases, you want to hit the right note. I always try to approach setting character first: that is, to see and interact with place in a way that is natural to the character, and in a way that propels the story forward. For the characters in The Animators, that means remaining loose on the feet and hanging onto the bars to sway with the motion of the L train in Brooklyn, and in East Kentucky it means Mel and Sharon keeping their distance when driving behind a truckload of coal to avoid fragments hitting their windshield. It means feeling the difference between the two places, and taking note of the difference. I think place is best established with the little living details, when it is woven into narrative. 

Still:   In The Animators, Sharon Kisses says “I have a knack for cleanliness, perfect portions. Chronology, arc, storyboarding—those are my areas of expertise. I’m the one who builds the narrative, keeps us on its track.” Is that a statement that you would (or could) apply to yourself as a novelist? If not, can you talk a bit about your own “areas of expertise” as a novelist?

KRW:   I wish I were as organized as Sharon. When I begin writing, what typically comes to me is fragmentary. Bits of dialogue, scenes, singular events. A big part of my work comes later, when I’m building the connective fibers that link all the pieces to this larger story. That’s my process. It probably adds an extra draft of work in the mix for me, but I can’t help it. Viewing a story in this way – and one could imagine a house that has exploded and left debris all over the yard, and you’re walking around picking up fragments of the story to reassemble later – means a wider perspective, I hope. I know some great writers who adhere to outlines when producing work, but I’ve always feared that if I used that system, it might narrow my perspective as to what the story is, or can be. That I won’t be pulled in those unexpected directions that end up taking the story where it needs to go.

            I am disciplined, but I firmly believe that’s a skill one develops with time and practice. Anyone can do it. Part of it may be natural inclination, but more of it is daily investment. It seems dialogue is one of my strengths, and I am always crazy to get the unspoken or subtle details surrounding the spoken just right.

Still:   You’ve talked in other interviews about how important revising is for you as a writer. Tell us a bit about the editing evolution of The Animators

KRW:   All told, it took about six years to write The Animators – seven if you include the writing of the very, very initial scenes, which took place one day in the Newark airport after my flight had been canceled. (The first scene was one in which Mel talks about Florida, about alligators around where she grew up eating marshmallows the children threw out into the swamp).

            I know writers who, to me, seem to have a very clean drafting process – they outline, they write the story from start to finish, then pick up the manuscript and revise, front to back. Repeat until you have a book. Maybe that’s idealization on my part, because my process is messier. Everyone has a different process – it’s like a thumbprint. Sometimes it’s hard to be patient. I’ll think, “I wish I could just hurry the hell up already.” But it comes as it comes. The best I can do is to put the work in steadily, faithfully, every day.  

When reflecting on the cultural importance of animation, I’ll always go to the populist perspective first. It is a form of expression that is intended for the masses; in the beginning, its target audience was anyone who could afford to go see a movie, or who could sneak in. It was probably the first “art” to which I was ever exposed, and it had an enormous influence on me. 
Still:   We liked how The Animators gives us not only this compelling story about the partnership between two women who are making weird, celebrated, and highly personal cartoon art, but also these small, beautiful lessons in animation history. When Sharon Kisses describes the opening credits of their film Nashville Combat, she says: “We used distortion to fuzz the initial frames, making it look like a bad conversion from analog, like the old stuff we love, something best seen in a piss-drenched movie theater forty years ago, seats knifed to bits, carpet stained, a man in a trench coat with no face two rows behind you. The landscape is all smeared pastels, ink blobs—a dirty bizarro world, part Ren & Stimpy, part Clutch Cargo, part seventies German cartoon porno.” References like that are scattered throughout the novel. As readers, we spend a lot of time in the past media worlds of Sharon Kisses. You’ve even created a board on Pinterest called: “The List: Vaught and Kisses’s Pinterest Board” that includes examples of some of the animation references in the novel. Can you talk about how all these animation influences have affected your work as a writer?

KRW:   When I first started watching cartoons, it was as afternoon filler. Something inoffensive to keep the kids busy, right? There was a lot of crap in there. All those 80s-era cartoons based on Hasbro and Kenner toys- My Little Pony, Care Bears, Rainbow Brite. All made, I think, purely for merchandising. But it was a form I was comfortable with, and I suppose this is why I sought it out later. 

            TV was a really important part of my childhood. I spent a lot of time by myself (which was a terrific stroke of luck, as I became a writer and writers need to be able to spend lots of time by themselves), so books and television were my constant companions. Some of my happiest memories – the moments in which I felt the most comfortable, the most actively engaged – are of me sitting in a dark room by myself, age 8, 9, 10, watching the really weird cartoons that came on after 10:00 p.m. or so.

            MTV had a showcase of animated shorts called Liquid Television that had everything from stop-motion to Claymation, and out of which came shows like Aeon Flux and The Head and The Maxx. Our local PBS affiliate, KET, also aired a show called The Short List, that ran short films and animation. A lot of the content was troubling – very dark material – but it was thrilling. I felt like the corner had been peeled back from my own life, and I could see into another. I had that same vision for Mel and Sharon – finding something special and private and involving amidst trouble. The rest of your life is just darkness pounding away at you, but you have this perfect, golden cylinder that you run inside for an hour, or two hours, a day. A moment in which you are briefly, secretly happy.

Still:   W
hat do you think is the cultural value or importance of animation? 

KRW:   When reflecting on the cultural importance of animation, I’ll always go to the populist perspective first. It is a form of expression that is intended for the masses; in the beginning, its target audience was anyone who could afford to go see a movie, or who could sneak in. It was probably the first “art” to which I was ever exposed, and it had an enormous influence on me. My initial experiences may have been with pretty mindless stuff, but into the 1990s, animation was used increasingly in prime time for actual storytelling, with material that was more situational and a bit more mature. It had a feel of the dangerous to it. Ren & Stimpy is a great case-in-point. It’s incredibly transgressive. I’m surprised it was on a children’s network. Beavis and Butt-Head was a lot more sophisticated than people gave it credit for. I received more of a cultural education from The Simpsons than I did from school.

Still:   What are some of the writing projects you have planned for the future?

KRW:   I just started working on a project involving rabies. Whenever I start working on a project and the project is about something on the surface – like animation, or rabies – the real story is always a couple stories below, rooted in friendship, or family dynamics. I’m not quite sure what this is going to turn into. It’s that first draft that, as a writer, you just kind of have to track it through and be patient. It helps that the first draft is the really fun draft. Especially if your idea of its destination is vague.

            I have that other project that’s been roosting in my head for about ten years now that’s about a grandmother who gains custody of her grandsons – that project that occupied my first year in New York. It’s very strange. This year, while edits and work on The Animators has wound down in anticipation of the release, the two projects sort of competed for my attention, and Rabies Town won out, but I haven’t forgotten my other book. It’s hanging out there in a binder by my desk, waiting. 

Kayla Rae Whitaker's The Animators (Random House)


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