This is an interview of Aryn Kyle by Candie Sanderson. Sanderson is a nonfiction writer in the MFA at the University of Montana, and a fiction editor for CutBank. She met Aryn Kyle on a New York balcony while trying to break into another writer's house. Aryn Kyle completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Montana, and is the author of the novel The God of Animals (Scribner, 2007), the short story collection Boys and Girls Like You and Me (Scribner, 2010), and Hinterland, her forthcoming novel from Riverhead. Kyle is the one who put the mad idea of pursuing an MFA into Sanderson's head. Since then, her work has appeared in Toad, Two Serious Ladies, and BlazeVOX. Candie Sanderson: You got published in The Atlantic Monthly and received a National Magazine Award only one year after graduating with your MFA. You then went on to write and publish a widely successful novel, The God of Animals, which became a national bestseller and got translated into many languages. You are the dream MFA success story. How did you make it happen?
Aryn Kyle: I feel like I need to start off by telling you that as I am writing the answers for this interview, I currently have $9.62 in my bank account (to be clear: the decimal point is not misplaced—nine dollars, sixty-two cents). I’m not offering this as evidence against my being “the dream MFA success story,” but as an attempt to give you a more holistic view of the reality.
The truth is that, in our field, “success” is a pretty nebulous thing. There’s no finish line. When I started the MFA program, there was a girl in the year ahead of mine who already had an agent. I was absolutely in awe of that: She had an agent! In New York! She had totally made it! (To be fair, she kind of had—she was a total badass.) But now I look back and roll my eyes at myself, at all those little markers that I thought were Major Signifiers: If I could just get a story published; If I could just get an agent; If I could just finish a novel, sell a novel, sell another one… It doesn’t end. You cross one finish line only to realize there’s another one just up ahead. Not that those little markers aren’t important—they are, and they’re worth celebrating when they happen. But they’re not nearly as important as your relationship with your own work.
The most valuable lesson I learned during the course of my MFA had nothing to do with the workshop or the classroom. I don’t know if this is still the way it works, but when I was in the program, there were five fiction students in my class who had TAs. The first year, we all taught Comp. But the second year, the top four writers in our class would get to teach Creative Writing. At the time, this felt like a Very Big Deal, like, being one of the Top Four Writers in the Class of 2003 would in some way determine if I was good enough to be a Real Writer.
You can probably guess where I’m going with this.
So, yeah, I was Number Five. And I was devastated. Truly. Heartbroken. I had wanted that validation so much. I had worked so hard. But here’s the thing: Those four people who got it instead of me? They’d wanted it too. They’d worked hard too. And after a few days wallowing in my apartment, I realized that sitting around begrudging the Top Four Writers in the Class of 2003—who, by the by, also happened to be my friends—was just making me feel shittier. The other thing I realized was that even though I hadn’t gotten this thing I’d so much wanted to get, my desire to write wasn’t any weaker than it had been before. In a way, it was stronger. I’d spent so much of that first year preoccupied with proving I was Good Enough, trying to guess what kinds of stories I ought to be writing to suitably impress the people in charge so that they would choose me, choose me, choose me! And once that was all off the table, I felt like I’d been set free. I didn’t have to try to impress anyone anymore. Now I could just write. The week that I found out I was not, in fact, one of the Top Four Writers was the week I wrote the first draft of the short story that would eventually become the first chapter of my first novel. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but when I look back, I really believe that week was the point when I became a writer.
I wish that I could offer you some kind of map, one with a nice, clear grid system that you could follow from Point A to Point B. Alas, no such map exists. In this field, everyone’s path is different, as is everyone’s timeline. No matter where you are in the journey, you can look one direction and see people who are well beyond you, and you can look the other direction and see people who are still trying to make it as far as you have. But I’ve found that looking around too much is a pretty good way to trip and fall on your face: it’s best to keep your eyes on your own footing. I’ve been really lucky to have the success that I’ve had. But I’ve also had my share of disappointments. I hate to break it to you, but if you commit to a life in the arts, you better gird your loins for disappointment; there’s a lot of it. You’ll apply for grants or fellowships or residencies, and most of the time, you won’t get them. You’ll submit your work to journals that by in large won’t accept it. You’ll publish a book and get emails from strangers telling you you’re a Talentless Piece of Shit (but they’ll be written by people who are mostly illiterate, which, let’s be honest, helps). The good news is that the work is its own reward, and if you take care of it, it will, in its own way, in its own time, take care of you. It will, most definitely, kick your ass and break you down, but it will also open you up. It will teach you to be curious and compassionate, and it will fill your life with surprise. And it’s been my experience that, so long as I keep my attention on the process rather than the product, everything else has a way of falling into place.
Boys and Girls Like You and Me was largely based on your MFA thesis. What did it take to turn that thesis into a publishable short story collection?
It took a giant mortgage on a house I’d bought but couldn’t afford (646 Longstaff—go by and take a look at it sometime; it’s lovely).
Seriously, I hadn’t really thought about selling a story collection. After my first novel came out, I went through a pretty long period of time when I didn’t write much. My attention was pulled in a lot of different directions, and I just didn’t have the emotional space or the mental discipline to create for myself the boundaries that I require to get my work done. But I had a heap of ever-mounting expenses, and at some point it became clear to me that it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t need to work; if I wanted to keep a roof over my head, I was going to have to sell another book. And since I already had two-thirds of a story collection, a story collection is what I sold.
I can’t quite remember what all was in my thesis, but I think that most of the stories found their way into the collection in one form or another. By the time I finished the new stories, the collection represented nearly a decade of writing—the oldest story I wrote when I was twenty-two, the newest when I was thirty-one. I remember thinking how odd it was to send that book out into the world as “new work,” when so much of it was anything but. I was actually a little self-conscious about it. Not that I thought the older stories were “bad”—they just didn’t exactly represent the writer I felt I currently was. It was sort of like posting your senior picture on a dating website: it might be a perfectly fine picture, but it’s not what you’d want strangers to base their opinion on when deciding whether or not they would sleep with you.
Now that the collection is out in the world, though, I’m actually quite glad to have all those stories from all those different times living together inside one book. It almost feels like a scrapbook. When I look back through the stories, I see the influence of the books I was reading and the music I was listening to (That’s the story I wrote when I was reading a ton of Lorrie Moore; that’s when I was obsessed with Rufus Wainwright; that’s when I was trying to get over my fear of writing about sex). More interestingly, though, I see how I continued to work through similar themes from different levels of experience (both personal and professional), and how certain characters evolved from other characters. It wasn’t until the book had been out awhile that I realized the oldest story and the newest story are, in many ways, the same story. I’m not sure anyone else would read the collection and pick up on it, but I can see it so clearly. And it comforts me to know that, as writers, we’re allowed to keep working through the material that’s important to us, that we don’t have to retire an idea or a question or an image just because we took one whack at it way back when. It makes me think of a documentary I saw a few years ago about Russian ballerinas: in the film, someone asks a famous ballerina if she doesn’t get bored with dancing the same few roles in the same few ballets season after season, and she says something along the lines of, “Every time I return to a role, I return as a different dancer, and so the ballet is never the same.”
Your novel takes place in the West. You grew up in Colorado. You did your MFA in Montana. Now you live in New York. How do you relate to the West? How does it influence your work? Do you miss it?
My feeling about the West is this: It will always be my home, but I doubt that I will ever live there again.
My work is hugely influenced by the West—my first novel was set there, as is the novel I’m writing now. And I love returning to the landscape by way of my fiction. It’s a part of who I am, and that won’t ever change.
I’ve never been a person who put down deep roots as far as geography goes. That experience people describe of coming to a place and knowing that it’s Home? I’ve never had that. Of the places I’ve lived, New York is by far the one that suits me best. Even so, I can’t be sure I’ll stay here forever. And I’m quite grateful that I wasn’t in New York when I was starting off as a writer. It’s very easy in New York to start buying into the illusion that personal connections are the key to professional success, that you have to be at all the right parties so that you can fling yourself in the path of all the right people. And, for young writers especially, I think that has the potential to be really dangerous—ten years ago, it would have been disastrous for me.
Before I moved to New York, I’d lived exclusively in small towns, and I always felt out of place in them, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain exactly why. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that in order to do my work, I need a great deal of privacy, and that was something I never felt like I had until I came to New York. In a small town, you can’t walk out your front door without seeing people you know. I’m an observer by nature—it’s how I process the world and what I draw upon most consistently in my work. But it’s very hard to be an observer when you constantly feel that you’re being observed.
I’m perfectly willing to admit that what I want and need from my environment might change as time goes on, but for now, New York offers me the best of both worlds: I have a wonderful community of friends and colleagues who are doing interesting things and making interesting art; but I also have the psychological space to really immerse myself in my work when my work so requires it. Which I think is why I’m able to keep writing about the West; I can see it so much more clearly from here.
Femme is one of my favorite pieces in the collection. You write:
"You have known us since childhood. We are Simone or Car, Rhonda or Nicole. We have cool voices and long eyelashes. We wear too much makeup or not enough. We are your classmate, your coworker, you next-door neighbor. We can tell that you are not like us and we find this attractive. We want to spend time with you. We want to be your friend.
… You don't have to feel guarded around us. You can tell us your secrets. Of course we will keep them. You can trust us. You want to trust us."
How chilling! Could you tell us more about how this piece came about? How did you work with the second person, this sense of intimacy with the reader?
“Femme” is one of those stories that came about kind of by accident. I wrote it as an assignment for a techniques class, though I cannot for the life of me remember what the assignment actually was—I think it might have had something to do with irony, in which case, the story was probably not terribly well received, considering that it’s not at all ironic. I do remember that, at the time I was writing it, I was super-annoyed with a girl in my class who I felt had been snuggling up to me and stroking me with false flattery in order to seduce me into telling her all my secrets, and I was super-annoyed with myself for so willingly handing them over. I also remember being disappointed that the girl who inspired the story didn’t come to class on the day it was discussed.
As far as second person goes, “Femme” is the only story I’ve ever written entirely in that point of view, though I’ve dipped in and out of it in other stories. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about point of view before I sit down to write—stories seem to come however they’re going to come. I’ve been in workshops where I’ve been told that No One Should Ever Write in First Person and I’ve heard authors say that writing in third person indicates an inability to fully access character. And I think it’s all a bunch of bunk. People who tell you that you can’t fully access characters through third person are basically telling you that they can’t, and people who tell you to avoid first person are high. The only warning regarding point of view that I think deserves any attention whatsoever is the one against second person, and that’s only because most workshop stories I’ve seen that are told in second person really would be more effective in first or third. Second person is fun—it’s quick and sharp and often pretty snarky—but it can make a story seem cleverer than it really is. And it’s the only point of view that I really interrogate myself about on the rare occasions that I find myself using it. In the case of “Femme”, I tried writing drafts in both first and third person and they just didn’t work. I’ve always thought of the story as something like a seduction, and for it to be successful, there really had to be someone on the other end of it—you. Or, more accurately, me.
What about the blog? Does that medium help to keep you writing, find a new voice?
I started the blog a few years ago at my publisher’s request. I was getting ready to head off on a joint book tour with my friend, David Goodwillie, and they wanted us to keep a travelogue. At first, I was a little hesitant about it. One of the things I envy about your generation of MFA-ers is that you’re coming of age as writers in the thick of the social media craze (to be clear, I also pity you for it). I’m not saying that I think social media is an essential tool for success or that it even matters all that much—in some ways, I actually think it can be a hindrance; at best, it’s distracting, and at worse it can be rather destructive. But it’s here, and you know it’s here, and you can start making choices right now about how you’re going to engage with it or when you’re going to engage with it or if you’re going to engage with it at all. When I first started publishing, there was no Facebook or Twitter; there were a handful of online journals, but they weren’t terribly well respected; I don’t think I’d even heard the word “blog.”
Overnight, it seemed, every writer was expected to have an Online Presence. For me, it was not a terribly natural medium. I’ve had a fairly big learning curve when it comes to social media. Recently, I looked through my entire Facebook history and I was mortified by some of the things I’d posted. Publishers put a lot of pressure on writers to tweet and post and pontificate online, and I get why. But the truth is that just because a person can write a novel or a poem or a play does not necessarily mean that she can be charming and likable (let alone interesting) on Twitter. And while I do my best to participate and play along, I can’t help worrying that while we think we’re Building the Brand, a lot of us are kind of making jackasses of ourselves.
That said, I started the blog, and I kept the travelogue, and it was fun. Since then, I’ve let the blog lapse for long periods of times. I toss something up there once in awhile, but in general, there’s not much going on. This is partly because I’m working on a novel right now, and when I’m working, I need a lot more privacy than I do when I’m not. In order for me to access that dark, weedy place the fiction comes from, I have to feel really safe and really protected—even in Real Life, my social circle shrinks down to a small handful of people. I feel very raw and very vulnerable, and I don’t like the idea that people are looking in the window, so to speak. And so, as far as social media goes, I pretty much drop out.
But starting the blog was good for me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. For one thing, it was my first-ever venture into non-fiction. I’d had some offers to write for magazines, and though I’d wanted to try essay writing for a long time, I was squeamish about the idea of my first attempt at the form appearing in print. I needed some time to play around with it, to see what felt right, to find my voice, so to speak. And the blog gave me a low-risk place to do that.
I heard you have a new novel in the making. Could you tell us a couple of words about it?
Well, it’s set in an MFA program. In a small western town. With a river running through it. And a stuffed grizzly bear in the airport.
Right now you’re probably asking yourself, ‘How does she come up with this stuff?’
I just have a really vivid imagination is all.
Fondest memory of your MFA in Missoula?
During my second year, George Saunders came for one of those week-long gigs—he led a workshop, gave a craft lecture, a reading, etc. Before he came, I didn’t know much about him. I think I’d maybe read one of his stories. But I feel like the week he was in Missoula was kind of transformative for me, though I don’t know that I realized it until years later. He is such a gentle and generous person. And so much of what he shared with us was focused on how to deal with fear, on giving yourself permission to tell the kind of stories you need to tell and be the kind of writer you really are—not the writer you think will make the most money or win the most awards or have the biggest fan club. Basically, he talked about authenticity and self-acceptance. And I was at a point in my life when everything he said was something that I desperately needed to hear.
There’s so much of what he said during that week that I still think about when I’m writing. Once in awhile I see him around, and I always want to run up to him and throw my arms around him and thank him for that week eleven years ago. But that would likely terrify him, so instead I just smile at him from a respectful distance.
I heard you once fell asleep on the old car seats at the Union. True story? Tell us more!
Oh, dear. There are a fair number of things that happened during my MFA experience which now cause me varying degrees of physical discomfort to think back upon. In my defense, I went through with kind of a wild class—most of our parties ended with someone puking on someone else’s heirloom quilt or someone passing out in a locked bathroom so that everyone else had to urinate in the yard or firemen evacuating half the neighborhood after someone broke a gas line by climbing up the side of the house to look in the bathroom window at the person passed out inside. Before I moved to Missoula, I’d lived a fairly repressed existence. I’d grown up a straight-A student in a small, conservative town, and the wackiest thing I’d ever done was join show choir. There was something about breaking through all those layers of fear and conformity to tap into the darker, more complicated part of myself where the writing came from that seemed to simultaneously unleash an insatiable desire for excess. In short, my Inner Writer was, for awhile, inextricable from my Inner Sloppy Drunk. Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve better learned how to access my hedonistic impulses without necessarily indulging them, and I’m proud to say that I now make a regular practice of switching from wine to water before I fall down or throw up.
Which is all a long way of saying, I totally fell asleep on the old car seats at the Union.
A classic: Any advice to aspiring writers?
Advice always strikes me as sort of dangerous; I work very hard to refrain from giving it unless specifically asked, and I am extremely skeptical of those who go around freely offering it—no matter how well intended, there’s almost always agenda. But a few months ago, I went to this oracle in the middle of the New Hampshire woods (long story), and I asked the oracle my question—which had something to do with fear of rejection and fear of failure—and the oracle’s response was, “The answer is in the advice you have been giving.” And the oracle—which, to the naked eye looks a lot like a birdhouse hanging in an old outhouse—gave me a new take on both the giving and receiving of advice. With that in mind, I will offer you the advice I would give myself if I could get into a time machine and travel back ten years to the point when I was leaving Missoula with one piece of paper declaring that I was now a Master in the Fine Art of Fiction and another declaring that, upon the completion of my higher education, I was now obligated to pay back the Shit-Ton of Money I owed in student loans, and you may take or discard this advice as it pleases you:
- That mean little voice inside your head that sometimes whispers and sometimes screams that you are not smart enough or talented enough or innovative enough or lucky enough? It won’t ever go away. If you’re going to let it stop you, then save yourself some time and stop now. Otherwise, learn to recognize it for what it is—a mean little voice—and Write Anyway.
- There will be people in the Real World who are more than happy to embody that mean little voice in your head—you might even, for a time, seek them out. There will also be people who legitimately mean it when they say that they love you and respect your work, but will even so throw massive, embarrassing hissy fits when you want to write through the night rather than spoon in bed with them or be their plus-one to a gala at the Museum of Natural History. Repeat after me: Buh-bye.
- There will be events in the Real World that are more important than the ones you’re trying to transpose from your imagination onto your computer screen (note: these do not include spooning in bed or galas at the Museum of Natural History). Give yourself permission to walk away from the keyboard when they arise. Your work will wait for you; your life will not.
- If you can’t be happy for the success of others, you better learn how to fake it. And if you find that you sometimes get a little thrill from the failure of others, it’s worth every bit of energy you can possibly commit to fighting that feeling. That (understandably human) impulse to snicker at someone’s bad review or talk trash about someone who just got a Great Big Book Advance is akin to that mean little voice that tells you you’re not good enough. If you allow it to sharpen its teeth on other people, it will be all the more effective when it’s ripping into your jugular vein.
- Fear of failure and rejection is a Giant Waste of Time; failure and rejection are inevitable.
- The worry that you are maybe not a Real Writer is as much a Giant Waste of Time as the fear of failure and rejection. There are plenty of people—most people, actually—who do not go through life with the compulsion to make things up and write them down. The fact that you write, that you do so even when you don’t have an agent or a book deal or a due date, is all the validation you need. And it’s enough. It’s everything. The payoff is in the process. The work is the reward. Everything else is just frosting.