Kayla Rae Whitaker Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Kayla Rae Whitaker

Kayla Rae Whitaker

An interview with Kayla Rae Whitaker

Debut author Kayla Rae Whitaker talks about The Animators, artistic ambition, and why she is moving back to her native Kentucky after seven years.

Describe The Animators to us.

The Animators is about Sharon Kisses and her business partner and friend, Mel Vaught, two brilliant cartoonists who meet in college and begin working together. Despite their differences – Mel is a wildly charismatic, drug-dabbling, party-starter, Sharon, a shy, wry, lovelorn misanthrope - the Vaught and Kisses partnership is a profoundly productive and creative one (their style: think a more feminist Fritz the Cat, with an Adult Swim sensibility) . . . until the breakout success of their first full-length animated film. The publicity tour sends Mel and Sharon on a road trip back to their childhood homes in rural Florida and Kentucky, setting off a year that is the most difficult of their collective lives: as Mel's substance abuse reaches combustion levels, Sharon suffers a medical crisis, leaving Mel, who barely knows how to pay a bill, to care for both their business and Sharon. Can Vaught and Kisses survive in the face of an uncertain future?

The Animators asks what happens when, after years of striving, ambition finally starts to pay off. It's about being a woman artist. It's about friendship, partnership, and how the baggage we carry with us contours those relationships.

In the book, as Mel and Sharon enter Kentucky on their road trip, the landscape takes a hold of you. Is Sharon's childhood home in Kentucky close to where you're from?

Sharon's character is from a town that, were it to exist, would probably be very close to my hometown, Mount Sterling, Kentucky – a town called the "Gateway to the Mountains" because of its unique position right at the cusp of tobacco country and the east Kentucky hills. It was an interesting place to grow up: small, rural, but distinct. I grew up with kids who would bring in the tobacco harvest every fall – that was their life after school, what their families were doing, had been doing for generations. Everybody knows everybody else. There was only one high school. Every year at prom there's this event where the whole town goes to the high school to watch the couples walk into the school gymnasium. They set up bleachers and there's an announcer – usually someone from the local radio station- who reads off the names of the couples as they pose on this platform for pictures. One year a kid flew in with his date on a helicopter. It was insane. At some point, this ritual became an actual, formal event for the community. I've never met anybody else who's been able to say, "My town does that too."

You recently moved back to Kentucky after 7 years in New York. What inspired you to move back? What effect do you think location has on you as a writer?

It was unfortunate that I came to love living in New York, because increasing financial pressure colors almost every facet of life there. There's constant anxiety as to how you'll pay the bills. There's an increased awareness of class. In The Animators, Mel and Sharon, who both come from working-class backgrounds, are acutely aware that they are always in the shadow of eviction. New York toughens you up, that's for sure. It teaches you to soldier through long hours – to make money so you can pay rent, oftentimes with jobs you hate -- and then shore yourself up to write, or paint, or draw, for two hours on top of that. I worked full-time as an office admin to support myself while writing The Animators; having that work day belong to somebody else made me budget my free time as efficiently as I could. I would wake up an hour early and put in writing time before work. On the N train commuting into Manhattan, I would hold on to the subway pole with one hand, and I would have my papers in another, and a pen in my jacket pocket. In the summertime I bought purses with side pockets so I could put my pen in there and just pull it out and write, waiting until stops to scribble down thoughts so I wouldn't fall over. I had a little notebook computer that I used to write at lunch time. I'd find an empty spot somewhere in the building and sit down with a Lean Cuisine and do as much work as I could. I aimed for a thousand words a day. I don't know how I did it. I don't know if I could do that now. I feel like living in New York was a sort of endurance challenge and, at the end of it, I had The Animators. So I left because it wasn't financially sustainable and also left because I was homesick. I married a fellow Kentuckian, and we shared a joint homesickness that stretched itself over the years, and at some point we decided that returning was an eventuality. There's something about the culture of the south that is defiantly weird, and defiantly self-sustaining in terms of its identity. I come from this place and wanted to be close to it.

A lot of readers might automatically associate you with Sharon because you're from a similar background, but where did Mel's character come from?

Sharon and Mel are not based on particular people, but there's little bit of me in each of them. Sharon's social insecurities are mine, in a lot of ways. I find it fascinating that Sharon confronts those insecurities – which range anywhere from the extent of her talent to her looks – by playing the good student: quashing her self-doubt by being extremely efficient, by being "useful," which is a peculiar defense mechanism many women develop. I wanted Sharon to struggle with this, and I wanted her to try to find ways of becoming a more aggressive agent for herself. Mel's impulsiveness and her aptitude for acting out . . . I had something of that in me a decade or so ago. Not anymore, thankfully. Sharon calls it "dancing with the monkey." That stuff can land you in trouble.

It was a challenge and a pleasure in equal measure to write about them, because neither of them are me. Thank God. Sharon's and Mel's lives are very complicated.

Why two? Why a book about two women instead of a book that is all Sharon or all Mel?

Mel and Sharon spark off each other. They need each other to work. For a lot of women, friendships with other women are the only neutral, non-gendered spaces they will ever encounter, the only spaces in which the prevailing blanket beliefs our society maintains regarding what women want and who they are and what they can do don't hinder them, and aren't assumed as truths. That's one of the most compelling things about friendships and partnerships – both business and artistic – between women. But I didn't want to idealize their relationship. To simplify those friendships is to cheat them, in a way. It's to rob them of their complexity. I think to have Sharon and Mel fighting and disagreeing and wanting things from each other that they can't provide is a testament to how singular that relationship is. Their friendship is a far more interesting animal than either one of them alone.

The book does have romance and sex, but it doesn't overtake the most prominent arc of the story, which is about Sharon and Mel's friendship.

Sharon in particular wants a relationship. She's had an identity crisis for most of her life, which makes potential relationships seem that much more attractive to her while screwing up any actual relationship she's ever had. I wanted Sharon's love story with Teddy to accompany the friendship story, not overshadow it. I had to be very careful about that. I have to admit – it's not something I got on the first try. Like most people, I've consumed a lot of romantic comedies and read a lot of books in which the love story/relationship narrative always means redemption for women, and when I found my own work inadvertently veering in that direction, I was horrified. It was downright creepy. It made me wonder if I'd been conditioned to have certain, implicit expectations about storylines involving women. It's odd, the way in which we absorb what media tells us we are, and what we not – whether or not those lessons have any validity.

Where does redemption lie for these characters, if not in romance?

Throughout the book there's this theme of the damage that we do to each other, to the people we love and the people we're closest to, because we can't help it. We have to reach redemption in the best way that we know how. Oftentimes that's through friendship. Forgiveness is humanity in its best form, and any long-term friendship requires at least some forgiveness in order to survive. Also, the only way a lot of writers and artists know how to find redemption is through their work. If you write or make something, your medium is your most capable outlet, the one with which you make the most honest and genuine gesture. I think that certainly is how Sharon makes amends in The Animators – she knows Mel well enough to know that what she makes will mean the most to her.

One of your characters is straight and one is gay. Why did you decide to cast Mel as a lesbian, and what was it like for you as a straight writer taking on that role?

It was never a conscious decision. I just knew Mel was a lesbian, in the same way I knew that she was near-sighted, and skinny, and blonde. I also knew that she was an addict. It's always a challenge to write about those whose lives are different than yours. The risk of fumbling it up is always there, and it does help to have editors and readers who can catch you when something in the resulting work reads hollow. Writing and reading are practices that deal largely in empathy. If there's ever an opportunity to empathize with someone who has a different life than I do and who wants different things than I do, I never want to close that door.

We see Mel and Sharon get progressively more famous over the course of the book. What was that like to write? How do you think fame affects the making of art and someone's identity as an artist?

Without an audience, making art is like having a one-sided conversation, so Sharon and Mel are excited to find that audience, of course. But Sharon and Mel are also intensely protective of both their work and each other. And so fame proves to be very scary for them. There's scrutiny, there's criticism. It is simultaneously hilarious and painful to see Mel react to the pressure by setting off fireworks, drinking Mad Dog 20/20, and breaking out her Axl Rose dance, and Sharon respond by hiding in the bathroom. I tried to imagine what would really change in their daily lives, once they started to succeed professionally. The big problems that were there before they got famous blossomed after they got famous, which I thought was interesting.

Do you draw?

I can't draw! But I've always been a huge fan of cartoons. My fandom started when I was a lonely kid, watching a lot of TV, especially Nickelodeon and MTV. While writing The Animators I was thankfully able to get a lot of info from artist friends about their practice and visual sense. When you don't have a natural aptitude for something, your need to know every detail increases – this familiarity is the closest you will ever get to true ability. You'll have your nose pressed up to the glass. There are some valuable, dormant skills, I think, in being a fangirl.

There must be a responsibility that comes with writing about addiction and substance abuse, embodied by Mel's character in the book. Why is it important to write about addiction in fiction?

There's a shame surrounding substance abuse that touches everyone, but the shame women with addiction face is particularly pervasive, and particularly layered with meaning and baggage. Shame and public humiliation have long been really potent tools to control female behavior. Long-held associations concerning woman with substance abuse issues range from sexual promiscuity to a lack of value system to low intelligence. I spent the better part of a decade dreading telling people about this part of my own life – and often enough, I just kept it quiet. It was especially difficult when I was young, like 22 or so, and dating. At some point we'd always go to a bar – that's where most people go on dates, right? – and I'd have to tell this guy, "So I'm in recovery. One Shirley Temple, please." Mel is a proudly transgressive woman: she's loud, assertive, flamboyantly intelligent, and a lesbian. Furthermore, she will not let herself be shamed for these traits. And yet, Mel is burdened by addiction. She keeps much of this part of her life hidden, from everyone. This is an important part of her story: the disease of alcoholism, the struggle, and the silence, maintained by the last person you would expect to maintain any kind of silence.

Many women have had a moment when they've seen shame for what it is – a life sentence – and mourned how much of their time and self they have sacrificed in its name. I'm tired of feeling ashamed. Every woman I know is tired of feeling ashamed. Shame shouldn't be a core component of any illness. Or any gender, for that matter.

It might be the small town roots in me, enforcing pain – you make any life mistakes and you'll forever fear that people are whispering behind your back at Wal-Mart.

What books influenced The Animators?

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather is always the first work that comes to mind. It's about a girl, the daughter of immigrants who grows up in the Midwest, who figures out, almost by accident, that she has this incredible voice, and becomes a fearsome, powerhouse opera singer. The book is mostly about her development as an artist, and how that development fosters her growth into a fully realized womanhood, really. It is a beautiful and uncommon book. Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill isn't about art, but the strength and singularity of the two female voices in that narrative just kills me. I thought about it a lot when I was writing The Animators. And Cat'sEye, by Margaret Atwood, was probably the first book I ever read about a woman making art, and I remember thinking, wow, that's a compelling story, a woman struggling to create. Why isn't that story told more?

When you imagine readers of The Animators, which other books do you imagine on their shelves next to it?

The typical reader of The Animators is pretty adventurous. I'm seeing some Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, because the South, and some Willa Cather and Grace Paley and Margaret Atwood, because gender. I'm seeing maybe a brand spanking new copy of The Heavenly Table, the grossest/funniest/most emotionally searing book I've read in 2016 thus far. I'm seeing a copy of The Argonauts. I see Dana Spiotta, Kevin Wilson, Emma Donoghue, The Flamethrowers, Fates and Furies – there have been some really exciting narratives in the past couple of years that feature the female focus in an innovative way, and that reader will be drawn to The Animators. And because this reader will appreciate storytelling with a visual bent, I see a hefty stack of graphic novels: Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner, Alison Bechdel, Daniel Clowes, and Adrian Tomine. And yes, R. Crumb. Maybe a Life in Hell collection somewhere. And because the intrepid reader is unabashed and unashamed, I'm seeing everything out and lined up, even the stuff very serious readers like to hide. I'm talking Garfield collections, dog-eared copies of Stephen Kings and Clive Barkers, and all your Harry Potters. Out of order.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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