We Spread is told from the perspective of Penny, an elderly artist who is no longer capable of living on her own. As with all of Iain Reids novels, theres an eerie ambiguity; this time, it surrounds Pennys grasp on reality and the long-term-care facility she lives in. What emerges from the haziness is a sometimes beautiful and sometimes unnerving look at getting older as well as questions about how the elderly are treated in a society that prizes youth, what it means to be productive as you age and how relationships can be formed under all sorts of circumstances. We spoke to Reid to learn more about his writing process and how he feels about Pennys art.

Where did the idea for this story come from?

“In this case, it was a setting. Im quite close with my grandma, and right before her 100th birthday, she had a fall. My family decided it was time to move her into a long-term-care facility as she also had dementia. We were lucky—she got to go to a place that was nice, the people who worked there were wonderful and she was comfortable. But it was different for her, and to see her there and see her experience it…it was interesting for me to see how she could connect with other residents and form relationships, even with those who had severe dementia. At some point during the gestation period for this book—you know, when youre thinking about an idea—my brother sent me an article about the Pando tree. I started reading about it and found it fascinating, and it became a metaphor in my mind. I felt like I had a couple of ingredients of a story—a setting and a metaphor—so I just started writing.” 

Isolation is a reoccurring theme in your novels. How did you incorporate that into this book?

“Its not something I plan out, but as I write, I think Im drawn to certain themes. At the stage of life that Penny is in, she finds herself in a situation that is quite isolating. I never feel like Im providing answers for people, necessarily—thats not what my hope is. Im just trying to explore questions that are personal and relevant for me and hopefully do that in an honest way, and I hope that others find it interesting as well. Thats the way I like to read too—to have one or two or three large questions that emerge in a narrative and might lead to even more questions.”

When Penny takes up painting again, is it her own attempt to address those big questions?

“I think we all reflect on our lives as we age, and we might have certain regrets and feel like were running out of time, and I think that can motivate us. Theres also an aspect of Penny…the person she had been with for so long was also an artist, but he was a professional artist, which she was not, and he had a different view of art and a different connection to art. She is exploring art in a way she never did when she was younger. She feels more comfortable and more confident trying to paint at that age, and the work that shes engaged with at the residence is very sincere.”

What do you hope people take away from the novel?

“I have my idea of what I wanted to get out of writing this book, but I would never tell anyone what that is because I wouldnt want them to feel like they should get that from it or like if they get something else, theyre somehow wrong. Im excited about people reading this and having their own response to it, having their own reaction, talking about it. I think if it makes them think a little bit differently about that stage of life, thats good. I think that if they think about anything differently, thats good. If it brings questions to mind that maybe they hadnt thought about, I would be happy with that too. Im appreciative of anything that generates thought or discussion.” 

Be sure to pick up We Spread, a new work of philosophical suspense from New York Times bestselling author Iain Reid, in stores on September 27th.