Of Horses and Children

Aryn Kyle talks about the American West as a character, writing from a child's perspective, and her debut novel, The God of Animals

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.

Within this context she’s also being called upon to tackle some pretty big questions. Tess’s father tells her that growing up involves knowing the difference between what’s imaginary and what’s real. This navigation of real versus not-real—illusion versus reality, and what we think we can do versus what we can do—are these universal questions of growing up?

I think so. At least I think of them in that way. As children we’re only given so much information; it largely comes from our parents or the people who raise us. And then as we get older we have to sift through what we’ve been taught to believe. A lot of children get these sugarcoated ideas about the world and how it works. One of the most painful parts of growing up is realizing that that stuff isn’t true all the time. Fairy tales are just that. Bad things happen to good people.

Our image of people is not who they really are.

Yes. And I think that’s something we continue to struggle with even as we get older, trying to figure out where you stop trusting authority to tell you the truth. And how to figure it out on your own.

Your story “Foaling Season” later became the first chapter of your novel The God of Animals. Did you initially write the story to stand alone? How did the longer story evolve?

Yes, I wrote the story to stand alone. I never thought I was going to do anything else with it. For two or three years, it felt finished to me. A lot of people who read it had asked if I was planning on turning it into a novel, so I think the seed possibility began there.

I finished graduate school—I went to graduate school in Missoula, which is where I live now—and I stayed around for an extra year. Then I ended up moving back to my hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado, because I got a job teaching comp at a community college there. That’s the town that the story had been kind of loosely based on. My family is there, so I’d of course been back to visit for holidays and things, but  I hadn’t spent a lot of time there since graduating from high school, and the town had changed a lot in the time that I’d been away. A lot of new money was moving in, lots of chain stores popping up all over the place, and I was so surprised at the way the town was starting to look like any other town with an Olive Garden and a Red Lobster and three Wal-Marts. When my family first moved there, I was five, and it was still really a western town back then. Lots of bare desert land.

I became aware of the way all that was being filled in, and people who had lived in that town for generations and generations were being pushed father and farther to the outskirts as land was bought up and all this money was moving in. I started to think about those characters again. I began to wonder how they would maintain their lifestyle in the face of encroaching suburbia.

And then one night I just sat down. I had been working on a different novel at the time and I kept thinking, I’m just distracting myself. I can’t set down this novel to work on something else. It’s a bad idea. And then one night I thought, Okay, I’m just going to write one scene and see what happens. Then that was that. I just kept going, and 18 months later the book was done.

It’s interesting that it’s the place that brought the characters back to you. Because the place, the ranch where these people live, really is its own character in that story.

It definitely surprised me because I don’t think of myself as being especially interested in setting. I think of my writing as being much more character driven. Setting often seems ornamental to me in my own writing. But as I kept working on the book, the ranch and the town and the landscape and the weather really did grow into a character almost.

Another theme in both the story and the novel is the absence of the mother figure. The mother is not gone in The God of Animals but she’s hidden and never comes out of her room, and so there’s a certain absence of her in everyday life. I think we see in both these stories how the absence of an important figure can actually give that figure her own presence.

It’s a really interesting topic and one I haven’t thought a ton about. I suppose, though, that—especially writing about a child—there’s something about removing one of the parents that makes the world more dangerous almost. The child isn’t really protected on both sides, especially a girl without a mother. It opens up a lot more questions: Who do I grow up to become, if there isn’t this version of me present? Also, there’s the idea that Alice’s mother has chosen to drop out. That that’s an option—that that’s something one is allowed to do in Alice’s world. What does that mean about growing up if that can happen—if you can get to a point in your life where you just drop out? Tess’s mother did the same thing; she left. It’s so interesting because I’m an only child and my parents divorced when I was really young. I was raised by my mother. People have asked after reading my writing, Oh, God—what’s wrong with your mother?

It’s fiction!

I know. But I wonder sometimes if maybe that’s why I get rid of the mother. I don’t really have any issues with my mother. I don’t have a lot of mother-daughter issues to work out. So I think a lot of times in my fiction the mother just isn’t there.

I think, too, along with childhood, people are really sentimental about the idea of motherhood. It’s funny because I grew up without a father, and I knew a lot of people who did. People are very used to hearing that, that there wasn’t a father. But, man, a mother leaves and people demonize her! A woman who would not raise her children is almost more than people can accept. It’s curious what that means to a child—a mother who for whatever reason, didn’t feel the bond strongly enough to keep her in that role. Again, I suppose it adds complexities to identity.

In The God of Animals there seems to be a real resonance between the relationships between the horses on this ranch—the relationships between the foals and the mares, for instance—and the relationships between the people. How did you want the “nature” of the animals to cast light and shadows on human nature?

I was initially interested in the lack of sentimentality in nature. That it just is. I didn’t grow up on a ranch, and I tend to be very sentimental toward animals in my real life. I was—maybe because of that—very interested in these people whose business is animals. They really can’t afford to be sentimental about them. They can care about them, but they’re running a business. They raise their horses, they sell their horses. They can’t fall in love with them. I guess for me I was interested in the way that there are still moments of generosity and kindness and beauty. But nature is also cruel. The weather is cruel. There isn’t necessarily rhyme or reason to it. And that seemed like an interesting place to come of age – to be trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

How did you choose the title The God of Animals?

I get asked this a lot, and I really wish I had a cooler story for it, but I was done with the manuscript, and I was getting ready to send it to my agent and I didn’t have a title. I didn’t have a possible title. I had no title. Nothing. Titles are always really, really hard for me. I was looking through the book and looking for anything that might work as a makeshift title, and I got to the part where Alice is talking with her teacher and questioning the existence of God. They talk about it several times. They both kind of decide that there isn’t a God, and then later Alice says, “What about animals? There should be something that cares that they suffered, or cares that they didn’t.” And I thought that might work. I never really thought of it as though people who haven’t read the book would say, “Well, who is the god of animals?” My idea was that it wasn’t a reference to any particular character or deity but to the hope that something should be watching—something should care.

Have you worked with animals and horses, or did you have to do a lot of research?

I took horseback-riding lessons when I was kid for a few years and was really into it at the time. I spent a lot of time out at the barn and rode in some local horse shows, but it was pretty short-lived. I started high school and my interests changed. I was around it enough that I could remember how certain things worked and then I did some research as well. Most people who work with horses would be fairly upset by the way the characters in the novel do the horse training. There are much more humane and studied ways of handling animals, but in towns like Grand Junction there are a lot of people who still work with animals who haven’t been to college and studied equine sciences. They’re doing things that they’ve learned that have been passed down from generation to generation. It was very interesting because I would think, I remember seeing them do it this way, and then I would get online and it would say, Whatever you do, don’t do it this way. I did do some research, but a lot of it was stuff that I saw or heard about as I was growing up.

Are you working on anything now?

Right now I’m working mostly on short stories. I’ve really needed some time to separate from The God of Animals before I dive into a second novel. It was such an intense experience writing that book, and I really want to be divorced from it before starting the next one.

You mentioned that you went to the MFA program in Montana. How was your experience with the MFA degree in general?

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For me it was a really invaluable experience. There are a lot of people who don’t get much out of it. There are certainly plenty of really successful writers who never went through one. I’m not sure I learned anything in the MFA that I wouldn’t have eventually figured out on my own, but it saved some time, and also I think the biggest draw of it for me initially was just thinking, Gosh, two years that I can just write. I don’t have to work a job. Two years where I can focus completely on that. And then you’re in a community where everyone around you is doing the same thing. You’re in class with all these people, and then you go out to the bar and everybody’s talking about what they’re reading and what they’re writing, and it was a time when a light switch turned on. I started to understand things. Suddenly, I was reading things and seeing the small details of craft, and I would read a short story and think, Wow, this is a really great story and I trust myself to say so. Whereas before, I would know I loved a book, but I could never articulate why. So I think it taught me a lot about reading. And they give you a lot of deadlines, which is very helpful.

I noticed in the acknowledgements page of your novel that you thanked Mike Curtis and The Atlantic for guidance and assistance. How has your path as a writer been influenced by your relationship with The Atlantic?

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The Atlantic was the beginning of everything. “Foaling Season” was the first story I’d ever submitted for publication and then, of course, my first publication. I was for so many reasons really lucky, and the editing really spoiled me. Mike Curtis didn’t accept it right away—he asked me to cut about four pages out of it—and I remember at the time thinking, Four pages! It seemed like such an enormous amount, and I had no idea how I would ever do it. But, of course, I did it, and cut everything that could go, and it ended up being such a better story because of it.

In a strange way, I’ve always thought of him as a guardian angel because so many doors opened because of that publication. I had just been a student and suddenly people saw me as a writer. It was the first time I thought of myself as a real writer.