Kiley Reid reflects on the success of Such a Fun Age: 'You cannot solve racism through consumption'
EW speaks with the Booker prize-nominated author, whose bestselling debut novel releases in paperback on Tuesday.
Kiley Reid's debut novel Such a Fun Age released into the world on the last day of 2019. It was, perhaps, one of the last big books to come out before everything changed. Reid experienced immediate success: Such a Fun Age was a Reese Witherspoon/Hello Sunshine book club pick, she had profiles in all the major publications (including this one), and was an instant New York Times bestseller.
In early summer 2020, the book was part of a swath of previously-published titles to receive renewed (or, often, entirely new) attention in the wake of the racial injustice uprising and also the recipient of a Booker Prize longlist nomination. In other words, Reid has experienced, in a little over a year, much more than most debut novelists.
Here, as she looks towards the paperback release of Such a Fun Age on Tuesday, she talks to EW about her experience and what she hopes readers are able to focus on.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you look back on this period of about 16 months promoting this book — something that would have taken you around the world — what memories feel strongest?
KILEY REID: When the book came out, we had four weeks of touring and it was more touching and special than I could have ever dreamed — and then came the shutdown. I'm just so grateful that I had that time because so many authors have done all of their publicity virtually. At the same time, I'm also thankful that this virtual time has allowed me to meet and connect with so many authors that I wouldn't have gotten to otherwise. I've gotten to do events with Kevin Kwan, Bryan Washington, I just did an evening with Ethan Hawke — I never would have anticipated that.
Was there a moment that you knew this book was going to be really big?
I remember the first time the Putnam team met to discuss the publicity of this book. I flew out from Iowa to New York City, and we met in one of the offices at Putnam — my publishers were there with my agent, and there were about 15 other people there just because they were excited to work on the book. That was the moment where I felt like, all right, this project is a little bit bigger than I thought it was going to be. I felt the excitement of everyone around me and that felt very special — so did the realization that I was in the hands of people who love storytelling, and I wasn't going to be alone in the publishing of the book.
Did you have any goals or hopes for the life of this book?
My biggest goal for the book was to set myself up to do it again. I was thinking: How can I continue to tell stories? My eye on the prize was definitely to use this book to find a university and a community that would set me up to do it again. And I'm happy to say that I've recently signed on with Temple University, I'll be a writer-in-residence and visiting professor there for the next two years. This might sound trite, but I want to write for the rest of my life. I want Such a Fun Age to be the first thing out of the runway, but I want to have a cohesive collection that follows it. I hope it's the first of many.
Do you have a specific oeuvre or universe in mind that you're writing towards?
That's a great question, and I'll tell you this: I do a lot of plotting in terms of character and the story, but I never go into a work saying, I want to talk about race. Or, I want to show white people so-and-so. I think Tayari Jones talks about this, that you have to write about people's problems, and not a problem's people. It makes it so interesting that once Such a Fun Age was finished everyone said, oh is this supposed to be about race? When that was never the goal: The goal was to talk about this one Black girl's story, and the way she saw the things that were happening to her. Trying to virtue my way into a plot never works for me.
I do gravitate towards certain themes, though. I love exploring money. I love exploring the language around money and class. And I definitely gravitate towards characters in jobs that people see as intermediate — which I don't think is necessarily a correct framing.
Some of the best moments in Such a Fun Age come from the nuance of potentially innocuous conversations that turn out to be very loaded — are they pulled directly from situations you observe?
If you see me on my phone taking notes, you know why [laughs]. I think a huge part of me transitioning into being a professional writer was not being embarrassed to write things down in the moment. I have a little journal that I keep in my pocket for exactly that. When I come back to them, probably 75% of the notes I ask: What was I thinking? But I try to clock those moments in real time.
After this year-plus spent promoting the book, what have you found that readers most want to talk to you about?
There are two parties that really stand out to me. One is full of readers who came to the book as a way of contending with what they saw on the news, what was happening in our world. As an artist, you don't get to control what brings people to your art. There is that type of reader that thinks, I don't know what to do or how to help, and they decide they're going to read about Black people. That is a very human, natural response. However, when you go into a novel thinking, make me good, you're not approaching the work on its terms. If you're coming to my book thinking, teach me how to not be racist, you're unfortunately just layering a Black author with even more responsibility.
That being said, I do think a lot of people like to focus on the microaggressions in the story, the moment where a white man says the N-word, things like that. And there's another response that I'm getting from Black women which is: I don't have healthcare [like Emira], I'm also a caregiver, and I also have to make all these things make sense. In creating this book, if I had to answer to anyone, I wanted to answer to domestic workers and make this as real and palpable as it is in real life.
Does this burden, of unfairly being asked to educate readers looking for antiracist material, complicate or overshadow the joy of the book's success? A lot of authors talk about wondering why readers didn't want to know their work before last summer.
It's very complicated. On one hand, I'm doing my dream job. This is what I've wanted to do for so long, and the fact that I get to do it is a huge privilege. On the other hand, it's an often frustrating position to be in, when people are contending with what racism does in America and they turn to your book as a balm. I think perhaps the hardest part is realizing that I play a role in what I think is a lie — that consumption can solve racism. Consumption cannot solve racism because you cannot redistribute power through consumption. I think that's a lot of what people are trying to do when they reach for Black art, and that saddens me. We should reach for Black art because it's worth reaching for.
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