Iain Reid wanted his first novel to be uncomfortable – uncomfortable for the reader in terms of its themes and philosophical heft, but also uncomfortable for himself as a writer.
Reid is the author of two acclaimed memoirs: One Bird’s Choice, about his decision, as an adult, to move back in with his parents on their farm; and The Truth About Luck, which chronicles a road trip the author took in the company of his grandmother. “Both of those were nice things for me to reflect on as I wrote them,” Reid says, “and it was a little easier to predict how they would be received. I kind of knew no one was going to be rattled by me going on a trip with my 92-year-old grandma.”
But when he sat down to write his debut work of fiction, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, due out this June from Simon & Schuster Canada, rattling readers was uppermost in Reid’s mind. Like The Truth About Luck, his new work involves a road trip, this time featuring a young couple in their twenties, one of whom – the distaff half, known only as “the Girlfriend” – is mulling over the impulse in the book’s title. As the couple progresses further in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the car, their discussion becomes heavier and more freighted.
Initially, Reid conceived of the book as a horror novel, which marked a definitive departure from the warmth and gentle humour of his memoirs. But as the rewriting and editing processes went on, the author says, the more explicit horror elements disappeared and the book adopted a different tenor. “I don’t think of it as a horror novel anymore,” Reid says. “There’s really no gore, it’s not a traditional horror story. But it is an unsettling, challenging story about ideas that, for me, are quite personal.”
Another aspect of the work that signals a departure – and an element of Reid pushing himself out of his comfort zone – is the novel’s point-of-view: the first-person perspective of the Girlfriend. Adopting a female voice was a challenge for the author, whose previous two books featured not only a male protagonist, but someone whose head Reid had lived inside literally his whole life. “I wanted to do something very different,” he says, “so I thought that would be, for me, a challenge and interesting.”
Reid anticipates some critics will chastise him for appropriating the voice of a woman, though he is sanguine about this eventuality. “I’ve always been a believer that if you decide to write a story, you can write about whatever you want. And you can write about it from whatever perspective you want. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful. But I think it would be extremely boring and limiting if you just said, Okay, you can only write from the perspective of a guy who lives in a small town and grew up on a farm. I basically wrote that in my first two books. So then I would be done.”
Far from throwing in the towel, Reid is pursuing his new project aggressively and on numerous fronts, one of which involves working with a new publisher. Though Reid has nothing but affection for House of Anansi Press, which brought out both memoirs, he made the jump to S&S for the novel, which was signed by editorial director Martha Sharpe soon before she left the company. “It was very weird,” Reid says. “Martha bought it, and then just as we set out to start working on it, she was gone.”
With the acquiring editor no longer attached to the project, Reid worried about what would happen if the book fell into the hands of a less sympathetic steward. “I know this book is a difficult book in a certain way, and it’s not going to appeal to everyone.” Fortunately, S&S hired Nita Pronovost, one of the only other Canadian editors Reid knew, away from Doubleday. The two instantly found a professional rapport. “This was not a case where she was going through and cleaning up grammar or anything. She really helped the story, and I think made it a lot better.”
Reid’s shift from the more literary independent press to a multinational with a more commercial reputation did not come without its own uncertainties, though the author says his new publisher never pressured him to change his work or to compromise what he wanted to do to make the book more palatable for a mass audience. “I was worried about that,” he says. “I know that Martha has a very literary reputation, but Nita does too.”
I’m Thinking of Ending Things finds at least some of its genesis in the author’s background in philosophy, a word Reid uses hesitantly when discussing the book. “I don’t think I’m supposed to say that,” he says with a laugh. Reid points to the success of André Alexis’s novel Fifteen Dogs as evidence that philosophy may not be such a dirty word to attach to a work of fiction these days, though he remains cautious about describing his own novel as philosophical. “It is amazing how often I’ve felt in the last year that people have been telling me to avoid that. I’m not very good at understanding what makes books sell.”
The question of compromise and the book’s commercial prospects came up in early discussions, Reid says, but both author and publisher were able to dispense with any concerns early on. “They were behind the book right from the start,” Reid says, then hesitates just slightly before adding: “Now we’ll just have to see what the Canadian public thinks about it.”