What it's like to live in Kentucky and sell your debut novel to Hollywood

What it's like to live in Kentucky and sell your debut novel to Hollywood
Kayla Rae Whitaker (Danielle Siess)

I have been driving since 17, my first car a lovely, hulking she-beast of a 1990 Buick Century I named Old Bess, whose engine coolant reservoir I once could not afford to have fixed and so refilled hourly with water during a feverish trip to Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., from my home in Kentucky.

I grew up in a rural Kentucky town where Dodge Rams and Ford F-150s may well have outnumbered people, and walking on a sidewalk tended to give one a distinct and unpleasant feeling of exposure. I knew from early on that living in a rural world, without public transit, without wheels, is infinitely harder to make your life go.


My second car was a 2003 Toyota Corolla that felt terrifyingly like being trapped in a renegade roller skate when cruising down a mountain road's slope.

When my husband and I returned to Kentucky after seven years of happily living carless in Brooklyn, a car purchase was our first necessary order of business. Our new sidewalk-less Louisville apartment complex didn't provide us with any opportunities for carless travel; reaching the closest bus stop involved a 20-minute walk in the grass, irritated motorists zipping past at upward of 50 miles an hour, middle fingers and hollers of "Hey, girl" aplenty.

My husband would need the car to drive for work. As I worked from home, I found myself suddenly marooned in our apartment, rudderless. I was shocked by the sheer volume of my loneliness. It seemed to happen so quickly: All it took was a cross-country move to make me feel like a different person, one who was greatly diminished from the self that had existed only months before.

This new isolation was almost fascinating in its ability to return me to a vulnerable, proto-version of myself. Thirty-three and left to my own devices, I reverted to the miserable girl who found refuge in TV watching because I did not feel seen, seeking fictional companionship in the face of isolation.

It telegraphs a progress I once would not have thought possible from TV — the idea that there was room there for female idiosyncrasy.

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The kid I had been years before when I spent hours glued to the television screen. My favorite viewing had been the groundbreaking animation of the 1990s: "The Ren & Stimpy Show," "The Maxx," "Liquid Television," each somewhat brain-bending and utterly rich. This was risky viewing in the Bible Belt, where many parents believed letting your child watch "The Simpsons" was commensurate with the hellfire reserved for those who, say, murdered their firstborn. Growing up far from the two coasts that produce nearly all the television and movies we consume, and in a conservative community from which I felt deeply alienated, TV made me feel a part of the larger world.

In tribute to the viewing of my girlhood, I titled my first novel "The Animators," constructing the story of Sharon and Mel, a pair of influential, if troubled, female animators who live out their lives with their art. The novel is about two women — one a chronically infatuated, workaholic, transplanted hillbilly, the other a fidgety, self-proclaimed white trash lesbian with a zest for illicit substances. Sharon and Mel are funny and messy and talented and flawed. They hark back to a generation of girls like myself who liked Æon Flux, but wanted her to grow a personality, who connected with Daria, but wanted her to have more depth. They are not only visible, they are the story's heroines.

“The Animators” by Kayla Rae Whitaker
“The Animators” by Kayla Rae Whitaker (Danielle Siess)

Living in a place I did not feel I belonged, I was once again lonely. A wholly unsuitable girl. Anything I felt I had accomplished as an adult vanished in my mind with the force of this new isolation. Factor in Kentucky’s returns favoring Donald Trump in the 2016 election, which occurred perhaps three months after our move and placed further distance between me and the place I considered home, and the mental assault intensified; at its base level, watching those election returns inspired a strangely primal fear response, the same eerie, stomach-sinking sensations once inspired by grade school aggressors in minuscule cowboy boots and rat tails (as was the style of the time).

A few months after its publication, however, "The Animators" was optioned by Plan B Productions, with the suggestion that it could make for a good television show — this story of two women who once would have been nowhere to be seen on the screen. It was great news made even better by the fact that a production company well-known enough to preclude the need to Google its name believed that outsiders like Sharon and Mel could appeal to a wider audience across America. It telegraphs a progress I once would not have thought possible from TV — the idea that there was room there for female idiosyncrasy. And a story about women working, and loving their work, and working together — and these stories mattering, as much as the typical twin narratives of women falling in love or becoming a mother, at that.

I'm told that 98% of options do not actually evolve into shows or films. I accept this, and still, I let the option bolster me. In a rotten year during which I have begun to doubt that women of my generation will ever see parity, this possibility means something good.

The option also meant a small bit of financial liberation as well as personal assurance. The proceeds bought our much-needed second automobile, a 2008 silver Volkswagen Rabbit with a busted air conditioner, for our household. With much ceremony, we named the car Brad Pitt.

I wrote "The Animators" because I desperately needed to see myself, and the women I knew and loved, and I wanted to see them exist in a realm outside my own head. I wrote it because I wanted to invent my own sense of hope, to dig myself out of the hole in which I felt I lived perpetually and to find others. I wrote it for the same reason many watch television and movies — because we want to see one another, to feel accompanied as we measure time from the darkness of our respective rooms, knowing that, in some way, we are all tied to one another. I can now be seen and heard cursing loudly through the streets of Louisville, struggling to maneuver the Rabbit's standard transmission, no longer marooned. A token of hope, taking us through our new lives.

Whitaker, who lives in Kentucky and has an MFA from New York University, is the author of "The Animators," which is now out in paperback.