A Conversation with Aryn Kyle, Author of Boys and Girls Like You and Me
1. Is the experience of writing short stories different from writing a novel? Do you find one to be more difficult to write than the other?
Very. And yes.
I’ve heard the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel compared to the difference between running a sprint and running a marathon. I don’t run unless I’m being chased by something larger/meaner than myself, so I can’t completely vouch for the validity of this comparison. But it seems about right. There’s an emotional surge I feel while I’m writing a short story—a sort of frantic desperation—that seems to be more evenly paced while I’m working on a novel. While working on a novel, at least in the early stages, I feel like I’m starting out toward some distant point on the horizon, some spot I hope to get to, somehow. With a story, I feel like I’m balanced precariously on a particular spot, and that I have a very brief time to capture it accurately, that if I don’t hurry up and get it right, it’s going to fall away beneath me and be lost forever.
As for which I find more difficult to write, a novel or a story, the answer is always the same: whichever one I’m working on at the time.
2. Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing these stories?
A great deal of my writing process involves convincing myself that no one is going to see what I’m working on. Ever. I have terrible anxiety about handing over my writing. I HATE to turn things in. I don’t so much mind the idea of strangers reading my work, unless they’re the sort who sends mean, jeering emails (which, by the by, I sometimes post on Facebook so that my friends can stroke my fragile ego by mocking them), but I’m increasingly uneasy with the idea of people I know reading it. In short: the last people I want to think about reading my fiction are my friends and family. Kind of unfortunate, since they’re the only ones who are pretty much guaranteed to do so.
It’s not that my friends and family are anything but completely supportive and fiercely protective (see: above reference to their public derision of my anti-fans); it’s just that I worry they’ll recognize the truth within the fiction and get confused. If you don’t know me, you can read my fiction and assume that I just make it all up. And, mostly, I do. Except for the parts I borrow from the lives of people I know. I don’t mean to do this—it just happens. The stories themselves are fiction, but the furniture (sometimes literally) often belongs to other people.
Example: The story “Brides,” in which a girl cast in her high school’s production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has sex with her drama teacher on a leather sofa donated to the drama department by her parents, confuses many people who knew me in high school, where I was once cast in a production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. After the short story was first published, I got a phone call from one of my oldest friends: “Hey!” he told me. “That’s my parents’ sofa!”
This was true—the leather sofa was, in real life, donated to our drama department by my friend’s parents. “It is,” I admitted.
A moment of silence followed in which I waited for the inevitable. “Did you…? With the drama teacher…? On my parents sofa?”
Um, no. Not on the sofa. Not anywhere. Not ever. Not at all.
Anticipating these kinds of exchanges can be distracting, or, in my case, debilitating. And so, while I write, I try to close my mind to the idea that what I’m working on might someday be out in the world. I try to just stay in the world of the story and hope that, when the time comes, the right audience will find it.
3. Why did you choose to use the female experience as the thread that ties these stories together?
I wish that I had a really cerebral, academic-sounding answer for this, something about the current social climate and the fractured state of the post-feminist movement, the effect that capitalism, terrorism, and MTV have had on the contemporary female coming-of-age experience, the listless yearning coupled with a profound sense of entitlement that seem omnipresent in the grown-children of the Baby Boomers.
The truth is that more than half of these stories were written without me ever thinking about how they relate to each other or imagining that they would all end up living together in a single book. By the time I knew that they were going to be in a collection, most of the stories had already been published in magazines or journals; and it wasn’t until the collection sold that I realized it was mostly about girls and women.
I had to write a few new stories to complete the collection, and at first, my impulse was to try and diversify. This resulted in countless wasted months spent staring at a blank screen and crying in the bathtub. In the end, it really is hard enough to get anything written, without clogging up the works with self-imposed limitations: No more stories about girls!
When I finally just let myself write, the last stories came pretty quickly, and they were—mostly—about girls. But they were the stories I needed to tell at the time, and I think they gave the collection a sense of completion that I hadn’t really known it was missing.
4. Many of the stories in this collection have been previously published in magazines and other sources. Do you think having them compiled into one book changes the reading experience?
It did for me, but for reasons that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to anyone else. The oldest story in the collection was written when I was twenty-two, the newest when I was thirty-one. I never thought that I would feel connected to a short story collection the way I felt connected to my novel. The experience of writing the novel had been so focused and so intense, but the collection had just accumulated over time. When I saw all the stories together, though, I could see my own development as a writer and as a person, could see how some characters had evolved from other characters, some storylines from other storylines. I remembered where I was in my life while I was writing each of them, who I was in love with or in hate with or hoping to impress. What music I was listening to. Seeing all the stories together makes them feel much more personal to me, not because they’re autobiographical, per se, but because they represent such a significant portion of my life.
5. On a similar note, how did you decide the order in which the stories appear in the collection? Was there a particular method you used?
The very last thing I did before I emailed the collection off to my agent was sit at my desk with a pen and a post-it note and write a Table of Contents. I’d thought it would be hard to figure out the order, but the whole process took less than three minutes. I think I must have been working on it subconsciously for awhile, because when I looked at a list of all the stories, I knew almost immediately where most of them should appear in the book.
6. Do you have a favorite story or character in this collection? If so, which is it and why?
I’m kind of partial to Tommy in “Captain’s Club.” So many of my characters start life as shadow-sides of myself. Or rather, they come from my darker thoughts and impulses and evolve from there. But Tommy was one of those rare characters that just appeared fully formed in my mind one day. For a long time, I wasn’t sure where he fit, what his story was. It’s hard to write about nice people. In general, plot comes from conflict and conflict comes from desire and desire is just a hell of a lot more interesting when it’s spurred by those complicated little monsters that we all carry around inside ourselves: greed, vanity, jealousy, lust, etc.
Also, one of the first things every writer learns is that you can’t protect your characters—you have to be willing to let them make mistakes; you have to let them get dirty. Usually, I don’t have too much trouble with this—I figure that most of my characters have it coming. Tommy was different. I didn’t want him to get bruised or be disappointed. I didn’t want the world to let him down.
Around the time that I began working on “Captain’s Club,” I was dealing with my own set of disappointments. A lot of good things were happening for me professionally, but my personal life was in a state of chaos. I didn’t understand how to hold on to both of these things—all my dreams coming true, and everything going wrong—at the same time. “Captain’s Club” grew out of that struggle, and almost as soon as I started work on it, I knew it was the story that belonged to Tommy. At the end, the world gives him a beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime gift, and all that he wants is to share it with this person he loves, to give it to her. But he can’t. And because he ends up experiencing the event alone, I think it affects him in a more profound and certainly more complicated way. Ultimately, writing that story was very cathartic for me; and it, and Tommy, remain close to my heart in a way that not all my stories and characters have.
7. What advice do you have for aspiring writers, who hope to have a novel or a short-story collection of their own one day?
My advice: don’t pay too much attention to advice.
People will tell you that you need an MFA or that you shouldn’t waste your time getting an MFA; they’ll tell you to get published in this journal but not that journal, to avoid online journals, to pursue online journals—but only certain ones; they’ll tell you to get an agent, an editor, a platform; they’ll tell you to find a niche, a persona, an audience; they’ll tell you not to predict what your audience wants; they’ll tell you to make a website, start a blog, Tweet. I was once told that if I was serious about becoming a writer, I should start dressing like a writer. I still have no idea what that means. Funky glasses and a black beret?
My point is that if you’re a writer, you probably already know you’re a writer. And it doesn’t matter if you get published tomorrow, next month, next year, never—you’re going to keep writing. The more writers I know, the more I realize that everyone’s road to publication is unique. There’s no “right way.” No “sure thing.” I used to think that if I could just get a story published, everything would feel easier. And it did. For a few days. Then the anxiety moved up a rung: if I could just sell a second story; get an agent; finish a book; sell the book; get good reviews; decent sales; write a second book; sell a second book; get good reviews; decent sales. It never stops. The anxiety never goes away. Learn to love it.
8. As Leigh in “A Lot Like Fun” might ask: What’s the most important thing?
I don’t necessarily mean the bodice-ripping sort (though there’s nothing wrong with that). But so many aspects of our world seem designed to numb us into an apathetic stupor—the stress and chaos, the constant stream of grotesque advertising and fear-mongering from the media, the chemically processed food. I think that the only defense we have is passion—whatever it is in our lives that makes us want to get out of bed in the morning and do something, change something, make something happen. Passion has certainly been responsible for enough mistakes, poor impulses, and catastrophic failures, but, ultimately, I think it is also responsible for most art, invention, and social change. Also, it keeps life interesting.