The lobby is bustling on an abnormally warm Saturday morning in January at Washington, D.C.’s buzzy Line hotel, where a glowing Kiley Reid emerges with her black hair in a high bun, her gray sweatshirt and black nail polish exuding effortless cool. Reid, 32, is the author of “Such A Fun Age,” her debut novel that’s slated to be adapted for the screen by writer and director Lena Waithe.
I spent seven days cramming in listening sessions of Reid’s novel (in audiobook form): In the mornings, while I showered before my kids rose, in the 15-minute commute between day care drop-off and arriving at work, and on Sunday mornings while whipping up quick breakfasts. I simply couldn’t stop listening, taking every moment to catch up with the protagonist.
The book’s plot centers on Emira Tucker, a black, 25-year-old Temple University alumna balancing her part-time job as a typist and her gig with the Chamberlain family, including mother and blogger, Alix, and 3-year-old Briar, whom Emira babysits part-time. The two women are only eight years apart in age, but they end up sharing a common thread, and, no, it’s not Briar. Kelley Copeland, the ex-boyfriend from high school who ruined Alix’s senior year, ends up meeting Emira during a last-minute babysitting request gone wrong, in which Emira is accused of kidnapping Briar on a late-night grocery store run. Kelley films the racist security guard who accuses Emira.
Later, Kelley and Emira meet again, by chance, during a subway ride. The two begin dating and realize that Emira’s employer, Alix, is the privileged woman from high school whom Kelley walked away from. While the book focuses on the interconnectedness of Emira, Kelley and Alix, it also critiques the obsession with and fetishization of black culture and provides a biting reminder that some white people’s good intentions cannot only fall flat, but actively cause harm.
I had to know more about Reid, the woman who created characters and commentary I couldn’t look away from. Our conversation below covers everything from her writing process and “good” rejections to her favorite book of all time.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
AS: What was your inspiration for the book?
KR: As a reader, I’m very into tensions between three people. I think it’s kind of a magic number. I knew going in that I wanted a strange three-way relationship where themes of ownership are a little bit complicated. So I have two examples of ownership, and I think the more important one is mom, child and nanny. On a surface level, there’s feelings of ownership like, “Well, she’s my daughter.” Or, “Yeah, but I spend more time with her.” And then on a deeper level, there’s a whole history of domestic work and slavery in which black women took care of white children. I think moments where that history comes to the forefront are really interesting. I was a nanny for six years, and I was really intrigued by emotional labor and mandatory fun.
AS: What was your writing process when working on “Such A Fun Age”?
KR: Every morning, for about three hours, I would write. And then I would hit it again in the afternoon for about an hour or two. Once I had a body of work, and once I went to graduate school and actually had time to write all day — working around part-time jobs — I would go all day. I submitted this book for my thesis; it was my graduate school project.
I don’t recommend this, but I wrote most of this novel on the floor, in my bedroom, and now my back is feeling it. I write by hand first, then whatever sticks out to me gets transferred to the computer.
AS: The book has some commentary about class within the black community. Was that intentional?
KR: Showing black women of all incomes and classes, and how they relate to each other, was super intentional. I was extremely excited to write the character of Tamra, who code-switches, because code-switching is a really natural thing for black women, and I wanted to know what that looked like on the page. When I’m with my friends or at an interview, I don’t think “now is the time to code switch.” It’s just a part of who I am at this point. That gave me freedom to not explain to readers what is happening, but to show these characters in their truth. And, race is not just skin deep. It’s hair. It’s accent. It’s inflection. It’s music. There’s so many things that Tamra and Emira come up against, that I think is very common in life, and I was pumped to put those characters in the same room together.
AS: White woke culture is a major theme in the book. Can you elaborate on this concept?
KR: The concept I was most fascinated by is individualism, and the belief that if I, as a white person, can just respond the right way, I’ve done my job and I can go to bed feeling like I’m not a racist person. Even if Alix was a perfect employer, black women would still be making less than white women. It’s not an individual fix. I wish it were. A societal fix needs to take place. I think it’s very common for humans to want to feel good by giving someone a glass of wine, or sending someone home with groceries. But that does nothing to change the power structure at play.
AS: What’s the future of the film adaptation involving Lena Waithe?
KR: There was interest in a film adaptation from some other production companies, but it was really important to me that it was in the hands of people of color. I felt that would be a disservice to not do that for the novel. So, we made lists of people that we were interested in, and I was thrilled that Lena came back.
AS: What are your tips for a person who wants to write?
KR: Apply to everything, even if you think you’re not qualified for the role. There have been so many times where I haven’t gotten one job, but I made a connection by applying. A lot of being a writer is having part-time jobs that support your writing.
I would also say, especially for black women, to just write based on your tendencies. There will be readers and editors who think you’re not black enough. Some of them will think you’re too black. All you can do is speak to your experience as a black person, which does not look the same across the board. And the publishing process is long. You have to sit with that work for a long time, and if it’s not true to who you are, it’s going to fall apart.
Set realistic goals. I think realistic goals usually have numbers. If you’re saying, “I’m going to write more this year,” what is that? Set a number of pages. Have a writing day. Stick to it. Sometimes writing just looks like sitting there in front of your computer. Nothing’s coming out. That’s fine. That’s writing, too. Don’t look at your phone. Just allow yourself that time.
AS: Can you talk about rejection?
KR: The ones that stick out are the good rejections. When you get a letter back from a literary journal that says, “This one almost made it,” there’s something about that that keeps you going for another three months or so. I think it’s a good idea as a writer to get used to receiving those rejections early and often. I could wallpaper my rejections.
AS: What is your favorite book of all time?
KR: Oh, that’s so hard. All time. Oh man! One that recently blew me away again was “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin. It’s so moving and powerful and probably has my favorite female character in a novel. That one really stands out.
AS: Do you think “Such a Fun Age” will be eye-opening or uncomfortable for certain readers?
KR: I love books that make me see things in a different way; I would love for my book to do the same. To be honest, the comfort level of a reader is never my priority. I think my job as a fiction writer is to tell the truth.