Kiley Reid Has Done Her Share of Soul-Searching in Coffee Shops
A BOOKISH NEWCOMER You arrive at a certain age where you are in awe of younger people who are succeeding at something you wouldn’t have had the guts to attempt at their age. Take Kiley Reid, whose debut novel, “Such a Fun Age,” lands at No. 3 on this week’s hardcover fiction list. Reid had already sold the book when she graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop last spring. Lena Waithe bought the screen rights; Reese Witherspoon selected it as a pick for her book club; and now Reid is in the midst of a multicity author tour. If you are like me, you might read this and feel a twinge of ennui.
But to hear Reid describe her path to instant best-sellerdom — and her response to the news that she has arrived — is to be reminded of a golden rule of publishing: Behind every successful book is a detour around rejection. Or in Reid’s case, a self-paved road right through it. She says, “I applied to graduate school two years in a row. The first year, I got rejected by nine schools. As a writer, it’s difficult to know, when do I pull the plug on this?” She didn’t pull the plug.
Reid was living in Fayetteville, Ark., working as a barista at one coffee shop (Blackboard Grocery, now closed) when she started writing “Such a Fun Age” at another (Arsaga’s). She says, “I just wrote my butt off for that year.” She also read a lot of nonfiction about issues of race and class, which became pillars of her story about a nanny, her employer and all that goes unspoken between the two. The book’s epigraph comes from “Uneasy Street,” by Rachel Sherman, which is one of the books that inspired Reid.
When she applied to graduate school again, Reid received nine acceptances. She recalls, “The first time I said in my cover letters, ‘Please let me write at your school.’ The second time it was ‘This is what I write about. Let me know if I can do it at your school.’ I had so much more grounding in what I wanted to do.” She finished her novel in Iowa City, working for eight to 10 hours at a stretch: “There were negative temperatures so for the most part I wrote on the floor of my room next to a space heater. It was very cozy but I’m paying for that now by going to a chiropractor.”
What has been the most gratifying part of the publishing process so far? Reid says, “There have been a lot of emails and DMs from black women saying, ‘I read all the time and your book made me realize I’ve never read a book with a black protagonist before.’ I think that is easy to do, and it’s a problem.”