Award-winning author, Kit de Waal achieved huge success with her debut novel, My Name is Leon, becoming an international bestseller. The powerful story, about a young boy who’s taken into care when his mother is unable to cope, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Desmond Elliot Prize and a British Book Award. It won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award in 2017 too.
Despite critical and commercial acclaim, Kit hasn’t lost sight of her roots. Born to an Irish mother and a Caribbean father, Kit was brought up in an Irish community in Birmingham, England, in the sixties and seventies, which she draws upon in her stories. It was to the centre of Birmingham I travelled recently to attend the launch of her latest novel, The Trick to Time, at Waterstones. In conversation with Blake Woodham from Brum Radio, Kit gave some fascinating insights into both how she writes such moving prose and manages to be so productive, juggling short story collections, screenplays and even a monologue, which was performed at the Old Vic, on top of the marathon that is writing novels.
The Trick to Time, which is already on the long list for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction, is a heart-wrenching story about a vibrant but lonely Irish woman in her sixties named Mona. The prose is as exquisite as the unique dolls Mona dresses and places in the window of her shop, often using items she’s upcycled such as a broken earring which she turns into elegant buttons. Mona’s present-day life is woven with the story of her past when, as a young woman, she established a life in Birmingham, beginning a new job and finding love which led to tragedy. The story deals with multiple social issues, some shocking, but all handled with compassion and an enlightening touch. Tenderly told, The Trick to Time is an unmissable novel about grief, love and living after adversity.
Kit didn’t feel pressure to recreate the success of her debut because she wrote her second novel before it all took off. The Trick to Time is certainly very different to My Name is Leon. Kit wanted to create something fresh. Mona is much older in age and the novel covers a lengthier time frame yet is wonderfully paced. Most importantly, she wanted to write about an ordinary person at the edge of a big event, choosing the Birmingham pub bombings which rocked the community at the time.
Although she deals with so many crucial social issues in her stories, Kit has always wanted her characters to be the primary drivers of what happens. This is one of the reasons My Name is Leon and The Trick to Time are so moving. She says she realises straight away if she’s trying to force her characters to do things that they just wouldn’t do to fulfil the plot or get a message across. Instead, she makes things work the characters’ way, staying true to how they would think, feel, act and speak. Although she claims she doesn’t set out to make readers cry, which her stories often do, she’s conscious that if she wants to move her readers, her writing has to move her first, quoting Robert Frost’s famous line: ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.’
Swathes of time went into research for The Trick to Time to ensure authenticity. It was fascinating hearing the extent of Kit’s investigations into the world of doll-making in particular. She could recite, in detail, different woods, paints and techniques used in the craft. She says she has to immerse herself in research and planning for the key areas of her novel and even creates a spreadsheet in which she sets it all out. With all this knowledge fresh in her mind, she then writes her stories from start to finish.
If you want to write a powerful novel, the trick is to figure out what story is calling you and to make sure you’re the best person to tell it. Then, before anything else, write it in a way that feels real.
Kit says she feels fortunate to be able to write full time, to be paid to do what she loves. And, she makes the most of it, having turned out an admirable body of work in just a few years. But, she’s far from a self indulgent writer. She uses her craft to raise awareness around key issues and supports other writers by, for example, championing an anthology of working class writing called Common People as part of a campaign for equality in publishing and funding a creative writing scholarship at Birkbeck. She also takes the time to engage with readers who like direct access to authors. All this, no doubt, consumes much time but it must be hugely rewarding for Kit to make such a difference while doing what she loves.