Kit de Waal: ‘I will always write stories that come from the heart’

The author talks to Arifa Akbar about child characters, being Birmingham-Irish, cultural appropriation and working-class stories

Kit de Waal is a novelist and campaigner. Her first novel, My Name is Leon, was about a boy travelling through the care system in 1980s Birmingham, and it won huge critical acclaim. Her second and most recent novel, The Trick to Time, was longlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction; it features Mona, an Irish immigrant and doll-maker. The narrative shuttles from the present day back to her Wexford childhood and to 1970s Birmingham, which teems with anti-Irish sentiment.

Arifa Akbar: You dramatise child sensibilities so acutely and sensitively, particularly children who are hit by adult traumas and are forced to grow up quickly. It was the case in My Name is Leon with your boy protagonist and here in your new book, The Trick to Time, we see Mona as a young girl, struggling to understand her mother's terminal cancer diagnosis and to soothe her in her dying months.

Writers have spoken of how tricky it can be to conjure child voices. How difficult do you find it, and what do you draw on (for example, do you observe or record children’s dialogue from life? Or draw on experiences of seeing children in court from your professional experience in the family courts)?

Kit de Waal: I don't find it difficult but it is something you have to be mindful of throughout the writing process as you can slip up very easily. When I was writing My Name is Leon I had to constantly think about what he would see, what was important to him, what he would notice being small, being a boy, being in grief, loving toys and sweets, not having an adult appreciation of social services, feeling disempowered yet never really having had power in the first place. It was something I had to go over and over but when I got it, it always rang true.


AA: The IRA pub bombing of 1974 is featured here and is pivotal to the plot. In fact, the anti-Irish sentiment in Birmingham of that time is one of the larger political issues of the book. The Irish characters face different kinds of antagonism and exclusion. Did you speak to members of the Irish community in Birmingham from that time? And did the Irish protagonist come to you first, and then the larger political issues, or vice versa?

KDW: I didn’t have to speak to the Irish community in Birmingham because I was in it. My mother is Irish and I have eight Irish uncles and aunts and lots of Irish cousins as well as neighbours and friends. Mona, as an Irish immigrant, came to me as a character first and then when I realised how old she was – almost 60 – I realised she would have lived in Birmingham at a difficult time for Irish people, at a difficult time for Birmingham and also that she would be affected by events way outside of her control and, at that time, her interests.

AA: The other larger political (and moving) element of the book is about that generation of women who suffered stillbirths and were not allowed to properly grieve for their losses. You suggest that medical practice of the day did not allow these women to bond with their stillborn babies (who were often whisked away before mothers saw them and buried in unmarked, shared graves). To what degree was this attitude based in the reality of the day? And did you talk to those in the medical profession of that time – nurses, midwives etc?

KDW: I did talk to professionals working in midwifery and nursing in the seventies and eighties as well as a midwife working today who specialises in women who have had stillbirths. It was extremely interesting and distressing but the decisions that were taken then were made with the women's recovery in mind. It wasn't done out of cruelty but the thinking of the day was about helping the women recover as quickly as possible.

AA: There are recognisable aspects of your background in this novel – your Irish family roots are reflected in Mona's, and your working-class experiences are hers. Of course, there is non-autobiographical content too but I wonder if you prefer to take what you know and turn it into fiction, or if you would feel free to write of experiences culturally – and experientially – far removed from your own? And what you think of Lionel Shriver's argument that novelists are entitled to write about experiences from which they are far removed (white authors, for example, writing from the point of view of African or Indian characters . . .)?

KDW: I have written to some extent about certain experiences I have had or have been close to. I would certainly write about experiences I haven't had – I probably will do in future novels – provided I was certain of three things – and this is especially true where the experience was a sensitive subject (as are race, racism, adoption, mental health and stillbirth, as in my first two novels) a) that I was going to say something new or different to what had already been said on the subject; b) that I had done as much research as I possibly could including talking to people who had had the experience or were from the community, reading, watching films and so forth until I was immersed in that experience, certain of my facts, had paid the subject sufficient attention and had taken no shortcuts; c) that if someone criticised me for writing about that subject or experience I would be able to take that criticism.

All of this is a question of respect. Lionel Shriver is completely right that we can write about whatever we want. Whether or not we are entitled to write whatever we want is an entirely different matter. Entitlement is a dangerous attitude, bringing with it notions of privilege, possession and exclusion. We only own our story and then only from our point of view – which one of us agrees with our siblings about every detail of our childhood? Stray from our narrow experience and we trespass on someone else’s, potentially. Yes, write whatever you want but interrogate yourself as to what you bring that is different, that is new, that is unique and whether or not you are best placed to be the one to tell that story. And always guard against arrogance and disrespect.

AA: Your protagonist, Mona, is a single 60-year-old woman with a tragic, and complicated, backstory. We meet her when she might be embarking on a new romance but the love that really anchors her through the book is from her female friendships. Did you set out to show that not all single older women are necessarily "unloved" just because they don't have romantic fulfilment (although Mona does get a happy ever after ending, of sorts . . .)?

KDW: I didn't set out to make any massive points about anything to be honest. Mona is a person as real to me as any of my friends and family – more so perhaps. So I was telling her story rather than the story of a generic woman. Some women of course live without romantic attachment and that can be completely freeing and empowering.

AA: Also, she's a doll-maker and I found the detail of her work to be a beguiling part of the novel. Was there a reason you chose this for her? And did you talk to doll-makers about their work?

KDW: I spoke to a few people I know that sew but most of the close work I got from hours and hours of YouTube videos!

AA: You began speaking up for working-class stories to be written many years ago, when no one else seemed to be talking about it. We are seeing more people speaking out in recent times, such as Maxine Peake. Do you think the tide is turning? And will you always write working-class stories?

KDW: I will always write stories that come from the heart, I suppose. They might be working-class stories but I can't promise that. What I can say is they will always come from a working-class writer! I'm really pleased that the debate about working-class writing has begun in earnest and that from my point of view things are really changing. There is quite a way to go yet but the more people that get involved the better.
Kit de Waal, born to an Irish mother and Caribbean father, was brought up among the Irish community of Birmingham in the 60's and 70's. Her debut novel My Name Is Leon was an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award for 2017. @KitdeWaal
Arifa Akbar is head of content at Unbound and editor of the long-form online magazine, Boundless, where this interview was first published. She is a journalist, critic, and the former literary editor of The Independent, where she worked from 2001 until 2016 as a reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She is a trustee of the Orwell Foundation and co-administers its annual book prize. She was most recently a judge for the Costa Biography Award 2017. @Arifa_Akbar