Iain Reid's Memoir About Time Spent With Grandma Is Young at Heart

Iain Reid, author of One Bird's Choice and The Truth About Luck (House of Anansi Press).

Iain Reid has made an early name for himself as a writer who works best when left to the quiet observations of daily life. In One Bird's Choice, Reid's debut, he move backs home for year, onto his family's farm where he learns a thing or two about growing up while conversing with a cranky fowl. In The Truth About Luck, Reid's sophomore title, he finds a more lively conversationalist in his 92-year-old grandmother. We talk to Reid about what he learned that time he took a "staycation" with Grandma.

Enjoy an excerpt from The Truth About Luck (courtesy of House of Anansi Press) after the chat.

Julie Wilson: Your first book, One Bird's Choice (House of Anansi Press, 2010), literally introduced you to readers. From the publisher: "Meet Iain Reid an overeducated, underemployed twenty-something, living in the big city in a bug-filled basement apartment and struggling to make ends meet."

One Bird's Choice was taken under wing by independent booksellers, then became the darling of CBC's as-chosen-by-you-the-reader Bookie Award for Non Fiction (2011), so it makes sense that you would publish again with Anansi. But my first question has to be, how did you get the attention of Anansi as a young as-of-yet unknown writer—with a memoir, no less?

Iain Reid: My agent, Samantha Haywood, and I spent a long time revising the manuscript pre-submission. Among many roles and contributions, Sam is a first reader and editor. She mentioned Anansi early on and thought they might be interested in the story given how many young adults have spent time back home living with their parents. She also didn't think Anansi wouldn’t be deterred by my complete lack of fame. The work itself was more important than being an established literary name.
Before Anansi made their offer to publish One Bird’s Choice, I had a phone conversation with editor, Janie Yoon. We talked for a long time about the length of the manuscript, the style of writing, ideas about humour, and what might need to be reshaped. I’d first written the book as a collection of essays, so we talked about connecting the narrative throughout, making it more of a cohesive memoir. The conversation felt more like a back-and-forth discussion than a sales pitch. I think we both came away from that conversation interested in working together.
I can understand why there is often friction between author and editor because you work so closely. And there is (seemingly) always more work to do, more revisions. You go over it so may times, and in such detail, that it’s not always fun. Disagreements happen, but as long as the editor and writer trust each other those varied inclinations should be a benefit for the finished book. By The Truth About Luck, Janie and I already knew each other; we didn’t have to explain certain ticks or mannerisms. She understood my approach, what I was trying to do, and I was comfortable with her style. We could just start working.

It’s a good feeling to know everyone at Anansi is very capable and engaged. It’s been a good place for me.

JW: You employ a lot of dry humour in your writing, honed over the past year as an essayist for The National Post. Would you consider yourself a humour writer?

The Truth About Luck, by Iain Reid (House of Anansi Press, 2013).

IR: I’m pleased if readers find parts of the book funny, but I don’t think I set out to specifically write a humour book—it would be difficult not to include humour when writing about my own life; it’s such a consistent part it. I’m constantly finding little things throughout my day funny, the way people behave in certain situations and interactions. I’m aware of humour. It’s also easy and comforting to use humour when dealing with self-reflection. I have a lot of untragic but funny shortcomings. I think most of us do.
There are also large chunks of the book that are serious, maybe sad, at least for me. Some of the stories Grandma shared about her earlier life, things she’d seen as a nurse. Also when we discuss death, loneliness, aging, relationships, and ideas about life. The book might be more about this stuff, really.

JW: Which writers do you look to as examples of the craft of memoir?

IR: I’ve read a lot of older memoirs, probably books I found in my house growing up. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, all of E.B. White’s essays, Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, C.S. Lewis’ Surprised By Joy, Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalized memoir. I’m not sure why, but I don’t typically read contemporary memoirs.

That said, I always enjoy Stacey May Fowles's writing in The National Post Post, and Kate Carraway had a piece in the Globe and Mail called “Confessions of a Book Aunty” that I thought was great. And I like how Emily Keeler’s column for Hazlitt about bookshelves often touches on a variety of personal topics that all start from someone’s specific book collection.

JW: Let's talk about Grandma. Did you anticipate that you'd write about your time together?

IR: I didn’t plan to write about our trip, no. It was just a gift for her, something for us to do. This wasn’t going to be an exciting, beyond-the-horizon adventure. But after picking her up, and chatting on that first drive, I decided to take notes, just for myself. This isn’t unusual for me. But once writing about the trip become a possibility, I wanted to keep Grandma’s voice as authentic as possible. I started taking more detailed notes on everything we talked about, where we went, who we met, what we ate, and saw. I also didn’t want to influence her or the way we chatted. It was very conversational and informal. So, I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want her to feel like she was being interviewed. I had several notebooks I was madly filling anytime I was alone. Eventually, I recorded a few conversations, but I told her about those.

It took me a while to figure out how to write about our time togehter because it’s not a typical travel story. It’s really about her life, her perception of reality and the way she lives. I don’t feel like a biographer because this story is more of a dialogue than a summary of someone’s life or compendia. It’s interesting for me to think about how ideas and personal philosophy can shift and sharpen as we age. Grandma has lived for almost a century and that means something. The two of us have had such different lives and it was fascinating to compare them while we talked, and while writing the book.

JW: Your grandmother has some lovely observations. Here are a few of my favourites.

On going to bed angry: "If you’re ever married some day, and you’re mad at your wife, wait for a while, until she’s definitely fallen asleep. Give it a bit of time. Then roll over and just have a look at her. Then you’ll know how you feel. That’s the important part, the looking."
On luck: "I think feeling lucky is really only important, really only helpful, in the present. It seems tempting to wait for perspective, perspective gained by time. But it becomes irrelevant in the past. Luck doesn’t really mean the same thing if it’s only understood through memory . . .”

And from your observations about the process of writing the book: "The only kid who would sit and ask their elderly grandparent about the details of their lives in attempt to better understand them would be a character from a Wes Anderson film. We understood Grandma by her reaction to our stories. It was her receptivity toward our existence that formed her identity. We, the young unintentional solipsists, would talk; Grandma would listen and react. This was her way."

On that, what surprised you most about your time with your grandmother?

IR: I was a little surprised how Grandma took everything in stride. I mean, she was 92-years-old (!) at the time of the trip and nothing rattled her. She was present in a way I don’t think I would have been had the roles been reversed. She embraced a holiday mentality. She was excited. She wanted to talk about things, memories, people, but also about ideas and her own deliberations. Our chats were long and meandering, they would jump around and touch on a variety of topics. This form of aimless, roaming conversation that can last for hours is rare, I think. Since the trip, I’ve been more aware of engaging in these interactions. It’s closer to true communication. It’s the soothing antidote to small talk.

JW: Has Grandma read the book?

IR: Grandma has finally read the book, yes. I gave her a copy before anyone else. I think she was surprised. She thought it was going to be more of a traditional travelogue/road trip story and not so much about her and her ideas. She said she wants to read it again though, so that's a good sign. It's just not something she ever thought would happen or ever thought about, so I'm sure it's all a little surreal for her. She was at the Toronto launch, and even did some interviews. She was also at the launch in Kingston. She's been meeting lots of people. It's a lot for a now 95 year-old who didn't ask to be written about, but she's enjoying it, and has been great with everything. She has risen to the occasion touchingly-well.


Iain Reid is the author of the critically acclaimed comic memoir One Bird's Choice, which won the CBC Bookie Award for Best Nonfiction Book. The Truth About Luck is his second book. He lives in Kingston, Ontario. Follow Iain Reid on Twitter as @reid_iain.


The below excerpt from The Truth About Luck appears courtesy of House of Anansi Press.


8:12 a.m.

It doesn’t always drip. It usually does, but not always. This morning: it’s dripping. A new drop emerges every three seconds. I’m drooped on the toilet, monitoring the tap like a lifeguard. Not to worry, the seat is down. I’m clothed, reasonably. I’m wearing underwear—plaid boxer shorts with a tiny horizontal rip below my left hip. I’m using the toilet as a chair (not as a toilet), a porcelain La-Z-Boy minus the padded features. The floor is cold on my feet. I’m missing my slippers.

I’ve decided I actually don’t mind this drip. Mostly I hate drips of any sort. This one’s gentle. It’s calming. As far as drips go, it’s almost nerdy. You can’t even hear it outside the bathroom. Not if you’re more than two and a half steps away. With the door closed. While whistling “Uptown Girl.”

I came in to brush my teeth and splash a handful or two of water onto my face. I didn’t even make it to the tube of paste before calling an audible and just sitting. The rear of the toilet, the rectangular tank part, is cold like the floor and makes for a terrible backrest. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My gruesome slouch has formed my spine into the letter C. It’s almost as if the engineers forgot about this usage, toilet as chair, when they designed it. I’m hunched over, uneasily, my right foot resting on my left knee. I’m using my arm as a pillar to hold up my head. I’m in a traditional “thinker” pose, in a contemporary setting.

But there’s more to do today than think. It’s just after 8 a.m., still early. I have planning to do and tasks to carry out. Tasks—there’s something I dislike more than drips. Tasks and errands. I’m not much of a doer, or man of action. I’ll just sit here a bit longer. A dull ache somewhere in my prefrontal cortex isn’t helping. It’s really more of a rear-eye ache. Why do my eyes hurt? Could that be a muscular thing? I hope it’s not vascular.

Okay, fine, there is one thing I resent about this drip: its terminator-like discipline. No drip ever misses its turn, or even shows up late. Never. Unlike me, it’s contrary to cunctation. Every three seconds. There it goes again. And again. Drip . . . drip.

The planning I should be doing is for a trip of sorts, a trip that’s meant to start soonish, i.e., later today. I realize the planning should have been done by now, before the first day of the trip. I’ve had more than three months to ensure it will be a trip light on banalities and full of adventure. The problem is, I kept putting it off because I knew today was three months away.

When it’s laid out in front of you, three months is a rambling cornfield of time, rows and rows of tall, green stalks between you and the ninetieth day. For me, three months is a synonym for eternity. It’s so long, I’m still resisting the planning. I’m putting it off as you read this. Three months ago the trip seemed like three years away, three lifetimes. And then suddenly you wake up with a disconcerting eye ache and today is here and today has become today.

March 27, 2013
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