Set in the world of independent animation, “The Animators,” the debut novel from Kentucky author Kayla Rae Whitaker, explores an art that Whitaker says she first became fascinated with when watching shows like “Adult Swim” and “The Maxx” as a teen.
Insider caught up with the Kentuckian, who now lives in Louisville, to talk about writing, animation, her book getting optioned by film production company Plan B, and a couple of workshops she has coming up where she helps teach the tricks of the trade.
Whitaker received a liberal arts degree in English at the University of Kentucky, a formative time for the author.
“That was a big part of it,” she says. “UK has a really great writing program, and they still do … it was time there basically, that’s how I started writing seriously.”
Though fiction is her focus now, Whitaker had a false start in another genre.
“I tried poetry for a really long time, and then I figured out I was bad at poetry,” she says. “So I went to fiction.”
“The Animators” is being released out by one of the biggest publishing companies in the business, Penguin Random House, but Whitaker says the changes in her life post publication weren’t what one might expect.
“Here’s the weird thing about publishing a book — you’re the same person after,” she explains. “It’s a funny thing, I think … I feel very lucky to have a book out, but as it turns out, it doesn’t really change you or make you a better person.”
Whitaker laughs as she recalls the way she chose her subject and setting for the book.
“This book was more than likely powered by envy,” she says. “I can’t draw, so I ended up writing about animators, as I was obsessed from a young age — from Warner Bros. right up until I discovered ‘Adult Swim’ in college.”
A great example of how this obsession played out can be found in her capstone project for her undergraduate degree at UK.
“It was the iconography of the hillbilly in cartoon animation … it pops up everywhere right? And it also gave me an excuse to just watch hours of ‘Squidbillies,’ ” she says.
In addition to an animation obsession, the overall environment of people at work intrigued Whitaker, with a special focus on the subject of women working.
“We see these women as full-fledged human beings whose stories don’t necessarily depend on, you know, their family structure, or their marriage, or their status as mothers,” says Whitaker. “I’ll be invested in that for the rest of my life. I think women want other stories, and I think men do, too — I think everyone is ready for a new narrative.”
Part of the story of “The Animators” centers on the self-doubt artists sometimes feel.
“I think everybody struggles with this — men and women alike, but women in a way that’s very particular because of gender conditioning,” she says. “In writing and in making art, there’s this thing of agency. Can I do this? If I do this will anybody listen? Am I doing it well enough?”
Whitaker says she shares those feelings, and she “invested” some of them in the characters in the book. Eventually, she learned how to move past those doubts.
“When you write a first draft, it’s always terrible,” she says. “It’s sort of part of the process, and you have to make peace with yourself over the fact that you’re going to make these huge mistakes.”
She may have had mistakes in her first draft of “The Animators,” but she must have cleared them away pretty efficiently; the book is being lauded by The New Yorker, The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly and many others. It also has been snapped up to be adapted into a film, though Whitaker downplays that fact.
“It hasn’t gone into development or anything, but it’s been picked up,” she says. “Most book options — sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t.”
Despite this even-keeled response, the studio that optioned “The Animators” has a pretty exciting track record.
“The production company that picked up the option is Plan B,” Whitaker explains. “It’s Brad Pitt’s production company, and they did ’12 Years a Slave’ and ‘The Tree of Life,’ so it’s, like, OK if it’s made — it will be good.”
While you wait for the movie, pick up the book, and if you’d like to hear more from Whitaker or you have your own stories to tell, there are some upcoming events that might interest you.
On Friday, Dec. 8, Whitaker will join the InKY Reading Series at The Bard’s Town, 1801 Bardstown Road, from 7-8:30 p.m.
On Sunday, Dec. 9, she will teach a prose workshop called “Fine-Tuning Your Sense of Voice” intended for fiction and nonfiction writers. It’ll be held at the Shape and Flow Writing Studios at the Mellwood Arts Center, 1860 Mellwood Ave., Studio 123, from 9:30 a.m.-noon.
And then, “Finally Start Your Novel in Six Weeks,” which will be led by Whitaker, will run Sunday afternoons from 1-3 p.m. Jan. 7 through Feb. 11 at 21c Museum Hotel, 700 W. Main St.