Is Iain Reid the most successful Canadian author of the moment?
A credible, Margaret Atwood-excepting argument could be made. Consider the facts: the Kingston-based Reid has sold an astounding 190,000-plus copies of his first novel, 2016′s disturbing and mind-bending I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which has since been adapted into a critically acclaimed feature by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) starring Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons.
His second novel, the equally twisty and affecting Foe, arrived with a splash in 2018 and has just been turned into a feature film starring Saorise Ronan and current It Boy Paul Mescal (Normal People), with a screenplay co-written by Reid, alongside director Garth Davis (Lion).
And this month, Reid has released his third novel, the propulsive and haunting We Spread, which explores concepts of aging, memory, imagination and autonomy through the unreliable perspective of Penny, an elderly artist forced to live in a long-term care residence that may or may not hold a terrifying secret.
But in a twist worthy of one of Reid’s own books, We Spread arrives in a kind of backward-successful fashion: Reid originally wrote the story as a stand-alone screenplay, then decided to reverse-engineer the work as a novel. And now he is reworking We Spread back again into a screenplay, working alongside director Minhal Baig (2019′s Apple TV+ coming-of-age drama Hala) as they prepare a feature-film adaptation.
Ahead of We Spread’s publication – and while lightheartedly protesting the theory that he’s currently CanLit’s most popular player (“Absolutely not, that’s a horrific thought in a way”) – Reid spoke with The Globe and Mail about living, dying and Hollywood.
What is the current status of the Foe adaptation?
We’re starting to see the first few cuts. This is my first experience working in the production process, because for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I was just along for the ride. The level of collaboration is so much more intense than when writing a novel. For books, aside from the editing stage, you’re on your own. But here, you’re in there with a team from the beginning.
On that film side, can you detail why you wrote We Spread originally as a script?
I never planned to do it this way. It was around the time that I was working on writing the screenplay for Foe with Garth – and I had never written a screenplay before, or even read many – and I had an idea that came out of the blue. It didn’t feel like a novel, it was very visual. I tried it as an exercise. There are more constraints as a screenwriter: it has to clock in around 100 pages, it has to have lots of dialogue. But the constraints were freeing in a way. I showed it to a producer on Foe, she luckily bought it. But the more I thought about We Spread, the more I wanted to expand it, too, and take those screenwriting constraints off. So I started again.
There are certainly books written that are novelizations of movies, but this is something different …
It’s not overly efficient, I’ll say. But it did feel natural in that it just happened. I never outline stories, I don’t plan them in advance. I just start with an image, or a question – something I can obsess over. For this, I had an image of this character, and where she lived, and when I started to write the story it felt cinematic. But once the screenplay was finished, I became obsessed with exploring these characters in a literary realm.
How would you qualify the ultimate differences between the novel and the screenplay?
When I’m working on a screenplay, I’m constantly thinking about, “How much is this scene going to cost to film?” I’m also thinking about what it will be like for an actor to say these lines. Am I giving an actor something to do here? In a novel, it can just be 50 pages of someone having thoughts.
We Spread seems like a continuation of your favoured theme: examining the idea of a relationship. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, you explored the beginning stages. Foe looked at a couple in the thick of marriage. Here, it’s a postmortem of a marriage.
I wasn’t aware of that at first, but my girlfriend mentioned something similar, yes. I do see it. Relationships are the most fascinating thing to write about, because they are so relatable. Yet I want to do it in a different way. I never thought of my books as thrillers, because to me they’re just novels about ideas. And the context of those ideas is a relationship.
In We Spread, you put the reader so deeply into the perspective of an elderly person: their confusion, their almost temporal displacement. I know you and your grandmother were close. How deeply did you mine her experiences?
She was highly influential. She had lived in this small two-storey house alone for 20 years after her husband died, but she developed dementia and wasn’t so strong. But she was 99 when we moved her, and she took it all in stride. During the two years she was at the long-term care home before she died, I would get to see how she experienced the world there. To go from living in the same place to suddenly being in this new space with new people, it can be frightening. Certain things that can be perceived as being innocuous can be scary, and vice versa. It was enlightening and also so close to home that it felt unavoidable that I was going to write about it.
Did you discuss much with her about that fear of death that permeates the novel?
She was so unafraid of being at that stage of life, which I admired and appreciated so much. We have this cultural obsession with youth. That fear of dying, if you scratch it, it should really be the inverse. We’re lucky to get to that late life stage, and if you do get there, dying isn’t something to be afraid of. The idea of living to infinity as a path to utopia is shocking to me. “More, more, more” isn’t optimal. The end of life injects more meaning into life itself. But for some reason we don’t tend to think about it this way.
You’ve mentioned the desire to return to the beginning of your writing career, with non-fiction. But now you have so much going on in the film world. Where do you see yourself being pulled next?
I do have an idea for a non-fiction book that I’m starting, and another novel that I’ve been working on without any tangible evidence for six years now. At some point I’ll open up a Word document. I’m also working on a few new film projects, but I’m learning that it’s miraculous if a movie ever gets made. I try to do my part writing and developing ideas, and I hope to keep finding projects that are exciting. I don’t want to to anything for the sake of it. I’m still doing work that’s personal to me – that’s worthwhile, and meaningful.
We Spread is available from Simon & Schuster Canada
This interview has been condensed and edited
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