The fierce, creative women at the heart of Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut, The Animators, are impossible to forget. Mel and Sharon meet in college, where they share an outsider status thanks to their shared Southern roots. Both are talented artists, and their combined genius brings them together in a life-changing creative partnership and friendship.
We asked Whitaker a few questions about this page-turner of a first novel.
Mel and Sharon are an incredible illustration of deep and true friendship. What do you think drew Mel to Sharon and Sharon to Mel?
I think Sharon’s and Mel’s friendship began like a lot of friendships begin: They saw themselves in each other, and felt at home with one another, but they also saw in the other traits to which they aspired. We have Sharon, who is drawn to Mel initially because of Mel’s work, which she thinks is brilliant. But she probably stays because Mel is, in large part, exciting to be around—flamboyant and impulsive and funny. And charismatic as all hell. The insidious aspect of charisma, however, is how well it can conceal absolutely fatal flaws, which sets Sharon and Mel both up for some interesting problems later on. It’s more difficult to see what drew Mel to Sharon, and that’s largely because Sharon is our narrator, and an unreliable one at that. Sharon is the one of the partnership who sees the future the most clearly, has the ability to take a vision and give it roots in the real world. It’s potent enough to create the two-person universe in which they live.
How did you decide to make Sharon and Mel animators? Do you have personal experience with animation, or did research inform your writing about their work?
I knew pretty solidly that Sharon and Mel were cartoonists. I knew for sure they weren’t writers. Imagine telling these women, “Use your words.” You’d be sorry you did. But they see everything, and in bright, bright color. I knew their shared tastes and cultural education dictated that cartoons would play a large role in how they processed their world. Animation began by making sense to their story, and ended by becoming their story, and it was exciting, as a writer, to experience that development.
“Imagine telling these women, ‘Use your words.’ You’d be sorry you did. But they see everything, and in bright, bright color.”
I can’t draw. It’s my big secret. I wish I could. I’m probably an enormous fan due, in part, to my lack of visual talent. I’ve always loved comics and animation—two different mediums that, for me, have always seemed linked. Some of my earliest habits were to curl up with a gigantic pile of Calvin and Hobbes collections, or volumes of Peanuts, and read and eat candy. I was a very unhappy kid, and my reading habits, coupled with my viewing habits—I adored “The Simpsons,” “Beavis and Butthead,” “Liquid Television,” “Ren and Stimpy”—became a source of happiness, my safe place. And while a lot of kids stop watching cartoons as they mature, I never did. I took a more scholarly interest in the cultural impact of cartoons later on and made it an object of study—my senior thesis in college was The Image of the Hillbilly in Cartoon Animation (I’m originally from Eastern Kentucky and had a minor in Appalachian Studies), and I actually delivered an undergrad lecture deconstructing “Squidbillies.”
I took my research seriously in learning how Sharon and Mel would work. I spent a lot of hours looking up equipment—Cintiqs, drafting boards—and read as much as I could about technique. YouTube has made learning about craft a really lovely, immersive experience, because you have a lot of practitioners who post step-by-step videos detailing their process, and you get that visual and aural sense of the work as well. Of course, you never want your research to overshadow the central story, but I did want to honor what Mel and Sharon live for. What they make, and how they make it, is important to who they are.
How did you come up with the concepts for Mel and Sharon’s films, Nashville Combat and Irrefutable Love?
A lot of young writers and artists begin their body of work by writing about themselves. It made sense, to me, that Sharon and Mel would follow this pattern (if anything, because their respective pasts have been so volatile). I wanted to track them through that process—how do they make decisions? How do they generate material? Does recreating trauma in art have implications on their lives as artists and as people? For Mel—Nashville Combat almost certainly started out as a serious of sort-of-jokingly-told stories from her life that were so good, Sharon wheedled her into combining them into a cohesive narrative. But push all those jokes together and the amalgamation creates a life picture that is dark, to say the least, which is the tipoff to Mel’s difficult journey throughout the book. She makes herself miserable with what she makes, and I wanted to investigate that.
For Sharon, I see Irrefutable Love as the hurdle she jumps over in order to begin making work that is not about herself. It is her attempt to work past the boundaries that have contained her. It’s also her way of claiming her own voice, an issue of struggle for Sharon, who often feels as if she has no agency. I can see Sharon’s real happy ending occurring about five years after Irrefutable Love, when she creates something that may begin with the self, but moves outward into the world.
Both Sharon and Mel have complicated relationships with their mothers. How do you think these relationships shaped the women they would become?
I think we can assume that Sharon’s mother, and Mel’s mother, are difficult women in part because they’ve lived difficult lives from which they would like to protect their daughters. There is so much about being a woman that deals in fear, and anger, and limitation. How do you strike the balance, as a parent, between giving your daughter a fair warning about a world that will more or less try to consume her, and encouraging her to be brave—to go out into that same world and fight for her identity? But for all the trouble childhood upheaval and conflict causes both Sharon and Mel, it also has a real edifying effect on both of them. It makes them incredibly steely, which protects them as both artists and women. They don’t apologize for their lives. We see them at this wonderful stage in which they don’t care to be everyone’s favorite girl. They see that kind of validation for what it is: an immense waste of time. These are rare qualities in women. We still live in a world in which young girls are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that the best thing they can be is accommodating to those around them. It’s worth it to ask what happens to these women, their lives, when they are taught that their full potential is to be an accessory?
Why do you think Sharon changed her mind about making Irrefutable Love? What was the turning point?
Sharon hitting bottom is where the book turns the corner and heads for its final destination. She hit bottom in the way that addicts hit bottom: she realized that if she didn’t change her mode of living—in her case, lying to herself, and insulating herself from the lies by living this fantasy world in her own head, constructing elaborate stories and understandings that helped her to survive—she was going to consume herself. She hid past trauma from both the world and herself, perhaps for fear that confronting these awful events was a heavier burden than she could manage. She hit her thirties and realized that the old tricks weren’t working anymore. I think making a decision to not be your own worst enemy is one of the bravest things a person can do. Sharon throwing herself into making Irrefutable Love, a task that requires her to become incredibly honest and incredibly uncomfortable, is a victory. It made me love her more.
“I think making a decision to not be your own worst enemy is one of the bravest things a person can do.”
Mel’s final project is a haunting one. Do you think she intended to split up with Sharon, or were her sketches just the next project for the two of them?
Personal opinion? I think Mel was preparing to leave. But I’m of the mind that once the world of the book is in motion, the author sort of steps away, so my opinion may be as valid as the next reader’s. Sharon and Mel’s partnership has existed since they were both 18 years old. Partnerships only work, however, when both sides are driven, decisive creators with the potential for independent work, and the natural, eventual end to that dynamic is a split. Divergence would be natural and healthy for both of them. I think both Sharon and Mel would have realized this and parted ways—if anything, to save the friendship.
Sharon and Mel are true creative partners—so much so that Sharon isn’t sure she can create without Mel. Have you ever had a similar partnership or strong creative influence?
I haven’t. I’ve worked with others in the past and enjoyed it, but I’ve never been in a partnership as intense as Sharon and Mel’s. One aspect of writing The Animators that I’ll miss is that vicarious experience of being part of a team. No—if you are going to be a writer, you have to be comfortable with being alone a big chunk of the time. And I am, for the most part. It is solitary work.
How did your experience growing up in Kentucky influence your depictions in the novel?
Kentuckians—maybe Southerners in general, or Appalachian Southerners—are loud and excellent storytellers. I’ve been eavesdropping my whole life. When I started writing fiction, and hunkering down to read and study fiction and how it works, dialogue was the element I saw, and—I think—produced with the most clarity. To this day, characters always occur to me voice-first. Sharon’s family, in particular, is a real voice-driven crowd. They’re loud as all hell, so they’re not that hard to hear. I’ve read, and seen, some godawful depictions of Southerners and Kentuckians/West Virginians specifically in the media. It’s always deeply insulting when a human being is boiled down to a trite stereotype, but it’s also, for the purposes of fiction, extremely uninteresting. I can’t say that wasn’t an impetus to write complex, nuanced characters from this part of the country. Representation matters, wherever you are and whoever you are.
Do you see any of yourself in Mel or Sharon? Why or why not?
I probably had Mel’s impulsiveness when I was younger. I don’t have it any more, thankfully. I do share Sharon’s solitary nature, to a degree. I understand her need to seclude herself. But I’m glad I don’t have their lives. Their lives are very complicated. What became the most apparent to me after writing this book was how much I admired, and wished for myself, Sharon’s and Mel’s autonomy, their lack of a need to please others. I think most women, at some point, realize just how substantial a part of their lives has been conditioning to be a “good” girl or woman—to be inoffensive, to be a balm to others even when one’s sense of self is snuffed out. Here’s something it took me 30 years to learn: no one else cares if your sense of self is snuffed out. You’re going to have to step in and rally your boundaries for yourself. The world will not do it for you. Sharon and Mel’s unapologetic service to themselves is the exact opposite of what is encouraged for women. I envy them that.
Your novel covers so much ground—what’s one thing you’d like your readers to take away from it?
It’s a large book in which a lot happens, that’s true. But I’ve been very happy every time someone has brought up the Bechdel Test in discussing this book. There’s a surprising number of books, movies—stories being told, out there—that still fail, on a monumental level, by refusing to tell stories about the way real female lives are lived—that is, with values and goals and focus that don’t always involve, or are dependent upon, men. It’s 2017 and female redemption is still usually portrayed by the female character, in question, finding love with a man, or having a baby. Sharon and Mel’s stories are about themselves. Their values don’t always align with those of the world around them, but they persist in living within the framework of those values. I love that story. I hope that story is told more frequently in the future.
What writers or artists inspire you?
I’ll always be drawn to Southern writers and Appalachian writers. Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Harry Crews, Breece D’J Pancake. But my tastes overall are pretty varied. Of current stuff, I really like Nell Zink, Maggie Nelson and Lindsay Hunter. I like George Saunders—I’m beginning to suspect everyone does. There’s this copy of Lincoln in the Bardo roosting in my house, my carrot at the end of the stick for when I finish this project I’m working on. I’m a huge Stephen King fan and I’m not afraid to admit it. Those books propel you forward in a stunning way. He is a master of plot momentum. I like weird, and my standard for weird is probably, in large part, informed by being 13 and reading The Stand while inhaling a bag of circus peanuts.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book that, in large part, involves rabies. I’ve got a stack of books on my desk about infectious disease and plague. It’s fun, but it’s also keeping me from sleeping at night.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Animators.