There are so many wonderful things in Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators that we had to find out more about everything from animation to tragedy and the eternal struggle between reality and art. Check out our interview below:
Better Reading: Hi Kayla, congratulations on the publication of your debut The Animators. Could you briefly tell the Better Reading audience what your story is about?
Kayla Rae Whitaker: The Animators is the story of a partnership: Sharon and Mel meet in a college art class and immediately become best friends. After a decade of working together on animation projects, they finally encounter success in their first full-length movie, but with success comes trouble: resentment, bad behaviour, and a medical emergency that brings a whole nest of secrets out into the open. There’s a lot happening there. But the book is primarily about a friendship – and about women claiming the sense of agency necessary to make things, which is a timely subject
BR: Why animation?
KRW: I’ve always loved animated cartoons. I watched a ton of The Simpsons and Liquid Television and Nickelodeon when I was a kid, and carried that interest into adulthood. Unfortunately, I also discovered that I couldn’t draw. So I did the next best thing: I read, and wrote, about animation. Writing about animators is the closest I’ll get to that life. I knew Sharon and Mel were artists, when I began writing this, and realized that animation fit their cultural education, background, age, and tastes. It’s compelling work, and I wanted to explore that
BR: Throughout the book there is an eternal struggle between reality and art. Could you comment a little bit on the relationship between them? Do you think they can co-exist peacefully, or will there always be conflict?
KRW: For the characters in this book, who model much of their creative work on their own lives and the things that have happened to them, I think it’s more the concept of authority and ownership – who has the right to tell a story, who “owns” a story and why – that poses such an issue in the reality/art conflict. That conflict will always exist. I do find it interesting how that conflict is contoured when the artist in question is a woman – how the topic of transgression, or questions of how the people surrounding her feel about what she has made, seem to surface more frequently when, frankly, most male writers and artists won’t have to give the question much thought. A big part of The Animators is what happens when Sharon and Mel are confronted with this problem.
BR: Mel and Sharon have such different temperaments – could you tell us a little bit about how you discovered their voices and personalities?
KRW: They’re such opposites that the balance, when it works, works spectacularly. Mel’s loud, funny, charismatic. A bit of an exhibitionist – her every interaction feels like a social experiment, like, “I’m going to push and see how far I can go.” She has a hard exterior that conceals a very real tenderness, particularly toward Sharon, who is dry, guarded, and neurotic. Sharon feels less brave than Mel, though she’s braver than she thinks. She often finds herself envious of Mel’s ease with herself, her flamboyance, her lack of fear, but fails to realize the sense of constancy and vision she brings to their partnership. What they bring out in one another, how they work together, is the book’s heart – a lot hinges on who they are, together.
BR: Without moralising, you tackle some pretty hefty themes, such as love, sacrifice, and the transformative effect of tragedy. Was it difficult translating this very real, human experiences into a work of fiction?
KRW: Yes. It took a lot of drafting. I wanted to get those moments exactly right, without sentiment or self-consciousness or, most significantly, my own sense of judgment. It always helps to have outside readers when drafting the heavy stuff. Another pair of eyes can tell you when you’ve hit the wrong tone.
BR: Could you tell us about your writing process? Are you a heat-of-the-moment, shotgun blast writer, or do you plan and contemplate?
KRW: I fall somewhere in the middle. In the initial rounds of a draft, I am moving forward with a pretty paltry outline. I can best decide the story’s direction only after I figure out who the characters are and what they want, and it often takes the first full draft or two for those factors to fully realize. From there, I let the story happen. I like being surprised, as both a reader and a writer.
BR: What did you want readers to take away from your book?
KRW: At its core, The Animators is about two women whose friendship is as complex and human as they are. Too often we encounter streams of simplified female characters and banal, one-note female friendships which feed into these same limited visions of women. I would hope the friendship seen in this book – as well as this vision of Mel and Sharon working, in love with and passionate about their work – strikes a true, whole note.
BR: Lately what have been some of your most gifted or recommended books?
KRW: Just lately: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit for nonfiction, The Annie Year by Stephanie Ash and The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock for fiction, and Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt for a graphic novel – I actually fell off my couch laughing while reading that one. I really loved it.
BR: What are some of your personal favourite cartoons?
KRW: All-time favorites: Ren and Stimpy. The Simpsons. Squidbillies. Current favorites: Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, and Bob’s Burgers, which is sweet without being saccharine – a hard balance to strike. I also really loved Harg Nallin Sclopio Peepio, which ran on Adult Swim this past summer, and was devastated when it was cancelled.
BR: And lastly: any plans for another book in the future?
KRW: Oh yes. I’m working on one right now. It’s about rabies. The research for this book is a lot less fun.