Money runs our lives: novelist Kiley Reid on education, excess and what makes us squirm

From The Guardian:

“I knew I wanted to write about young people and money,” says Kiley Reid, recalling the moment in spring 2019 when the idea for her next book came into view. She had finished editing her debut, the much-loved Such a Fun Age, and was completing her masters degree in fiction at the University of Iowa. She began interviewing undergraduates about their relationship to money, paying them $15 for 40 minutes of their time. She asked them about their interpretation of “load-bearing” words, like “classy”, and “trashy”. One student mentioned her dad’s habit of paying her “practice paychecks” from his office’s payroll, though she did not work for him. It seemed Reid had stumbled upon a creative way to practise corporate fraud; she also had the beginnings of a new novel.

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It must have been daunting to embark on a follow-up to Such a Fun Age though. Reid’s debut climbed the bestseller charts in the US and the UK, the actor and producer Lena Waithe nabbed early film and television adaptation rights and Reese Witherspoon picked it for her book club. Six months later, it reached another milestone when it was longlisted for the 2020 Booker prize.

Reid was in her apartment in Philadelphia when she got the call from her agent. “I was a little bit flabbergasted,” she says. “For it to be recognised in that way was really astounding.” She was concerned, however, about what people would say “about this very casual book making it to this very prestigious prize”. Interviewers asked her how she felt about her book being nominated for a prize that has a history of racism (the prize was first backed by the food multinational Booker McConnell, whose 19th-century English founders managed cotton and sugar plantations). “I’ve never seen white authors being asked the same question,” she says. “On the one end, it didn’t feel completely fair. And on the other, every university I’ve ever taught at has a racist past. It’s everywhere.”

It’s everywhere” is an enduring motif across Reid’s fiction, which highlights the ordinary social interactions in which larger forces – of class and racial inequality, financial and cultural capital – make themselves known. There are few outright villains in her stories; her characters often blunder along with good intentions, to comic and disastrous effect. “I love writing about instances where you go, ‘What are you doing?’” Reid says, with a laugh. Such a Fun Age follows Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old Black babysitter employed by Alix Chamberlain, a white feminist influencer who lives in Philadelphia and resents the fact that she’s not in New York. Alix soon develops a longing to befriend Emira. She introduces Emira to her own Black friends; emphasises her high-street purchases in an effort to seem more down-to-earth, and plies Emira with wine. Emira, meanwhile, is more focused on financially surviving in a country without universal healthcare.

While white liberal guilt and American east coast snobbery set the scene for Such a Fun Age, Reid’s new novel, Come and Get It, moves south to the city of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Set in a university, the racism is more overt, and the money exchanged and coveted with open hunger. The novel opens with Agatha Paul, a successful 37-year-old journalist and visiting professor, arriving at a dormitory to interview undergraduates about weddings. When the conversation turns to money – how much they would pay for a gown, what a “tacky wedding” looks like – Agatha finds herself “enraptured by these young women, their relationship to money, what they said and how they said it”. Afterwards, Agatha gives $20 to Millie Cousins, a fourth-year Resident Advisor (RA) who oversees dormitory life, as thanks for setting up the conversation. Millie adds it to her growing stash of questionably gotten gains (she also receives $20 from the dorm’s mean girl, Tyler, for swapping her old roommate – a socially awkward compulsive shopper named Kennedy – for a cooler one).

Agatha, Kennedy, and Millie form the basis of Come and Get It. “I wanted to explore three characters who have very different relationships to consumption and money,” Reid says. Agatha is recovering from a breakup and is “splurging on everything”. Kennedy “thinks she doesn’t have an in-depth relationship to money, but it definitely shapes who she is and where she feels safe. When she gets nervous, she goes to Target.” Millie, meanwhile, becomes obsessed with the idea of owning a home, and is laser-focused on saving money. As one of the only Black women in the dorm, she faces racism and is treated by the white characters with a mix of entitlement and guilt.

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The American college experience has long been mythologised in films, television, and campus novels. The images are familiar: raucous fraternity parties; sorority girls in mansions; lecture halls filled with hangovers and regret. In Come and Get It, however, the action is mostly contained within the dormitory, and focuses on the awkwardness and loneliness of the residents as they try to live up to the hedonistic ideal. “I wanted to show excess and loneliness, which I think consumerism provides for us. I think that college is one of those places that says you can be better: all you have to do is buy all this stuff.”

Like Millie, Reid spent a year as an RA at New York’s Marymount Manhattan College. She recalls the “feeling of always being on the clock”, spending many nights with the RA phone on her pillow, gripped with fear of sleeping through an emergency call. She studied acting, with a minor in religious studies. She was drawn to the subjects due to an “intense, deep obsession with storytelling” going back to her childhood in Arizona, where she remembers losing herself in books and writing her own stories.

Her acting career was short-lived. A year after graduating, Reid was working as a nanny when she filmed a commercial. “I shot it on my birthday. I thought ‘This will be the greatest.’ But I felt something severely lacking,” she recalls. What she really wanted to do was write. She lived in New York for nine years throughout her 20s, working as a receptionist and nanny, while writing as a hobby. When her husband, a legal scholar, was offered a job posting in at a university in Fayetteville, Arkansas, she moved south for a year, working as a coffee shop barista and freelancing writer while applying for graduate writing programmes. She received a round of rejections the first time, before Iowa called. “I was giving myself one last shot,” she says about the application that would change her life. “I wanted healthcare and stability for myself. I was telling myself I would go back to writing copy.”

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At graduate fiction workshops in Iowa, classmates observed that many of Reid’s stories featured discussions about money, and that it made them uncomfortable. The comments made her realise she was on to something important. “I love watching people try to be politically correct around money,” she says. “I think parts of their deepest selves are revealed in those interactions.” Equally revealing is the social discomfort of talking about money: “A doctor told me once that when you feel bad in your body, do a scan of how you’re feeling, and why you are feeling those things. I think I write about [times] where uncomfortable feelings come over characters, and they struggle in that moment to identify why and what it is that’s driving them there. A lot of it is social etiquette, and the history of racism and classism,” she says. “I think watching people in real time figure out why they’re sweating or feeling like they want to leave the room is a big part of the human experience.”

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“Money runs our lives in a way that is so deeply ingrained,” she reflects. She hopes that her novels will open a window into what an alternative world might look like. “I like when my fiction sets up readers to wonder, OK, what if we had healthcare? What if you didn’t have to buy a house, and you were just given housing?”

In a 2020 interview for Such a Fun Age, Reid was asked how she felt about publishing a novel that attracted such a huge amount of buzz and publicity. She described it as “surreal” before concluding that the meaning of some life moments only become clear after time. What does she make of it now? “I am bowled over and grateful that I now have a platform to tell stories. That is singular and spectacular. I can also recognise at the same time that putting a book out into the world is the antithesis of writing one.” There is a huge difference, she says, between the private act of writing – “you’re creating a refracted blueprint of what’s in your mind, no matter if you think it will sell” – and the public act of promoting the work. Though she is friendly and forthcoming in interviews, there’s still a sense of craving privacy and a discomfort with attention.

Link to the rest at The Guardian