Kiley Reid's 'Such A Fun Age' Is More Than Just Fun
Debut novelist Kiley Reid takes a fresh new look at racial and class tensions as she goes beyond the now-ubiquitous filmed scene of a Black person faced with a fraught confrontation. Listen in as she discusses all that went into her approach, including labor laws and hair stories.By Abby WestJan 23, 2020, 2:00 PM
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Abby West: Hi, I'm your Audible editor, Abby West, and I'm excited to be here today with Kiley Reid, author of buzzy debut novel, Such A Fun Age, a fresh, and I'm going to say delicious, look at race and class today that has everyone talking and that I can't wait to talk to her about. Welcome, Kiley.
Kiley Reid: Thank you for having me.
AW: I’m so happy to do this. I was joking with you earlier that I called dibs months ago on being the one on our team to talk to you.
KR: I love that.
AW: Because I loved everything about the pitch for this book.
AW: The cover was enticing from the start and then I got the manuscript — loved it. And then I got to listen to Nicole Lewis's narration of it and I can't tell you how wonderful an experience it is.
KR: Oh yeah, she's killing it. From the very beginning it was so easy. Nicole really takes the characters to another level and she kind of does what I love good books to do, which is you don't tell the person, the reader or the listener, what to think. She's amazing at that.
AW: Did you have any hand in her casting at all?
KR: They sent me three videos. I love being on the other end and feeling like I have some kind of power in that way and I feel like she has had an “it” factor. She just really stood out from the very beginning and it was a very easy “yes.”
AW: From the beginning, she was Emira to me. That was it. So for those who are not familiar with it, I'm going to let you give the setup because when I try to set it up for other people, I pack too much into it and I'm trying to be more sparing.
KR: I love over-packed. That's great, but I can go sparing. My novel, Such A Fun Age, starts on a Saturday night in September. Emira Tucker is an African-American babysitter. She's 25 years old and she's having a great time with her girlfriends out for her friend's birthday. The mother that Emira babysits for, Alix Chamberlain, calls her and says, "We've had an emergency. Can you please take my child out just for an hour? I'll pay you double." Emira's a bit broke so she says, "Heck yes, I'm coming. I can do this."
At the grocery store, Emira and a 3-year-old named Briar are having a great time. They're dancing until a security guard and a customer upon seeing a white child with a black woman accuses her of kidnapping the child. Someone films it. Emira is rightly humiliated and the little girl's mom kind of takes this as an opportunity to get to know Emira, but sometimes she goes a little bit too far and it turns into a comedy of good intentions after that.
AW: I love that phrase, “comedy of good intentions,” because there are so many nuances to this. You could have left it at the same place, at the supermarket, with that confrontation and that's a space that so many people are very familiar with today. You see it on social all the time, these moments, these instances in people's lives, and you take it and use it as a jump-off point to examine lots of nuanced relationships.
AW: You know, there's a lot between an employer and employee that brings race into it and then between Emira and her new boyfriend. We're not going to get into too much about the backstory there, but who also happens to be white. And the dynamics going on between her and both of these people who are now pretty central in her life.
KR: Absolutely. Emira finds herself in very white spaces, more than normal, and it's with people who care a lot about her. But I think if, you know, we're all honest, caring about people can look a number of different ways and sometimes we hurt the ones we love the most. But Emira is also 25 and she's figuring out what she wants from her life and one day she's like, “Oh, this job is great. I can stay.” The next day, “I don't know if I want to quit.” “Oh, this guy's cute. Oh, maybe we'll just, you know, be hookup buddies and that's it.” And I wanted to really give her room to make all of those decisions in real time because that is what her blackness is doing for her at that moment. It’s setting her up in these instances.
AW: Yes, there's that. I might be significantly past 25 but I love the way you get inside her head and that space of, what is next for me? I don't know what's next for me. Am I behind? Everyone else in my life seems to be moving forward and I'm not as far ahead as I "should be," and how she's managing her fear and just being able to live her life. I found it really interesting the way you got in her head about that.
KR: That's good to hear. I think that that period is so interesting because it's this taking-off point where your life can change in an instant and the amount of money that you're making, especially as an African American woman in your 20s, dictates how much you're going to make for the rest of your life. And I think it's so interesting to watch how class either holds friendships together or tears them apart in big ways, like, “Oh, this person isn't classy like me anymore.” Words like that. Or in small ways like, “Oh, you don't want to do anything fun and we want to go to Mexico and you can't do that. And Emira finds herself at this very strange intersection. There's a really great book that I just read a little bit ago that really speaks about it.
It's called Monoculture and it's by F.S. Michaels. She manages to write a whole book about capitalism without mentioning the word capitalism and she calls it the economic story, which I think is so apt and in the economic story of how well am I doing, she writes, how do you figure out how well you're doing? All you have to do is look at the people next to you and Emira can't help but look at people that seem to have their lives together more than she does and she takes it as “I did something wrong,” In this instance, that started out the book, that's a completely racial-bias motivated moment.
So I wanted her to have room to experience all those feelings.
AW: What was it like for you to get in that mindset? I know I've seen quite a few articles with people asking, did you pull from yourself?
KR: I know.
AW: All these things.
AW: What was it like for you sitting to write this?
KR: I definitely am not Emira. She's so much cooler than I am and I share more of Alix's nervous energy than anything else. But I did have a financially precarious period in my twenties where I did not have health insurance and I was terrified of cutting myself or getting, you know, mono or anything, and having to go to doctor and seeing a bill and that would change my entire life. So it was easy to tap into those anxieties.
But I had a goal. I wanted to be a writer. And I kept thinking about what would have happened if I didn't have a goal. And that's on an individual level of Emira isn't finding a path that she feels extremely passionate about, but it's a bigger level too of, okay, well, why does she have to choose at 25? There were so many jobs that I didn't even know existed until I was in my thirties.
KR: So she has all these pressures on her, and I wanted to create this kind of perfect mediocre B student who's an amazing worker, but has this really natural rejection to careerism. And I wanted to see how she would make other people feel uncomfortable by just wanting to work.
AW: In this land of overachievers where everyone's like, “Oh well, I guess that rules out all those colleges you could go to.
AW: Where everything is now heightened and you're not measuring up.
AW: Everything they do seems to say she's not measuring up.
KR: Yes. And I think that they're not realizing that she makes them uncomfortable. There's people in the novel, both black and white, who feel threatened by her rejection of that.
KR: And I remember, I've had so many jobs. I was at Godiva, working behind the counter and I was a receptionist and people would say, but what do you really want to do? And I can't help but think, what if that was good enough for me at that moment?
And so I'm obviously not working at Godiva anymore, even though I did like that job. It was a good one.
AW: Sounds like it had perks.
KR: It did have a lot of perks. Yes, exactly. But I wanted to see what Emira's life would be like in this phase of figuring that out.
AW: I won't get into it too much, but I do love the way you wrap up her story because it plays to exactly that point. That the future at that age is so full of potential. You have no idea what your next five years are going to look like. I think there was a lot of that throughout your book, in that no one really knew where their futures were going to go, even though they all thought they did.
AW: Between Alix and Kelly, who definitely came from different socioeconomic backgrounds, between themselves, and between Emira, I think, but they thought they knew exactly where their lives were going and yet even if their career paths played out the way they thought, the kinds of intersections they were going to have, they could never predict it.
KR: Not at all. Not at all. I'm so fascinated by characters who find themselves in this position of power that they feel like they didn't ask for. And Alix has had interns before. She's hired people before, but suddenly she has an African American woman who isn't looking for a college credit. This is her income. And when she's put into this situation in the grocery store, Alix realizes, I'm involved in this now. I do think that some of her reaction is realizing how Emira is being exploited and that's not really Alix's fault. If Alix was a perfect mom, a black woman would still be making less than a lot of other demographics, but it feels like an individual thing for her. So she tries sometimes a little bit too hard to even the playing field.
AW: I have to admit that I struggled to be charitable to Alix.
KR: It's fine. You're not the first.
AW: But I legit had a moment towards the end where I was like, I hate everyone but Emira.
KR: I mean, I feel like in life we have friends who say and do really problematic things and some days where I think, “That was my last coffee with her. I think we are done.” And then two weeks later it kind of rolls off a little bit of different way.
What gave me freedom with Alix was remembering that as soon as I start judging her for treating her nanny in the wrong way, I stopped judging the systems that she's put into. And you know, why isn't Peter [her husband] more involved with his childcare and why isn’t Emira able to go to the doctor when she's working really hard. And I try my best to focus my energies towards those bigger systematic problems as a person, but as a reader, I'm obsessed with the petty tiny things always. So I totally understand.
AW: It was a very visceral reaction.
KR: That's good.
AW: There's a lot to the class structure, particularly the nanny-babysitter dynamic. I'd read that you were intentionally looking at that, particularly in Philadelphia. That it’s not necessarily a bone of contention, but that there is a community there that is very vocal about it. Is that correct?
KR: Yes. It's been very interesting as this was just happening in October, that Philadelphia is one of the nine states to begin passing the Domestic Labor Bill of Rights, which will kind of form a contract between domestic workers and the families that they're working for, whether one has been signed or not. And it's fantastic because I think that a lot of families hire a nanny and say, what's the best thing we can do for this person? Let's make her part of the family. The problem with that is they deny themselves the employer role and when you're in a family… like, I don't give my husband sick days and I don't give him a bonus and I don't protect him with two-weeks notice or anything. That'd be crazy.
But as an employee, those things protect you. And so now, which is going to affect I think 16,000 domestics, it's amazing, and they're all people of color for the most part. They will have the two-weeks notice when they are fired. They'll have a four-weeks notice when they live there.
AW: It’s life altering.
KR: It’s life altering. This whole book would have been different if those had been established then. There are certain rules with taking breaks, making sure they get time off, paid sick leave. It's a real job. And hopefully now, at least in Philadelphia, it'll be treated that way.
AW: That's significant and it's a great thing that you get to talk about that as you go around talking about the book because it's a very nuanced, light touch throughout the book, the conversation and even with Emira bringing it up to the security guard that, I'm a nanny, not just the babysitter. That being able to have that distinction and what it means to other people.
And then what it would mean to her to be able to get a living wage and get healthcare.
KR: For a really difficult job. Yes. When I think about it, when I was a receptionist, if I messed up a phone call, I was like, okay, that sucked. I'm going to do it better next time. It's fine. But if you mess up with the child, if you accidentally hurt someone's baby, that will change you and their life forever and to not protect those people seems ludicrous to me. So I'm really hoping that it'll change.
AW: Speaking of babies, I love Briar, so much.
KR: I'm so glad.
AW: And again, when Nicole Lewis does her voice in this way… it's just crazy. I can't even pretend to try to do it, but I just wanted her to talk more.
KR: Yeah. She probably wants to talk more as well.
AW: Just the randomness of what she says. How did you come up with all those random things she would say?
KR: Oh my goodness. From my time as a nanny, I felt that the humor of children was so much different than it was on the page. I saw this so often — and sometimes I know it's tempting— I see a lot of children used as plot devices, like the one that reveals a secret or bring something up at this perfect time. And also, they don't get to deploy their intelligence and humor in a way that I felt like was accurate. So I was thrilled to have this background of hearing the strangest but truest things that children would say and I wanted Briar to just to be so serious, but loving and odd and just truly all her own. And it was kind of delicious too, because Alix runs a brand about asking questions and getting what you want and her daughter will not stop. And she's like, “You're driving me bananas! I can't handle it!” Yeah, exactly.
AW: And I love that Emira is drawn to her because of her oddness and her otherness within her own family. And that was something that picked up on and that she felt connected by. And when she didn't want to leave, because she felt protective of Briar.
KR: Absolutely. Did you babysit by any chance?
AW: I'm the oldest of three. So...
KR: Oh, so you've been babysitting your whole life.
KR: Yes. And that's hard because you can't leave those ones at all.
AW: No. And I didn't get paid.
KR: Oh, no. Yes. You needed those domestic labor rights for sure. [Laughter] Absolutely though, you don't want to leave.
There were so many children that I just felt so close to, and it's strange to say I have such a bond with you, but I cannot hang out with you unless your mom pays me for these two hours because it's just not appropriate. It's very strange.
AW: Yeah, that's, my gosh.
AW: I did not write down the phrase, but you had Alix think this wonderful phrase when she and Kelly were arguing. It was something about a racist one-upsmanship or something.
KR: Yes. Yes. I think it was that she and Kelly got into an unwitting game called Which One Of Us Is More Racist.
AW: Right. And it played out in a way that… I've heard this joke often in the Black community, the, well-intentioned white folks who will — being well-intentioned — just take things left. And the two of them are doing that her. Like who loves Emira more. Who cares about her more and then they just act it out in not the best ways.
KR: Not the best ways. I think from the very beginning this incident shakes everyone up and their first worry is how can I, as an individual, respond perfectly to this instance and the reaction. They do not come in with that same energy of how do these instances stop happening? What can I do on a policy level to make sure that this doesn't happen? Instead, it's how can I have little good feelies about me?
KR: And it ends up with them in this conversation where the person in question isn't even there. I obviously have not been there for one of those conversations, but I'm sure you too have been on the other receiving end of people just feeling so concerned about seeming racist and not concerned about what racism actually does to people. I feel like it's so easy for people to be concerned about that.
I'm sure this has happened to you: If a white person goes to touch my hair and I catch them, they apologize, apologize, apologize. Of course, that's annoying. But the more insidious forms of racism is wondering did I not get that job because they don't think my hair is professional or did the guy not want to date me because of this? And so microaggressions again, I love studying them.
But the real change that can take place, it's not happening in that conversation at all.
AW: No. The one time it did happen to me. I kind of blacked out.
KR: Good for you.
AW: I was like, is that happening? And my girlfriend just got in front of me and said, Hey, let's go over here.
KR: Yeah. [Laughter] You need that girlfriend to say, “Hey, this was wrong, but you're not going to feel good if you… I support that blackout for sure.
AW: Going back to the class part, I love that Alix's Black friend ends up talking to Emira more from a place of class and privilege then kinship.
AW: And there's the double dynamic of Alix looking for permission from her black friend too, for anything she does with Emira. Looking to her as the authority for all things that might be good for her.
KR: Yes. There was so much I wanted to accomplish with Tamara and she got more interesting the more I wrote her. On a really broad level, white supremacy is not skin deep. It's kind of a moot point to talk about race without talking about class and Tamara is coming from a place of privilege. And she sees this Black woman and says, let me step in and make sure she lives the kind of life that my girls will live. Exactly. And that is someone I've met many times.
At the same time, code-switching is something that Black people of all incomes and wealth are really familiar with and I was so excited to experiment what that would look like on the page between who Tamara was on the phone with a low-income black woman and back with her friends. She has a lot of different cadences and I wanted to make it feel really natural but really specific. And so yeah, that was what I was going for.
AW: That was really fun.
KR: Oh, good. She's a little cringy, but yes.
AW: A little cringy, but delightfully so. I love, I mean, there's so many and the climax though was I think I yelped in my car. Just so you know.
KR: I love this. I love reading yelping. That's great.
AW: Yeah. That was, I was driving, and then I cackled. I definitely cackled.
KR: Good. That's a perfect reaction. I want the shock and then the laughter. So yes, I appreciate that.
AW: Let's talk about when the idea first came to you and how that sort of unfurled. Were you at the Iowa Writer's Workshop when you started it?
KR: I had actually brought maybe 100 pages to the writer's workshop. I was living in New York City and had the idea, which meant, I was just thinking about writing it for maybe a year, year and a half, two years. I lost track of time. And then I had a very strange leap year where I lived in Arkansas for a year and that's when I really started writing it. And so I came to Iowa and that was the first time that I truly had time to iron all these plot points. And then I applied to get into the novel workshop, which was a great decision. I know a lot of MFA people have really strong opinions on workshopping a novel or not.
For me it felt like one giant book club and I came in and I just felt like people were discussing my novel so separate from me that I felt so free to take all criticism and I think I took 85% of what people said. It was an excellent day.[?????
On top of the really helpful criticism, one of my classmates said, “Okay, so I've cast your entire book. Do you want to know who should play who?” And just that excitement as a writer will carry you for like four months because someone said something nice about your work.
So I finished it in May of my first year and then I sold it in June, the summer in between my first and second year.
AW: And I guess the casting conversation comes in handy now that Lena Waithe has optioned it for a movie.
KR: I mean, that's pretty, yeah, that's a little exciting. Yes. Very.
AW: More than a little exciting. How much involvement do you think you'll get?
KR: I will be executive producing, which I'm still learning what that role means but I love saying it.
AW: So does that mean you can make it mean whatever you want it to mean?
KR: That's the plan. That is absolutely the plan, but she and her team and Sight Unseen, the other production team, it's like this nice workshop extension of grad school where I get to explore this novel in a new medium with a completely new language. So I'm very excited.
AW: I know a lot of writers say listening to their work as an audiobook changes it. Whenever it jumps to a new medium, it feels like it changes or morphs or evolves in a different way. How much do you think being filmed will change it?
KR: Obviously, my book has a lot of pop culture references in it and those take a lot of page space and the idea of having one shot of, you know, Emira's bedroom with her IKEA furniture and her pictures and her clothes and her shoes from Strawberry, like that ...
AW: The Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons on the refrigerator door.
KR: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. All of those things. I'm so glad you remembered that. Yes. Like all of those things really inform who someone is. And so the idea of setting the stage in that way seems really exciting to me.
AW: Jumping back to when you mentioned the pop-culture references, what made you decide to make Emira so social media unsavvy?
KR: I definitely have friends who were late to social media and just felt that they kind of didn't pick up on it in time, which I think is how I feel about Harry Potter. I did not pick up on it at the time and so when everyone said, “Oh, you can still read it, you can still read it.” I was like, “I'm 31 years old. I can't.” So I don't know about that. But I think once you've missed it, which happens, then people typically, you know, let it go or get on and they kind of are not in it too much.
But Emira at this time in her life, she doesn't exactly know what she could show on social media. She can't show someone else's kid. She can't show the inside of the booth that she types at, and then she goes out with her girlfriends and that's kind of her life.
And so, on a surface level, I think she's thinking, I missed that boat, maybe one day. But on a deeper level, I think she's a bit embarrassed about what she would have to show for her life and she wants to make her life more “professional” and ready before she takes that on.
KR: Exactly. I mean, it's all a bunch of lies, you know. So she's not a very good liar, which is great, but she's not too much on Instagram.
AW: She's pretty earnest about things.
KR: Yes, she's not a sellout. She just can't do things that she doesn't feel super passionate about. I wouldn't say that she is the best communicator.
AW: I was going to say, you gave her that sort of — This is where I'm going to cop to being a gen Xer.
KR: That's fine.
AW: You gave her that sort of, I call it flat, but that affect, of like, “Yeah, whaaaatever.”
KR: One hundred percent. I'm so glad you got that. Yes. Yes. She has a definite wall up, like this blase finisher: “Okay, soooo… that was weird.” Kind of.
KR: And it's almost this nervous tick, that I also think like sixth and seventh graders use a little bit and she hasn't really found a way to get rid of that.
AW: That's true. That is very middle school.
AW: It's a cover.
KR: One hundred percent. And I will say, I'm 32 and in interviews I find myself doing little things. I think for the first month and I was interviewing, I would end everything I said with, um, so yeah. And I'm like, what am I? Yeah. So we're all guilty.
AW: It's so fun to figure out your verbal ticks, right?
KR: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And listen to them over and over. Yes.
AW: Almost as fun as when you firstdo media training and look at your face and all the things it does when you're doing an interview.
KR: It's torture. Absolutely. Yeah.
AW: Again, I found out about your book a couple of months back and even then it was buzzy. What's this kind of roller coaster ride been like for you?
KR: It's definitely a roller coaster ride. I have such enthusiasm for this whole journey and thankfulness for my team. It's been really great to see exactly how many people it takes to put a novel out and the limit does not exist at all. As I'm reading it, when I'm in front of people, it's so touching to say, Oh yeah, I added this because of this friend or I'm really glad so-and-so made me change this around. So the community process has been really wonderful.
KR: I have to say the best part so far is black women DM’ing me. Or emailing me and saying, “I read a lot and I realized that this was the first black protagonists I've read, ever.”
KR: And I think that is so common and easy to do. It’s no one's fault and it needs to change too. So that's been really exciting.
AW: And that means that your book will be very significant to them forever, as a first.
KR: I hope so. On one end, I don't like to romanticize what I can do with a novel. All I can hope for is for people to enjoy it. On the same end, I have read books being like, “Okay, I am now a changed person,” so obviously that would be amazing. But I hope people just love the story.
AW: So I've got to do the “what are you working on next” question?
KR: I'm ready. I'm slowly working on novel number two, which for me means reading a lot, especially nonfiction because I'm super inspired by true stories, especially in the beginning. So right now, which means reading a lot of nonfiction, going to cafes that do not have internet — so I'm not distracted — and exploring more of those things I love like really big class dynamics and then little tiny petty grudges and crushes. That's the mix I like to stick to.
AW: It's a delightful, delicious mix that I'm looking forward to seeing you grow and maybe make that sort of your thread through for the rest of your career.
KR: I'm ready. I'm ready. Yeah, hold me to it. Thank you so much.
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