Iain Reid discusses his new novel, We Spread

By Anne Thériault

“How people connect”

When Iain Reid moved back to Kingston several years after his stint here as a Queen’s student, he initially planned on just staying for the summer. His debut memoir, One Bird’s Choice: A Year in the Life of an Over-educated, Underemployed Twentysomething Who Moves Back Home, had just come out, and he was working on a second about road-tripping with his grandmother. He figured Kingston would be a good place to lay low and get some work done. Over a decade later, he’s still here.

“I just liked it so much,” says Reid. “I felt like I was productive here. There are lots of places to walk, it’s quiet, it just kind of fits what I like to do. I started to feel like I was seeing the city in a totally different way than I did as a student.”

Reid is also a big fan of the Kingston WritersFest. At the 2022 event, he joined KWF director Aara MacAuley on stage for a conversation about his new novel, We Spread. This is far from Reid’s first experience with the festival – he was there as a spectator in 2009, a year before One Bird’s Choice was published, then returned the next year as one of the featured authors. He remembers being impressed by the festival both as an attendee and as a speaker.

“It’s such a well-run festival; it’s always been that way,” says Reid. “It’s always been very well organized. I’m always so impressed by the number of volunteers, too, because festivals like this can’t operate without lots of volunteers. And, of course, not without lots of people who are interested in coming and getting tickets and being part of the discussion.”

Though Reid began his writing career with back-to-back memoirs, these days he’s better known as the author of three genre-bending novels. He finds fiction more challenging to write than non-fiction – “because anything’s possible” – but ultimately more interesting and rewarding. The result is a blend of literature, horror, and science fiction, all detailed in Reid’s signature spare prose. And while Reid’s books might be hard to categorize, it feels safe to say that few writers know how to deliver the same creeping sense of domestic unease.

We Spread delivers the same uncanniness as Reid’s previous novels, I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Foe, but that’s where the similarities end. It follows the story of Pennie, an elderly woman who’s being moved to a long-term care facility after an accident, which she’s told is only one in a series of “incidents.” She’s also told that her partner, who died years ago, set this move up with her consent – except that she knows nothing about this. Things only get weirder from there.

While We Spread includes elements of suspense and science fiction, the original idea for the story is very much grounded in the real world: Reid’s experience of his grandmother living with dementia in a care facility. Though dementia isn’t explicitly mentioned in the novel, and Reid says it wasn’t the main thing he was focused on while writing it, he can’t help thinking about what it means to live through what he calls “extreme old age.”

“I think a lot of times, there’s this idea that you can’t really talk to people with severe dementia and really interact with them,” says Reid. “And yet, why is the onus on them to try and understand our world, instead of trying to connect with them or understand them in a new way? So, I think I was really interested in all those things, how people connect and that you can still make connections at each stage of your life. When you reach your 90s…that’s a place in time or an age that we should – I think – value a lot more than we do. It seems to me that we just kind of diminish it or are scared of it.”


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Iain Reid (@tidydissolve)

If Reid had to pick a theme that connects his three novels – which, plot-wise, are entirely dissimilar – he thinks it would be relationships. So, in a way, it makes sense that this book is indirectly about his grandmother, with whom Reid had a close relationship (she’s the same grandmother that he went on the road trip with in his second memoir). He thinks about her often, and the type of wisdom he received from her right up until the end.

“The fact that there’s a finite amount of time that we get, that’s really the thing that creates meaning more than anything,” says Reid. “So instead of being frightened of it, it seems like that’s a stage to embrace, as ‘I’m lucky to be here,’ even with the certain issues that may arise. I think my grandma embraced it in that way. So, it kind of reshaped how I thought about old age in my own life and think about if I ever get to be that old that I want to embrace it in that same way.”

We Spread by Iain Reid is now available at Novel Idea in downtown Kingston and at Bookland in the west end.