Nickelodeon is an Excellent Place to Start: Kayla Rae Whitaker on weird cartoons, pop culture before the internet, and women artists

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators is a debut with the ambition and polish of a fourth or fifth book. Both a highly reverential (and referential) examination of the art of animation and an intimate exploration of women in the creative class, the novel follows dual protagonists Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses, underground animators raised on a steady diet of 90s MTV and weirdo comix, during a career-making period that forces them to confront their troubled personal histories. Whitaker’s passion for and encyclopedic knowledge of the medium couches a deftly characterized study of the toils of creative collaboration and personal expression. Like Dana Spiotta, Whitaker wields an unusually observant empathy that allows her to dig far beyond the usual clichés of the “tortured artist” to reveal the idiosyncratic and deeply individual motivations behind the compulsion to create.

Whitaker received her MFA from NYU. Her short fiction has appeared in Joyland, Smokelong Quarterly, The Switchback, Bodega, and other venues. The Animators has received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, and raves from many other publications. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and their tomcat, Breece D’J Pancake. I spoke with Whitaker over email about cartoons, pre-internet pop culture, process, and the mind-bending charms of The Maxx. 

Luke Geddes: Throughout The Animators Sharon and Mel’s varied influences are described with both precision and scope. References abound to the likes of Dirty Duck, Robert Crumb, Tank Girl, Liquid Television, John Kricfalusi, early Nickelodeon bumpers, Clutch Cargo, etc., etc. Such cultural touchstones render their art and career incredibly plausible. It’s not just that they (and you, obviously) possess a wide-ranging knowledge of animation; Sharon and Mel have idiosyncratic taste. How did you go about feeling out your protagonists’ personal aesthetics?

Kayla Rae Whitaker: The Animators is the story of a friendship, of course, and it is, at turns, a love story. But part of that love story is a story of shared influence: Sharon and Mel, two artists, mutually nerding out on things that make them happy. I wanted Sharon and Mel to be of their time, in a sense—to bridge that gap between the more isolated pre-Internet world and the Millennial era—but I also wanted them to have this sense for nostalgia that connects with the rest of the book in terms of aesthetic. There was a reason I had them lean more toward that really colorized, leery stuff from the 70s. I wanted them to love that fuzz, to love something that looks slightly grungy. I wanted them to love it because, in a sense, what you love says something subtle, but meaningful, about who you are.

Nickelodeon is an excellent place to start. It was an unlikely but powerful space for alternative influence to enter the mainstream: it was a marriage of very traditional programming, Warner Bros. work that was universally appealing, for instance, with stuff like Ren and Stimpy, and Rugrats, which was, thematically and visually, really compelling but also weird, just deeply weird, and in many ways, as engaging for adults as children. Just think: The Adventures of Pete and Pete was one of the first places a whole generation of kids would have experienced Iggy Pop. That intersection of mainstream palatability and subversive, cultural fringe was formative for a lot of kids, and certainly for Sharon and Mel, who would have taken taste that started with Rugrats and found Fritz the Cat on their own. Probably fitting material for a generation that would live largely within the Internet in 20 years.

Geddes: This interest in left-of-the-dial pop culture also serves as the bedrock of Sharon and Mel’s personal relationship. I was particularly struck when, early in the novel, their friendship is almost instantly solidified by the discovery of a shared love of The Maxx, the MTV adaptation of Sam Kieth’s weirdo 1990s comic series. I had a creative writing teacher whose highest form of praise was to label a moment or gesture or phrase “correct,” essentially meaning that it portrays something so truthful in its specificity as to appear observed rather than rendered. That it’s The Maxx of all things that really brings Sharon and Mel together is, to me, correct.  Why did you choose it as the sort of urtext of Sharon and Mel’s creative ambition? Can you explain to me I find The Maxx so correct in the way that it triggers an instant intimacy between the novel’s central figures?

Whitaker: I wanted the reader to feel intimacy with Sharon and Mel, as if they knew the friendship like they knew the characters. And mentions of The Maxx feel like a sweet little insider’s note, a detail that adds texture to that friendship. So I’m thrilled that that caught you.

I think The Maxx is, in a big way, about its women. It’s the Trojan horse metaphor – on the surface, it’s about a weird, delinquent superhero, but on the inside, it’s Julie the social worker, who has been traumatized so deeply that her true self has become this obscured riddle around which she lives her waking life, and to a lesser extent, her teenaged client, Sarah, who is pudgy, awkward, and, as an “undesirable” girl, exquisitely angry, characteristics with which Mel and Sharon no doubt identify. It’s their story, and I think that’s what disturbed and enthralled me so much as a viewer.

I think female characters are often sentenced to an enforced “innocence,” that is more ignorance and deprivation than true innocence. And interesting stories happen when that “innocence” is lashed away and the woman is cut loose and left to deal with the ramifications of who she is and what has happened to her as best she can. And The Maxx actually tells that story, and in a way that’s pretty germane. And I’m not sure Mel and Sharon would have encountered that anywhere else on TV at that time.

But it’s also a story about the mystery of consciousness, and how we create our own sense of the conscious to accommodate the darkness we refuse to acknowledge. There’s a creeping awareness of everyone’s existence on two separate planes – the one of the conscious world in which you attempt to claim your life and your identity, and the one of the mind and memory, in which your identity seems much more fluid. Sharon and Mel spend a lot of time trying to break through the mist of almost-memory lining the conscious and the unconscious with their art, and they both pay a price for it. In this way, The Maxx is a spiritual cousin to The Animators.

Geddes: I think a lot of it has to do with Sharon and Mel being part of the last generation to really have been cognizant of the transition from analog to digital, from no or low-speed to ubiquitous high-speed internet. A shared interest in an obscure cartoon means a lot more when it’s truly obscure and not just a quick YouTube search away. Sharon describes first encountering The Maxx as an unattended ten-year-old with a kind of subversive relish: “It aired late-night when kids my age were supposed to be in bed. Alone in the living room while everyone else slept, I consoled myself in the light of the TV.” There’s something secretive and private going on here. Sharon is getting away with something just by watching it. Even as an adult, she’s someone special—Mel certainly thinks so—just for knowing about The Maxx. Why did you choose to situate your titular animators in this particular time? I wonder how the novel and its protagonists would have changed if Sharon and Mel were born just a few years later, with the infinite access to the heretofore arcane that Tumblr and YouTube and BitTorrent could offer and encourage. In some ways, it’s tragic that until they met each other Sharon and Mel were so isolated in their interests, but it’s also obvious that they thrive on a sort of iconoclasm rooted not just in individuality but also loneliness.

Whitaker: There’s likely a bit of personal experience as influence, here. I was born in 1984 and so am technically a Millennial—but I’ve never felt like one. My cultural awareness began with cable. It was a paper world, an Enclyclopedia Britannica world, a rotary phone world. There was very little twenty-four hour anything. Sharon herself actually muses on this; when overseeing a staff of twenty-somethings, she notes that she can remember what a dial tone sounds like, while they likely cannot. And like Sharon and Mel, I grew up in rural America, which felt, I think, more remote twenty years ago than it does today. There were some things that just didn’t exist where I grew up, things you had to go to a city to access, and one of those things was alternative culture. Finding Spin magazine —forget about Jane, or Bust, or Bitch, much less anything zine-e—or alt-rock radio, or certain articles of clothing. (Doc Martens, anyone? God, even Chuck Taylors were hard to locate, there for awhile.) You had to go to Lexington, and sometimes farther, Cinci or Louisville or Knoxville. But there is a deeper personal isolation Sharon and Mel feel that, I think, is an unspeakable analog to this cultural isolation—I feel so alone as the undercurrent to no one else likes the shit I like.

As a direct result, the things Sharon and Mel like become borderline holy, because they’re rare, and they’ve sought them out purposefully, and they haven’t encountered many others who have loved what they love. What they love then becomes singular and precious, so much so they choose careers and livelihoods which directly involve it. It’s that important to them.

The fact that you can make what you love ubiquitous if you choose to, with the aid of life online, seems both lovely and limiting. What you love ceases to become a precious commodity, something hard-sought and hard-won, and becomes, instead, endlessly supplied. Who knows where, or who, Sharon and Mel might have ended up, had they grown up a handful of years later?

But I’m keenly aware of the fact that, while our generation’s shift is perhaps the most radical, it’s not the first shift to happen. The generation right before ours experienced the influence of FM radio, and drive-in cinema, and the very unique pleasure of local, late-night programming, and then, its loss. My perspective is not better or wiser, merely because it’s a few years older. It’s simply different.

Geddes: It’s difficult to capture visual art in prose, yet The Animators hinges on vivid and evocative descriptions of Nashville Combat and Irrefutable Love, the two chief film projects of the protagonists. Beyond the aforementioned spot-on references to existing works, how did you approach giving the reader a sense of Sharon and Mel’s work using mere words?

Whitaker: With extreme caution, and in a way that gave the story foundation and meaning. I needed it to be a part of the story that mattered—their process, the end result. I watched a lot of cartoons, over and over, and a lot of Bakshi in particular to pinpoint features that I thought would attract Sharon and Mel, and a feeling they would work toward achieving in whatever they made. I even did some sketches to try to figure out what their work would look like, how the scenes would lay. And the sketches were awful, but they served a valuable purpose. And again, these scenes required a lot of editing. A lot of cutting, too, because my kneejerk reaction is typically to overwrite. These scenes didn’t come as easily as their scenes talking to one another, or working together, did. There were a lot of books that bore heavy influence on me in the way that they conveyed, in writing, a different art form—Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark is one, Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker is another—and I tried to take lessons from these works in terms of how to pull this off.

Geddes: Being such an aficionado yourself, I wonder if there references to films, artists, comics, books, etc. you wished you had been able to call out in the novel but couldn’t find opportunity for. (For instance, I think you’ve mentioned the incredible Julie Doucet in other interviews, but I don’t recall her name appearing in the book itself.)

Whitaker: There were definitely shoutouts I wanted to give, love letters I wanted to write, that I didn’t, for fear of isolating readers who weren’t huge comics or cartoon fans. Julie Doucet being one of them. She is incredible. Calvin and Hobbes. Peanuts (I have a long and complicated relationship with Peanuts; it has more depth and darkness than one might expect). Achewood. Squidbillies. It's pretty dated now, but I loved The Critic. If something you read or see becomes part of your brain’s fabric, it’s worth a love letter. At the end of the day, it was an editing decision- creating a balance between that fabric, the Vaught and Kisses universe, and the story itself. Glad we got Vaughn Bode in there, though. He doesn’t get enough credit.

It’s weird, because the references certainly helped in terms of creating a tone and an aesthetic, but like any other narrative decision, it’s a crapshoot—what works for one reader won’t for another. I read some review where someone said the cultural references made them feel old. I thought, really? Clutch Cargo’s from the sixties, early Bakshi’s the seventies. There’s a Sam Peckinpah reference and a Captain Beefheart reference and a Benny Hill reference in there– if anything, Mel and Sharon are seated slightly out of time, as die-hard nerds of any stripe tend to be. And perhaps that’s an indicator of nerddom: the need to love something comprehensively.

I wanted Sharon and Mel’s fandom to be an active state—to be relative to something they love and do themselves, in their own respective rights. Throughout the book, Sharon has these all-encompassing crushes on men that are, more than anything, aspirational crushes; she becomes infatuated with the sense of confidence and unquestioning drive she sees in these men, that, secretly, she yearns for herself—a state that speaks to the very powerful, implicit ramifications of gender imbalance. But the cartoon fandom for Vaught and Kisses is a sort of professional crush—there’s more of their identity and character in that love. It is empowering as opposed to an infatuation with, and a yearning for, autonomy that is denied them.

Geddes: Sharon and Mel’s enthusiasm for their medium is pretty all-encompassing, but what kinds of animation isn’t to their taste? What works do Sharon and Mel disagree about? Is there any anything that you yourself might disagree with Sharon and Mel on, a work that you think they would over- or underrate?

Whitaker: While their tastes are much the same—they’re probably not huge fans of Pixar, and I would imagine a lot of the digital animation seen in children’s programming makes them wince—they do diverge. Sharon probably loves Peanuts, and I can see Mel hating it, making morbid Love is a Warm Puppy jokes. I can see Mel loving Metalocalypse and Sharon finding it difficult to follow. And I can see Sharon making fun of Mel because she gets shitfaced and cries at Bambi. That, I find interesting—of the two of them, Mel is the one with the roughest edge, dirtiest jokes, rowdiest disposition, but she’s more susceptible to sentimentality than Sharon, who has very little use for sweetness. Sharon and Walt Disney would not have gotten along. 

Geddes: Sharon and Mel are artistic collaborators, and The Animators is in many ways a künstlerroman. Yet it is just as much a narrative of friendship, which seems to me to be underexplored territory in literary fiction, at least compared to romantic pairings. Friendship is messier and even deeper than romance in a lot of ways. It’s ineffable; there are no universal benchmarks like sex, exclusivity, marriage, etc. When you write about friendship, you have to invent the relationship from the ground up. Mel and Sharon’s friendship changes in ways both subtle and obvious throughout The Animators, and you track these changes with keen insight and nuance. Plenty has been said before on creating compelling characters, but what advice would you offer on giving life to a fictional friendship? What did you draw on, in terms of both art and biography, in rendering Mel and Sharon’s relationship?

Whitaker: The fact that theirs is also a professional relationship had a big hand in forming this friendship. Particularly intense friendships can run hot and cold, dictated, in large part, by some of the same passions that dictate romance. There’s an infatuation, in a sense. And often no obligation to stick together. It wears thin, you move on - the link may remain, but thinner. Mel and Sharon, however, work together. They file taxes together, share a credit card, have a personal and spiritual and financial investment together. It’s a marriage-like arrangement. There’s more burden felt, and more responsibility, but there is an obligation to one another that might not exist were their art, and their livelihood, involved. Examining the relationship from more than one angle—as a conduit for creative work, as a living relationship, as a kind of familial relationship—helped to give it flesh.

And there, too, the fact that they are women compelled me to get this thing right—I was aiming for complexity and complication, because female characters are often deprived of this kind of depth of identity. The world of relationships between women and their work perhaps deserves more narratives than are currently generated on the topic. I wanted the story to be, in a way, larger than the both of them.

Geddes: Romantic relationships translate pretty easily to Freytag's Pyramid; a “meet-cute” serves as an inciting incident, subsequent meetings/dates gradually increase intimacy like rising action, culminating in a climax of sex or marriage or some similar “DTR” gesture, etc. Because of this, romance in fiction (and certainly in movies and TV) often tends toward the formulaic. Throughout the novel both Sharon and Mel enter into and out of relationships with varying degrees of commitment. How conscious were you about avoiding such clichés? How did you keep focus of the novel on Sharon and Mel’s friendship, while still portraying their discrete romantic (or merely sexual, as is often the case with commitment-phobic Mel) entanglements with depth and nuance?

Whitaker: There’s a conditioned set of expectations for the romantic element as a narrative fixer: a feel-good ingredient to insert when the truth of a story is not enough of an affirmation. I’ll admit to, in an early draft, falling into the trap of romantic development as resolution—Sharon ended one draft married and pregnant, and thank God that ending was trashed. I mean, this ending was not a happy ending, mind you. Sharon was still Sharon. Her understanding was, “Well, shit. I’m stuck. End scene.” But still, I put my foot in a very old narrative trope, and a particularly sticky one for female characters, and I barely realized it. Romantic love is often viewed as storytelling’s bandaid, and there’s no faster way to sell out your character. Romance is not going to fix what’s wrong with Sharon. It’s not going to fix what’s wrong with Mel. And to believe that it will is to do a disservice to these women and their problems. While I wanted them to have romantic relationships, I wanted them to have relationships that would be believed of them. Sharon may pine after men in an incredibly unhealthy way, but she’s not going to run off with some guy and abandon her work. That’s simply not a decision she would make. I wanted the story to reflect on their choices and their drive, and not the other way around.

Geddes: Of course, it isn’t just shared interests that bring Mel and Sharon together but similarly underprivileged backgrounds, which puts them at odds with their art school peers. They carry this class resentment even after achieving significant success, willfully alienating themselves from the likes of arthouse peer and potential ally Brecky Tolliver. Certainly it drives their ambition and informs the autobiographical content of their work, but it has negative effects as well. In Mel it manifests in self-sabotage; she’s belligerent toward the media outlets and institutions who can help her career. But it’s there in Sharon, too, in a cynicism that threatens to collapse into defeatism. Why is it important to you that both Sharon and Mel’s artistic identities and their personal relationship are so deeply rooted in their feelings about class?

Whitaker: Setting probably has a lot to do with Sharon’s and Mel’s heightened class awareness. They went from their homes to these two particularly monied places—first, this prestigious, Seven-Sisters-esque private college in the Northeast, and then, New York’s arts and culture circles, where wealth, both subtle and obvious, is everywhere. The first people to be able to pinpoint the intricacies and cadences of privilege will be those watching it function from the outside. For Sharon and Mel, their class background provides their first shared, secret language. They make jokes about plastic wrap on the couch, and fish sticks, and Hee Haw, but there’s an edge of the real and familiar to these jokes that denotes, on some level, an allegiance to their roots. What’s interesting is that this secret language spreads beyond class and envelopes their entire life with one another. The fact that class is a strong enough foundation to provide for the beginning of their friendship is telling, isn’t it? Class is the attribute you never shake. It stays with you.

But there’s a shared alienation, certainly—a feeling that you’ll never truly belong in this other place that results in a fatalism, a near-expectation of failure that Sharon and Mel alternately protect one another from and, on the worst days, encourage in one another. One wonders if they would have been better off with partners who came from easier circumstances—if the optimism of someone who came from ease would have rubbed off on them, if only slightly.

Geddes: I was very impressed and pleased with the way The Animators packs in a significant amount of plot without ever seeming overly “plotty.” What I mean by this is that you consistently utilize as opportunities to slacken the pace and explore what initially appealed to me about the novel—its examination of friendship and the art of animation. Many first novels read is if the author has conceded to plot, but yours bends plot to its will. How did you approach plotting The Animators from its earliest stages to its latest revisions?

Whitaker: The plot sort of defined itself over many drafts. I’ve always loved books that cover a lot of ground in terms of events and time span, and I wanted The Animators to be exactly that—a big story, a particularly busy, dynamic story around which Mel and Sharon, as a unit, are the stable center. My writing style sort of lends itself to that structure, as well—I’m not an outliner. For the first couple of drafts, at least, part of the process is figuring out exactly what is going to happen, and when. Some of these plot turns—Sharon’s paternity, for example—came in these moments of illumination that, as a writer, I live for. And typically, they arrive in a second or third draft, after countless pages have been written, and you have a moment in which you are lifted enough to see the narrative as a whole and this event occurs to you as natural and true. Those are the best days. Those days are worth the hours when it feels like that blank word processing screen is going to burn holes into your retinas.

Geddes: Neither Sharon nor Mel are ever quite comfortable functioning within the “industry.” They’re most confident and most themselves when their hunkered down together in their studio working on a project, but when it comes time to promote their work to the outside world—doing NPR interviews or attending swanky Hollywood parties—they’re often uncomfortable or even (in the case of Mel) downright belligerent. Part of this has to do with the extra obstacles women have to face in the arts world. Part of it, I think, also has to do with the fact that your protagonists are working in a genre/medium with a relatively limited audience in the grand scheme of media, not unlike literary fiction. Which makes me wonder how you’ve found the experience of going out into the world promoting and representing The Animators to the public. Do you share Sharon and Mel’s frustrations with your own “industry”? Surely you’re sick of submitting to long-winded questions like mine!

Whitaker: No no, this is a novelty! This whole interview experience, this ongoing conversation, is a pleasure. As lovely as it has been writing full-time, it will not last forever, and that is probably a good and healthy thing for me. I like nerding out about craft especially.

I think the biggest pleasure of going out and promoting the book is talking with readers. Women readers in particular. The book touches on the frustration, and pressure, many professional women in many fields still feel when presenting their work. I share with Sharon and Mel a yearning for a self-possession and a level of confidence that is still denied to women, many of whom, in the face of achievement, feel compelled make a case that they are worthy, and why—to defend the existence of their work in a way male professionals are never required to, and, all the while, adhere to a code of behavior that is inoffensive and accommodating. What makes the book its own beast is the fact that Sharon and Mel feel the strain but, to a certain extent, they’re not having it: Sharon’s gut response is anxiety and distance and a brusque approach to dealing with others, and Mel bristles and becomes an obnoxious twit. And while their behavior is perhaps not to be recommended, the fact remains that they are two women indulging healthy gut reactions to gender inequity. I admire them both. I like the fact that, throughout the book, neither of them acquiesce and play the role of the pleasing, pliable female, against their will. And I think a lot of readers like it, too.

Geddes: You've lamented that you can't draw but would you have any interest in writing for animation or comics? What sorts of projects would you be drawn to? Or do you prefer the isolation and control that comes with being a novelist?

Whitaker: I think I wrote about Sharon and Mel in partial response to the isolation in which I work, and in which every other writer I know works – I wanted to feel the experience of working so closely with someone else. I prize the experience of collaboration. I do have a writing partner in New York with whom I’ve been working on a pilot, as well as a podcast, and she is brilliant—I learn a lot from her. I would love to write for animation, or for a comic strip or graphic novel. If I were an animator, however, I would probably be drawn to short-form stuff – the sorts of strange snippet-length pieces one would see on Liquid Television or The Short List, back in the day. Though there’s something to be said for character-driven work, and something to be said for big, crazy, panoramic works like Heavy Metal or, increasingly, The Simpsons, the real scope of which envelopes the entire town of Springfield. At some point, I think I’d like to write a novel about a town, and have it be as nuanced and as expansive as The Simpsons.

Geddes: Finally, I know you’ve mentioned that you’re currently working on a project related to rabies. Is there anything else you can share? If your website is to be believed, you haven’t done any short fiction since 2013. Will you ever return to it or are you focused strictly on novels for the time being?

Whitaker: I’m working on another novel—I’ve actually got five or six maybe-potential-novels floating around in my hard drive, and every so often they pop up and tap me on the shoulder, like, “I’m still here, you wanna finish writing me?” If the story is reaching out and bothering you, it’s a good sign. The next book is about a family, but—in a more overreaching way—is about rabies, yes, and the research is keeping me up at night. Horrifying. So I’m currently looking to pick up some reading that’s not about infectious disease. I also have a folder of short stories that I continually work on—it’s a more difficult form, for me, and I have stories I started five to ten years ago that I’m still drafting and changing, trying to make them become themselves. So here’s hoping.

To read an excerpt of The Animators, click here. 

To view a selection of Geddes's collages, visit our Visual Art category. 

LUKE GEDDES’s novel,  Heart of Junk, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. His short story collection, I am a Magical Teenage Princess, has received praise from The New York TimesPublishers Weekly, and Rain Taxi. His work has appeared in ConjunctionsMid-American ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, and Washington Square.