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Powell’s Q&A: Aryn Kyle

Describe your latest book.
In general, I think that authors are probably the last people who should be describing the content of their books. I have a very difficult time separating myself from my work enough to be able to discuss it intelligently.I have a very difficult time separating myself from my work enough to be able to discuss it intelligently. It feels a little like being asked to describe my neuroses or my fantasies or my fear of bridges (yes, bridges).

But I'll take a crack at it.

My new book, Boys and Girls Like You and Me, is a short story collection. I feel kind of strange referring to this book as "new" because many of the stories were written and published years ago &mdash the oldest story in the collection was written when I was 22. Because most of the stories were written long before I realized they would one day have to live together inside a book, it wasn't until the collection sold that I began to think about how they related to each other or worked together to create a larger arc. The consensus from the world seems to be that the book is about women and girls, about their choices (mostly poor), and their desires (mostly dangerous), and their decisions (mostly ruthless).

Most of the stories do focus on women and girls, but now that I can look at the book as a whole, rather than just an assembly of pieces written over a period of time that represents approximately one-third of my life, I have a slightly different sense of how they all add up. To me, what almost all my characters have in common — more than gender or poor decision-making skills — is a longing for intimacy. I think that what connects these stories to each other is the characters' desire to connect and the (often misguided) choices they make to achieve such connection, connection which almost always comes to them in unexpected ways from unexpected sources and is, across the board, fleeting. Because intimacy, true intimacy, is — I think — almost always fleeting. Which is what makes it so valuable, so desirable, so worth the risk and the pain and the wreckage.

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
Hmm... Darcy seems too obvious a choice, but I have a thing for brooders, and also, he had a really nice house. Rochester — another brooder — had an equally nice house, though I've had enough life experience to now understand that the crazy wife in the attic cancels out the prime real estate. Rhett, of course, was sexy as hell, but a scoundrel with a soft spot for prostitutes is the last thing I need.Rhett, of course, was sexy as hell, but a scoundrel with a soft spot for prostitutes is the last thing I need.

In general, it's the Men Who Will Mess You Up, the Heathcliffs and the Vronskys, who catch my eye (don't judge, but in college, I was a little swoony for Satan in Paradise Lost). Which is why I'm both shocked and delighted to announce that my current book-crush is an honest-to-god Nice Guy.

I just finished Teddy Wayne's novel Kapitoil and am absolutely smitten with its hero, Karim Issar. He's one of the most endearing and lovable characters I've ever read — smart, sensitive, kind, and (forgive me for finding this a turn-on) he judges people for using poor grammar. Every woman I know who has read Kapitoil has a crush on Karim. My friend's mother read the book and was so taken with Karim that she baked cookies for Teddy Wayne and sent them to him in the mail. And while there's no way of knowing for sure, I feel like that probably never happened to Tolstoy.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
I can't speak for other writers, but I'm the worst liar I know. My voice rises, my face freezes. My hands flutter uselessly at my sides. Sadly, my problem is not that I won't lie, but that I can't lie, which can make life complicated. To compensate for this debility, I've learned how to find the palatable truths within lies, something I can believe enough to prevent me from stuttering or bursting into tears while I'm saying it out loud. For instance, the lie, "I loved your poetry reading — especially the part where you did interpretive dance to your brother's suburban hip hop music!" becomes, "What a performance! I've never seen anything like that before!"

In a way, I think it's possible that my inability to be intentionally false has been a great help to my writing. It's taught me that there's truth inside of every lie — it's just a matter of perspective, of finding the right angle from which to see it.

What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, to what sign would you change and why?
I'm an Aquarius, and though I don't know much about astrology or put a great deal of stock in it, I read my horoscope almost every day, and I've always appreciated that my sign has a song from a popular Broadway musical.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
This one's easy because, mostly, I despise breakfast. Even the word breakfast makes my stomach tighten like a knot of rope. I think this is a hang-up from my middle school days, when I would get so anxious and neurotic in the mornings that I would throw up, and my mother would drive me to school while I writhed in the fetal position, crying and clutching my abdomen and begging her not to make me go. It's hard to add an omelet to that.

That said, I once had a breakfast in Belgium that I still dream about. I was on tour for the Dutch translation of The God of Animals, and my boyfriend and I stayed at a bed and breakfast in Antwerp. We spent the night smoking a joint we'd brought from Amsterdam and watching John Wayne movies in French.We spent the night smoking a joint we'd brought from Amsterdam and watching John Wayne movies in French. Neither of us spoke French or had seen these particular John Wayne movies before, but that turned out to be no kind of hindrance whatsoever, and we guessed at the plot points and filled in our own dialogue, talking in bad French accents and laughing so hard I thought I was going to break. The next morning, we sat in a giant bay window, our bodies sore from laughing, eating smoked meats and cheeses, fresh fruit, and soft-boiled eggs served in those cute little egg cups, and watching the Belgian girls walk to school in their deconstructed uniforms — enhanced with striped socks and neon scarves, crazy jewelry, and black lipstick — all of them laughing and singing, all of them smoking cigarettes, all of them under the age of 14. And I sipped my coffee and slurped my egg and thought, for the first time, that maybe I wasn't meant to be American.

Why do you write?
You might as well ask me why I breathe, why I cry, why I fall for Heathcliffs and Vronskys. I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't write. I've kept a journal since I was seven or eight, and as early as kindergarten, I told my teachers that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up (to be fair, I also wanted to be a mermaid and a princess, preferably a mermaid-princess, but there are so few MFA programs with that particular concentration).

It's very difficult for me to articulate what it is that draws me to the blank page, except to say that if I go too long without writing, I start to feel anxious and pent up, like I want to kick and scream and tear at my own hair. Writing is my release, it's the channel I use to process the world, my life, my fears, my hopes, my want. When bad things happen to me, there's a place in my mind that stays calm and in control because I know that the writing will see me through, that if I lost everything, everyone, the writing would still be there for me, and so long as I have it, I'll never be alone. Writing is my religion, my faith, my compass. And even if no one publishes another word of my work for the rest of my life, I'll keep writing until I die.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
What's a Kelvin?

Fahrenheit. I guess I'm American after all.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
At the moment, I'm obsessed with ballet dancers. I've spent most of my life in small towns, and since moving to New York I can't stay away from the ballet. I'm not a terribly physical person. I do yoga, but other than that, my life is pretty sedentary. I spend a lot of time sitting at the computer. And while writing is something that I often experience in a visceral sort of way, I'm envious of people who get to use their bodies to express their emotions. There's something so pure about the stories they tell, something so raw. You strip the words away and what's left is just physical truth: joy and sorrow; lust and agony and regret; yearning.

I've been reading a lot of dancers' biographies lately, watching a lot of documentaries, and I'm fascinated by the way they describe their relationships with the roles they play, the methods they use to find their characters. Always, it seems, they are searching for the places where their own lives intersect with those of the characters they portray on stage; that they're, in a sense, using the character to tell their own story. This is something that feels very similar to the way I discover my own characters as a writer, the way that I'm always searching for an entrance, a place where my feelings coincide with theirs, which allows me to, at least for a short while, live inside of them and see the world through their eyes.

I have pictures around my computer right now of Suzanne Farrell, Anna Pavlova, and Margot Fonteyn. They remind me that the real power of storytelling is in truth, and that truth, while often quite painful to access, is in the body as much, if not more so, than in the mind.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five book I love so much that I can't discuss them with other readers without flying into a jealous rage ("You couldn't possibly love/know/understand ________ the way that I do!"):

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Escapes and Taking Care by Joy Williams (sorry, I couldn't pick one)

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

÷ ÷ ÷

Aryn Kyle is the author of the bestselling novel The God of Animals and a graduate of the University of Montana writing program. Her short stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New American Voices 2005, Best American Short Stories 2007, and The Atlantic Monthly, for which her story "Foaling Season" won a National Magazine Award. She is also the recipient of the American Library Association's Alex Award, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and others. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The God of Animals
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  2. Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics) Used Trade Paper $5.95
  3. Kapitoil (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  4. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and... New Hardcover $22.00
  5. Taking Care: Short Stories (Vintage... New Trade Paper $16.00

  6. Lolita
    Used Trade Paper $9.50
  7. Revolutionary Road. Richard Yates
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  8. Housekeeping
    Used Trade Paper $7.50

Aryn Kyle is the author of Boys and Girls Like You and Me: Stories

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