Kit de Waal podcast: The Irish Times Book Club
The author of ‘The Trick to Time’ and ‘My Name is Leon’ discusses her work, class and identity
Kit de Waal fields an awkward question
Welcome to the Irish Times Book Club podcast. I’m Martin Doyle, Books Editor of The Irish Times, and I’m talking to Kit de Waal, the award-winning author of The Trick to Time and My Name is Leon. The podcast was recorded in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin last weekend.
Kit de Waal was born in Birmingham in 1960 to an Irish mother and a father from St Kitts in the Caribbean. She was a late starter as a published author, 55 when My Name is Leon came out in 2016 but she has made up for lost time, winning the Irish Novel of the Year award at Listowel Writers Week and being shortlisted for both the Desmond Elliott & Costa First Novel awards. The audiobook is voiced by Lenny Henry, whose production company has also made it into a two-part drama to be screened on the BBC early next year.
Her second novel, The Trick to Time, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction even before it came out in March.
As well as her success as a writer, she has also fought to raise the issue of exclusion and elitism in literature, donating part of her advance for My Name is Leon to set up a scholarship for a working class writer to study for an MA in creative writing at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London.
She has also crowd-funded an anthology of working-class writing whose contributors include Lisa McInerney, Paul McVeigh and a niece of Brendan Behan.
Kit de Waal Book Club podcast
Kit discusses her inspirations, from Flaubert’s Madamae Bovary to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Arnold Bennett.
She also discusses her interest in the notion of ordinary people on the edge of a big event, whether it is the eponymous Leon setting out to find his baby brother as the Handsworth riots break out in 1981 or Mona in The Trick to Time suffering a personal tragedy set against the backdrop of the Birmingham pub bombings.
The Trick to Time is about loss and dealing with the long tail of grief. Mona “doesn’t want to think about November before she has to”. A whole calendar month, marked off ever year for decade after decade as a month of mourning, the month of the dead, symbolising for Mona not All Souls Day or Remembrance Sunday or even the Birmingham pub bombings but her own private tragedy.
Kit’s writing is very strong on a child’s perspective. Mona as a child in The Trick To Time is compellingly drawn, while Leon is one of the great child characters in contemporary literature. He is very perceptive: He notices how Sylvia describes his foster mother, her sister, as “our Mo” to exclude him; and how his mum nods when asking him a question to coach him to answer yes. Does Kit think children and writers share the same attention to detail, picking up on things?
What does she think is a writer’s most valuable tool, an eye for detail or an ear for dialogue? And what is her most powerful asset, her imagination or her memory?
Mona’s friend Nuala doesn’t settle in England. She misses the green fields of home and is uncomfortable with so many black faces in Birmingham. How did Kit find it growing up both black and Irish in Birmingham – “the only black children at the Irish Community Centre and the only ones with a white mother at the West Indian Social Club”? Did she experience racism generally, and within her own community in particular?
In The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe, an innocent Irishman is the victim of a racist backlash after the pub bombings. The shopkeeper father of Catherine O’Flynn, Birmingham-Irish author of the excellent novel, What Was Lost, was also subject to racist abuse. What is Kit’s own memory of the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974?
Visit the Book Club section of irishtimes.com/books to read more about and by Kit de Waal.