Kiley Reid’s debut novel, Such a Fun Age, which unspools after a racist confrontation at a late-night grocery store in Philadelphia, was one of the publishing juggernauts of 2020. Her next book, Come and Get It, is published at the end of this month. In a frowsy dormitory at the University of Arkansas, a wealthy visiting professor meets a group of compelling, offensive, all-too-believable undergraduates, and becomes fascinated with the way that they talk about money. The more the professor listens, the less she can resist getting involved. Over a video call, I spoke to Kiley at her house in Ann Arbor, where she is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
It worked, we’re Zooming!
Were you expecting it not to work?
Yes, I’m always expecting something about these long-distance interviews not to work.
Well, I do have a one and a half year old who may come crashing in here at any moment.
I do too. I can hear mine thumping around upstairs. Were you guys up early?
I get up at 6:15am every day, and my daughter wakes up at 7am.
That is a very civilised time for a baby to wake up
I know. It’s kind of amazing. I almost feel like I’m revealing my salary, or something along those lines, when I tell people how much my daughter sleeps. That 45 minutes before she wakes up is when we get our lives together.
Are you a breakfast person?
Yes. I’m really hungry in the mornings. I can be awake for about half an hour before I need to eat. I love eggs, sausage, bacon, avocado. I drink decaf coffee now, which I thought I would never do. Decaf americano with cream.
Then do you sit down to write, or head out to teach classes?
The school year ebbs and flows, so that changes my schedule quite a bit. Last semester I had a really long teaching day on Tuesdays, which is great because you get a lot done, but also hard, because I would basically have to say “Goodbye, see you tomorrow” to my daughter at 10am. That was a little heartbreaking. There’s a lot of compartmentalising but I feel like as a parent, you get good at doing that.
I used to read a lot of author interviews, because I’m interested in how other authors live their lives. I wanted to read about their favourite places to write, and what time of day, and how they got things done. But now that I’m actually living as a writer, I understand that you just do the best you can. Sometimes I write in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, or in the car.
Sometimes I really, really just want to clean my entire house, but instead, I put four songs on a playlist and tell myself: this is the cleaning time you get, then you have to go and write. I used to work at a fancy design firm that would refer to that as time boxing. So a lot of time boxing gets the writing done when you’re teaching.
At the moment though, the big teaching days are not too many. If I have a lot, it's usually two classes, so a lot of preparation goes into those days.
Do you get a chance to take breaks? Go for a run, have lunch?
I wouldn’t call it a run. Maybe a slow jog. We live around a lot of woods and hills and nature so being able to go outside and get on a trail and see water is incredible.
And I absolutely eat lunch. Lunch is great. Do other people not have lunch?
You get all sorts
Well I definitely do have lunch, and I have it at like, 11:15am. Then dinner is at 5pm. I understand that those are very geriatric hours but that’s what works for us right now. I go to bed at 9:45pm every night. I try really hard to get some sleep.
I used to write at midnight just like everybody else, and I felt romantic and enigmatic and artistic, but—I hate to say it—your brain just works better in the morning and I have surrendered myself to that science.
You’ve been teaching in Ann Arbor for a year and a half—what’s it like being new in town?
It’s nice to get to know a place through the eyes of my daughter. I’ve been to way more parks and libraries than I have to restaurants or anything. Ann Arbor is really beautiful. So far, so good.
The campus novel is one of my favourite types of stories. Did that come about because you’ve been working in academia?
This story came about in the spring of 2019. I was teaching at the University of Iowa and I’ve always had a penchant for money. I think money is this driving force that places limitations on characters that are so real and delicate and terrible. That is something that I really gravitate towards.
At the time I was teaching undergraduate creative writing fiction workshops. My students were really bright and funny and kind, and they would also say things that I thought were bonkers. I just wanted to understand that student world a little bit more and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write about. Then I came upon this book, called Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, written by two sociologists. It’s a five-year study where they interview young women in a dorm freshman year and then track their financial status and what they’re able to do. I was really inspired by that.
So at that point, I had no clue what the plot was, but I felt like I had access to young people that I may not have again. I started having interviews with some of my students—this is after they were my students—and their roommates, and I paid them $15 for 45 minutes of their time, and I’d ask them a lot of questions about money: How do you Venmo? Who gives you money? What does this word mean to you? And that was the start of this novel.
As far as campus novels go, I’m going to be difficult and say that I don’t see this fitting in the campus novel genre, of which I am also a fan. I refer to this book as a “dorm novel.”
That distinction makes sense to me. For anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, can you say a little more about what that means?
Something this novel is really concerned with is what people do when they’re alone. And I think for many people, the dorm is the first time that they’re truly by themselves in their room, figuring out who they are and trying on different personalities. We don’t really spend much time in class [in the book]. Anyone who wants to put the “campus novel” label on the book is welcome to do that, but I think this is more of a dorm novel.
In a dormitory setting, there’s a surface guise of equality—dorms are a sort of artificial leveller. As a novelist, did that feel like a fruitful place to work?
Yes, exactly. I think it’s interesting that college has a way of blurring financial status, because you’re all living in the same dorm, you’re going to eat in the same places, you’re partying in the same places. And then when you lift up the rug a little bit, you see where the funding is coming from, and how different people’s lives look.
I’m actually writing an article right now where I get to interview young women about their finances. I’ve interviewed young women who have $2,000 in savings, and I’ve interviewed young women who have $30,000 in savings as 21-year-olds. Some of them have parents who give them nothing, and some of them have parents who give them everything. And I think the key to understanding how a class society works, particularly in a dorm, is understanding that there is no way to be rich properly, and there’s no way to be poor properly either. We’re just observing the way that humans react to money and the really peculiar ways that they respond to living in a class society. As soon as you’re approaching it from an analytical place, I think that that’s where these elements become really interesting.
It’s amazing that we don’t talk about money in novels more, given how preoccupied with money we are in real life
I think it’s particularly interesting too because we all love a plot-y novel. I do as well. And as far as finding a driving force for the plot, in real life it’s almost always money. So it’s interesting that in books, we don’t delve into that more often.
I definitely heard from several people that I interviewed that they were raised to feel that talking about numbers is very gauche and impolite. And I don’t know if seeing dollars and cents in a novel will also feel impolite to a certain degree. Maybe it will be pulling the curtain too far back for some readers. But I know that when I watch a television show, and someone says “Oh my rent is so much,” I want to know—how much?
You probably hear this a lot, but the dialogue in both Come and Get It, and in your first novel, Such a Fun Age, is deeply addictive reading. It feels uncannily true to life. Do you think your experience interviewing people has something to do with that?
I interview a lot of people for my novels and my work. I probably interviewed 30 people for this novel. And I feel like some of the most inspiring pieces that I pick up are between the answers to the questions that I’m actually asking—just the way that someone says something, the way that they up-talk, the words they use, the way that they catch themselves when they’re starting to say something that they don’t want to say. Those are the moments that I really try to put back into the novel. Those moments are true human behaviour.
I feel like as a writer, you have a responsibility to listen to the world around you and try to make sense of what you hear. There’s a lot of gossip in this novel, and I wanted it to feel like you were listening to gossip.
Did any of your own experiences directly inform the novel?
It’s so trite to say, but I feel like every author is all of their characters and none of them at the same time. I was a resident advisor for one year when I was a senior. I’m an assistant professor now. I’ve been a transfer student. So I’ve definitely had some of these experiences. I lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas [where the novel takes place] for a year and I would say that more than anything, Fayetteville really inspired a lot of this novel. It’s probably my favourite US city. It’s so easy to live there. It’s just an incredibly special place and I was excited to mentally go back there for four years.
What were you doing in Fayetteville?
My husband had a job teaching at the law school there, and I had just been rejected from nine graduate schools. He said “come with me, and try again.” And so I went, and I worked at a coffee shop, and I wrote articles for a small magazine, and I applied to graduate school again. That was in August of 2016, and then I went to [University of Iowa] for graduate school in August of 2017.
Were there portions of the novel that were harder to write than others?
The beginning was really difficult—and I feel like most authors are great at beginnings because it’s exciting and new. For this one, I wrote about eighty pages and cut all of it. It was pretty painful. A professor I know used to call that kind of writing “throat-clearing.”
What was the editing process like?
I work with Sally Kim at Putnam and she is just so generous, and quick, and giving to me as an artist. It was an incredibly long novel, around 600 pages, and we just pulled back and pulled back and pulled back, which I think is what a good editor does. She was like, “okay, show me your vision, now let’s make it packageable and into novel form.” We went back and forth so many times. Sometimes it was like, three in the morning, doing edits after pumping or whatnot. Just making it happen. It took about four years for me to finish, and then another year to publish.
Your first book was such a smash, and you got to go on tour and meet a lot of readers. Are you looking forward to that part this time around?
Yes, touring was so much more special than I ever could have dreamed, truly. It was so incredible to connect with readers. They will mention something that you forgot about in the book and tell you how it affected them, or someone wrote to me to say that they read Such a Fun Age when they were pregnant and they loved the name Briar, and now they have a baby Briar. Black women would come up to me and say, “Oh I know an Alix—she sits in the next cubicle” or “She drives my son to school on Tuesdays.”
In the way that readers of Such a Fun Age wanted to talk to you about race, which was central to that novel, do you think readers of Come and Get It will want to talk to you about money?
Probably, and as much as I don’t think it’s any of my business, I welcome the interaction. I would love to talk to readers about money. I think it’s fascinating.
I do believe we were in a different political atmosphere in 2020, and then after George Floyd died, there was a huge uptick in consumers reaching for Black art. And a lot of Black artists had to contend with, like, what does my work mean for this moment? This moment when people are saying “this is terrible, what do I do? Okay, I read that book, and I enjoyed it, and I rooted for the right person, so now I’m done.” Like, what’s my role within that?
But you can’t control what brings people to your work. So I am looking forward to seeing how this novel sits in the political atmosphere now, and what people are interested in and what they’re wrestling with. I do hope, always, that the work itself can be the thing that captures people. I’d hate for Black artists, myself included, to be tied to only writing about race when there’s a whole lot of things that we want to write about, like having a crush on someone, or not having money, or whatever else is going on today.
Do you know what you want to work on next?
I don’t, if you can believe it. I’m still working on the Such a Fun Age adaptation. And I’m focusing on my student’s work, and just being a mom.
Are you reading anything good?
I’ve become a big Audible listener. Toni Morrison records a lot of her books, and I’m going to try to make my way through those this semester. I think that that will be a nice companion when I’m on walks or doing the dishes or whatnot. Walking has always been a huge part of my writing process.
Interview by Jo Rodgers.
Photography by Alfield Reeves.
Come and Get It is available 30 January.