“Yes, it was distinct from other festivals I’ve attended.”

An Interview with Iain Reid

/ by Jason Blake

Iain Reid was recently in Slovenia, as a guest of the 32nd Vilenica International Literary Festival, which ran from 5–9 September, in various locales throughout Slovenia (as well as in Trieste). He is the author of three books – two memoirs and a psychological thriller.

 

Reid’s debut (2010) sports the informative title One Bird’s Choice: A Year in the Life of an Over-Educated, Underemployed Twentysomething Who Moves Back Home. It documents several months of his life back at his parents’ farm, near Ottawa, Ontario (“I can’t see it being for too long”). You can, of course, go home again, but you might meet new things – in this case “an adopted avian brother named Lucius” who “pompously struts back and forth across the path of the car” whenever his parents intend to abandon him. For the bird-spotters among you, Lucius is a guinea fowl.

 

The Truth About Luck: What I Learned on my Road Trip with Grandma (2013) is memoir number two, which is not bad for someone born in 1980. Due to logistics (he didn’t plan much) and circumstance (he was out of cash), much of the road trip is spent in and around Kingston, Ontario. Still, both guest and host are happy as can be. Reid calls his nonagenarian grandma as the “LeBron James of old ladies born pre-Depression,” but soon corrects that tag: “It’s more like LeBron James is the NBA’s version of Grandma.”

 

If you come to I’m Thinking of Ending Things after Reid’s first two books, be forewarned: This road trip to a family farm is guaranteed to spook you. As author of Lullabies for Little Criminals Heather O’Neill writes, the novel “seduces and horrifies in equal measure.”

 

I conducted an e-mail interview with Iain shortly after he returned from Central Europe to spend a few days at the family farm (not the one from I’m Thinking of Ending Things).

 

Jason Blake (JB): Iain, I’ll start with a personal question: You were recently a guest of the 32nd Vilenica International Literary Festival in Slovenia. Just a few hours after your plane landed, you were in Celje for a reading and bilingual interview. What does it feel like to have people talking about you in a “new” language, translating your words on the spot?

 

Iain Reid (IR): It was odd, but not as unnerving as I would have thought. Everyone involved with the festival was very kind and generous, including the people in attendance, and the atmosphere was pleasant and welcoming, so I felt comfortable immediately, even if I wasn’t sure what everyone was saying. 

 

JB: You mentioned during that Celje interview that right away you felt strange but at the same time “at home” in Slovenia, partly due to all the nature, all the greenness around you. Did that sense of feeling at home disappear after a few days?

 

IR: I wouldn’t say it disappeared, no. I was really struck by the physical beauty of Slovenia; all the green space, trees, hills, and mountains. I loved walking around in Ljubljana, and seeing the smaller towns and villages. There’s obviously a lot that feels different from Canada, but I never felt homesick. 

 

JB: Did the atmosphere of this Central European literature festival feel different from other festivals you have attended in Canada and the United States?

 

IR: Yes, it was distinct from other festivals I’ve attended. The most obvious difference, I think, was the variety of languages and diversity. It was amazing to hear from authors from such different places. I also appreciated that we didn’t just stay in one place, but got to see some very memorable venues and locations across Slovenia. It was a treat to be included.

 

JB: Moving back to Canada… Aside from the fact that Kingston is a lovely city, why did you decide to remain head back there after university? Was it nostalgia for the alma mater, Queen’s University? Is Kingston better for creativity than, say, Toronto?

 

IR: I found as much as I enjoyed Toronto, the city life was a bit hectic and busy for me. It’s likely because of my childhood on a farm, but I find I’m more productive and comfortable when I have some space. Kingston has a nice downtown, but also offers easy access to solitude and quiet when needed. 

 

JB: When I moved to your third book, I’m Thinking of Ending Things – which scared the hell out of me, by the way – I automatically “mapped” the road trip onto the roads to and from the farm described in your first two books. Only later did I realize that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is placeless. There is no reference to a province or state, even to a country. This horror story could take place anywhere. Was that an intentional decision? Does the lack of place, against all writing advice, add to the sense of the real and the horrific? 

 

IR: I think it does. This is a particular kind of unsettling story, and for me, is more about the metaphysical than the physical. I think each reader will have their own idea or version of where it takes place, and what each area in the story looks like. I like that there’s room for interpretation. 

 

JB: You might be familiar with Montreal novelist Hugh MacLennan’s line about Canadian literature that goes something like “Girl meets boy in Winnipeg. Who cares.” In other words, the belief back in the day was that to garner any readership, a novel should be set in New York or Chicago, definitely not in what some southerners call “the deep north.” In your experience, does that Canada-phobia still hold true in the publishing industry?

 

IR: That’s a good question, but I’m not really sure one way or the other. I try not to think too much about the differences of writing in Canada compared to the US. As much as possible, I just try and write what feels exciting and interesting to me and hope others might feel the same. 

 

JB: You have three books under your belt, as well as publications in The New Yorker. But you were born in 1981… How does it feel to be asked for writing advice?

 

IR: I’ve never felt comfortable offering writing advice, or advice of any kind, and I don’t think I ever will. I feel bad when people ask, though, because I wish I could be offering something helpful. The only bit of advice I would suggest is try to find your own way of working, the way that works for you. 

 

JB: You obviously read a lot, yet you wear your reading lightly, which adds oomph when you do drop a name. I’m thinking, for example, of a reference to an E.B. White essay collection in One Bird’s Choice and, more emphatically, the nod to Thomas Bernhard in I’m Thinking of Ending Things (“The only book Jake has given me, and he gave it to me about a week after we met, is called The Loser. It’s by this German author, somebody Bernhard. He’s dead now...”). What is the link between your reading and your writing?

 

IR: I feel like I’m a reader, first and foremost. That’s how my interest in books and stories began. I’m interested in writing now, and do it as my job, but there’s no guarantee I’ll always be doing it. I do know I’ll always be reading. 

 

JB: A second-last question… In The Truth About Luck you use the adorable term “goofball” for “coffees on road trips.” There is plenty of coffee in each of your books. Any comments on all the caffeine?

 

IR: I love a good cup of coffee. The coffee in Slovenia was excellent! 

 

JB: This last one is a tricky one. Geoffrey Taylor, the director of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, has been working with Vilenica for a few years. Back in 2014, he mentioned meeting the Vilenica festival director in a bar in Ireland and the hope to “work together on a joint rocket.” Since then he’s done a superb job of getting Canadian authors over here. The question: are you taller than Vilenica Festival guest Patrick de Witt (author of The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor)? In Celje, you said, “It’s close.” Were you playing coy?

 

IR: Good question! And I’m not playing coy, I’m just not entirely sure. I do know I like Patrick and am a big fan of his work. I’m really grateful for the experience of attending the festival. I had a wonderful week seeing some of Slovenia, and meeting all the people I did. I left with lots of very fond memories.

 

JB: Iain, thank you for the answers. Make sure to get back to this region soon. I hope to see I’m Thinking of Ending Things translated into some of Central Europe’s languages. 

....
Jason Blake

is an associate professor at the Ljubljana University and a translator.