The inspirations for Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things are as diverse as metaphysics, night drives in rural Ontario, and the art film Gummo. In particular, Toronto noise-rock band METZ, the favoured soundtrack to morning walks before he sat at his desk in Kingston, Ontario, helped Reid create the sinister mood permeating his debut novel.
“The interesting thing about influence too—for music and books and everything—is that it’s often hard to have a direct line from one piece of art to your own,” Reid says to the Straight during a phone interview. “Usually, it’s not so clean-cut. It’s somewhere in the back of your mind—you maybe heard an album five years ago, and it may find its way into your book three or four years later without you even knowing it.”
These tricks of the subconscious inform the new novel’s existential explorations. Narrated by an anonymous woman, the plot maps the road trip she takes with her boyfriend, Jake, to his parents’ farm at a crucial point in their relationship. “The initial excitement of meeting someone and getting to know them has waned slightly,” Reid says. “She’s feeling a little bit guilty for going on this road trip because as these doubts are increasing, she’s thinking, ‘This is probably sending the wrong message.’ ”
The predicament is an aperture on intimacy and isolation. Reid wanted to examine “the importance that others play in your life, and how easy it is to take people for granted”, and questions about happiness and fulfillment. “Some of the ideas in this book—before I even had an idea for the book itself—are ones that I’ve thought about for longer, stretching back even closer to a decade,” he says. “I don’t necessarily think I came to any conclusions, or found any answers in the process of writing it, but I was fortunate and pleased to spend the time thinking about them, because it helped.”
Already an acclaimed memoirist, Reid also writes journalism, and received last year’s RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award. (His 2010 volume One Bird’s Choice, which won a CBC Bookie Award for best nonfiction book, recounted moving back as an adult to his parents’ farm; The Truth About Luck, from 2013, detailed a vacation with his grandmother.)
Fiction was the goal since he first “developed a taste for writing” some 15 years ago, near the end of his undergraduate studies. By his own admission, his early efforts weren’t fit for publication, yet he enjoyed the endeavour and persevered.
“It wasn’t until a few years of doing that that I wrote my first book, just by chance, and that was more manageable—to write about my own life, and use my family as characters—and it felt natural to do that,” he says. “And always in the back of my mind knowing, ‘Well, hopefully I can progress to the point where I feel confident and comfortable enough to try a novel.’ ”
In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, as the protagonist surveys her brief history with Jake, menace emerges. Philosophical concerns, Reid notes, “lend themselves well to that [sensibility], because that’s how I feel often when I start thinking about certain concepts. They make me kind of scared, to be honest. I don’t know if everybody feels that way. I think a lot of times the biggest questions are the ones that are most uncomfortable, and that’s why we don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about them.”
“A memory is its own thing each time it’s recalled,” he writes in the novel. “It’s not absolute. Stories based on actual events often share more with fiction than fact. Both fictions and memories are recalled and retold. They’re both forms of stories. Stories are the way we learn. Stories are how we understand each other. But reality happens only once.”
A series of jump cuts furthers ideas on secrecy and perception. Initially, those scenes involving unnamed outsiders “were there, but in a slightly different way. It was fairly early on when I realized how I wanted it to be, and that for me made the most sense to the story.”
The four years Reid spent on the novel included occasions when words stalled. (His preferred remedy: cooking dinner. “You’re thinking about things without doing it directly, and then at the end of it you have a reward. You have a delicious meal.”) Despite the challenges, writing “checks all the boxes. It’s hard. It’s rewarding. For me, there’s value in it,” he says. “Writing helps me understand things better. The lifestyle is one that fits my personality. There’s a lot of solitude and time at your desk, and time to be thinking. I’m grateful that I get to do it as much as I do.”
Iain Reid will make appearances on October 19, 21, and 22 at this year’s edition of the Vancouver Writers Fest.