It’s the classic story of an overnight success that was years in the making.
It took Kayla Rae Whitaker seven years from when she started writing her debut novel “The Animators” until the time it was published earlier this year. The book about two young women struggling to form an artistic partnership has drawn acclaim from readers and critics alike.
After living for a time in New York, the Mount Sterling native is back in the commonwealth. Whitaker took time out from her book publicity duties to talk with KET’s Connections about writing, relationships, and addiction. Whitaker will be a featured presenter at the 2017 Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington this September.
“The Animators” centers on the lives of two young southern women who meet at a private, liberal arts college in the northeast: Sharon is a shy, worrisome eastern Kentuckian, and Mel is a brazen lesbian from Florida.
“They both feel like outsiders not only because they’re transplants but because they come from a working-class background,” says Whitaker. “They feel totally out of place and totally alone.”
At school, Mel and Sharon discover their shared love of animation. They become best friends and business partners as they work to create their first animated movie. After 10 years of struggle they find their first big success, and then their relationship begins to disintegrate.
“Women who make art fascinate me,” says Whitaker about the plot of her book.
Like her characters, Whitaker is a lifelong devotee of animation. One of her earliest memories is of watching “Road Runner” cartoons with her grandfather. Though decades apart in age, they both found something to laugh at. That’s when Whitaker says she realized the cartoons included jokes that only adults would understand.
Once cable television made its way to Mount Sterling, Whitaker had a range of new channels on which to watch a range of cartoons, from Beavis and Butt-Head and Ren and Stimpy, to animated short films that PBS would occasionally broadcast.
“From very serious animated work to Warner Brothers, there’s this strange mix of humor and darkness,” she says.
Speaking Openly About Addiction
The cartoons provided an emotional escape for Whitaker as she grew up in her small southern town at the edge of the Appalachian foothills.
“I didn’t feel, as a girl, very pleasing,” she says, describing herself as weird and chunky in her youth. “I felt really strange.”
Whitaker says she got comfort where she could find it in cartoons on TV, in writing her first school portfolio mandated by the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, and in alcohol. She started drinking cough syrup when she was five years old. Later she would put shots of liquor in her coffee before class. By age 21, she was in Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I was extremely lucky to have messed up early in life,” Whitaker says. “It was a really fast blooming addiction, I think, just because of biology, because I’m wired for addiction.”
Even as her drinking escalated, Whitaker says she remained active in school and was an honors student. She says the shame of addiction is especially hard on females, but she adds that being a woman also helped her hide her alcohol dependency.
“If you are raised female, you learn how to perform in almost every facet of your life,” Whitaker says. “So I was really great at being an alcoholic and covering it up, and very few people knew.”
Writing helped Whitaker on her path to recovery. Her character Mel in “The Animators” also has an alcohol dependency. Whitaker says it was liberating to finally be able to discuss her problem openly and discuss it with others who are dealing with similar challenges.
“This is the point in my life when… I make decisions for myself to no longer deal in shame,” she says. “It’s been hard, but it has been rewarding.”
On the same day Random House released “The Animators,” Whitaker published an essay on Buzzfeed that explained her addiction and her struggle to recover from it.
“At the one-year mark, I found that there really was something new, wavering but promising, making its way into my tissue. I was starting to see my adult life with clarity, and a sense of agency. I owed men nothing, save what I owed anyone: my honesty and myself, presented as clearly as I could manage. I was living in a way I had not thought was possible.”
The Routine of Writing
Whitaker says she “almost missed” being a writer. She graduated from the University of Kentucky 2007 with a degree in English and was studying for the law school entrance exam when she realized her heart wasn’t into being an attorney. Since she had a habit of writing every day, Whitaker on a whim decided to apply to MFA programs. New York University accepted her into their writing program.
“The Animators” is Whitaker’s second book. Her first one sits in a drawer for now, even though she says she loves the characters in the story.
“I’m glad it hasn’t seen the light of day yet because I don’t think it’s done baking,” says Whitaker.
Writing that book and then devoting seven years to writing, revising, and editing “The Animators” was a crucial part to growing as a novelist, Whitaker says.
“You are in essence teaching yourself how to write, particularly with a novel,” she explains. “With every successive novel you write, you’re teaching yourself how to build story, how to build a plot, and make it move along more quickly.”
Whitaker says she has a goal of writing 1,000 words every day. Having that habit is the best way to avoid writer’s block, she says, because it makes the act of writing as routine as brushing her teeth and exercising. If she didn’t write every day, she’d miss it, Whitaker says.
At the same time, though, she cherishes the opportunity to interact with other writers and meet her readers. She says going out into the world and engaging in those social interactions is a necessary balance to the solitary life of being a writer.
“My favorite part is always talking to people,” says Whitaker about her book appearances. “Talking about what they’re reading, what they’re writing, if they’re aspiring writers. That’s amazing to find that kind of company in other people.”