3 February 2022
In June, The Class Work Project’s Shan Stephens spoke to best-selling author Kit de Waal. This is the first installment of our interview series with writers from poor and working-class backgrounds who’ve busted their way into the notoriously elitist publishing industry. Keep an eye out for more interviews coming soon.
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 fifteen 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.
My Name is Leon, her first novel, was published in 2016 and shortlisted for the Costa Book Award. Her second novel, The Trick to Time, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. She also crowdfunded and edited Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers, which was published in 2018.
Kit has two children and lives in the West Midlands. You can find out more on her website.
Could you share one of your earliest memories of being aware of class?
Down the road from where I lived there was a family who every three months used to give us comics that they had finished with. Usually they’d drop them round, but on this occasion they asked us to pop in, so I’d popped in. I’d been to lots of other people’s houses but this one was identical to ours, so it was really seeing what our house could look like if we were middle class, or if we weren’t as poor. When I use the term ‘working class’—we were barely working class. You know, there were working-class people who were posh, and this was an example of that.
I had gone round at tea time, and what they had put out for tea made me think it was a birthday party. And it wasn’t a birthday party. It was just normal, everyday, after school food. But to me, it looked like a feast. That’s what they ate, that’s what their sitting room looked like, that’s what their kitchen looked like—I was really, really surprised. And I realised, because the house was identical to ours, just how different our life was.
I’ve heard you talking about not really starting to read novels until you were older. Can you tell me about your impression of writing or writers when you were a young person?
The only people that I knew that wrote books were men, apart from Enid Blyton¸ who were middle class. The books I grew up on were The Famous Five, which are five well-educated, middle-class children, having adventures. Or things like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: middle-class families having adventures.
Or Dickens, where poor people were in workhouses, and then there were other people who were more or less middle class. If you take Oliver Twist, which is a book we read at school, there was the workhouse, there was the drunkard who would beat Oliver Twist, and there was a prostitute. That’s working class. And obviously, where you want to get to in the book is middle class or upper class, which is where Oliver Twist came from. Then he’s redeemed, he goes back to his family, and oh, thank god he hasn’t got to be at the workhouse! Thank god he hasn’t got to be poor.
Take Great Expectations, another Dickens’ book: a blacksmith essentially is pulled out of poverty and sent to be a gentleman. And in a good way, I suppose, he realises this wonderful life has been paid for by a convict and he’s ashamed. It is a good book about not being ashamed of where you come from. However, it is also a book about getting out of where you’re from.
And that message came through a lot of the literature I read at school, where poor is embarrassing. There might be the good poor, like Tiny Tim or Bob Cratchit or whatever, but essentially it was very tough. Very tough. Or, you were great, and you had loads of money. There were very very few examples of having enough and of that being okay. So poor was looked down on in every single book that I ever read. And something to get away from. There was no celebration of being working class, and that’s one of the things I see in literature all the time. There’s no celebration, there’s no ‘Isn’t it great the way we do things!’ And of course it’s tough, yes it’s tough, but also, what we have is valuable.
Could you tell me a little bit about how you started writing?
I was in my late 40s, I was bored, I finished work to look after my little boy, and I just thought I’d have a go. It wasn’t a serious thing to begin with, it was just ‘I think I’ll have a go trying to do that thing.’ And I wasn’t good at it to begin with.
I wrote about the people that I know and I wrote about, not gangsters exactly, but bad guys, a lot of people that I know that I grew up with. No police officers in my story. It was a story from the streets essentially. When everyone thinks about crime thrillers they think about police officers— no, police officers solve like 20% of crimes. Police officers are interested in like 20% of crimes. Most crimes and underworld stuff is in spite of the police. The police have nothing to fucking do with it. That’s the world I’m interested in, not ‘Oh, forensics, let’s get that bloke, let’s fingerprint it’—that’s not a crime book, for me. A crime book is about what goes on; that undiscovered, unregulated, uninvestigated crime.
So I wrote two books like that. They weren’t good—they were good, actually. I lie, they were great, but they didn’t get published. And then I wrote My Name is Leon.
Do you think you’ll try and go back to any of that stuff?
I will definitely go back to it. Absolutely, definitely. I loved them. And they’re good, but they just need work. They’re the first things that I wrote.
When writing became more of your thing, when were you able to call yourself a writer, or see yourself as a writer?
I placed in a competition. I think in 2012 or 2014. It was the first thing I’d ever won or placed in. And I certainly didn’t win, I wasn’t first, second, or third, but it was somebody saying ‘You can do it.’ I was picked from the bunch, put it that way. I still would never have called myself a writer though.
I think that’s a wrong thing that we do to ourselves. We say, ‘Oh, I write stories but I work in IT’. Well actually, you’re a writer that works in IT. You’re not an IT worker that writes, it’s the other way around. Usually if you’re a writer it’s deep in your soul.
Although I did the same thing—it wasn’t until I had a book published and I was writing full time that I dared call myself a writer. I would encourage people to call themselves a writer if they’ve had a six-line poem published.
I’m curious about your writing practice. Is it the most enjoyable part of your day? Is it a tough part of your day? Do you have a regular practice?
It’s always the most enjoyable. I love writing, and of course it’s hard, but I don’t know if I would do it if I hated it, and I don’t know why anyone would do it if they hate it. Go and do something else, find the thing that you love. I absolutely love it. If I had my way, I would do nothing but write.
That’s impossible because I just have other bits to my life. Also, you need to be amongst people, to be a good writer. I don’t think hiding yourself off, certainly not for me, is necessarily a good place to be. I like being amongst people and involved in the world, and then I like to retreat, and regurgitate everything. I love it. I absolutely love it.
Sometimes I only write for fifteen minutes, sometimes I can write for seven or eight hours straight. I don’t write every day. Sometimes I’ve got nothing to say and don’t try to force it, so I might not write for three weeks, and then I might write every day for a month. But I’ve literally stopped making myself. You know, you read all this advice: write every day, 500 words a day, blah blah blah. I can’t do that shit and I don’t see why I should. It doesn’t work for me. If you’ve got nothing to say, go do something else, make a cup of tea! You’ve got to have faith that it will come. It hasn’t gone away, it’s just sleeping. Like sometimes you haven’t got a sense of humour, like sometimes you don’t like the person you live with, like sometimes you don’t want bread. Writing’s the same: it comes and it goes, and when it’s there it’s great. Just don’t force it. Go and have something else to eat, go and have a bag of chips.
On the other end of the writing process, when you’re getting close with a piece and you’re finishing your redrafting, how do you know it’s time to leave a piece alone?
When you’re constantly going back and changing a comma. Did he say ‘and I went’ or ‘then I went’? And or then? Don’t. That’s just shit then—stop it. When you’re messing around with things that don’t matter, it’s done.
Sometimes it’s done to the point that you can do it, but someone else can do something more with it. It’s not that it’s done, it’s perfect, send it off; it’s that you have done as much as you can do as the writer.
Sometimes you then need someone else to look at it. But it’s done when you can improve it no more.
And if you can improve it, it’s not done. Some people say ‘I’m really tired of this right now, I know it needs work but I’m not going to do it.’ If you know it needs work, do the work. Do the work and don’t shy away from doing the work. When a comma cannot be improved upon and everything is in the right place, then it’s done.
Sometimes at Lumpen it feels like people are submitting quite early drafts to us—maybe that’s also about the way we advertise ourselves, encouraging people to submit and get stuff in, and that encouragement is important—but sometimes it feels a bit undercooked. So how did you learn to redraft?
Reading aloud really helps. Sometimes you’ve written a great piece and then you think ‘I’ll read it back’, and then you get to this bit and you’re reading, and you skip it because it’s boring. Well do you know what: if you skip it because you think it’s boring, everyone should skip it. It is boring. So you need to find that you cannot stop reading your own work, that you think it’s all great.
Also, making sure that every sentence earns its place on the page. So, if there’s a lazy sentence, take it out. If you’ve said the same thing three different ways, like ‘She was really cold, she shivered, she could feel the east wind’—choose one. She either shivers, or she feels the cold, or she feels the east wind. I would say choose the east wind, get rid of the other two. Say it once and say it the best, don’t repeat yourself.
In regards to submitting things early, there’s nothing wrong with that, provided that you’re submitting it knowing it’s early and also that you appreciate that someone else’s got to do that work and you’re appreciative of someone else doing that work.
When editing the anthology Common People, how did you choose whose stories to center? Obviously there was the shared theme of being working class, but there are a lot more choices to make than that.
We wanted a spread around the country. We wanted to reflect the north and the south, the east and the west, and the middle. We wanted a variety of experiences, so something rural, something about factories, something about being unemployed—all the different manifestations of being working class.
So there are at least a couple of stories which are about the very respectable, almost middle-class end of being working class. We wanted all the diversity, and that’s what we were looking for all the time. How is this story different from that story? It was really important for us to have a celebration of the country up and down and all the different manifestations of what it is to be working class.
I know it was also a mix of more established writers and first-time writers. In the editing process, did you find any difference in the types of edits you were offering?
No, the established writers needed editing and the new writers needed editing. And it was a light editing—there was nobody who needed loads of work. The talent was high. There was no difference in quality, or ‘Oh my goodness you can tell that this person’s written twelve books and you can tell this person hasn’t.’ There was no difference and I think, you would not know who was a new writer and who was an established writer from reading that book.
I noticed some tweets you were putting out about the Primadonna prize, and the emphasis on not judging on spelling and grammar. Could you say a bit about that?
The Primadonna Festival is a festival that celebrates different people who don’t get a chance, and of course that’s going to naturally include working-class writers. When we set up this prize we really wanted people to feel free to enter who might struggle with grammar, but they can tell a story.
In a lot of working-class communities stories are passed down orally: I will tell you a story, you will tell your daughter, your daughter will tell her daughter. They get passed around the community and they’re never really written down. So to write a story down is quite a big deal for some people, and obviously they’re some of the best stories in the world! You’ve only got to go and sit in a hairdressing salon and hear the stories. That’s the oral nature, particularly in working-class communities. We’ve only had universal education since the beginning of the twentieth century. Before that you didn’t necessarily go to school at all and you didn’t necessarily learn to read and write, so the oral tradition was massively important.
One of the things we wanted to do with the Primadonna Prize was to see if some of those oral stories could come to us and that meant that people might be writing them down for the first time. People might just have skipped school for whatever reason: they may have been a carer for their parents, they may have just not felt understood at school, and have really poor literacy. They may not feel that writing is their medium, and nevertheless, they’re great storytellers. We wanted to see whether some of those stories would come through.
By removing spelling and grammar, which let’s face it, you can fucking do on a spell checker— who gives a shit—will it encourage people to enter? It will probably encourage people to enter who can spell and have great grammar, because the message is it’s open, we are open to your stories. In fact, most people who enter have great grammar and spelling, but what we’re trying to say is that we will judge you on the story. Obviously your writing matters, but things which you can literally fix with a click of the button, with a spell checker, that doesn’t matter. What matters is can you tell a story.
Are there any writers that you think we should be reading?
Donal Ryan—he’s an Irish writer who’s been nominated for The Booker twice. And it’s not that he writes working-class stories particularly. He writes about ordinary people who have done nothing extraordinary. It’s not ‘ordinary people and then I robbed a bank.’ It’s not ‘ordinary people and then I went to Thailand.’ It’s ordinary people living ordinary lives. They’re small stories, but they matter massively to the people who are experiencing them. One of his best books, in my view, is called The Thing About December and it’s about a boy who’s not bright, who lives on a farm, and that’s it. It’s absolutely brilliant. His parents die and he inherits the farm, and that’s it, that’s the story. It’s the most beautifully written story and the audiobook is brilliant too.
Anyone who doesn’t feel confident in their literacy should listen to audiobooks—it’s storytelling, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. Maybe you don’t know how that long word sounds, you don’t even know what it means, but when you hear an audiobook and you hear a word in context, you understand what it means, and it doesn’t matter.
Audiobooks are great and I really recommend that people listen to them. There’s also a charity of which I’m one of the patrons called Listening Books, and it’s for anyone who struggles to hold a book or can’t manage to buy audiobooks. You can rent an audiobook for very little money. Audiobooks are a great thing for working-class writers.
I also want to talk about Open Culture. Really tell your readers about this! Open Culture is the most brilliant website in the world. It’s a free-to-use website run by completely sound people and it has thousands of free audiobooks, thousands of museum tours, and thousands of classics. Thousands of eBooks which you can just download and read for nothing. It’s Open Culture because it’s culture, online, open to everyone.
There are also things on there called MOOCs, which stands for Massive Open Online Courses. They’re often free courses, and some of them are creative writing courses, from the best universities all over the world, putting modules from their courses online. They’re really good. And if you’re a working-class writer, you don’t have much money, and you can’t afford to do a course, you can go onto Open Culture, you can type in ‘Massive Open Online Courses’, and they will give you a link to all the courses you can do.
Actually, my last question was going to be ‘What advice would you give to working-class writers starting out?’ Is that part of it? Is there anything else?
That’s definitely part of it, but also, find the people who support you. Because not everyone thinks writing is important to you. Some people will treat your writing like ‘Oh, did you do your flower arranging course today?’ Like your life doesn’t depend on it. People don’t realise that when you’re a writer it’s beyond a hobby. It’s not a hobby, it’s part of your identity. So surround yourselves with the people who understand what it is to you and try to minimise your contact with people who think that you’re flower arranging, or stained-glass making, or in jewelry-making class.
Have confidence that your story’s worth telling, that you’re valuable, that you matter. That your story matters and it’s got its place in the literary landscape even if it’s a small story about a small life. Even if it’s a big story about a major event. Whatever it is it has value and it has worth. Be really proud that you’re there to tell it.