Aryn Kyle’s latest book, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” is an extraordinary read.
After I read her debut novel, God of Animals,” I was a fan and I awaited her collection of stories with great anticipation and excitement. I know wise-beyond-her-years is an overused phrase, but I’m going to stubbornly insist it fits Aryn Kyle’s distinctive voice. Her characters are vulnerable and wonderful and flawed but it’s also clear they are loved by the author and it is this lens of love through which they reveal themselves that makes them so special.
I asked Aryn if I could interview her about her writing process and her short story collection and she graciously agreed:
Let me start off by saying I enjoyed reading these stories very much. Thank you for writing them!
Q: Your characters are rich with depth, and as I’ve said before, they’re messed up in all the best ways. Do you have any tricks for creating such vulnerable, imperfect yet empathetic characters?
One of the things I find most frustrating about life is that we’re all just stuck with ourselves. No matter how rich our imagination is, how deep our empathy, none of us can ever truly know what it’s like to be inside someone else’s skin. At times, I find this confinement, this limitation, almost too much to bear.
I think that’s how my love affair with books began. I’ve always felt kind of weird, kind of different, kind of uneasy in the world (though I suppose that most people feel like this sometimes). As a child, books gave me an escape from myself, a chance to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. I suppose it was a pretty natural progression for me to begin writing. I’m fascinated by the details of other people’s lives—their childhoods and friendships and marriages, the ways they describe their wants and needs and failures, their secrets. At parties, I’m much more content to linger on the perimeter, watching other people interact than I am to interact with them myself. This probably indicates some sort of major social dysfunction on my part, but it tends to be good for my writing.
First and foremost, I write for character. Plot, setting, etc.—they all come later, after I have the characters, after I’ve spent some time living with them in my head and carrying them around with me. By the time I sit down to write, I know them as well as I know my friends and family, better than I know my friends and family. And while I don’t always share my characters’ life experiences, I can usually access them emotionally. I wasn’t abandoned by my mother as a child, I didn’t sleep with my high school drama teacher, I’ve never gone to a therapist and pretended to be someone I’m not. But I know what it’s like to feel lost, to feel lonely, to feel longing. And that’s my point of entrance.
Q: In “Nine” a young girl is left basically left on her own to grieve the loss of her mother. Her father tells her simply that her “mother’s moved forward.” Her mother leaves a red raincoat in the hall closet and I saw this coat as a brilliant symbol for the silence between Tess and her father. When she puts the coat on and wears it, it becomes the emotional burden she takes on herself—an apt metaphor for children in similar situations in which important things are left unsaid. Was the red coat an intentional symbol or was its appearance a surprise even for you?
The red raincoat was one of those things that just appeared out of nowhere. While I was writing the story, I pictured Tess’s world in grays and blues—all that rain, all that sadness—and so I think I was subconsciously looking for something that would stand out against the color pallet, something bright and unavoidable. This is my favorite part of writing, when you enter a character so entirely that you just let them escort you through the story. Tess opened the closet and there it was: her mother’s raincoat.
Of course, at some point, the writer has to separate from the character, or at least be able to see beyond what the character can see, in order to make choices for the story as a whole. Once something like the red raincoat pops up, you have to use it. It has to show up again. It has to be important. You can’t just close the closet door and forget about it. For me, that’s almost always how I find the plot of whatever I’m writing. Early in the process, I’m just letting myself type, trying to keep up with my characters, trying to give them enough space to wander around and make discoveries. Eventually, though, I have to make decisions about those discoveries, put them to work, make them contribute to the overall arc of the story.
Once the raincoat showed up, it became the physical presence of her mother’s absence—if that makes sense—and I knew that Tess would have to wear it at some point, that she would have to pull the past into the present. And I knew there would have to be some sort of consequence for that, that Tess’s choices would, inevitably, alter her world by the end of the story.
Q: In “Sex Scenes from a Chain Bookstore,” the appearance of Angry Man made me laugh out loud because, in my brief experience working in that environment, I’m fairly certain I’ve met him. You did a fantastic job offering the reader satisfaction as the narrator gets her revenge. Did you ever work in a bookstore?
All four years of college I was employed by the Fort Collins Barnes and Noble—store 2611 if you want to get specific. It’s funny because when I think back on college, I remember very little about the campus or my classes. Mostly, what I remember is the book store. I wouldn’t have said so at the time, especially while I was cleaning vomit off the floor or dealing with some irate bully of a customer, but it was an awesome job. I loved the people I worked with. Loved. We spent our time schlepping books around and smoking cigarettes by the Dumpster and prank calling each other from the safe room. I never made too many “college friends.” All my friends were booksellers.
There seems to be a certain type of person who’s attracted to working at a bookstore. A fairly twisted sense of humor seems to be key. And, obviously, a love of books. I remember a roommate saying at one point of my B&N crowd, “You guys are the only people I know who get drunk and talk about what you’re reading.”
I should probably clarify that while I worked at Barnes and Noble, my manager was a married mother of two—so it ought to go without saying that we never had sex with each other in the store or anywhere else. But I did date one of my supervisors for awhile, and we sometimes made out in the stacks during slow shifts. It was pretty hot.
Q: I loved “Captain’s Club.” Loved, loved, loved it, particularly the relationship that develops between Tommy and Tree. Such lovely empathy between them which, by contrast, emphasizes how cavalier and self-absorbed C.J. and his father are. For me, the most beautiful moment in the story was when Tommy sees the red moon:
“He felt that he should be afraid, because this was something he had never seen, never heard of, because it was larger than anything he had ever imagined, because it was the sun or a star or a planet full of blood.
But the beauty, bright and full and red as a human heart, made his body ring inside, and he could not be afraid.”
This is such an amazing moment/feeling you’ve captured here that it led me to wonder if the image came before the story and you wrote the story around it.
The moon came before the story. I went on a Mediterranean cruise years ago (with my parents and my grandparents) and one night my parents and I were walking the deck of the ship late at night—it was nearly deserted—and we saw the moon I tried to describe at the end of the story. Though it was, truly, beyond the description of words. I have never seen anything like it in my life and don’t expect to ever see anything like it again. It was terrifying and electrifying and it filled me with a combination of awe and euphoria and deep, deep sorrow. I remember feeling frantic almost, like I needed to take pictures of it or wake up everyone on the ship so that they could all see it too.
Big moments are always hard for me—I’m trying to figure out how I will retell them even while they’re still happening, panicking that people I love aren’t there to share them with me, aware that all too soon, they’ll be over and maybe never happen again, at least, not to me.
Years after that cruise, when my novel sold, I was very far away from almost everyone I loved. I was living at a writers’ colony in New Hampshire and there was no cell phone reception and very limited Internet. The sale of my book happened quite quickly, days after I’d finished writing it, and though it was the most fantastic thing that had ever happened to me, I remember feeling these giant waves of grief. It felt so big and so important and there was no one there to share it with, no one to validate it or witness it or remember it.
For some reason, those two experiences, the moon over Mykonos and the sale of my novel are inexplicably linked in my memory, though they happened years apart and on different sides of the planet. For a long time, I tried to find the story that would let me work out some of my feelings about both of those things. “Captain’s Club” is one of the newest stories in the collection—I wrote it a little over a year ago. Tommy, the main character, appeared in my head one day, entirely out of the blue. It was like I’d known him forever. And once I figured out that he and that moon belonged in the same story, everything else came very quickly.
Q: In “Femme” you executed the second plural pov so very well. From where did the inspiration for this story originate?
I wrote “Femme” as an exercise for a techniques class in graduate school. There was some sort of assignment, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the assignment was. I think it had something to do with irony, though the story isn’t at all ironic, so maybe I’ve got that wrong.
I remember too that I was annoyed with a girl in my class who I felt had befriended me and coaxed my secrets out of me only to turn on me after I’d given them up to her. It wasn’t the first time I’d fallen for such tricks—I’m easy prey for a woman who strokes my vanity while seducing her way into my privacy. I wrote the exercise, in part, to release my frustration at having been such a willing victim to such a familiar ploy, and also, I think, because it was the closest thing to a confrontation I was capable of mustering. More than anything, I remember being tremendously disappointed that the girl for whom the story was intended didn’t come to class that day and never even knew I wrote it.
Probably just as well.
Q: Speaking of points of view…in “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” you slip into second person twice, and it’s this decision that, for me, took the story to even deeper emotional level. The end was devastating in a good way. Did you have anyone telling you not to switch povs?
“Boys and Girls” is another story where I had the ending long before I had the beginning. I knew that it would end in second person. The other spot where it slips into second person was completely accidental, or rather, unplanned. For awhile I went back and forth about whether to cut that bit out—I think that the story would work fine without it. My problem with it, still, is that it isn’t exactly the same second person that shows up at the end. The second person at the end is, more or less, direct address. But the second person that shows up earlier is basically the narrator referring to herself.
In the end, I left it in because I felt that it was important for the narrator to, in some way, claim responsibility for her situation, to own her mistakes. Something about doing that in first person just felt a little melodramatic. I’m still not sure I made the right decision leaving it in, but since the book has been bound and published, I suppose I might as well stop worrying about it.
Q: I’m always curious about process. Your stories are clear and polished and rich with developed characters and situations. How long do you work on a story? Do you revise often? Do you ever get sick of working on a story?
Every story is different. I wrote “Brides” in a single sitting and the draft that appears in the book is very close to the original draft—there were only a few edits. “Allegiance,” on the other hand, took nearly two years for me to finish; I went through at least twenty drafts of that sucker. The others fall somewhere in-between.
I’ve never written anything that I didn’t hate at some point during the process. Starting a story is a ton of fun, and finishing a story is truly the most amazing experience in the world—at least for me. It’s like being on the most fantastic, perfect drugs. I feel like I can fly. Literally. Everything I’ve ever written has been finished around 3:00 in the morning—probably because I write at night—and when I’m done, I’m filled with so much adrenaline, I can hardly contain myself. I want to go running or dancing or find a trampoline. The night I finished my short story collection, I woke my then-boyfriend by jumping up and down on our bed and shrieking, “I finished! I finished! Let’s go swimming!” Of course, this was February in Montana and it was in the middle of the night, so he wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the idea. But we did drink champagne for breakfast.
I think it’s pretty lucky that it feels so fantastic to finish, otherwise I might not have the impetus to get through the mucky middle. Inevitably, at some point, every story feels impossible, like a giant, messy waste of time. The excitement of starting something new burns off and you’re suddenly adrift in threads that don’t tie together and arcs that go nowhere. And when you reach that point, there really is nothing to do but just clench your jaw and power through. It can feel like digging through concrete with a salad fork, but that’s just the nature of the beast. I’ve never written anything that didn’t, at some point, feel like a mistake, like it wasn’t meant to be and I should just give up on it. Usually, though, I think the voice that tells us we’re wasting our time is the voice of laziness, the part of the brain that’s bored and tired and would rather be watching TV. When that voice starts talking, I know it’s time to brew some coffee and settle in. Because I’m going to be there for awhile.
Q: You’ve written and published both a novel and a collection. Do you have a preference for one form over the other? How are they different for you?
I prefer them each at different times for different reasons. As a reader, I think that some of the best work in contemporary fiction is happening in short stories. It’s very rare that I finish reading a novel and think, “That piece of writing was perfect.” But I read short stories that I think are perfect all the time. Of course, I expect different things of stories than I do of novels. With a story, I want to be left feeling like I’ve been punched in the stomach, like the wind has been knocked out of me. The stories I remember and admire and force my friends to read are all stories that hurt me in some way, that showed me something I wasn’t expecting to see and made me feel something I wasn’t expecting to feel. With novels, I want to lose myself, to disappear into the lives of the characters and come back out in a different place, with a different view of the world than I had when I began.
Technique-wise, I feel more freedom writing a story than a novel, and I’m more willing to let myself take risks, to write something simply because I want to, even if it’s dark or troubling, even if I suspect it might alienate some readers, even if it breaks rules about form or structure.
With a novel, I’m primarily concerned with character, with giving the characters enough space to be real on the page, to form their own decisions and make their own mistakes, while still trying to wrangle them together and keep their various plotlines moving in the same direction. Of course, I’ve written many more stories than I have novels, so perhaps my feelings will change as I get more experience.
Q: What was the first thing you ever wrote?
It’s hard for me to recall a time when I wasn’t writing. I’ve kept a journal for as long as I can remember, and even when I was really little—first or second grade—I wrote poems. But my first real writing endeavor started in the fourth grade. I spent the whole school year working on a novel about a magic puppy. All I wanted in the world was a puppy and since I couldn’t have one, I spent my time writing about one, which, I suppose, soothed me. In the fifth grade, I got a real dog and promptly stopped caring about my novel. And, as I’m writing this anecdote, I suddenly realize that it’s revealing quite a bit about who I am and why I write, and it’s creeping me out, so I’m going to stop.
Q: What does your typical writing day look like? Are you a write-when-inspired writer, or are you in the chair every day whether your muse joins you or not?
I’m an all-or-nothing writer; it goes in waves. Months pass in which I don’t work at all. But when I am writing, that’s all I do. I hardly sleep, hardly eat, hardly have any contact with the outside world. I stop answering my phone, I don’t respond to emails, I forget to pay my bills. This is neither terribly healthy nor terribly good for my social life, but I try to remind myself that Emily Dickinson lived in an attic, which makes me feel well adjusted by comparison.
Q: What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel, which, for superstitious reasons, I don’t talk about at all. It’s been a bit slow-going lately, but it’s difficult to write one book while in the midst of promoting another. I have some travels coming up this summer, but am hoping to disappear into my writing cave afterwards and get a draft cranked out by late fall or early winter. Fingers crossed, anyway.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. You’re a hugely talented writer and I’m looking forward to the next book from you.
Author photo by Miriam Berkley