Kiley Reid has written the most provocative page-turner of the year
Kiley Reid doesn't love being photographed. "I was a little bit nervous," she says, reflecting on having just spent a snowy Monday morning in EW's New York studio. "It's been a little [overwhelming]. You spend three years alone in a room, and all of a sudden, you're very much on the outside." She continues, her voice brightening as she gears up to talk about her book: "But so far…so good."
She's hardly the first author to favor unpacking complex literary themes over posing for a photo shoot. But for Reid, 32, much of this is new. She started writing her debut novel, Such a Fun Age (Dec. 31), while applying to graduate school; finished it while pursuing her M.F.A. at the University of Iowa; and sold it to Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in a competitive 10-house auction before graduation. More than a year ago — and still before Reid graduated — Lena Waithe and Sight Unseen Pictures (Skin) acquired the film/TV rights.
But enough about all that excitement. Reid wants to get into the work. She delights in being asked about Fun Age's neat trick: nestling a nuanced take on racial biases and class divides into a page-turning saga of betrayals, twists, and perfectly awkward relationships. "I love this question, so I'm going to take my time with it," she says, almost to herself. "I wanted a compulsive read because that's the kind of stuff that I love to read and write. But when it comes to the social issues, I would hate for anyone to think that my intention was to make systemic racism a light issue."
Fun Age untangles the troubled dynamic between Alix, a white woman in her early 30s curating a profitable lifestyle brand online, and her 2-year-old daughter Briar's babysitter, Emira, a 25-year-old black woman figuring out her next step. Reid, a former nanny, proves immediately interested in themes of child care and ownership, but kicks things into a new gear after Emira is racially profiled at a grocery store late one night when a security guard detains her and accuses her of kidnapping Briar.
"I can't not be inspired by things that I see on the news, or see around me," Reid says. She started writing the novel back in 2015, during a time of heightened racial tensions in America. "I had been to a few Black Lives Matter marches," she says. "A lot of these police-brutality events were happening to low-income black Americans." Reid's focus on class intensifies as Emira grapples with trauma and struggles to make ends meet and, after the incident, as Alix's interest in her employee increases dramatically. Reid interrogates tropes of the white savior and unknowing racist as they play out in everyday life. She wanted to "show what this looks like on a petty domestic scale, and how racial biases still show themselves."
And yet the novel feels bound for book-club glory, due to its sheer readability. The dialogue crackles with naturalistic flair. The plotting is breezy and surprising. Plus, while Reid's feel for both the funny and the political is undeniable, she imbues her flawed heroes with real heart. Briar, for one, is about as believably adorable a toddler as you'll find in a novel. "Children are often written with a forced baby voice that sounds like an 8-year-old trying to play a 5-year-old to get into some movie," she cracks. "I just wanted [Briar] to be a child."
Reid could do this all day. She discusses her struggles balancing comedy and drama, then goes deep on the spiky ending (no spoilers!), sure to get readers talking. But it's not every day that a debut novel gets bought outright by one of Hollywood's most exciting talents, and so we must end there. "It was very strange," Reid admits of learning that Waithe was interested. Fun Age hadn't even been sent out formally for acquisition when she got the call. "I got off of a flight, and [my agent] said, 'Your book leaked.' I thought I was in trouble!"
Reid has to keep mum on the details, but the adaptation is progressing. She's ecstatic — for the creative challenge, for reaching a wider audience, for collaborating with other artists. But mostly for what this opportunity represents. "I'm extremely excited to have so many women of color on screen, of all different shades," she says. Then she adds, "We have the opportunity to make all of [the book's] awkward moments even more awkward!" More discomfiting, more entertaining, more unique — sounds true to Fun Age's trailblazing spirit.