The acclaimed author talks about reading, writing, ageism, sexism, working class writers and much more in this fascinating Q&A
Q. How has it felt, the amount of attention you’ve got since your first novel a few years ago? Did you expect this kind of appetite for your work?
A. No, no, absolutely not. I’m still very surprised by it. Delighted, obviously. It is very, very surprising to me. I came to publishing and to writing relatively late in life – didn’t get published till I was 56. And all I’d heard for 10 years is how hard it was to get published, how hard it was to make your mark, so I’m still very surprised that that hasn’t been my experience.
Q. There are lots of different opinions about doing writing courses. You did the MA writing course at Oxford Brookes. What is your opinion?
A. I think it’s really important to learn the craft of writing, however you learn it. So it’s exactly like if you want to go from being a cook, to being a chef: you have to learn the craft. It’s very difficult to make that leap from cooking Spaghetti Bolognese at home to making cordon bleu for twenty. In fact, what you’re doing when you stop writing for yourself and start writing for publication, is that you’re trying to become an expert. So I do believe that courses and training and learning the craft can help. By the same token, there are people that transition from cook to chef, lots and lots of people, through hours and hours of practice. So, no, you don’t have to do a £10,000 creative writing masters degree – although they are great, and the majority are very good, very well taught, very well run, and when they’re done well I think they’re brilliant, absolutely – but that’s a stretch for a lot of people to come up with that money, even if it’s a student loan, it can still feel very burdensome. So I would say, always, every writer should learn the craft, whether that’s by hours and hours of practice on your own, whether it’s by taking online courses, going to listen to authors, taking short courses, maybe five courses or six courses, that deal with specific topics like third person or plotting or whatever, or whether you do a masters, but I believe strongly that all writers learn the craft. It just depends on the route you take.
Q. You’ve become, perhaps without meaning to, a spokesperson for the working class voice in literature and in art. What aspects of working class life, particularly women’s lives, do you think need more attention in the arts and in literature?
A. The fact that women come to literature and the arts generally later in life ... I don’t know many women at all who don’t multi-task, that haven’t got five or six different hats, whether that’s mother, partner, carer, employment, whatever it is, there’s so many different things that we do, and writing gets squashed into the margins, to the very edges. And I think what happens is when sometimes there’s a taste of freedom in your forties or fifties, women start saying, “Ok, now I could have some time, and do what I want to do,” and that could mean being an artist or a writer. And yet the industry really favours the young. It loves nothing better than a début by a 25-year-old woman, or man, or anybody – but a 25-year-old. Lots and lots of prizes, for example, prioritise young people and exclude older people, which has a disproportionate excluding effect on women particularly. Also, of course, there’s the perception that women write about light subjects, they write about domestic subjects, or they write genre fiction, like romance. And actually, the serious questions of the day are tackled, and are the exclusive preserve of men. And that’s also really, wrong, really an imbalance.
Women do write serious literature, of course they do: there’s Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison, there’s hundreds, there’s thousands of other examples I could give. So, very much, I think the publishing industry generally, and the arts, not just writing at all, most definitely all the arts, need to think about giving attention to women and to older women in particular.
Q. You mentioned genre: are you conscious when you’re writing of fitting the conventions of a specific genre? How does that affect your writing? Because, for example, in Becoming Dinah you have this retelling of Moby Dick.
A. Becoming Dinah was the first time I’ve ever been aware of writing for genre. I’ve never, ever written for genre. I was very surprised that My Name is Leon is considered literary fiction. I just wrote the book that I wrote. It’s really for the publishing industry to say what genre I write in. It is different for “children and young adults” – I think you do have to have very specific things in mind when you’re writing for that. Or if you write particularly for “crime”, for example, there needs to be a crime. You know, there are certain ingredients for some kinds of genre fiction that you absolutely need to take notice of. I have never had to do that before I wrote Becoming Dinah. And in the next novel I’m about to start, I have no idea what genre it will turn out to be. I’m just really trying to write a good book.
Q. Could I ask about the decisions you’ve made in your career as a professional writer? Has there been a particularly good decision you can identify, creative or practical, and is there any decision that you perhaps regret?
A. I don’t actually think I’ve made any decisions – things just happen to me! – getting Jo Unwin as an agent, because she’s brilliant, but that really wasn’t my decision. It was her decision, I suppose, to invite me to be one of her clients. And I was absolutely overjoyed. I actually did make a decision: when my book went to auction, I had six people that were interested and I chose Penguin. I think that was a really, really good decision. I’ve had a really good experience being published by them. They’ve been very supportive. I like what they stand for, I like what they’re trying to do. And as for decisions I regret ... no, I don’t think so! I think perhaps I could try to take some time off, that might be a good decision to make in the future. But at the moment: no, everything’s very good!
Q. What do you think about the argument that writers should stick to writing about their own experience or their own cultural background?
A. I think writers make things up. That’s writing fiction, we all make things up. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with imagining another life or experience. But I do believe that we have to be aware of sensitivities around certain things, make sure that we do our homework, make sure in certain circumstances that we use a sensitivity reader. I wrote Becoming Dinah about a young girl who is struggling with her sexual identity, and I did have a sensitivity reader, and a consultant beforehand. I did research with someone who had had a similar experience, and two people. And I also used a sensitivity reader. Because I think there are certain sensitivities you really want to have respect for. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them, but it does mean we shouldn’t be so arrogant that we think we know everything about a subject, or about a life, or about an experience, just because we fancy “having a go”.
Q. What kind of responses have you had from your readers, and are you surprised at their reactions?
A. I meet a lot of readers at festivals. They contact me online; Facebook, Twitter, on email, on the website. And I can’t think of a bad experience I’ve had. It’s just been overwhelmingly positive. People contact me usually to say one of the books has meant something to them, or with a question about a book.
Q. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
A. It would be: to read, first of all, to read a lot. It’s amazing how many people want to be writers that don’t read. It’s very much like the chef analogy, it’s like saying, “I only eat McDonald’s, but I would like to make Crepes Suzette!” You have to know what it tastes like, you have to know the ingredients. So you do need to read, even outside the genre you’re going to write. If you’re writing exclusively science fiction, there’s a lot you can learn from reading the classics, for example. Or vice-versa. So read a lot. Find people who will support you in what you’re trying to do, and not undermine you, not think it’s a hobby. Find people who realise how serious you are about it, if you are serious about it. Learn the craft, as I said before. You do need to learn the craft. And also, write. I don’t mean write every day, because loads of people can’t write every day, don’t want to write every day, but it’s important that there is output. So that if you, for example, see a competition that you could enter, you’ve got something ready. Or if you find an agent, and the agent says, “Do you want to send me 10,000 words of what you’ve written?” Have 10,000 words ready, don’t go away and write 10,000 words when someone asks for it, because they’ll have lost interest in you by the time you do that. So have something ready to send people, or to enter into a competition in a magazine. So when the opportunity arises, you’re ready to go.
Q. You talk a lot in Becoming Dinah about the idea of “ finding your tribe”. Where did that idea come from?
A. I have no idea ... No, I do actually. I do remember seeing something on Twitter, possibly. Where someone was slagging off Twitter and saying people should concentrate more on meeting face to face – get rid of Twitter and Facebook, and just have face to face human interaction. And somebody put as a response to that: that’s great, if your tribe lives down the road, that’s great. If your friends all think like you, that’s great. But what if you’re gay, living in the middle-of-nowhere? Or if you’re just living in the middle-of-nowhere, cut off from people? Or if you’re transsexual, or transgender, or disabled, or some other marginalised group? What if you’re a black person living in the middle of the Lake District, and you’d like to talk to other people from your background? It’s very easy for people to say, “Have human interaction.” But actually, your tribe might be scattered to the four winds. And so Twitter and online relationships on forums are really important for people like that. So when I say “find your tribe” it doesn’t necessary mean face to face, it just means be aware that there are people somewhere, probably, that think like you. And if they think like you, they might support you in whatever you’re trying to do. So for me, it’s a sense of community, wherever that community may be or reside. It might be people you’ll never ever meet in your life, but they may think and help you with your endeavours, and just make you feel less alone in your life.
Q. In your biography, there is a lot of “flash fiction”. Can you describe that, for somebody who isn’t aware of what “flash fiction” is?
A. “Flash fiction” is an entire story between 200 and 500 words. Normally, if you talk about flash fiction competitions, it’s between 200 and 350 words. It’s a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and characters, and every ingredient that a novel has, or a short story has. That is what flash fiction is, so it’s a micro-story. It’s absolutely wonderful for honing the craft of writing.
Q. You’re also a big fan of audio books. And you’ve also the ambassador for a charity: can you tell me a bit more about that?
A. Yes, the charity is called ‘Listening Books’ and it provides free or very, very low cost audio books – current audio books, so all the ones that are currently on sale – for people who would struggle to read. It’s not just for people who struggle to read, but it was set up for people with either sight impairment, or they can’t hold a book for whatever reason, or they may have dyslexia, or for lots or reasons, have trouble reading printed matter. But it’s also for people who like audio books. Lots of us who, for whatever reason, do lots of travelling. Well, I came to audio books through my son, who has dyslexia. But now I’m a complete devotee. He no longer listens to audio books, and I do. I travel a lot and I’m away from home and I don’t want to carry lots of books, so I listen to lots of audio books and they are absolutely brilliant. And there’s research recently that demonstrated that the part of the brain that’s stimulated by reading is stimulated in exactly the same way, to exactly the same extent, by listening to audio books. So people get very sniffy about audio books and there’s a lot of them who say, “You should be reading,” people who, to my mind, are quite small-minded. This is an answer to that, to say that, “No, there is no difference, it’s just as good.” It’s like radio and the TV. They’re different ways of absorbing information.
Q. On your Twitter account you mention screenwriting as well. Are you writing anything at the moment for the screen?
A. Yes, I’m writing a few different things. They are just pre-production, in discussion at the moment. I have written two episodes of something that’ll appear on telly next year. It’s a completely different discipline. It’s great. It’s really, really interesting. But again, it’s a completely different skill, and a different plot completely. But I love it, it’s great.
Q. What do you enjoy most about being a writer, and are there any aspects you don’t enjoy so much?
A. I love making things up, and I love crafting a sentence, I like working on writing. There are lots of aspects to writing, but the first one’s the creating, and the second one is the crafting or editing, making something better. I love both of them. I like being in my own head a lot. Anything I don’t like? The amount of time it takes to get something right. It can take a long, long time, although I wouldn’t say I don’t like it, but I can find that frustrating sometimes.
Q. Has it been quite a change in your daily life and your routine, to go from your previous professions into being a full-time writer?
A. It is a change and it’s a solitary thing. I like company and I like people. So I suppose it is a difficult aspect to being a writer: it is the isolation, which you absolutely need. But sometimes it would be nice, and sometimes it is nice, to write next to somebody, or to have somebody in the next room to say, “Right, we’re going to have a coffee break in half an hour.” That’s always a nice thing to do.
Kit de Waal
Kit de Waal was born in Birmingham to an Irish mother, who was a childminder and foster carer and a Caribbean father. She worked for 15 years in criminal and family law, was a magistrate for several years and sits on adoption panels. She used to advise Social Services on the care of foster children, and has written training manuals on adoption, foster care and judgecraft for members of the judiciary.
She was named Future Book Person of the Year in 2020. Her writing has received numerous awards including the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize 2014 and 2015 and the SI Leeds Literary Reader’s Choice Prize 2014 and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.
My Name Is Leon, her first novel, was published in 2016 and shortlisted for the Costa Book Award. She has two children and lives in the West Midlands.
The interview with Kit de Waal is featured in the 2020 revised edition of The Women Writers' Handbook, published by Aurora Metro at £12.99 to celebrate its 30th anniversary as an independent publisher. 20% of the profits from the books are going to Aurora Metro's campaign to commission, fund and erect a statue of Virginia Woolf in Richmond-on-Thames.