Kit de Waal: 'As soon as you introduce a talking horse, I'm just not interested'

The novelist on overlapping identities, having to read the Bible, and why she doesn’t like fantasy fiction

Kit de Waal is a novelist and short-story writer. Her debut novel, My Name Is Leon, was shortlisted for the Costa first novel award while her second, The Trick to Time, was longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. She has also written Becoming Dinah for young adults, and edited Common People, an anthology of working-class writers. In 2019, she was part of the BBC panel creating the 100 Novels That Shaped Our World list, and recently co-created an online literary festival, the Big Book Weekend, in association with the BBC and Arts Council England. De Waal’s new book, Supporting Cast, is a collection of short stories featuring the lives of secondary characters from her previous two novels.

What made you want to write these stories?
All of the characters that I write – even before I sit down to write – have a life beyond the page. They’re not waiting in the wings to walk on. They’re off living their own life, and then they’re in my book, and then go off to live the rest of their life. Nobody’s a secondary character in their own life, but some people skirt around the edges of a party and I always think they’re undoubtedly the most interesting. I had most definitely not finished with these characters.

A number of these stories are about female loneliness. Why is that a recurrent theme?
Until you said it, I had no idea. Maybe it’s a function of thinking about My Name Is Leon and A Trick to Time, which both have very damaged women in them. Maybe it’s because I got divorced five years ago and I’m on my own.

Cultural dislocation is another strong theme. Is all writing for you, to a greater or lesser extent, about the search for identity?
Yes, completely. I think it’s because I have so many overlapping and disparate identities: being black and white; being from two colonised countries, St Kitts and Ireland; being brought up a Jehovah’s Witness. I was born working-class, but I now live a very middle-class life. I feel like a whole person but I can definitely see that there are things in me that belong in different places.

One of your characters dies as a result of police brutality. How does it feel having themes you’ve been engaging with for a long time now at the centre of public discourse?
It’s both intensely irritating and also gratifying. It’s irritating because I’ve been working on anti-racist stuff in one capacity or another since I was 23 and I’m 60 in a month’s time. So it’s a long, bloody road where we – black people – have been saying this is going on. And it takes another horrendous death for people to appear to take it seriously. It’s gratifying that finally I really do believe something has changed. I do believe this is different. It feels more real, people’s responses feel more genuine, and I do have hope that things will move forward an inch.

Are you confident it will change the publishing landscape?
I think things have been changing for a while, to widen the scope of what is published by whom. I still think it’s up to people on the outside to agitate, and people on the inside to think about change. I don’t think it’s going to happen if we take our foot off the gas.

You set up an online literary festival in response to lockdown. Do you think that might be a way of increasing access to a more diverse audience at literary events?
Absolutely. We had 24,000 people come to the Big Book Weekend and we had hundreds of people in the chatrooms saying they’d never go to a literary festival: they’re too expensive, they’re too far away, they wouldn’t know where to sit, they wouldn’t know what to wear. I think it would give them the confidence to go to an actual festival. So I think there’s a bit of cross-pollination and there’s space for both.

Did you have a lot of exposure to books and literature as a child?
I had zero exposure that wasn’t at school. I had to read the Bible and remember whole chunks of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and I’d been so turned off by that, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I started reading.

So which book would you give to a young person today?
My son has severe dyslexia so he never read at all, and I discovered audiobooks. So I would probably give a young person a Philip Pullman novel read by Michael Sheen. For any child who’s just a bit insecure about their reading – or just want a different experience from sitting and turning the pages – I think audiobooks are fabulous.

Which writers have most influenced your own writing?
I’m massively influenced by the classics because that’s what I started reading. I only read the classics for maybe 10 years. So Flaubert, Graham Greene, Charlotte Brontë. More recently, Sebastian Barry, Donal Ryan, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Liz Nugent. Anyone I admire I look at their writing and think: “God, how have you done that?”

Is there a book you really wish you’d written yourself?
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I think it’s a work of genius.

Are there any genres you avoid in your own reading?
Yes, I don’t read any fantasy. I’ve never even read Lord of the Rings or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I only really like things that can happen or did happen. As soon as you introduce a talking horse or Mr Tumnus, I’m just not interested.

Who is your favourite literary hero or heroine?
Becky Sharp. She’s so terrible in lots of ways but considering where she came from and what she’s trying to do, I admire her pluck and attitude.

What book might people be surprised to see on your bookshelves?
The autobiography of Andre Agassi. It’s really, really good.

Which literary figures – dead or alive – would you most like to meet?
I would like to sit at the feet of Toni Morrison and just have her tell me what to do, and I would do it.

Who would you like to write the story of your life?
Adam Sharp, who is one of the writers in the Common People anthology. He’s a great writer and I love his take on the world. He’s very, very funny but with a big heart.

What was the last great book you read?
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was beautiful, sad, really well structured and very well researched. And apart from all those things, it’s just a really good read.

Supporting Cast by Kit de Waal is published by Penguin (£8.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Hannah Beckerman

The GuardianTramp

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