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    By Lynell Edwards
    Photo by Adam Mescan

    After seven years living in New York, Kayla Rae Whitaker, a native of Mount Sterling in eastern Kentucky, decided she could find the writer’s life she dreamed of back in her home state. Having completed an M.F.A. at New York University after graduating from the University of Kentucky, Whitaker had found writing taking a back seat to a 40-hour-a-week administrative job at NYU, which she needed to meet the cost of living. “I felt like I squeezed the book (The Animators) out in lunch breaks, revising and editing on the subway commute,” the 33-year-old says over coffee. So last fall, she and her husband moved to Louisville, where she now writes full time.

    The Animators, her debut, has received glowing praise for its depiction of strong female friendship in the traditionally male world of indie animation filmmakers. (The New Yorker said, “Whitaker’s nimbly created characters are as vibrant as the novel’s title suggests.”) The story of college companions Mel and Sharon chronicles their growth as friends and artists while on a road trip that takes them from New York to Florida (where Sharon experiences a medical crisis) to Sharon’s home in fictional Faulkner, Kentucky (which, in Whitaker’s mind, is a place “about 15 miles up the road from Mount Sterling”) and back to New York.

    You have published a number of short stories. How was the novel-writing process most different from short fiction? 

    “The book actually began as a novella, but once I started writing about Sharon and Mel and their life working together, I couldn’t stop until I had the entire story down on paper. Writing a novel is exciting because there’s this opportunity to display character evolution in a form that’s not really available in shorter fiction. I love really big books you can fall into, books that track their characters for years. To an extent, The Animators follows that tradition; it covers a lot of time. The obvious downside: Larger works take a long time to draft and edit.”

    The intensity of the characters — their friendship, their life choices, their professional milieu — breaks a lot of stereotypes about female friendship. 

    “What we read and watch influences us more deeply than we can know, regardless of whether the influencing material is fiction or not. We seem to be at a moment of regression in the pursuit of gender equality, and that is deeply alarming. Trying to render characters as completely, and with as much nuance and complexity as possible, is its own form of protest against the flimsy renderings of women we’ve always been given. The same idea serves for honest depictions of relationships between women. What I like about Mel and Sharon is that their friendship is as textured and complex as they are individually, and indicative of what they stand for as characters: autonomy, voice, the sense of agency required to make art. That it remains a struggle for women to claim these qualities in themselves is a topic of great significance right now.”

    Who do you look to as literary models or mentors? 

    “Willa Cather, particularly Song of the Lark (from 1915, about a singer from a small town in Colorado), which had a huge impact on The Animators, as did Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker (from 1954, about a family’s move from Kentucky to Detroit during WWII) — both wonderful, definitive books about women making things. I’ve learned a lot from what we consider the modern Southern canon, I suppose — Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor. But I will read just about anything. I’m at a stage right now where I’m trying to play catch-up and read classics I managed to miss. I just started Jane Eyre. I’ve never read it, which makes me a bad English major.”

    Two of the primary plot drivers — a medical emergency and the world of contemporary indie animators — are not necessarily things I would have guessed you’d be an expert in. Talk a little bit about your research process. (Skip this answer to avoid a spoiler.)

    “The idea of writing what you know is a good initial springboard, but relying exclusively upon what you know as a fiction writer can be limiting. I wanted to follow the story and sink myself into worlds that weren’t necessarily a part of my everyday. So I did a lot of reading about strokes, particularly in women under the age of 40 — the experience, the recovery. And I always secretly wanted to be a cartoonist or animator, so doing the research on technique and process for those artists was a joy. I wanted to ensure, however, that the research did not crowd the forming of the story. It took a lot of editing to strike a good balance.”

    There’s a kind of love song to Louisville midway through the book that locals —  particularly that breed of locals that haunts Bardstown Road — will take delight in as they recognize re-named places, and perhaps even people. 

    “I think you’ll find a very specific identity and feel to smaller cities in the Midwest and South that are unconnected to larger metro hubs because those living there have shouldered the responsibility of generating their own culture, to an extent. Lexington is an excellent example. Even before the boom that’s happened there in the past decade, Lexington had a decided feel and tone to it. It has an arts scene, a music scene, a lit scene, that have existed for decades. And the same serves for Louisville, which is a very different city than Lexington — larger, bordering the Midwest, different accents, different look to the land. What makes Lexington and Louisville really interesting is the impact of the small, rural towns surrounding both — the entirety of the state of Kentucky largely being a constellation of small, rural towns – and there’s a sense of the rural and metro merging that I find fascinating. There are a lot of people who move to these cities from a smaller town nearby, settle in, and feel a sense of custodianship: “This is my city. I love it. I want to take care of it.” I’m glad to be living here again. Lexington, and then Louisville, were the first cities I ever saw. I imagine a lot of native Kentuckians can say that. I suppose I’ve always felt a sense of warmth toward both for that reason.”

    This quote from your publicity materials fascinates me, because I feel it too: “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.” 

    “That sense of Southern culture certainly fell into focus for me while living outside the region, but I think I was aware of this tremendous sense of place even as I lived here — as a kid, both through its marked absence from things I watched and read; and then as an adult, through finding materials that did mention it in some form or fashion. There’s a strange dual sense of cultural identity: the one granted by outside sources that, more often than not, maligned the South/rural America/Kentucky; and the one we grant ourselves, which perhaps makes Southerners a bit more compelled to give honest portrayals of place in their work, telling stories that are unexpected and layered and conflicted.” 

    Excerpt from The Animators courtesy of Random House, copyright 2017:

    “The Weirdo Video exterior is a mosaic of broken glass — green Heineken and Ale-8 shards rendering Godzilla, a brilliant, plummy tongue, sparkling quartz for an eye. A bench studded with RC Cola and Nehi caps. Two boys are parked on it. The one in the Dinosaur Jr. shirt gestures to the one in aviator sunglasses holding The Definitive Herzog. A few cars line the employee lot, all European — a dented BMW, two newer-model Volkswagens with rainbow decals. A swath of bumper stickers reading STOP MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL. Beyond: head shops, thrift stores, an old-school storefront catering to cotillions, white gloves and crinoline in the window displays.

    “I feel a strong, sudden affection for Louisville. It’s too much city for where it is, stuck between the South and the Midwest, metropolitan pheromones forging a force field around its borders. It has no choice but to go off the rails and become its own entity, a mishmash planet spinning off on its lonesome.” 

    This originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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