Kiley Reid, SUCH A FUN AGE

Kiley Reid, SUCH A FUN AGE

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Kiley Reid who’s the author of Such a Fun Age. She’s a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was awarded the Truman Capote Fellowship. Her short stories have been featured in Plowshares, December, New South, and Lumina. She currently lives in Philadelphia, PA.

Welcome, Kiley. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kiley Reid: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Can you please tell listeners what Such a Fun Age is about?

Kiley: Such a Fun Age starts in 2015 on a Saturday night in September. We meet Emira Tucker. Emira is a twenty-five-year-old African American babysitter. She’s at that post-graduate part in her life where she doesn’t know what she wants to do. She eats the same Crock-Pot meal four nights a week. She does know she loves babysitting Briar Chamberlain. Briar is a chatty and odd three-year-old girl. Emira is out at a party and gets a call from Briar’s mom Alix, “Please take Briar. We had an emergency.” Emira takes Briar to a grocery store where they’re having fun, they’re dancing, until a white customer and a security guard accuse her of stealing the child. Someone pulls out their phone. A video is taken. Alix Chamberlain sets out to right the night’s wrongs, but it turns into a bit of a comedy of good intentions after that. There’s big themes of ownership, of holding grudges, of who belongs to who. Of course, you can’t tell a story like this without talking about race and class as well.

Zibby: And childcare.

Kiley: And childcare. Yeah, that’s a huge part.

Zibby: By the way, I’m so excited to finally be talking to you. I got this copy at BookExpo. Putnam gave me the bag that goes with it.

Kiley: The bag is great.

Zibby: I’ve been carrying this bag around everywhere. I love it. It’s different than all the bags so I can always find it.

Kiley: It’s a deep bag.

Zibby: Kiley’s cover — sorry, as I’m going off on a tangent — is this really awesome black with a brilliant blue-ish color on top and that pattern. Then it says Such a Fun Age in hot pink. It’s the coolest cover, not that you should judge a book by its cover. If you were going to, this is a really cool cover.

Kiley: It’s definitely a book fair bag that you can stuff a lot of books into. They did a really good job.

Zibby: Thank you for that.

Kiley: Of course.

Zibby: How did you come up with that whole scene that you just described and making that the idea for a book?

Kiley: That scene came after experiencing the characters a little bit. I always start with characters. I’m really drawn to awkward interactions between characters. The number three is a great number with awkwardness between relationships. Lucky for me, I ended up with two of those. One was between Emira and the woman she babysits for, Alix, and the man who films it, Kelly. The other one, which is a really awkward dynamic sometimes, is between a mom, a babysitter, and the child, which I think is so interesting because there’s weird ownership things of “It’s my child.” “Well, I spend more time with her.” Then you have this non-reliable three-year-old who one day picks the mom, one day picks the babysitter. Those relationships guided me to the grocery store scene. That didn’t come until later.

Zibby: This is your debut novel.

Kiley: This is it.

Zibby: Why childcare in particular, not that it’s about childcare, but why the scene between the nanny? Were you ever a babysitter? I was a babysitter for a long time growing up, and a camp counselor. Did you have that kind of background? Were you just interested?

Kiley: The whole thing. I’ve been babysitting since I was ten. I was a camp counselor. I was an RA. I was a nanny for six years in New York City. I’m still friends with a lot of families that I babysat for. I watched a lot of interesting relationships. I was a party leader at The Craft Studio, which was birthday parties.

Zibby: No way!

Kiley: Oh, yeah, for a long time.

Zibby: You don’t recognize me from my many parties?

Kiley: I might have been at many parties. I did maybe eight a week for three — that was one of my favorite jobs. I loved it. It was huge inspiration for the world. I don’t write auto-fiction. This is completely fictional, but of course I was inspired listening to toddlers speak, watching interactions. It was a huge point in the backdrop.

Zibby: Excellent. Now I understand a little bit more. One of your characters is the mom who goes by Aleex . We find out she is really Alix. She’s sort of changed her name. One thing I found interesting was her relationship with her friends, and then Emira’s relationship with her friends. They both have a crew that they keep going back to. You alternate between these groups of friends. There’s this one funny scene that I really liked. Alix is on this urgent conference call about something else with her girlfriends. Then she admits to them that she’d gained weight recently. Her friend Jodie says, “Alix, I love you and you’re beautiful. You always are, but I’m being a good friend right now and asking you how much weight you’ve gained.” You write, “Alix looks down, sighs, and says, ‘I’m afraid to check.’” Then her friend Tamara says, “Oh, god, why didn’t you say something earlier?” Jodie says, “You need to get your S-H-I-T together because you are not this person.” Then they all agree that they’re going to have an intervention. I don’t have girlfriends who say this. I’ve not been comfortable enough to be like, “I need an intervention, friends.” Have you? Tell me more about this scene.

Kiley: I wanted each Alix and Emira to have these groups of really loyal, wonderful friends that also give terrible advice, like a lot of friends do. For me personally, I think I actually do have some relationships where someone — for me, it would be different. If I said I hadn’t written anything in a month, I have friends who would say, “What is going on with you? This isn’t okay anymore.” I like that accountability a little bit. I think that for Alix’s friends it’s, “This is really not who you are.” That mixed with her moving to Philadelphia, with her not writing her book like she’s supposed to, I also think it’s telling that they’re saying, “Oh, my gosh, all of these things and you’ve gained weight. You really must not be okay.” I think that that’s a reflection of the things that they know about her and who she is as a person. I do like honest friends. I hope to keep them for a while. I’m sure that comment hurt. Jodie’s pretty brutal.

Zibby: I like to think my friends are honest, but I think it’s what you’re willing to be held accountable for in a way.

Kiley: I agree. I think Alix saying “I’m afraid to check” is kind of welcoming that comment. She’s looking for a kick in the butt a little bit. Is that something that I would want someone to say to me? Absolutely not.

Zibby: You also contrast the way you write the language of the groups of friends. It’s very slang versus very proper. I was very struck by the slang in the book. Did you do that on purpose?

Kiley: I love hyper-realistic dialogue. I like writing things the way that they’re heard for the most part. I think that there’s two things going on. Having been a babysitter, I definitely talk differently. I think everyone has what I call a receptionist voice, the voice they use at work, versus the voice they use privately. Of course, there’s another dynamic of African American people not being considered professional when they use certain vernacular and Emira being very keen to that and what she wants to say in front of not only her employer, but someone who has a three-year-old child. Even though when Emira talks to Briar and uses slang privately, I think that’s when she really shines as well. I think that she’s rightfully nervous about what that would mean in front of Alix.

Zibby: Interesting. I felt like it could be very cinematic. It felt like I could be reading a screenplay in certain scenes.

Kiley: I hope so. That’d be great.

Zibby: Can you tell me a little more about your background in writing and how you started writing and how you ended up writing a book?

Kiley: I went to undergrad for theater and religious studies. There’s not a ton of jobs for theater and religious studies. I ended up writing a lot of my monologues and just trying to slip them through the radar. I’d always been interested in writing. In my mid-twenties I realized it was really what I wanted to do. I was a receptionist at the time. I was writing afterwards and slowly getting short stories placed different places. I applied to grad school the first time. I didn’t get in anywhere. The second time, my husband had a job opportunity in Arkansas. He said, “Do you want to come with me, try again?” I did. I got a job at a coffee shop and just wrote my butt off. That time I got accepted into Iowa Writers’ Workshop where I just graduated from this past May. This is all still pretty new, but I would say it’s been the past seven or eight years of taking writing seriously.

Zibby: This is a broad question, but I’ve always wondered what the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is like. People come from all over the world to Iowa for this. What’s it about? What makes it so special? Tell me the inside scoop on that.

Kiley: What makes Iowa so special is they are the school that invented the workshop process where you turn in work the week before, everyone reads it. Then you sit there silently while everyone gives feedback. It’s not easy. I think it’s really important. I had a good experience, especially with Paul Harding who I did the novel workshop with and Jess Walter who’s also wonderful. It’s difficult when everyone’s going around talking about what’s working or what’s not working. Then you have to go to dinner and show a brave face right after. I went in knowing that I wanted readers who would extend my time there. I came out with three women who are my people and my readers of everything. It’s difficult. It’s cold. It’s so cold you stay in and write all the time. I had a pretty lovely experience there. Especially, I workshopped this novel. I probably took eighty-five percent of the edits that were given to me. That was a great workshop.

Zibby: Wow. How long did it take you to write this novel?

Kiley: I thought about it for maybe two years. I had these characters rolling around in my head. Actual pen to paper was maybe two and a half years. Then there was another year of editing with my editor once it sold. It’s a lot of steps.

Zibby: How does it feel now that it’s coming out and there’s a finished product?

Kiley: I’m really excited to talk about the themes that I didn’t even know I was writing about at the time. I’m really excited to have it in people’s hands. There is a strange thing about being a writer in that the work is done and you change as a person, but your work doesn’t change. This thing comes with you even though if I went about writing this book again, I wouldn’t do it the same way because we’re always changing. I hope I always am. It’s strange. It’s really exciting. It’s nerve-wracking. I’m super excited to have a platform and talk about these characters that I love and care about, but also about the systemic racism that puts certain people in places like this.

Zibby: If you were starting this book again now having changed, what would be different?

Kiley: Oh, my lord. I don’t even know. I feel like the characters join you at a certain place. That’s a complete place, a little bit, that you can’t go back to. Hopefully, whatever I write next will be that book.

Zibby: You said the themes that you didn’t even know were there, did you set out to write a book that would touch on issues of class and race? Was that an ancillary benefit after your characters came to life?

Kiley: I truly believe that going into a novel using heavy-handed themes stands in the way of plot. I also believe that no novel is nonpolitical. I think it’s Terri Jones who talks about you want to write about people’s problems and not problem people because that flattens everyone out. I went in saying I want to write about a mom, a nanny, and a new boyfriend. I love books that are based in the world that we live in now, and so those other issues come out naturally. They’re issues that I really care about. That’s kind of a bonus.

Zibby: I like it. You also trash Philadelphia a little bit in the book.

Kiley: It’s my new home.

Zibby: I know. I just want to read this because it’s so funny. You wrote, “Alix wondered how she would ever call Philadelphia home. How could she keep her dexterity as a mother and small business owner while surrounded by the type of woman who halted security check flow because she’d forgotten to remove her jacket?”

Kiley: Alix is really struggling to move from New York to Philadelphia. She’s lonely. Her feelings of “How am I going to be who I was in New York?” cut Philadelphia down. All of those scenes from Alix’s point of view are definitely her views of what Philadelphia is. I also think she’s really struggling, so I want to give her that too. I love Philadelphia. That’s why I moved there. That’s why I based the book there. It’s a wonderful place. I like the opportunity to show Philadelphia through Alix’s eyes and through Emira’s eyes too.

Zibby: Where did you grow up?

Kiley: I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, which is a great place. It’s really hot. Then I spent nine years in New York City. I was in Arkansas for a bit, Iowa. Philadelphia is our new home. I’m excited to be there.

Zibby: Another one of my favorite scenes was during Thanksgiving, which I was actually thinking about and rereading on Thanksgiving, when they were in the linen closet surrounded by lightbulbs and all the rest. Alix is confiding in all her friends about the drama that’s going on downstairs, which I won’t go into and spoil anything. Tell me a little bit about that moment. Do you remember where you were when you were writing that scene to begin with and what you were thinking?

Kiley: That’s a good question. That whole entire Thanksgiving scene, I love. You make a bunch of characters. Then at some point you put them all in a room together. Thanksgiving, that whole scene took me maybe eight weeks to figure out the logistics of. I kept losing babies and not drawing where kids were sitting. I had to write out who’s sitting everywhere. I loved the idea of a room within a room. Alix and all of her girlfriends meet up there to figure out how they’re going to handle this evening. I love close quarters with women. There’s a lot of bathroom scenes where women are in really close quarters together. It’s this moment where Alix has a little bit of a breather before she has to go back out there and put a good face on. Her friends, they are who they are. They’re freaking out with her. I love when my friends do that too. I feel like that scene is a vision of a group text a little bit. I wanted to keep the stakes high but also put her in a room and make her feel the tenseness of the moment.

Zibby: I could see that. What is coming next for you? What themes are you going to try? Maybe you’re not going to do any themes in particular since you don’t want to be too heavy-handed. When you think about what’s to come, you’re such a young writer to have such a big debut, this book is already getting so much attention, how are you going to follow this? Are you feeling pressure?

Kiley: I always feel pressure. I also, like I said before, I kind of love the idea of looking back at anything I’ve done five years ago and saying, I want to do better next time. I want to be on a continual journey to being a good writer, which is a great thing because it’s not a ballerina or dancer or anything. Hopefully, I can get better as I go. As much as I don’t want to be heavy-handed in my writing, I care about the quality of life that we live in. Class warfare is something that I’m super interested in and want to keep writing about. I have started very, very weakly on novel number two, but I’m a slow reader and writer. I want to take a little bit to do that. I’m really excited to go on tour with this novel and see what really struck a chord with people as well.

Zibby: We were talking before. You say you read about twenty-five books a year, but you feel badly about that. I was saying a lot of people would think that was a lot of books a year.

Kiley: I guess I would expect myself to do more, as it is my job now. If I read a sentence that really hooks me, I need to take a moment, read it again, think about it. I’m also a big re-reader. I know a lot of people are anti-re-reading. If I love something, I’ll read it again in six months.

Zibby: The whole book again?

Kiley: Yeah, there’s a few I’ve re-read.

Zibby: Is there something you can mention, a book?

Kiley: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, that’s one of the most challenging and creative books there ever was to write. I love that book so much. Every time I read it again, which is maybe three times, I see something new. Are you a re-reader yourself?

Zibby: I’m only a re-reader in that my memory gets bad after a bunch of years. Now I re-read books that I read in my twenties. I have a different reaction to them now.

Kiley: I love that a little bit.

Zibby: There was a book I loved in my twenties called Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. I loved this book. I would always recommend it to people. Then recently I was like, why did I like this book so much? Let me go back to this. I don’t really drink. I read it again. I see what I liked then, but this would not hit me the same way now. I like that, but not like analyzing for craft the way you do to delve into the mechanics. Although, you’re much smarter than I. I mean, that’s really great that you do that, but I don’t do that.

Kiley: Graduate school gave me the time and tools to look into, what are you doing with this paragraph? What are you doing with this sentence, with the rhythm of everything? Going back, I’ll definitely take a highlighter now and spend a lot of time figuring out what they’re doing and try to replicate in some way.

Zibby: For the characters in the book, are we supposed to like one of them more than the other? Do you have an affinity for Emira versus Alix? Do you want the reader to come to their own decision? Do you want them both to be equally likeable? Should we be rooting for one of them versus the other one?

Kiley: I love all of my characters. I could not write about them unless I loved all of them. I personally don’t love it when I feel an author is urging me to like one person or like another. A lot of people will say to me, “I loved this person. Then he did this, and I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel.” That feeling right there is exactly what I want readers to feel. I think we all have friends who we love a lot. Then we hear them say something or do something and we go, what does that mean? Should I say something? Should I not say something? That’s the feeling that I hope my readers get from it. These are humans. They’re complicated. We all have relationships with people who we’re not sure where their morals lie sometimes. What do we do with that feeling? I want readers to rest in that uncomfortableness a little bit. If they love someone and think they’re being charming, great. If they later get really upset with them, that’s fine too. I would love for them to take it as they come.

Zibby: What about your commentary on race? Are you trying to say something with this book? Do you just want people to analyze it or take it as it is?

Kiley: My first goal with any book is that people enjoy it. I love getting so lost in a book that I forget about everything. I say, just one more chapter, one more chapter. As far as the politics in this book, I think I would prefer for people to zone out a little bit and not look at people as individuals. Alix at her best can’t change the world. Emira at her best can’t change the world either. The situation that Emira’s in, she works her butt off. She’s really good at her job. She doesn’t have health insurance. I would love for people to think what her life would look like if she did have a backbone to fall into. I hope that people can look at their friends and say — Alix met Jodie through Briar’s doctor. That’s how they met. Now they have these friends. Her friends can hook her up with jobs or connections, everything else. Emira will never, under the system we live in, never go to the same doctor that Alix goes to. Her friends and her are limited to resources. I do feel that until everyone can share in the same good resources, these dynamics will exist in poor ways. I would love for readers to open up a broader scope and look at what situations these characters are placed under.

Zibby: The reason I keep asking is because you said you were excited to talk about all the themes. I’m not trying to put you on the spot.

Kiley: Oh, my gosh, are you kidding? This is my favorite stuff. That’s great.

Zibby: Maybe you don’t want to talk about it. You are obviously a super gifted author and have great ideas. I love even just the thoughtfulness you’re putting into how you approach each book and everything. If somebody was just starting out and wants to be an author like you, what advice would you give them?

Kiley: Oh, man, I hate saying it because it’s so trite, but reading and writing all the time. This is one of those cool professions where you can try and copy what other people are doing with your own style attached to it. That can only improve your writing. I wrote many terrible novels before this one. It all impacts everything else you’re doing as you learn to get rid of old habits and get better ones at the same time. The best advice I could give for someone as a writer is to read nonfiction. It is something that I thought I would never be doing. In my twenties as I get interested in something, there’s always an expert who’s explored that world, and so watching documentaries or reading books about, in my case, class. For my next book I read a book about universities that really inspired me. I would say to find the experts and take their work and put it into your fiction.

Zibby: I was going to say it’s like a historical fiction take, but it’s current day. What is that even called? I don’t know.

Kiley: Present-day fiction? I’m not even sure.

Zibby: We’ll make up a new category. There we go. Starting the genre, Kiley Reid, the new genre. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kiley: You’re so welcome. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thank you.

Kiley Reid, SUCH A FUN AGE