Kit de Waal: ‘We all want the same thing, to love and be loved’

‘I hope publishing will lose its snobbery and the term literary fiction will trip over a cliff’

 Kit de Waal: “Writing has taught me that I can be surprised by who I am and the things I believe” Photograph: Justine Stoddart.

Kit de Waal: “Writing has taught me that I can be surprised by who I am and the things I believe” Photograph: Justine Stoddart.


Kit de Waal will be in Dublin to read at Words On the Street Festival on Thursday, September 7th, in the Abbey Presbyterian Church, Parnell Square from 6.30pm. Her debut novel, My Name is Leon, won the Irish Novel of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel and Desmond Elliott prizes.

Can you tell us about your latest work and how it came about, the story behind the story?
My Name is Leon is my first novel but not my first book. I wrote two others before this one but they didn’t work because I suppose I was writing with my head not my heart. The story of Leon is one that is familiar to me and set in 1981 when I was 21 so it took very little research. I wrote this book quite quickly although the thinking and pondering and dreading and doubting took a lot longer. I wanted to get it right, I wanted it to be true yet I didn’t want it to be bleak. I wrote it with love and humour and I hope that comes through.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. I’d never heard of it before I picked it off the shelf but when I had finished I was astounded that I’d lived all my life without anyone mentioning it to me. More than that, it was the book that showed me what you could do with words, how much you could turn a life around in a sentence.

What was your favourite book as a child?
I know this will sound unlikely but I didn’t have one. We had no book at home and the only books I remember reading at school bored me witless. The Mill on the Floss, The Duchess of Malfi, Tales of Greek Heroes. Torture, pure torture.

And what is your favourite book or books now?
I’m reading My Absolute Darling [by Gabriel Tallent]. I’m on page 50 or something like that and if this book continues in this vein, it will be one of the best things I’ve read. Hang fire and I’ll let you know how it turns out. Other than that, I loved Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. I recently read ‘Himself by Jess Kidd, which was beautiful and an odd choice for me but all the better for it. Also loving Harvesting by Lisa Harding.

What is your favourite quotation?
“It’s not down in any book. True places never are.” Herman Melville in Moby Dick.

Who is your favourite fictional character?
Logan Hartnett in The City of Bohane by Kevin Barry. What a bad, bad man.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Molly Keane

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
Print unless I’m carrying it.

What is the most beautiful book you own?
Helen with The High Hand by Arnold Bennett

Where and how do you write?
My brother has just built me a beautiful studio at the bottom of my garden. It’s extravagant and unnecessary, furnished with mid-century chairs and a vintage tap-tap typewriter. I feel ungainly and out of place in it. If I write anything in there it will be a bloody miracle.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Back to Madame Bovary although Thérèse Raquin comes a close second. I checked under my bed while I was reading that one.

What is the most research you have done for a book?
My second novel is set in Kilmore Quay in Wexford and also in Birmingham. I visited Kilmore twice, a seaside town in the south of England at least twice, spoke to three midwives, two carpenters, a psychiatrist, a seamstress, a German publisher as well as watched hours and hours of footage from 1974.

What book influenced you the most?
Two or three pages from the end of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro I remember slamming it shut and saying “Nooooooo”. I was on a train at the time. I forgot where I was and that none of this really happened. Oh to write books like that.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. It’s an encyclopaedia of literary remedies for common ailments. So if you are in love, you look it up in this book and it will tell you what you should be reading to “cure” you or maybe just inform you. It covers everything, abandonment, pessimissim, brokenheartedness, loneliness, paranoia and boredem.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
See above.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Write from the heart, study the craft, work hard and try as best as you can to enjoy the process as well as the outcome. The outcome is so very hard to achieve, if you don’t love the thing, if it doesn’t give you joy, if you don’t lose all sense of time and responsibility while you’re doing it, it’s best to tackle something with more guarantee of success.

What weight do you give reviews?
I’m a sucker for flattery so the good ones will be memorised. I try to skim read the bad ones in case they ring true.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?
I hope it will continue its recent efforts to be more inclusive, more expansive in terms of who and what is published. I hope it will one day lose some of its snobbery and the terms literary fiction and beach read will trip over a hard stone at the edge of a cliff and be no more.

What writing trends have struck you lately?
Not sure I’ve noticed any trends. Perhaps I should pay more attention.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
That in a village in France or on a plantation in Mississippi or at the edge of the ocean in 2020, we all want the same thing, to love and be loved, to see our children grow up in peace, to share the good times and the bad with our people.

What has being a writer taught you?
It’s taught me how to take disappointment and manage success. It’s also taught me that I can be surprised by who I am and the things I believe.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
It’s a 12-person banquet. There’s me obviously. Then in no particular order:
David Sedaris
Molly Keane
Willa Cather
Per Petterson
Gustave Flaubert
Mark Twain
James Baldwin
Zora Neale Hurston
Sebastian Barry
Graham Greene
Carson McCullers

I could go on but I’d need a big table.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
A scene in Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris where he is trying not to say the letter “s” because he has a lisp.

What is your favourite word?
It’s not polite and you’d have to edit it out.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
I’d like to write properly about my father but I’m too close to the subject.

What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
The passage in My Name is Leon where Leon meets his mother in the Family Centre. I had no idea what would happen and what Leon would do but when it happened I was crying.

What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
It would have to be the end of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Gut-wrenching, beautiful, sad and hopeful all a few pages.

If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
Audiobooks were the thing when my children were at school because we did a lot of driving together. Over and over they asked for King Arthur, the Michael Morpurgo version. They won’t thank me for this because they are now 22 and 17 but they still ask for it on long journeys.

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