Ottawa Writers Festival: Iain Reid’s Foe takes us into a hidden valley

Iain Reid. Photo: Lucas Tingle

If you live in the country in an isolated location, the nights are long and dark and the silence can be eerily deafening.

Things that go bump in the night can truly be terrifying, or at least unsettling because help is not close by.

Iain Reid lives in the country. He knows. And he writes.

Reid who has been a freelance journalist and non-fiction writer, has become a writer of scary novels, the latest of which is called Foe.

“A lot of people with whom I have talked about this book and the last one, don’t have that sense of living in the country at all. They are much more urban. It changes things if you do have a familiarity with an isolated setting. It lends itself to suspense and even those more metaphysical ideas of solitude.”

He actually likes living on his farm, but he has guests staying over and they often sleep in because they have not slept during the wee hours.

“I try not to overthink when I’m starting a story. I try and do it by instinct and both of these novels have an element that involves the country and rural lifestyles and in both cases it’s just felt right. As I got into the stories, they dictated the setting,” he said in an interview.

It helps that he knows farm life, even though he was born in Ottawa.

“I know I can write about it in a way that is authentic and that is also appealing.”

In the novel Foe, he places a piece of speculative fiction in a bucolic setting to begin with and launches his story.

You don’t expect the future to invade this place.

“I like the idea that, as you are reading it, you are aware that the story is taking place in the near future. But there are times in the book it almost feels like it is happening in the 1960s. It increases the level of uncertainty for readers too.”

But what’s the book really about?

“A lot of this book for me is about marriage more than anything, more than the technology. It’s about a particular kind of marriage. And in a lot of ways it’s a marriage that would have been more reflective of the 1960s.”

Before we get too far: Foe is the story of Junior and Hen(rietta). A married couple living on a farm in the near future. A stranger knocks on their door.

And, in a visit reminiscent of the old pirate Blind Pew delivering the black spot in Treasure Island, Terrance tells Junior he’s been appointed to a job building a space station.

To keep Hen company, the business that is making Junior leave home, provides a double to keep her company. Nothing is clear but in the fog of this war the lives of Junior and Hen are quickly turned upside down and all the emotions, the confusion and the jealousy surface. Do they really know each other? Do any of us know the person we live with?

Reid is also aware that in the 1960s the space race was part of our consciousness much as it is in this unknown time. It is something he was conscious of as he was evolving the novel.

His novel definitely takes place in that “uncanny valley” where nothing is quite what it seems.

“That is the stuff that gets me. That is the stuff that unsettles me more than anything. I know that is what I react to. That is always the stuff that sticks with me and throws me off in a way that something that is more overt and physical doesn’t.”

How he gets there isn’t quite clear but he certainly is glad that he can.

“I know that is my hope when I am working on these books, because there is a philosophical element to them.”

Reid studied philosophy at university and those classes seem to have prepared him for these novels.

“A lot of times in philosophy you are presented with a question or an idea about reality and you talk about it.

“Usually that generates more questions and that is unsettling. You can’t wrap your head around something and get a clear answer. I like that. For me it is enticing. It’s like eating spicy food. You want to eat it but it can be uncomfortable. Certain ideas are like that for me. They can be scary and they can raise questions about what is normal.”

Once he starts writing something, for it to be successful there has to be an element to which he finds a personal connection.

“I have to feel that I need to know more about a topic. That’s why I want to write, otherwise it would be worth it.”

So in the case of Foe, solitude and isolation and marriage have a personal connection but they also pack a lot of intellectual meat that satisfies his curiosity.

The secret to a successful novel for Reid is a book that is pleasant to read and that doesn’t get bogged down in these ideas but remains redolent of them. He isn’t writing an academic text after all.

He enjoys writing fiction because it gives him more freedom to wander through these ideas. That doesn’t make it easy.

“For me, fiction is a bigger challenge because there is no limitation on it. With non-fiction you have to stay with what happened and that is it. With fiction, anything can happen and there are no boundaries to keep you on line.”

Before he started writing fiction, he said, he had to feel like he had had enough time to hone his craft, to know how to really write a sentence.

The discipline of non-fiction actually helped provide the path for fiction.

And “it has to have something a little more than this was fun and scary. I would have a hard time sitting down with something for two or three years if there wasn’t a little bit more to think about. There has to be something I am trying to get at.”

Reid, who reads widely, says he doesn’t believe Foe fits into a particular genre.

“I have a hard time saying what they are. I feel badly for people who work in bookstores because they may have trouble locating a spot for them.

“I wish there didn’t have to be such a distinction, but I understand why there is.”

When Reid is a home in the country he doesn’t lock his door.

“A lot of my friends find that unusual and when I go to the city I forget to lock up sometimes and they tell me to be careful.”

Foe (Simon & Schuster)
Iain Reid
In town: The author is on an Oct. 29 panel at the Ottawa International Writers Festival with Craig Davidson. For more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.