Aryn Kyle is a graduate of the University of Montana writing program. Her first published short story, "Foaling Season" (which became the first chapter of her debut novel, The God of Animals), won a National Magazine Award for Fiction for The Atlantic Monthly in 2004. Other stories by her have appeared in The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New American Voices 2005, and Ploughshares.
In 2005 she was awarded the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, which is given to women writers at an early stage in their careers who demonstrate exceptional talent and promise. She was born in Illinois, but spent most of her childhood in Grand Junction, Colorado, and now lives in Missoula, Montana.
Author biography courtesy of MacMillan.
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In the summer of 2007, Aryn Kyle took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
It's impossible to name one. There have been so many books that have influenced my life -- so many books that have influenced the way that I think about the world. The first book that I remember as being truly important to me would probably be The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I was fourteen when I read it, and when I finished, I remember feeling like the world was a larger place than it had been before. Like I was seeing it all for the first time. For weeks afterward, I walked around feeling like I had been asleep for a long time and was suddenly wide awake. It was one of the first books I'd read that really made me want to be a writer.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson—Her prose is perfection. I was assigned this novel for a college class, and during that time I followed my roommate around our apartment, reading lines aloud to her while she was trying to do laundry or clean the kitchen. I think she wanted to strangle me.
That Night by Alice McDermott -- McDermott takes a subject so familiar and makes it absolutely mythic through her telling. I first read this on an overseas flight. It's such a slim little novel that I finished it long before my plane landed. I was so overwhelmed by the book that after I finished it, I turned back to the first page and read it a second time through.
Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides -- The scope of point of view throughout this novel is really incredible. I don't use the term "Great American Novel" lightly, but I can think of no other to describe this book. If I didn't love it so much, I'd be insanely jealous.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf -- It seems that everyone I meet prefers Mrs. Dalloway, which I liked just fine. But there are parts of To the Lighthouse which have stayed with me long after. I love the way that the abandoned summer house becomes its own character and the deaths of people become, literally, parenthetical.
Escapes by Joy Williams -- Oh, Joy Williams is my hero! Seriously, I want to be her when I grow up. Her short stories are absolutely devastating (in a good way).
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- I won't embarrass myself by trying to say anything new or insightful about Lolita. It's simply an amazing, beautiful book. I reread it every few years or so, and I always have a moment or two when I think I should just give up on writing altogether. With books like this already out there, I wonder sometimes if we really need more.
Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll -- This is a favorite of mine from childhood, but I've read it more than once as an adult and I still love it. I can't explain exactly why, but there's something about the darkness and nonsense that, for me, really captures the isolation and confusion of childhood.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller -- In general, I'm not a big fan of war books, which is why you should trust me when I say that this book is something remarkable. I first read it at seventeen and was literally awed by the impact it had on me. Heller was writing about World War II, but really, he could have been writing about any war. Every war. Especially in our current political climate, I think that this book goes beyond great; it's important.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen -- I'm a true fan of each of Jane Austen's books, but this is my favorite. I love the sharpness of Austen's wit, the snarky bite of her humor. I wish she was alive so that we could be friends.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt -- I started reading this book and didn't come up for air until I had finished. Clear the decks before you read it. Really. If you have to put it down to go to work, feed the kids, answer the phone, or bathe, you're going to curse your life.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Philadelphia Story -- Katharine Hepburn. Cary Grant. What else do I need to say?
Ghost World -- In addition to being dark, funny, and just plain fabulous, it contains the best high school art class scenes ever to be immortalized on film.
Waiting For Guffman -- I can quote the entire movie from start to finish, including the musical numbers and the deleted scenes. ("It's a Zen thing. It's like how many babies fit in the tire.")
The Wizard of Oz -- When I was kid, I wanted to be Dorothy; she had such nice hair. Now I'm older and my ambitions have changed: I want to be the witch. I cannot think of a single area of my life which would not be greatly improved by having a band of flying monkeys to do my bidding.
Terms of Endearment -- Sometimes I just like to weep uncontrollably.
The Thin Man -- It breaks my heart that movies like this are no longer being made. You can watch cars and buildings blow up on the big screen, but if you want to see a happily married couple that drinks a lot, exchanges witty repartee, and solves mysteries, you're out of luck.
The Piano -- When this movie first played in my hometown, the local movie theater wouldn't sell me a ticket because the film had "adult content" I was "too young." So I snuck in. I was overwhelmed by the beauty -- those scenes where Holly Hunter plays her piano on the beach, they killed me. At the time, I was certain that it was the best movie I had ever seen in my life, the best movie I would ever see. So I convinced all my friends to sneak in with me for a second viewing. Their parents got really mad at me. I still don't understand why. It's not like I gave their kids drugs or encouraged them to rob a convenient store. But there's my hometown for you.
My Fair Lady -- I want to marry Rex Harrison. Sadly, he's dead, so I sometimes watch this movie over and over to console myself.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I'm a bit self-conscious about my taste in music -- it has been suggested that I have none. As a child, I always harbored a secret desire to be on Broadway, and I grew up listening to show tunes (I know, I know). I don't really listen to show tunes these days, but I'm still a sucker for a heart-wrenching ballad or a big show-stopper.
I do listen to music much of the time that I'm writing -- too much silence makes me edgy. I have different Playlists for different stories, but I will never admit to what's on them.
That said, I'm a huge fan of Aimee Mann, The Shins, The Decemberists, Imogen Heap, Liz Phair (the old stuff, not so much the new), Spoon, Sufjan Stevens, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and Rufus Wainwright, just to name a few.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
In the past, I didn't like getting books as gifts. I always preferred "discovering" books, or at least picking them out at the bookstore. Something about getting a book from someone else always felt a little like an assignment. However, as I've gotten older, I don't have as much time to read and therefore find myself less patient with books. I'm always asking for recommendations, so my friends send me way more books than they used to. I'd like to say that I only give books as gifts if I think that a particular book will be appealing to a particular person. But if I think a book is truly great, I'll force it upon everyone I know, whether I think they'll like it or not. (I give flowers too, though)
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I like to write at night. There's something about being awake while the rest of the world is sleeping that I find very stimulating work-wise. The phone doesn't ring; no one knocks a the door. It's much easier for me to work for long stretches of time without the distraction of daytime life.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I was always writing, even as a small child. I took workshops in college, but I don't think that I had a clear grasp on how to put a story together. For me, the M.F.A. experience was really crucial in getting me to the place where I understood how stories work, or don't work. I sold my first short story during graduate school, which was fantastic. But, as I quickly learned, one story does not a career make. Neither does two. Or three.
During the two years that I spent writing The God of Animals, I applied for every single fellowship I could find, every award, every residency. And mostly, I didn't get them. It was definitely discouraging sometimes. But it always seemed that in the times when I was the most desperate, when I didn't know how I was going to buy groceries or pay rent or be a functional member of society in any significant way, something always came through. It wasn't always something grand. But it was enough to keep me going.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Seriously, it's hard. Wanting to be a writer isn't like wanting to be a doctor. If you want to be a doctor, you go to medical school, study hard, pass the tests, and at the end, you'll get a piece of paper that says you're a doctor. Then you'll get a job. If you want to be a writer, you can go to school, work hard, get your piece of paper at the end, and still find yourself working at a coffee shop. Or worse.
My point, I suppose, is that writing can be very uncertain at times, can be terrifying at times. There are stretches of time when opportunities are few and far between, when they're nonexistent. But if during these times, you still wake up in the morning and want to write, then probably, that's what you should do.
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