A Q&A With Kiley Reid, Author of January’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Such a Fun Age, the debut novel by Kiley Reid (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, December 31, 2019), as their number-one pick for the January 2020 Indie Next List.

The novel, which booksellers also selected for the Winter/Spring 2020 Indies Introduce, has already earned starred reviews in Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal and was named one of the Chicago Review of Books’ Best Books of December. This engaging, page-turning work follows two Philadelphia women as they navigate the typical, transactional mother-babysitter relationship: Alix, a white, thirty-something mother and Instagram influencer, and her babysitter, Emira, a black, 25-year-old post-grad who feels adrift in her career and dreads being kicked off her parents’ health insurance. Such a Fun Age revels in the awkwardness that ensues when these women’s personal struggles, insecurities, and pasts collide, raising difficult questions about race and privilege, and complicating the power dynamic.

Filmmaker and actor Lena Waithe has already signed on to adapt Such a Fun Age for film or TV (Reid will executive produce), calling it “a poignant novel that could not be more necessary” and “a unique, honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a black woman in America today.” 

“When I attempted to write a review for Such a Fun Age, I was at a loss for words,” said Gennifer Eccles of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “How could I encapsulate how Kiley Reid’s startling debut perfectly captured what it means to be a woman? The societal pressure, the self-doubt, the perseverance, the constant comparison — all of it was perfectly represented through Reid’s two wonderfully flawed and captivating leads. Follow Emira and Alix, two women on seemingly incongruous paths who find themselves searching for purpose and an authentic sense of self. Such a Fun Age tackles complex issues — race, gender, economic status, and the intersection of them all — yet remains accessible. You will not want to put this book down; when you do, you’ll be itching to pick it back up again.”

Photo credit: David Goddard

Now based in Philadelphia, Reid earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received the Truman Capote Fellowship and taught undergraduate creative writing workshops with a concentration in race and class. PloughsharesDecemberNew South, and Lumina have all published her short stories.

Here, Bookselling This Week and Reid discuss her groundbreaking debut.

Bookselling This Week: According to the editor’s note, writing this was informed by the six years you spent working as a babysitter in New York City. Did you have close relationships with the children you cared for, like Emira did with two-year-old Briar?

Kiley Reid: Yes, I was definitely inspired by the backdrop of babysitting. I love children; babies are so much more intelligent than you ever see them written on the page, really. They’re just so funny and honest and intelligent, so that was definitely an inspiration. I’m also a really big fan as a reader and writer of really awkward transactional relationships, and so the relationship between mother, nanny, and babysitter is so interesting to me.

And yes, I did have some strong relationships with kids I babysat. It’s an odd thing because I never felt like I was the child’s mom or even a big sister — it’s this weird “other” relationship where the closeness is really intimate, but the title still puts a wall between you and the child. At the end of the day, you can only hang out with this child if there is an exchange of goods, which I think does something to any relationship where that is a factor. But I definitely had children with whom I was very close, and I am lucky in that I am still close with some of the moms. But I think that is also due to class similarities between me and some of the families, which made it easier for us to have a relationship. Emira and Alix have a very different class background, and I wanted to highlight how that affected their relationship.

BTW: Such a Fun Age explores the intersection of class, race, and privilege. Were you hoping readers will look inward and recognize their own implicit biases and thought processes in certain characters?

KR: I wanted to write a book about people who are obsessed with their individual actions as if those actions can actually cause change, when really, if Alix hires a nanny or she doesn’t hire a nanny, that’s never going to help Emira or other low-income people get health insurance like they deserve. I do think those little, individual “looking inward” reactions are so important because that’s a very human way to read it. At the same time, my dream reaction would be for the reader to kind of zoom out at the broken systems that keep Emira living the way that she lives and keep Alix unaware of how lucky she is.

In my personal view, when you live in a society that promotes a work life and a family life, things like childcare should be subsidized, rather than some children being afforded a wonderful personal nanny and others being left alone for too long. My biggest goal was to show the restrictions of work and healthcare through Alix and Emira, and to never victimize them, to just kind of show them as symptoms of a bigger problem. And also to just make them individuals and interesting and weird.

BTW: I raced through the chapters in your book, which often ended with dramatic cliffhangers. Do you usually write in that propulsive sort of way?

KR: I would say with longer pieces I do tend to write with a propulsive tone. In shorter pieces I like to marinate a bit more within a certain scene. I have a piece coming out in Playboy in the spring that is a little more like that. But when I’m reading a novel, I need something to kind of get me going a little bit. It’s my favorite feeling to forget myself and stay up too late and say just one more chapter, one more chapter, because I can’t get enough of it. Especially coming out of the MFA world, there is this big discussion of is that page-turning, propulsive read high art? And I don’t like the premise that you can’t have a literary novel that is also fun to read. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I love it when authors can do more than one thing.

BTW: Is the delicious awkwardness of human relationships, especially those that are lopsided or otherwise fraught, something you like to explore in your short stories as well?

KR: Yes. I think that awkward moments are interesting because typically they reveal something about a character that the person wasn’t ready to reveal yet. It opens them up to kind of try and backtrack, and I think the dialogue people use to backtrack can be really interesting. I also think that awkward moments can bring hundreds of years of history back to the forefront, whether the people involved like it or not. I played with that in a short story I had in Ploughshares called “George Washington’s Teeth,” where a teacher is telling the class how Washington’s teeth were not actually made from wood but from slaves’ teeth. And one mother does not like that being taught to her child. So you have this awkward relationship between a black teacher and a white mother that brings back all of these years of power dynamics. I think it’s interesting to watch people grapple with those moments.

BTW: The book’s opening scene at the grocery store, when Emira is accused of kidnapping Briar, unfolds in a kind of dream sequence, where the heightened tension seems to fracture the sense of time. What was it like to choreograph that scene?

KR: It is kind of like a dream scene! I went into it in the same way as I do with my dialogue, where I try to focus on the hyper-realistic, tiny responses that come out of every moment. I think one thing that happens in scary moments is that they start by seeming a bit silly, and Emira kind of laughs when the police officer first approaches her. She’s not really sure what’s going on, and the whole thing seems like a funny incident before it becomes really scary. So I really wanted to luxuriate in those moments of initial confusion and almost amusement that she has, before going into the scenes that we’ve seen on the news so many times.

I also think that odd numbers work well in scenes like that: you have Emira by herself as the only black women in the whole store; you have Briar, who at that moment is a very cute but kind of worthless companion to her; you have this woman shopper who is displaying huge racial biases; you have a man who is responding to a complaint and sees things one way; and then you have a bystander with a phone. I think they all have very different motives in that scenario, so for every second I had to think, what would this character do in this moment? It was like keeping a checklist so that all of them stay true to their own characters and the ways they bounce off of each other. So yes, there were I-don’t-even-know-how-many rewrites of that scene; there was a lot going on.

BTW: Does any character actually say the words “such a fun age” in the book?

KR: It is not said in my book, and that was definitely intentional. If you’ve ever babysat, you would often hear that phrase when someone asks how old a child is: “She’s 18 months.” “Oh, that’s such a fun age!” And I think there is a biting tone in it — there is never an age below 24 months for which anyone would say, oh, that’s such a miserable age! But Alix, Emira, and Briar are all these ages that are often pictured with a lot of freedom and fun, and that is not exactly what is happening to them, so there was definitely a double meaning there.

And I think it goes a lot of ways. I started writing this novel during the Obama presidency and wrote it into the Trump presidency, and it’s interesting to listen to people talk about how much more terrible things are now. I am not a fan of our president, but I think it is also important to remember that the Black Lives Matter movement came out of the Obama era, and so while it’s nice to romanticize those things, it’s important to look at what is actually happening, too.

BTW: At this stage in life, would you say you are personally at a “fun age”? How old are you?

KR: I’m 32. No one has asked me that yet! That’s one of the things I thought people would ask but no one has. This novel is a dream and the fact that I get to do this every day is extremely fun, even when it’s a bad day. I will say this, I wouldn’t want to go backwards, that’s for sure.

BTW: Will you be visiting many indie bookstores on tour for this book?

KR: I just got my tour schedule which is on my Instagram as well; I think we’re going to 19 different cities in January alone, and the trip will be filled with independent bookstores. I’m excited about Books are Magic and Politics & Prose; I’m from Tucson, Arizona, so we’re also going to Antigone. Indie bookstores have been such a huge part of promoting the book, and it’s just really fun to meet the very capable people who are behind them. I’m so thrilled this is something that indie booksellers are excited about, and it makes me excited as well.