It might take someone with Iain Reid’s sense for the surreal to appreciate how truly weird the last couple years of his life have been.
The soft-spoken writer from Kingston, Ontario, had authored two warmly received memoirs before his creepy marvel of a 2016 debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, suddenly became an unsettling sensation. Soon, a buzz-bathed Reid was earning comparisons to Stephen King, his first book was snatched up for a Netflix adaptation by Oscar-winning director Charlie Kaufman, and he sold the film rights to his spellbinding second novel Foe months before it was out. Reid’s suddenly so swamped, he finally bought a cell phone.
That a writer with a knack for isolating his characters in prisons of empty expanse would dabble in off-the-grid lonerism shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. In Foe, which hits shelves August 7, a husband and wife tend to a dilapidated middle-of-nowhere farm in the climate change-scarred near-future when a stranger arrives with disturbing news. Reid likes to talk about the eerie novel as if it’s a puzzle, and after a conversation where his acknowledged influences include his rural upbringing, his brother’s work with NASA, and even Toronto noise-rock artisans Metz, we might be no closer to putting it all together.
VICE: I don’t know how to discuss the book without spoiling anything. What do you tell people at parties?
Iain Reid: I’d say it’s a story about a couple who live in a remote rural area and their existence is thrown into disarray with the arrival of a stranger. From that point, I think of it a philosophical suspense story. I don’t think of it as a thriller.
Between your first book and Foe , you seem to have a certain fascination with isolation. Where does that come from?
Probably it comes from growing up on a farm (near Ottawa). As an adult, if my parents are away, I often go back and look after the animals. I’m someone who appreciates that solitude and isolation, but only to a point. I think most people could probably use more solitude. But we also require relationships. So I guess I’m inherently interested in that tension. A lot of novels now take place in urban centres. This is something that’s a little bit different.
You have fun with the supposedly innocuous corporate collection of data. I’m guessing you don’t have a Facebook account?
I’ve never been on Facebook. The idea never appealed to me. It goes back to my being a fairly private person. I got a phone a year and a half ago. It was basically because I was starting to travel more when my book came out. I went to Chicago for an event and my plane was delayed a couple hours. When I finally got there, a publicist showed me an email chain that said: “Iain is lost.” I thought, OK, I’d better get a phone.
This is the second novel you’ve written about a decaying or stalled relationship. Safe to assume you’re skeptical about marriage and monogamy?
It’s funny, but I don’t think I am—I actually think I’m the opposite. But I’m definitely very interested in relationships. Relationships are at the heart of what these books are about for me. When you think about people living together, there’s a tension between freedom and confinement that exists in every relationship. But I don’t consider myself skeptical about relationships or marriage. I find it appealing in a lot of ways.
I hear your brother Ewan has a background in space—did his experience linger in your imagination when you wrote this?
It definitely did. He hasn’t been to space but he has worked at NASA. He was part of the last shuttle launch in Houston. He’s working at Mission Control. He did a simulated mission to Mars and he’s very active and works in the space industry still. That was definitely the impetus to want to write about space. I’ve seen films about space with him, and five minutes in, he’s saying: “that wouldn’t happen that way.” I’m like, “I shouldn’t have gone to see this with him because this is going to happen the whole movie.” I wanted it to be authentic, so I peppered him with questions. It’s still an area I’m really interested in. Our relationship to space is going to change drastically in the next decade or so.
You could read both of your novels in one sitting. Is that intentional?
It is actually. A lot of what ends up happening in each round of editing is deletion—liposuction, basically. As a reader, I love it when I sit down with a book and finish it in one setting. With books, we tend to read them over the course of a long period of time. That seems odd to me. We wouldn’t do that with a movie.
You shout out the Toronto noise-rock band Metz in your acknowledgments. What’s the story?
I grew up with Alex (Edkins). We play basketball together. I’ve listened to their music a lot as I’ve been thinking about these stories, and it’s been helpful for me—not just the music, but the way Alex hasn’t tried to alter what he thinks is important for him. Both of these books are a little bit odd and unusual and weird and I’m OK with that.
Maybe it’s lazy, but a ton of writers have compared you to Stephen King. What do you make of it?
Obviously, Stephen King is a master at what he does and he’s prolific and a lot of his books I’m a big fan of. While I can probably think of certain differences, it doesn’t surprise me that people would draw comparisons. And it’s flattering because I think he’s a wonderful writer and his output is truly astounding.
I hear you’re a basketball nut.
When I lived in Toronto I played in a basketball men’s league in the Annex. As much as possible, I like to stand on the three-point line and shoot. For me even going in on my own and shooting, it’s almost like what people get from yoga. It’s meditative. If I’m working on something, basketball is a reprieve. I probably watch too much. I wrestle with it sometimes.“Why am I devoting this time to adult multimillionaires playing a sport?” But I get wrapped up every year.
Are you a Raptors fan?
I am. I’d love to get DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry in a shooting contest and see how I would do. (Editor’s note: This interview occurred before the Raptors traded DeRozan away.)
And your sister (Eliza) is the first lady of Iceland? What is up with your family?
She is. She’d been living in Iceland for over a decade and her husband (Gudni Jóhannesson) is an academic. There was starting to be a public demand that he ran for president. At first he and my sister laughed it off, but as more people started to suggest it, they thought why not. So he did it and won. He’s thoughtful and smart and well-read and doesn’t try to reduce things to soundbites. I really couldn’t think of anyone better to be in that position.
What have your dealings with Charlie Kaufman been like?
When my agent first told me he wanted to have a phone conversation with me, I was completely shocked because I’d been such a fan of his work and his movies meant a lot to me. I was delighted he’d even read my book. Since then, it’s been an amazing experience. He’s been extremely kind to me and thoughtful and generous. I’m excited to see the finished version, because I really think he’s a genius.
What was the feeling when Foe sold? How will it take to the screen?
Just very surprising. I’m a big movie fan. I used to work at a movie theatre (the Screening Room in Kingston) but I never anticipated that my books would have interest in that way. They seem very internal to me and literary. But I actually think it will suit the screen fairly well. I was reading a lot of plays at the time I wrote it and certainly people have been comparing the book to a play.
You’re listed as executive producer. I can’t imagine a film set is the most comfortable place for you?
Yeah, people ask: “Oh, does this mean you’re moving to L.A.?” No. Absolutely not. I know I always want to be close to my farm and have the ability to go up there for days at a time. Right now I live in Kingston and it’s quiet here and I can walk everywhere and there isn’t a lot of traffic. I can’t imagine spending the bulk of my time somewhere where it’s very busy and loud. Especially in the summer when it gets really hot and there’s this particular odour in big cities. As much as I love visiting these cities, after a few days I feel a little out of place and I need to recharge my batteries.
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