Kiley Reid drew from life experiences to start a novel, and then fine-tuned the manuscript as a student at the University of Iowa. Published in December 2019, just months after her graduation, her book is drawing critical acclaim—and resonating with readers.
Sara Epstein Moninger
Video and photography
David Scrivner

When Kiley Reid first applied to graduate programs in creative writing, she received nine rejections—including one from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Instead of giving up her pursuit of an MFA, Reid dug into her work. She read books that interested her, ones that tackled weighty subjects like wealth and racism and class divide, and she started writing what would become her debut novel. She applied again, this time with more focus, and received nine invitations—including one from Iowa, which she accepted.

“I’d never been to Iowa. I grew up in the desert and I was very scared of the cold,” says Reid, who was born in Los Angeles and raised in Arizona. “But coming to Iowa was a really good decision.”

A storytelling success

The front cover of Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Iowa Writers' Workshop alumna

Such a Fun Age, the debut novel of 2019 University of Iowa graduate Kiley Reid, is drawing national attention. In addition to being included in Reese Witherspoon’s book club, the title is noted among Real Simple’s Most Anticipated Books of 2020, Elle’s Best Books of 2020 So Far, and USA Today’s 5 Books Not to Miss.

Pulitzer-winning author Paul Harding, a graduate of and recent visiting professor in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, calls the book substantive and compelling: “These characters laid claim to me, and their stories became important to me in the way art does that to its readers, viewers, listeners.”

Lena Waithe, screenwriter and producer who optioned the book for a film adaptation, says the book is “a unique, honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a black woman in America today. Kiley Reid has delivered a poignant novel that could not be more necessary.”

Not long after Reid graduated in May 2019, her book, Such a Fun Age, was published. The work of fiction explores the relationships between a twentysomething black babysitter, her 3-year-old charge, and her wealthy white employer, and shows how good intentions are sometimes harmful. It’s a lighthearted story with serious undertones of racial bias and class dynamics.

By the time it arrived in bookstores in December, Such a Fun Age had already generated significant buzz: It became a New York Times bestseller, was named a 2020 NAACP Image Award finalist, and was optioned for a film adaptation by screenwriter and producer Lena Waithe. It was included on many of the industry’s “books to read in 2020” lists and was selected by actress Reese Witherspoon for her book club.

Reid says she is both surprised and pleased by the book’s success. The best part, though, has been engaging a new cohort of readers.

“It’s super thrilling when women come up to me at readings and say, ‘This is the first book I’ve read in five years. Thank you for welcoming me back,’” says Reid, who began 2020 on a national publicity tour that included Iowa City. “I want my readers to stay up way too late and think, ‘One more chapter, one more chapter,’ because that’s my favorite feeling as well.”

While telling a good story is her first priority, Reid says she also hopes readers gain new perspectives from her work. She doesn’t like the idea of writing an “issues” book but asserts that fiction with characters and situations that feel real can’t avoid some social commentary.

“I love when stories make me zoom out a bit and examine the boundaries placed on the characters within them. There are a lot of boundaries in my novel—from a young woman who can’t afford to go to the doctor and struggles to pay the rent despite working long hours to a woman who’s on her own when it comes to figuring out child care. Those are conditions that many people find themselves in. I think in fiction you can fall in love with characters and see situations a little bit differently and maybe hopefully one day act on them.”

Reid studied theater and spent several years as a nanny in New York City before turning to creative writing. When she arrived on the UI campus, she was eager to take a fiction workshop with Pulitzer-winning visiting faculty member Paul Harding and have “10 really smart people read a huge chunk” of her writing.

“Some people don’t like workshopping novels, but I feel like it’s like a big book club. It’s really exciting to hear your classmates say, ‘Oh, remember this part? I thought this was going to happen’ or ‘I wanted this to happen.’ All of that helps feed the process,” says Reid, whose stories have been published in Ploughshares, December, and Lumina. “Even the comments I didn’t agree with made me change things so that readers would have a better experience. I completely believe in the workshop process: Sometimes it’s really difficult and you go home upset, and sometimes it’s really wonderful. But I think it informs your writing in really good ways.”

Perhaps the most important thing Reid gained at Iowa is a community.

“A big part of why I wanted to do an MFA program was to meet other writers who would do a little mini workshop with me when I needed it for, hopefully forever,” she says. “I left Iowa with four friends who are those readers for me—and they’re all very different readers. They went through entire drafts of my first novel and were vital as I prepared to submit it to agents.”

Reid is working on a second novel and executive producing the film adaption of Such a Fun Age.

Kiley Reid, in her own words

On life in Iowa City: “It’s very peaceful in Iowa City, and that was wonderful. I lived right by Hickory Hill Park, and I would write for two hours and then go for a walk. Then I would write more and go for another walk.”

On favorite campus spots: “I loved the UI’s rec and wellness center—it’s like a five-star hotel. I actually wrote a lot in the gym area. There is a nice white noise going on there that makes it a good place to write.”

On teaching UI undergraduate classes: “I loved it a lot more than I thought I would. I had really great students, and it really made me double back on what I was doing as a writer. When you teach—about dialogue, for example—you have to ask yourself, ‘Wait, am I doing those things as well?’”

On her work: “I’m not really interested in anything that’s not commenting on the world that we live in. If you’re writing a modern-day story like this about racial bias and class dynamics, you can’t help but have politics inform the writing. But I think you can do that and still have a meet-cute as well.”

Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate Kiley Reid talks with an attendee at her Live from Prairie Lights reading Jan. 24 in Iowa City
Kiley Reid gave a reading at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City on Jan. 24, 2020, as part of the “Live from Prairie Lights” series. “I want my readers to stay up way too late and think, ‘One more chapter, one more chapter,’ because that’s my favorite feeling as well,” Reid says.