In Kiley Reid's new novel, a resident assistant at the University of Arkansas gets caught up in an unexpected mess involving a visiting professor and three students. While Come and Get It plays out on a college campus, it's no campus novel. Instead, Reid considers the book a dorm novel.
"The thing about a campus novel is you are watching drama play out in a strange utopia," Reid says. "Come and Get It is more claustrophobic because it's focusing on the tiny 12x9 room you have to live in while you're in this utopia." Reid centers the story on one residential hall, where young people are navigating life in their dorm rooms. There, the visiting professor interviews students about weddings and money, setting off a turbulent narrative fueled by dorm pranks, questionable romantic decisions, and one resident's gnawing insecurities. The result is a narrative concerned with class and power, themes the author has explored before. In 2019, Reid published her debut novel Such a Fun Age, which followed the relationship between a young babysitter and her well-off employer. The book was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
In an interview in the run-up to the release of Come and Get It, Reid, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, shares how the story came to be, her fascination with money, and the funniest books she's ever read.
Read more: The 25 Most Anticipated Books of 2024
TIME: Where did the inspiration for Come and Get It come from?
Reid: In the spring of 2019 I was teaching undergraduates who were really funny, bright, and, at times, a little bonkers, as you are when you’re 19 to 22. I was intrigued by the way money works on a campus. I interviewed students: How much money do you get? Who pays your rent? What do the words classy and trashy mean to you? For the book, I wanted to focus on a young woman who is technically doing everything right. Millie Cousins is an RA, she’s really responsible, she has a lot of ambition. But she learns that getting what you want is not always about hard work.
What surprised you most from your research for Come and Get It?
I interviewed a collegiate baton twirler and I learned that many baton twirlers get the exact same hip surgery. There’s also a line in the book where someone says they get “practice paychecks” from their father. That was taken from a real interview.
Like Such a Fun Age, your new book features a relationship between a young Black woman and an older, wealthier, white woman—in this case, Millie and a visiting professor. What draws you to exploring those power dynamics?
So many of the relationships we have are dictated by someone’s title, the size of their home, where they came from, how they speak. Even if you become great friends with your boss, there are things you wouldn’t tell them. I’m obsessed with the behavior we put forth when we sense class distinction.
Why do you like writing about money?
We often find ourselves thinking that you pay rent, then you buy a house, and that’s how you live your life. Writing about money allows me to step back and say, “Well, what if we didn’t have to buy a house?” I really like including numbers and cents. Whenever I’m watching a movie, if a character says, “Ugh, my rent is so expensive,” I’m screaming, “Tell me how much it is!” Writing money is a stylistic choice for me as well. I don't write sci-fi, but I watch a lot of sci-fi and I try to treat that the way I treat money. What is the comet that is coming? What is the pressure that's cooking under us? When you're writing about hyperrealistic characters in the 21st century, you have to be concerned with money.
How has writing these books changed your own relationship with money?
In my 20s I was in a financially precarious place, and I saved everything. I have that in common with Millie. I definitely see the world through a more materialistic lens now that I have a daughter and health care means something different. And I’ve probably changed the way I look at language around money—I pick it up in other people’s rhetoric more than I did before. If someone says, “She comes from a good family” or “That’s a bad school,” I now see the dollar signs in those sentiments.
Why do you think people are so drawn to the voyeuristic element of learning what other people spend?
When I talk to my students about a really great novel or a really great plot, I believe that novels that get under your skin tend to ask you two questions. The first one is: what would I do? The second one is: who am I to these characters? Money does that as well. We've been conditioned to position our morality next to the money that we make. Finding out what other people are making sheds light on the vast range of inequality that we all have, and unfortunately, we liken that to how deserving we are of the money that we have.
You were an RA for a year. How much of your experiences did you draw on when writing Millie?
Millie's character and her circumstances in the book is complete fiction. I do remember the feeling of being on call. I wanted to import that into her and into this novel. You have this incredibly dated cell phone that you have to keep on you at all times whenever you're on duty. That means you might have your boyfriend or girlfriend over, but you still have to answer this phone, no matter what. I'm really fascinated by jobs where you're on the clock mentally all the time. With my own RA experience, I was at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. It was a tiny liberal arts school in a very big city. Millie is at a huge school in a smaller town. I do think that those differences are significant. I did sleep in my RA polo often. Just in case.
It’s a fascinating movement, and yet again a place where money is one of the main factors in making it so interesting. As the girls list the items they’re wearing, you can go online and find out how much their outfit costs, and that is a bananas feature of living the way we do right now. I watched a lot of dorm tours in preparation for this novel. The attention, detail, and finances that go into shaping the atmosphere of one tiny room for nine months—I don’t know if we ever put that much thought into our spaces again.
Both of your novels tackle big and sometimes heavy themes, but they’re also really funny. What are some of the funniest books you’ve read?
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. You know what I read last year and was laughing? Animal Farm. Maybe it was the Audible book I was listening to, but I found it very funny.
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Inside Ukraine's Plan to Arm Itself
- Public Officials Face Surge of Threats Ahead of 2024 Election
- The Rooftop Solar Industry Could Be On the Verge of Collapse
- For Antony Blinken, the War in Gaza Is a Test of U.S. Power
- Column: How to Fix America’s Shambolic Elections
- Greta Gerwig, Bradley Cooper, and the Strange Curse of Ambition
- Taylor Swift Is TIME's 2023 Person of the Year
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Write to Annabel Gutterman at email@example.com