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"Women wanting anything is a questionable space. I wanted to explore that."
9 Questions with Kayla Rae Whitaker
Book of the Book of the Month, Kayla Rae Whitaker
Your Instagram account reveals that you are a Book of the Month member yourself! On February 1, did you select your own book? :)
I actually chose The Possessions. I've got a sweet tooth for stories with a supernatural bent. This past January, when my book came out and I was distracted and finding it difficult to focus on anything, I did a quick re-read of 'œThe Amityville Horror,' which I read and loved when I was about nine years old. I found it wasn't the literary masterpiece I remembered, but I still want to adopt a potbellied pig and call it 'œJody.'
Our Judge Cynthia Sweeney, author of The Nest, loves your book and seems to be carrying on an imaginary friendship with you. Do you have any imaginary friendships with authors?
Oh yes, and that is a mutual imaginary friendship! I've often thought about what it might be like to be friends with Flannery O'Connor. She would have been an excellent pen pal. Her personal correspondence is often really funny.
The Animators is your debut novel, which you wrote after receiving your MFA from New York University. Are you also an illustrator?
No. I've always wanted to draw, but I have no real ability in that area, so I did the next best thing and wrote about artists instead. I used to draw comic strips, when I was a kid, no doubt inspired by the hours and hours I spent reading 'œPeanuts' and 'œCalvin and Hobbes.' For a while, I had a comic strip going. It was called Furious Fish. FF's chief superpower was his anger. Telling.
The Animators is the story of a decades-long, tumultuous yet unbreakable friendship between two women. Female friendship is a topic that members have loved in past BOTM selections like The Mothers and Swing Time. Why did you choose to write primarily about two friends instead of, say, a romantic relationship?
Sharon and Mel's friendship is more central to their lives and to who they are, as artists, as people, than any romantic relationship either have ever had. The friendship has received hearty investment from them both, perhaps because it is tied so closely to their careers. And while stories of relationships can be terrific, female characters can have a way of being winked out by sexual/romantic narratives '“ there's the danger that their identities can disappear into this concept of them as desired objects. This story is driven by Mel and Sharon's shared desire, which I found interesting and meaningful. Women wanting anything is a questionable space. Really interesting things tend to happen in that space. I wanted to explore that.
Your narrator, Sharon, is the organized, taskmaster half of the creative duo, while her best friend Mel is the brilliant, creative mess. Which character do you relate to more? I'm simultaneously neither and a bit of both. I had a Mel-like tendency to act out when I was younger.
And while I sometimes love Sharon's introspection '“ the worlds her mind creates are often stunning '“ I find myself battling the same sense of isolation she often feels. It's hard for Sharon to reach out to people. I'd like to have Mel's confidence, that's for sure. I often wonder what that lack of self-consciousness feels like.
It seems like the main characters are constantly chain smoking. Why is that?
I'm a former smoker, and had just quit when I started writing the last drafts of this. Those cigarettes just appeared in those scenes almost without my realizing it, and was, I suppose, powered by wishful thinking: 'œBoy, I'd like a cigarette right now.' Good thing, then, that smoking is unfortunately a habit that fits right in line with all the other habits of the Vaught and Kisses partnership: a soothing mechanism for nervous, anxious individuals who find solace in substances. Having said that, it's a nasty habit and I would advise anyone to never pick up their first.
'Nashville Combat,' is the animated film that makes Mel and Sharon famous. Anyone calling about the films yet?
No, but God knows that would be lovely. Writing about cartoonists was essentially wish fulfillment, for me '“ a way of living as the artist I'll never be. Seeing those works spool out into actual visual pieces would be a dream come true. 'Nashville Combat,' especially, would be nuts, as a movie. I'm thinking of the Lite Brite scene in particular.
What's your favorite animated film? Favorite cartoon character?
I'm a huge Ralph Bakshi fan '“ my favorite film of his is 'œHeavy Traffic.' It's set in 1970s Brooklyn, and though I lived in a very different, very cleaned-up 2010s Brooklyn, there's some element of that film that reminds me of New York. And visually, it's incredible.
Favorite cartoon character: though he is a minor character, it would probably be Barney Gumble, on The Simpsons. He's actually a tragic character '“ a confirmed alcoholic who lives in Moe's bar, whose stunning potential was completely snuffed out by his addiction. But Barney makes me laugh harder than maybe any other character. 'œMy name is Barney, and I'm an alcoholic.' 'œMr. Gumble, this is a girl scout meeting.' 'œIs it? Or is it that you girls can't admit you have a problem?'
Like your character Sharon, you're from Kentucky, but you also lived in Brooklyn. Now you're back in Kentucky. What led you to return? What's the best thing about being back home?
The cost of living makes survival in New York very difficult. And while I loved living there, and built a life there for myself, I always knew that I probably wouldn't be able to live there long-term. But Kentucky is beautiful. And all my favorite snack foods are within reach, including Ale-8 and Grippo's potato chips.