Aryn Kyle’s writing career began here in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, when, in 2004, the magazine printed the first story she had ever submitted for publication. Later that year, that same story, “Foaling Season,” won a National Magazine Award for fiction, and eventually became the first chapter of her highly regarded debut novel, The God of Animals (Scribner, 2007).
Now, in this year’s fiction issue, she’s back with her second Atlantic story, “Nine,” about a girl named Tess who is turning nine years old. She and her father have been abandoned by her mother, but no one has fully explained the situation to Tess. Consciously or not, Tess begins to enact her own protest, in the form of making things up. Her fabrications range from telling her father’s girlfriend that she has low blood pressure to saying that the “trees outside her window fill with breath and whisper the names of dead children.” She is in constant tension with the story’s adults, who implore her to differentiate between reality and imagination. But she is acutely aware that dangers lie in both realms.
Kyle’s portrayal of childhood is neither romantic nor nostalgic. In several of her stories and in her novel, her child protagonists grapple with such challenges as death, loss, and abandonment. And her young narrators often seem to be better observers than the adults around them, even if they don’t necessarily fully understand what their observations mean. Alice, the 12-year-old narrator of The God of Animals, is a case in point. She sees her father struggling to maintain their Colorado ranch—their way of life—in the face of financial setbacks, cruel weather, and family rifts. She sees the way her father swallows his pride to take in the horses of rich people, who use hand sanitizer and insist that their horses drink bottled water. And even as she sees how his work consumes him, she longs for his attention and approval. Here is Alice attempting to understand and empathize with her father’s decision to purchase a horse they don’t need, even as she wants to challenge him:
In the black sky, I followed the imperfect pattern of stars, trying to trace their endless trail with my eyes. Behind us, in the arena, I could hear the thumping of Darling’s hooves as she broke into a trot and moved, invisible, through the darkness. I wanted to ask my father what we were going to do with her, how he would ever find the time to train her, where we would keep her when we had to use the arena. But then I thought of the look that had crossed his face when he watched her. She was still full of promise, still perfect in her mystery. For this one day, he could look at her like she might be the answer to all his prayers, the end of every worry. Once, he had looked at [his student] Sheila Altman that way, and before her, my sister. There must have been a time, back before I had knowledge or language or memory, when he had looked at me that way too.
Aryn Kyle lives in Missoula, Montana. She received an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana. In addition to The Atlantic, her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best American Voices 2005, and Ploughshares.
—Jessica Murphy Moo
What is it that appeals to you about young protagonists?
About half of my stories deal with childhood or adolescence, though I’m not exactly sure why. I don’t have a very sentimental view about childhood. I’m really interested in the view from childhood—not so much the experience of childhood, but the view. The way children can see so much without understanding all of it. There are interesting complexities that come from having a character who witnesses a lot but doesn’t necessarily understand it all.
You often depict children as better observers than adults. I was struck, for example, by the images Tess noticed that her father had missed. He hadn’t noticed that his wife had left behind that sliver of black soap or the red coat or the hairpin. Tess is a very acute observer, but the full story of her mother’s departure has never been disclosed to her.
Right. I do think it’s interesting to see the world through a child narrator’s eyes—the way they can focus on very small things that end up meaning more in a lot of ways; trying to understand the world while only knowing a small piece of it.
It seems to me that one challenge of writing about young people might be that oftentimes decisions are made for them, which goes against the Aristotelian idea that “character is action.” We learn from the very first line that Tess lies sometimes. Did you see her lies as a way to make her a character of action?
Yes, her lies. That was the area that gave her some movement, because a child’s world is pretty limited. But even within those limitations they can make seemingly small choices that have fairly large effects on their little worlds. Like the fact that Tess doesn’t call her father but says that she does. That’s a tiny little moment. To her it’s not so different from lying about a lisp, but it unravels everything. When I write about children, I don’t necessarily think of them as children. I think of them as fully formed but inexperienced. I used to have the hardest time writing about grownups. I just couldn’t get it. But about two years ago I suddenly thought, Grownups are just children with money, and that made it a lot easier.
This may sound strange to you, but this story made me think of Donald Barthelme’s story “The School.” Of course, his story is in a very different tradition, it’s an absurdist story in which everything in the school keeps dying—the plants, the gerbil, the fish, the puppy, the orphan that the class has adopted, then a classmate. It’s funny and horrific at the same time, and it’s how the classroom is learning about death and loss. “Nine” and “The School” are two very different stories, in two very different styles, of course, but it seems to me that they’re both getting at the same idea; how children learn about and interpret loss.
I do think there’s a bit of absurdity in the way children are sometimes overprotected. There tends to be a myth that childhood is this perfect, idyllic time that has to be preserved and safeguarded. But even a happy childhood is brutal. Kids are mean. And adults tell you things in school that—at least my experience in school as a child— are just kind of ridiculous. The counselors with their puppets. I remember in third grade there was a puppet troupe that came around to our school and did a show on child abuse. I had completely blocked it out until a couple years ago. I thought, My God, I must have imagined that. That’s just impossible that they would have done that. I’m sure there were kids in my class who had pretty difficult home lives, and in come these people with their puppets. Could the point have been more missed? The ways in which people go about trying to protect and preserve childhood can sometimes be a bit grotesque.
You seem to have some fun satirizing that mindset—and the puppeteers. In The God of Animals, you have a little fun with the rich horse owners who come and insist on feeding their horse bottled water. It seems that there’s a fine line between gently ribbing a certain type of character versus creating an outright stereotype. How do you walk that line?
In a novel, caricatures are easier to avoid because you have more time and space to devote to each character, whereas in a story there sometimes isn’t room to look at everyone that closely. For me, it’s a matter of trying to imagine the characters as full, flesh-and-blood people—like people I actually know and love. Writing is a strange thing. It’s sort of like playing with imaginary friends. They sometimes baffle me by what they say or do, but because I know them, it’s sometimes easier to forgive them or to see their complexities.
In “Nine,” your main character Tess is hyperaware of everything that could go wrong. She fixates on the twisted metal and broken glass she sees on the freeway, the neighbor’s dog who was struck by lightening, a classmate who drowned. She gravitates toward soap operas in which actresses are raped and have head wounds. She goes to school and fixates on the therapists there who talk about parental abuse and eating disorders. Her mind is filled with these preoccupations. How much of Tess’s awareness of all these dangers is her own projection, and how much is an accurate reflection of the actual dangers surrounding her?
I think it’s probably half and half. She’s an unhappy kid. Her mom has left and she’s lonely and confused, and surrounded by a culture of violence that in a strange way has become almost romantic to her. She kind of longs for it in a way.