in conversation with Nika Knight

Aryn Kyle is the author of the short story collection Boys and Girls Like You and Me and the novel The God of Animals. Boys and Girls Like You and Me came out in paperback this spring. The collection is filled with young women and girls (although there is one exceptional story whose protagonist is a boy), who make strange, destructive, angry and occasionally enlightened choices, as they struggle to define themselves and their world. Aryn Kyle agreed to answer a few questions for Full Stop via email about the collection.

Almost all of the stories in this collection focus on the emotional lives of girls and women. One in particular, “Femme,” is told in the first-person plural and describes a particularly toxic female relationship –- the female friend as predator. How do you see this story in the context of the others in the collection that feature a close relationship between women or girls — such as “Take Care,” “Brides” or “Allegiance”? Is there something dangerous or weird inherent to relationships between women?

“Femme” is an interesting case, in that it’s the only story in the collection that wasn’t really meant to be a story. I wrote “Femme” in graduate school as an assignment for a Techniques class, though now I can’t remember what, exactly, the assignment called for — something about voice or point of view, I suspect. In terms of style, it’s not at all similar to the rest of my stories, but in terms of theme and subject, it seemed to fit into the world of the collection. Most of the stories in the collection that deal with the relationships between women focus on the weaker character’s journey to establish power — perceived power, anyway. “Femme”, on the other hand, is told from the point of view of the woman/women in power, though that power turns out to be mostly illusion. The only way the “mean girl” can maintain her upper hand is by continuing to find new friends — eventually, everyone gets wise to her.

I don’t think that all relationships between women are necessarily “dangerous” or “weird”, but they’re certainly complicated, and I doubt that this would come as news to any woman who’s ever had a sister or a best friend. As a writer, I’m very interested in power dynamics, particularly those that arise when there isn’t really that much at stake — a role in a high school musical, a crappy college job, a birthday party. For me, what makes characters compelling is figuring out what they want and what they’re willing to sacrifice in order to get it, especially if what they want is something small and fleeting, but what they’re willing to sacrifice ends up being, for lack of a better word, essential.

So many of your characters are young women who are lonely, adrift, and selfish –- characteristics which hit close to home, for me, as someone who is muddling through the strange, undefined, mostly obligation-free years of my early twenties. Are any of these stories based on your own experience? Why do so many of your characters largely exist (or feel they exist) in isolation? Does it matter that they are mostly women?

I wrote most of these stories while I was in my early and mid-twenties, and while they’re not based on my experience, per se, they’re certainly inspired by my experience, or by my lack of experience, in some cases. Most of the stories in the collection could be classified as “coming-of-age” pieces, and while we largely associate the experience of coming-of-age with late childhood, I think I did most of my growing up in my twenties, which is probably why I spent so much time working through it on the page. Trying to understand yourself within the larger context of the world can be a fairly isolating experience, and while I don’t think of myself as my characters or my characters as me, I definitely know what it’s like to feel lonely, to feel longing, to feel loss.

I wrote mostly about women during that time, I was most familiar with women, but I don’t think the experiences or desires of my characters are exclusively women. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve spent more time with men and I have much more curiosity about them, about their lives and experiences, than I did even a few years ago. I’m much more eager to spend time imagining what it would be like to go through the world as a man than I used to be, and as a result, they feature much more prominently in my writing these days.

One story that I found particularly poignant is “Captain’s Club”, which is the only story in Boys and Girls Like You and Me whose protagonist is male. How do you think this affects the collection as a whole? Was the writing process any different for this story, than the rest?

“Captain’s Club” was one of the last stories I wrote for the collection, and it ended up being my favorite. Though the protagonist, Tommy, is a young boy, he exists largely in a world of women — his father is gone and he lives with his mother and sisters; he goes on vacation with a friend from school and his friend’s father, yet spends the entire trip with the father’s girlfriend. The collection, as a whole, is very female-centric, so it was important to me that it include at least one story about a boy. I’d had Tommy in mind as a character for some time, but it took awhile to find the right story for him. He’s probably the only truly “nice” character in the entire book, and he’s certainly one of the most sensitive. I really liked the idea of him trying to define himself, of trying to figure out what it meant to be a man, amidst all these women. He wants to be a hero, a savior. He wants love. Ultimately, though, he has to come to terms with his own limitations, his own loneliness.

Usually, when I’m writing, I’m interested in exploring the darker impulses of my characters, in letting them make bad decisions, in letting them fall. So it surprised me, as I was working on “Captain’s Club,” that I felt so protective of Tommy. I didn’t want him to get hurt, didn’t want the world to disappoint him. Ultimately, though, the story is about acceptance, and acceptance rarely exists without disappointment. For Tommy — and for most of us, I think — the idea of loving someone is tangled up with the idea of saving someone. And though I wouldn’t say that Tommy is the character who most closely resembles me, his journey feels much more personal to me than that of many of the other characters.

While researching for this interview, I discovered that “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” is the name of a song from the musical Cinderella, by Rogers & Hammerstein –- why did you choose it for the name of a story, and then for the title of your collection?

Actually, the song was originally written by Rogers & Hammerstein for the musical Oklahoma!, but it never made it into the final show. Years later, Judy Garland recorded the song for the film Meet Me in St. Louis, and though, again, it ended up on the cutting room floor, it was included on the soundtrack. I had the album when I was little, which is how I first heard the song. Tune-wise, it doesn’t exactly pack the strongest punch, which likely contributed to its relative obscurity, but I was always quite fond of the lyrics, particularly the refrain:

Songs and kings and many things
Have their day and are gone.
But boys and girls like you and me
We go on and on.

Something about that sentiment felt very closely related to the reoccurring themes in the collection, and when I wrote the title story, I wrote it with those lyrics in mind. I had planned to use those four lines as an epigraph at the beginning of the book, but in the end, the Rogers & Hammerstein people wouldn’t grant permission, which, considering the song’s history, seems fairly appropriate. That said, I’m still irritated by the bureaucracy that denied my request to use a few lines of lyrics from a song that no one has ever heard of, a frustration I expressed by refusing to see South Pacific when it played last year at Lincoln Center.

You sold your first short story to The Atlantic, and that story then became the basis for your novel, The God of Animals. What was that process like?

At least three years passed between the time I wrote the short story and the time I went back to expand it into a novel, though somewhere in my subconscious I must have been thinking it through, because when I finally sat down to work on the novel, it came very quickly. The short story, which was called “Foaling Season,” was probably the first real story I ever wrote. I’d been writing my whole life, had studied creative writing in college, but something clicked when I sat down to write that story. I still don’t know exactly where it came from — it was like those characters had been living inside me my entire life and I just hadn’t known it. But after the story was finished, sold, and published, the characters stuck around until I finally admitted to myself that we weren’t finished with each other. Even now, with the novel out in the world, I sometimes find myself thinking about the characters and wondering if the time might come when I return to them again. Some characters just stick around (Tommy from “Captain’s Club” is another one that I suspect I’ll spend more time with). The whole writing process is pretty mysterious, and I try not to think about it that hard. Who knows why some characters stick around while others just pass through? The same question could be asked about most relationships, I guess. The only real difference is that, for writers, some relationships exist in the real world, and others exist in your head.

You’ve been on a book tour with the writer David Goodwillie for the past several weeks. Why did you tour together, and what has that been like? I also hear that you are now working on a screenplay together about the experience –- how did the project come about, and how is it going?

I met David not long after I moved to New York. Our books (his novel; my story collection) were coming out on the same day from the same publisher, and after we became friends, we started talking about how much fun it would be if our publisher sent us on tour together when our books were released in paperback. We didn’t actually think they would do it — our books have next-to-nothing in common, in that David wrote about domestic terrorism and I wrote about little girls. So we were pretty surprised when our publisher agreed. One of our editors mentioned that David and I have “complimentary skill sets,” which, I think, means that David handles the various situations that arise while I tweet about them. But the tour was a lot fun — much more fun than going out alone. People kept telling us that our tour seemed like good fodder for a movie, and as the experience wore on, we started to think they might be right. Neither of us has ever written a screenplay before, and neither of us has ever collaborated with someone else in writing, so it’s definitely been a learning experience. I won’t lie, there’s been some yelling (him) and some crying (me), but, in general, I think it’s going pretty well.

What works of fiction have inspired you the most, and who are your favorite authors?

I think that the books that had the greatest influence over me were the ones I read when I was younger, the ones that first opened up my world: The Handmaid’s Tale; Catch-22; Housekeeping; That Night; and Lolita, just to name a few.

My favorite authors include Joy Williams, Alice Munro, Richard Yates, Jeffery Eugenides, and Jennifer Egan.

What are you reading right now?

Right now, I’m reading a novel called Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. It’s fantastic.


 

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