Such a Fun Age author Kiley Reid discusses her writing process and what she learned working to get her bestselling novel—a Reese's Book Club pick—published.
I couldn't have been more excited when I saw the press release for Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (December 2019, Putnam) in my inbox. Lena Waithe had already bought the film and television rights months before the book was published. While I'll watch whatever the Emmy-winning screenwriter writes or stars in, the premise of Such a Fun Age is equally interesting.
One Saturday night, 25-year-old Emira babysits three-year-old Briar in a high-end grocery store, when another shopper alerts security that this looks suspicious. Upon seeing a black woman with a white child, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping. This sets in motion the events of the book, including Briar's mother setting out right the night's wrongs. Unfortunate histories are brought to light when the two women realize they have something, or someone, in common.
It's no wonder Such a Fun Age was selected by Reese Witherspoon as her January 2020 book club pick and debuted at number three on The New York Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction. Although I finished reading the book long ago, I'm still dissecting many layers of the story. Reid makes it hard to decipher who's the "bad guy" at times, brings up the question of how others help us (and who has the right to) form our identities, and examines the subtle ways prejudice manifests—all while remaining freshly comedic (Briar is hilarious and we can see why Emira finds such joy in babysitting her).
The Philadelphia-based author was featured in the Breaking In column of the January/February 2020 issue of WD. Here's Kiley Reid's full-length interview about her experience writing Such a Fun Age, from first draft to publication.
Briefly, what led up to this book? What were you writing and getting published before breaking out with this book?
I had written a few other novels before this book but nothing that I was truly proud of. In the few years before this novel, I had been writing and publishing short stories in literary journals, which was a nice way to work with different editors but also get used to receiving rejection letters.
What was the time frame for writing this book?
In 2015, I came upon the idea for this book but it took a few months to take pen to paper. I weakly started it then, continued writing in 2016 when I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for a year, and then completed it in my first year of graduate school in Iowa City. There was a big turning point as I shared the first 50 pages with a writer whom I trust. He said that the idea was there, but to start over. He was right and that’s what I did. In short – I sat on the idea for a year and took about 2.5 years to complete a solid first draft.
How did you find your agent?
Claudia Ballard was the first agent I’d ever met and one of 14 that I later queried. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop brings in agents to meet and pitch to, and I met Claudia and 4 other agents this way in my first year. After I sent my letters, I received offers for representation. Some agents wanted to change everything about the novel and some thought it was perfect as it was. Claudia fell somewhere in the middle. I kept coming back to her vision for the book and I’m very happy that I did. I’ve had a wonderful experience at WME and I feel thankful for their team every day.
What were your biggest learning experiences or surprises throughout the publishing process?
The biggest surprise was how many people it takes to publish a book. From editors to book sellers to artists to proofreaders to lawyers, I had no idea how many people see one single book all the way through to publication. The great thing is that most of these people just really love books and their enthusiasm makes the process not so endless.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?
I had the opportunity to move from New York City to Arkansas, which is a very inexpensive and beautiful place to live and write. I’d just been rejected by nine graduate programs and while it was dramatic, my decision to move to Arkansas and apply again ended up being the right decision. For a year, I worked at a coffee shop and bought no new clothes or gadgets. It was a year to reset and put my finances toward my writing, and the difference in the quality of my work became evident very quickly.
On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?
If I could go back, I would have not focused so much on my process. I think a lot of readers and writers romanticize the writing process. Some will tell you that you have to write in the morning, or you have to put on real work clothes, or if you don’t write every day, you’re not a "real writer." In reality, there were days that I stared at my computer for an hour and produced nothing, and other days that I wrote for 10 hours. Sometimes I had real clothes on and sometimes I was in pajamas. In the pajama days, I felt guilty and that I wasn’t doing it “right.” If I could go back, I’d try to think less about how I was writing and more about what I was writing.
Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing the build a platform and gain readership?
I did not have a platform in place when I sold the novel, but the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was absolutely a foot in the door. I like Instagram, and I used to try my hand at tweeting but I don’t think I’m fast enough. I’ve recently started a second novel with a more sincere effort and so I’ve signed off Twitter completely to keep my writing efforts in the right place. Mostly, I trust my team at Putnam to help me gain a readership.
What's the best piece of writing advice we haven’t discussed?
Your first thought isn’t always your best thought! I can’t remember who told me this, but it’s been a great help and challenge to work toward making my scenes bulletproof by testing the parameters that I’ve set up. Sometimes this means re-writing a scene from a different point of view. Or writing the same scene three times but in three different settings. Most often this shows me something that my first take was missing and then I can address it, and sometimes it makes me realize that my first though actually was my best thought, but then I understand why.
Upcoming projects include novel #2 and the film adaptation of Such A Fun Age.
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