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Novelist Kiley Reid discusses the negative impact of money on our lives, delving into topics such as education, extravagance, and discomfort.

Novelist Kiley Reid discusses the negative impact of money on our lives, delving into topics such as education, extravagance, and discomfort.

In the spring of 2019, Kiley Reid had a realization that she wanted to write about the intersection of young people and money. This idea came to her as she was finishing her master’s degree in fiction at the University of Iowa and completing edits on her debut novel, the popular “Such a Fun Age”. To gather research for her new book, Reid interviewed college students and compensated them $15 for 40 minutes of their time. During these interviews, she asked about their perceptions of words like “classy” and “trashy”. One student shared a story about receiving “practice paychecks” from her father’s company, even though she did not work there. This discovery sparked Reid’s interest in exploring themes of corporate fraud in her upcoming novel.

We are having a conversation while drinking tea at a hotel in central London. The bar has deep red walls and luxurious decorations, and their tea menu is quite extensive. It feels fitting to discuss topics such as money, social class, and cultural value in this setting. Reid, who is 36 years old, has recently flown from Michigan, where she is a professor of writing. Despite the long journey and the stormy weather outside, she remains calm and at ease, dressed in a cheerful summer dress.

Taking on a sequel to Such a Fun Age must have been quite intimidating. The author’s first book was a huge success in both the US and UK, with actress and producer Lena Waithe obtaining early rights for a movie or TV adaptation and Reese Witherspoon choosing it for her book club. After six months, it achieved another accomplishment by being longlisted for the 2020 Booker prize.

Reid was in her Philadelphia apartment when her agent called, leaving her feeling surprised. She expressed, “To have it acknowledged in such a manner was truly astonishing.” However, she also had concerns about how people would react to her “unassuming” book being nominated for such a prestigious award. During interviews, she was repeatedly questioned about the prize’s history of racism, as it was initially sponsored by the food giant Booker McConnell, whose founders from the 19th century were involved in managing cotton and sugar plantations. “I have never seen white authors being asked the same question,” she noted. “On one hand, it didn’t feel entirely fair. But on the other hand, every university I have taught at has a history of racism. It is pervasive.”

The recurring theme of “it’s everywhere” can be found throughout Reid’s writing, showcasing the ordinary social interactions where larger forces, such as class and racial inequality, as well as financial and cultural capital, become apparent. Rather than outright villains, her characters often stumble through their actions with good intentions, leading to both humorous and disastrous outcomes. Reid explains with a laugh, “I enjoy writing about situations where you think, ‘What are you doing?'” Her latest novel, Such a Fun Age, follows Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old Black babysitter working for Alix Chamberlain, a white feminist influencer in Philadelphia who longs to befriend Emira and impress her with her high-end purchases and wine. However, Emira is more concerned with surviving financially in a country without universal healthcare.

In Reid’s latest novel, Come and Get It, the setting shifts from the white liberal guilt and east coast snobbery of Such a Fun Age to Fayetteville, Arkansas. The story takes place in a university, where racism is more blatant and money is highly valued. The book begins with Agatha Paul, a successful journalist and visiting professor, conducting interviews with undergraduates about weddings. As the conversation turns to money and their perspectives on it, Agatha becomes fascinated by their attitudes and remarks. She thanks Millie Cousins, a fourth-year Resident Advisor (RA), with $20 for setting up the interviews. Millie adds this to her own questionable earnings, including $20 from Tyler, the dorm’s mean girl, for arranging a roommate swap.

The foundation of Come and Get It revolves around Agatha, Kennedy, and Millie. According to Reid, the author, the goal was to examine these three characters’ distinct connections to consumption and finances. Agatha is rebounding from a breakup and is indulging in excessive spending. Kennedy believes she does not have a deep relationship with money, but it affects her identity and sense of security. She turns to Target when she feels anxious. On the other hand, Millie becomes fixated on owning a home and is highly focused on saving money. As one of the few Black women in the dorm, she faces racism and is treated differently by the white characters who have a mix of entitlement and guilt.

The portrayal of the American college experience has been romanticized in media such as movies, TV shows, and books set on campus. These depictions often include scenes of wild fraternity parties, glamorous sorority houses, and hungover students in lecture halls. However, in the book Come and Get It, the focus is primarily on the dormitory and the struggles of its residents to conform to the party lifestyle. The author aims to highlight the themes of excess and isolation, which are fueled by consumerism. College is often portrayed as a place where one can improve themselves by purchasing material goods.

Similarly to Millie, Reid also worked as a Resident Assistant (RA) at Marymount Manhattan College in New York for one year. She remembers constantly feeling like she had to be available, even when she was off-duty, and often slept with the RA phone by her side out of fear of missing an emergency call. Reid’s major was in acting, with a minor in religious studies. She was particularly drawn to these subjects because of her strong passion for storytelling that developed during her childhood in Arizona. She would often get lost in books and create her own stories.

After completing her studies, Reid’s time in the entertainment industry was brief. Shortly after graduating, she took on a job as a nanny and also appeared in a commercial. Despite filming on her birthday and anticipating a great experience, she felt unfulfilled and realized her true passion was writing. For nearly a decade in her 20s, she resided in New York while working as a receptionist and nanny, pursuing writing as a hobby. When her husband, who is a legal expert, received an opportunity at a university in Fayetteville, Arkansas, she moved there for a year and worked at a coffee shop while freelancing as a writer. During this time, she applied to various graduate writing programs but initially faced rejections. However, when she received an offer from Iowa, she saw it as her final chance to pursue her dream. She wanted stability and healthcare for herself and had considered returning to copywriting before this opportunity arose.

Kiley Reid

During graduate fiction workshops at Iowa, Reid’s classmates noticed that many of her stories revolved around discussions about money, which made them uneasy. These comments helped her realize the importance of this topic. She finds it interesting to see how people try to be politically correct when talking about money, as she believes it reveals their true selves. The discomfort in discussing money also exposes societal norms and prejudices. A doctor once advised her to reflect on her physical discomfort and its underlying reasons, which she applies to her writing. She explores moments where characters face uncomfortable feelings and struggle to understand their origin and driving force. She believes this is influenced by social expectations and the historical impact of racism and classism. Ultimately, she sees the experience of watching people grapple with their discomfort in real-time as an integral part of the human experience.

When asked about her inspirations, the author frequently references nonfiction works. The novels that sparked the creation of Come and Get It include Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics by Lester K Spence, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, and Monoculture by FS Michaels, which delves into themes of consumption and loneliness. Reid explains that portraying a socioeconomic issue through personal experiences is what makes her fiction resonate emotionally.

Writing is “a strange balance between using the real world and also wanting an entertaining ride. And not being exploitative of people.” This was a particular dilemma she faced when writing this novel, given that interviews with university students inspired its plot; though most people she talked to, she says, were “ecstatic” at the idea of being featured. “I’m not too afraid in that area.”

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Reid currently works as a professor at the University of Michigan, where she teaches various courses including one on using dialogue to drive a plot and the importance of establishing rules in fiction writing. She has recently become a mother to a one-and-a-half-year-old, and a large portion of her new novel was written while pregnant and while caring for her child. Although she now has less time for writing, she still manages to find moments in between her other responsibilities, such as in the car or at the office. Motherhood has also had a positive impact on her writing, as it has changed her priorities and made her more willing to take risks. Additionally, Reid is working on a screen adaptation of her book Such a Fun Age, which she is also serving as an executive producer for.

During interviews about her debut novel, Reid discussed the dual significance of its title. She explained that it alludes to a commonly heard phrase among caregivers of young children, but also challenges the notion that America during the Obama era was a utopia without racial tensions. Reid acknowledges that during that time, many people were struggling and their lives did not necessarily improve. She believes it is irresponsible to overlook this aspect. Economic inequality is now more openly recognized in the United States, but when asked if she has seen any improvements, Reid responds that it will not truly change until the median income for Black families significantly increases. Unfortunately, this has remained stagnant for the past 50 years. She does note, however, that there have been more discussions about this issue in literature.

Come and Get It – by Kiley Reid

She ponders how money controls our lives in a deeply ingrained manner. Her goal is for her books to provide insight into what a different world could be like. She enjoys when her stories prompt readers to contemplate, “What if we had access to healthcare? What if housing was provided instead of purchased?”

During a 2020 interview about her novel Such a Fun Age, Reid was asked about her thoughts on publishing a book that gained significant buzz and attention. She described the experience as “surreal” and noted that the true meaning of certain life moments often only becomes clear with time. Now, she reflects on the situation and is grateful for the platform she has to share her stories. However, she also acknowledges that releasing a book into the world is completely different from writing it in private. Writing is a personal and introspective process, while promoting a book is a more public and attention-seeking endeavor. Despite being friendly and open in interviews, Reid still values her privacy and feels uncomfortable with excessive attention.

Currently, Reid’s life is filled with more tranquility. Her main focuses are teaching her students and taking care of her daughter, though she remains just as dedicated to her writing. She strives to bring something fresh and unique to each of her novels, exploring different genres, styles, and language. She admires artists like Donna Tartt, the Safdie brothers, and Tilda Swinton who continuously evolve and create unexpected works. Reid is currently immersing herself in James Baldwin’s books, noting his ability to offer a fresh perspective in each of his works. This is also her goal in her own writing.

Source: theguardian.com