SCOTT SIMON, host:
Alice Wilkinson is a young girl who lives in a horse ranch in Desert Valley, Colorado. Her sister's just run off with a rodeo cowboy. Her mother keeps to herself, as they say, locked away in a room. Her father runs the ranch - he's overworked and lonely. A girl named Polly Kane(ph) has just drowned in the canal and it's hotter than anyone can remember.
There's stacks of white envelopes with bills on the kitchen table and nothing to send back. "The God of Animals" is a new novel, a first novel, by the Montana writer Aryn Kyle, about a young girl coming of age in a place that already seems a little past its time. Aryn Kyle joins us now from the studios of Colorado Public Radio in Denver. Thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. ARYN KYLE (Author, "The God of Animals"): Oh, thanks for having me.
SIMON: Let me get you to read the very top of the novel, if I can.
Ms. KYLE: Absolutely.
Six months before Polly Kane drowned in the canal, my sister Nona ran off and married a cowboy. My father said there was a time when he would have been able to stop her, and I wasn't sure if he meant a time in our lives when she would've listened to him or a time in history when the Desert Valley sheriff's posse would've been allowed to chase after her with torches and drag her back to our house by her yellow hair.
My father had been a member of the sheriff's posse since before I was born, and he said that the group was pretty much the same as the masons, except without the virgin sacrifices. They paid dues, rode their horses in parades and directed traffic at the rodeo where my sister met her cowboy.
Only once in a great while were they called upon for a task of real importance, like clearing a fallen tree from a hunting trail or pulling a dead girl out of the canal.
SIMON: And this novel began with a short story you wrote called "Folding Season," which I think it's fair to say did very well for you.
Ms. KYLE: It did, it did. It won the National Magazine Award in fiction. And about two years passed between the time that the story was published and the time that I went back to expand it into a novel.
SIMON: So it wasn't always a novel that was just waiting for a nudge of encouragement?
Ms. KYLE: No, I really - after I finished the story, had never thought, again, about returning to it. Two years passed. I was working on a different novel. And I ended up moving back to my hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado, where the town of "Foaling Season" had been loosely based on that town.
And living back there again, I found myself thinking about those characters more and more, and went back to the characters of "Foaling Season."
SIMON: Mm-hmm. So this - the setting of this novel is very much your own background?
Ms. KYLE: The town is, yes. It's not exact, but I think anyone from Grand Junction, Colorado, could read this book and see many similarities. My own personal experience growing up in Grand Junction could not be, you know, more different from my characters. I didn't grow up in a ranch. I don't have sister. My mother got out of bed every day and went to work. But the town is very similar.
SIMON: The characters in your novel both revere horses - but they don't get sentimental about them.
Ms. KYLE: I think that people, you know, like my characters, who are really struggling to earn a living, you know, with animals, don't really always have the luxury of being able to be sentimental about them.
SIMON: Throughout the book there is the mystery and the challenge of these white envelopes piling up on the kitchen table. Were you just - her father really just wonder - wonders how he's going to make ends meet.
Ms. KYLE: Right. Yeah. I mean the wolf is at the door through much of the novel. He has stacks of unpaid bills and yet he's not the wisest with his money. You know, he gets a chunk of money and he blows it on things other than bills.
SIMON: Buying a horse?
Ms. KYLE: Yeah. He buys a horse. He has his, you know, his truck repainted. He has the barn repainted. He's always, I think, you know, really focused on the image of the barn, that if he can just get it looking right, that all the money will come in and they'll be taken care of.
You know, through much of the novel Alice is outgrowing her clothes. Her shoes don't fit. Her clothes are too small. And he never really notices that. I mean, he's very focused on, you know, the business.
SIMON: You're struck at several points in the novel how characters from - you don't think of inhabiting the same worlds nonetheless seem to orbit each other, almost out of need. There's the teacher, Mr. Delmar, who is hurting, who had been Polly Kane's teacher. There's Alice, who can be lonely and feel disconnected. Patty Jo, and you learn she is a woman the age of Sheila's mother who - I don't want to say stuck in an unhappy marriage, she's just kind of stuck in a blah marriage.
Ms. KYLE: Right.
SIMON: And then there's her father.
Ms. KYLE: Absolutely. It's one of, I think, the things that kept me working through the novel, was that the barn became a place where people from, you know, the same town but very different worlds were suddenly interacting with each other. And the ideas they had of each other, you know, some of them right, some of them wrong, and the ways that they ended up influencing and in some cases damaging each other's lives I just found really compelling. It was what pulled me forward.
SIMON: This novel contains one of the - when I say one of, it's not like I've read a lot of horse-mating scenes. So let's just say I don't think I've read another novel with the real horse-mating scene. Let's just say yours is undoubtedly the most unexpected and funniest I've ever heard.
Ms. KYLE: Excellent. Of all of the horse-mating scenes...
Ms. KYLE: ...in great literature.
SIMON: You know, Dostoyevsky did so little with horse-mating scenes.
Ms. KYLE: I know. It's very underused, I think.
SIMON: And even the Bard never - you know, there's nothing great Shakespearean horse-mating, to my knowledge. We'll hear from someone who says I'm missing a sonnet, but in any event.
Without giving away the ending, everybody grows up a little bit in this book, the adults most of all.
Ms. KYLE: I think that at the time that I was working on this, I was just very interested in the mistakes that people make while they really are trying to do the best that they can do, and the messiness that comes from that. And the way that people really do or don't learn to forgive each other, to forgive themselves.
And I don't think that any of the characters in the book get off easily. But I really care about all of them. I don't think any of them are bad people. The father gets, you know, as I talk to people, the father gets a lot of criticism for the things that he does. And I mean just to use him as an example, he makes a lot of bad choices and a lot of mistakes, but I just think of him as a man who's really motivated by obligation and really is trying to do the best he can to keep his family going.
SIMON: Yeah. I admire him. He never stops trying.
Ms. KYLE: He doesn't. He doesn't go down.
SIMON: Ms. Kyle, thanks so much.
Ms. KYLE: Thank you so much for having me.
SIMON: Aryn Kyle speaking with us from Colorado. Her new novel, her first, is "The God of Animals."