At this year’s Byron Writers Festival, I made a beeline to an in-conversation event with Kayla Rae Whitaker. It was the first time I’d seen the American author in real life – but, more importantly, it was the first time I had heard her. Accent and dialect is a big part of Whitaker’s debut novel The Animators (Scribe), and goes a long way to exploring class and social divides in the United States. Whitaker, like one of the book’s two protagonists, is from Kentucky, and her voice had an immediate effect on me. It drew a direct line between the creator and creation that I’d never experienced before.
At the end of the session I raised my hand, looking straight down the aisle. I had finished the book in two sittings just the week prior and had the hunger of a fresh fangirl.
‘This is the first book I’ve read in a long time where I fell in love with the characters, and they were given so much time and care – allowed to develop – but also, the plot rocketed along. How did you get that balance? How did you do that?’
Whitaker responded that it took a long time, a lot of hard work, over five full redrafts, a team of readers, a great agent and a great editor. Then she laughed and said, ‘it definitely didn’t just happen.’
I’d come to the festival so impressed by The Animators that I was ready to place Whitaker on the highest pedestal I could find. What I found instead, though, was a real-life human being who didn’t just love writing, but loved the hard work of it; loved writing even when it stung her. We were on a panel together the next day, and over those forty-eight hours my high opinion of her set like concrete.
The two women in The Animators almost tear each other (and themselves) apart, and the mending is where the magic happens.
The Animators is my favourite novel of 2017. It paints the most convincing picture of young-creative-women-working-hard-together I’ve ever read. We meet Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught – two animators from the South living and working in New York City – just after they’ve won a big award for their work together. The publicity flings them into the public eye, and Whitaker paints a crystal clear picture of how their behaviour shifts under a wider, male gaze, compared to when it’s just the two of them in their studio. There are cigarettes and alcohol, some men come in and out of the picture, they both panic they won’t make good work again – it’s all there. Then, bang, there’s a fork in the road neither the readers or characters see coming, and the next thing you know you’re cancelling plans to sprint through the second half of the book. The two women almost tear each other (and themselves) apart, and the mending is where the magic happens. The book is funny and shocking, and very real. I wanted to be Mel, but felt like Sharon; kind of like picking which Sex and the City character you are, but much more fully realised.
A few weeks later, I head along to the Brisbane launch of The Animators at Avid Reader; afterwards, I take Whitaker to a local Greek place to nerd out about writing.
‘I want to talk to you about this cliché I loathe,’ I say, ‘of the debut novelist who needs to be published before they’re 30, with their novel about creative people who may or may not live in New York City. I feel like you’re the antidote to that.’
She laughs. The Animators is about two young creative women working in New York – but I’m actually referring back to a conversation we started at Byron, about how the novel took seven years to finish.
‘Yeah, I think that cliché of the really precocious prodigy is irritating as shit. In a lot of ways I allowed myself to make mistakes, or rather, I accepted the mistakes I made as being part of the organic process of writing. I knew I wasn’t going to get published before 30, I wasn’t going to be one of those writers and I was fine with that. I knew that was not who I was.’
‘That cliché of the really precocious prodigy is irritating as shit…I knew I wasn’t going to get published before 30, and I was fine with that.’
Whitaker completed an MFA at New York University and wrote her ‘actual’ first book while she was there, but shelved it when she couldn’t find an agent. Now she says she’s relieved that The Animators is her debut.
‘The idea [from the earlier manuscript] was good and the characters are good – I love those characters – so at some point it’s going to be a book, but it’s not going to be a book in the way in which I wrote it. Because honestly the way I wrote it was crappy.’
I find it hard to imagine what that time in her life must have been like, as a fresh graduate from a prestigious MFA program full of bright young things with a crisp manuscript under her arm, knocking on doors. It’s a testament to the success of The Animators that she can speak about that earlier attempt at a debut novel without flinching.
‘I never felt particularly gifted at school. When I was young it was something that I struggled with – that learning format – and that actually did me a lot of good. Because as a writer and an artist, you need to be resilient in so many ways. And the setbacks still hurt, rejections hurt, and it hurts to not get what you want, but it makes you more ready to accept the long-game.’
I ask Whitaker what she thinks of MFAs.
‘The frustrating thing about writing is that nobody else can really teach you, you just have to constantly teach yourself. You just have to try out different methods and find out which one works and which one doesn’t. A professor can point you in the right direction, but they can’t teach you how to write. Sometimes you go up an avenue, and it’s wrong, and it’s like, well, that’s 400 pages down the drain.’
‘The frustrating thing about writing is that nobody else can really teach you, you just have to constantly teach yourself.’
Thinking back to my own schooling, I wonder if any of my teachers ever ‘saw something’ in me. I talked and whined about my own adolescent woes far too much to be able to intelligently observe the world around me; I got a B+ overall in English Extension, so I’m sure Mrs Brooks would be surprised to know I’m now a writer. Helen Garner tells a story of running into one of her old Melbourne University professors, who had dug up her final thesis from the archives to see if they could ‘spot any sign of an early talent’ – but apparently had found ‘no sign of any talent whatsoever.’ I love replaying the YouTube video of Garner telling this story for the same reason I love listening to Whitaker speak about her work – it’s wholly reassuring to know that I wasn’t born lacking any kind of ‘something’ that I’d need to spend a lifetime trying in vain to catch up to. That perhaps, after all, the equation is knowable; that the blood and sweat will be proportionate to the quality of my work. Talent is dead – long live effort.
I ask her about the redrafting process again, the way a child asks to hear the gory bits of a ghost story over and over. It was terrifying and exhilarating to think of so many rounds of complete redrafting, rewriting the book from start to finish. She did this four times before selling The Animators to Random House, then again another one and a half times.
‘So seven years from start to finish, and that’s including the time spent editing with my agent. She’s a great editor. She’s the best. And my editor at Random House, Kate McKenna, who is brilliant. I learned a lot from her. This book owes a lot to her. Sometimes I wonder if, as a writer, I work really slowly, but I’m not sure that’s the case. There are some writers who put out a book every two years, and I’m like, “how do you do that?”’
This idea of a ‘prolific’ writer, to my mind at least, is often connected to the figure of the ‘young prodigy’. In Malcolm Gladwell’s essay, ‘Late Bloomers’ (published as part of What the Dog Saw) he talks about how we mistakenly equate genius with precocity. This is not only about youth, but about the time it takes. It’s easy, when you’re chatting over bubbly at writers festivals and being sent books in the mail, to get whipped up in pressures.
‘Every industry prizes youth in a way that’s a bit gross and a bit harmful,’ Whitaker says. ‘I hope this next book doesn’t take seven years, but it might! And that’s okay. If it does, it does.’
At Byron Writers Festival I met a Big Important Person, who wouldn’t stop talking – on stage or off – about the negative aspects of the publishing industry. It got me down, and might have really disillusioned me about my future career had I not met and hung out with Whitaker. One of the things she spoke so passionately about at the Greek restaurant was about community – about sharing your work and getting opinions and feedback on it.
‘At NYU my peers were amazing. I went to school with brilliant people. I learnt a lot from putting crap work in front of them in class, and as much as it sears to hear what’s wrong, it’s useful. I got to hear what wasn’t in my skill set and what I needed to build on.’
This is why I like Whitaker so much – somewhat paradoxically, her attitude to her craft, her candour about the hard work of it, sets my mind at ease. Walking back to my car from the Greek place, I find myself thinking: Maybe, if I work for seven years, I could write a book as good as The Animators. Maybe Kayla would read some of my work one day and give me feedback. I think to myself that not only can I play this long game, but also: I want to.
The Animators is available now at Readings.