How a legal eagle learnt to rewrite the script...
Kit de Waal's first novel was an international bestseller. She talks to Julia Molony about growing up mixed race in Birmingham
Kit de Waal moves around her light-filled kitchen making coffee. She moved into this flash new architect-designed pad just nine months ago, but already seems like a woman in her element. Her open-plan ground floor looks lifted from the cover of Elle interiors - an uncluttered but eclectic mix of textures and forms, filled with lush, well-tended plants. Every item in view holding its own, aesthetically.
It's a new home for a new phase, after a whirlwind few years. In 2016 Kit, who grew up in Birmingham as one of five children born to an Irish childminder and West-Indian bus driver, published her debut novel My Name is Leon to great acclaim. Soon after, she gave up her career in family law and became a writer full time. Her third work of fiction, a young adult novel titled Becoming Dinah, which is a modern, feminist retelling of Moby Dick, will be released this summer. The week she got her publishing deal, she got divorced after 22 years of marriage. "Literally the same week. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," she says dryly.
But the dust is starting to settle and she's certainly not complaining. "I'm so happy. Really contented, really doing what I want to do with my life," she says. She's not going to pass up the chance to relish what she's got. "I do some really lovely things and I have a great life. And I've had a s**t life, so I know the difference."
De Waal was in her mid-40s when she first sat down to write. She'd just adopted her second child, a baby boy named Luke who is now 19. (She also has a 25-year-old daughter whom she adopted at the age of three.) "He was a very ill baby," she says of Luke. "So I'd stopped work to look after him. And I'd worked since I was 17. So this was the first time I hadn't been at work."
It was a difficult adjustment and she was restless. "I cleaned my house, I decorated my house to within an inch of its life." Once she could clean no more, she turned to mother and toddler groups. "Mistake," she says. "I thought I was going to go mad. I hated them. Most people there were talking about sore nipples and stitches, neither of which I had. Then it was, 'Oh is yours doing that because mine is....' I thought you'd go for… let the kids fight over there while we're like, 'did you see Coronation Street?' That's what I was after."
Finally, she found writing. "It was desperation. And to be honest, I thought I'd be really good. I thought, you know, I've read a lot of books, how hard can it be? It was much, much harder than I thought. I did think I would take to it. I thought I would write a story and send it off and get it published. I didn't know anything about the craft of writing. I'd read hundreds and hundreds of books and I thought that was qualification enough. And it isn't. I kept at it, thank God." She had a couple of false starts, two novels that are still sitting in a drawer somewhere that she hopes to revive one day.
My Name is Leon, a story about a mixed-race nine-year-old who finds himself in the care system after his mother has a new baby and tumbles into intractable mental illness, was her final attempt. Inspired by her children, it became an international bestseller, won Irish Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.
Now 58, de Waal left school at 16, before starting a career in family law and eventually becoming a magistrate. She met her ex-husband, who was a barrister, through the job and they were married for 22 years.
Kit didn't know it at the time, but her career in family law was instrumental in honing her sensibilities as a writer. During that time she learned, she says, "that good people do bad things. And bad people do good things. That really came home to me. I met some criminals who I'd imagine most people would have no time for, who were good people. Doing bad things, there's no doubt, doing bad things. I could see the separation. And then you've got really good people who do bad things. Somebody who has spent all of their life doing everything right, and then they do a bad thing.
"I don't believe in black and white... I really celebrate the grey and the ambiguity of it."
All of her novels feature stories told from the perspective of an adolescent or a child. In My Name is Leon, the reader experiences the chaos that engulfs this boy through nine-year-old eyes. De Waal is extraordinarily deft in the way she can project herself into his world view. It suggests, I say, that she's remained closely in touch with the memory of what it's like to experience life as a child. "I am really immature," she says. "I don't know if it's child-like or immature, but I would laugh at anyone tripping up in a road. Or I laugh at really inappropriate things like a child would - I'm very visceral maybe is the word," she says. "It's all about that sort of wonder of life, and also those things that go down when you are seven or eight, and they never leave you. I can remember being at school and having things happen to me and I would have the same reaction today, as I had then. I can remember a sense of injustice, a sense of shame - a lot of shame in my life about being very poor. Or judgments I made about people. I'd have the same judgments; they've not changed. As a child, you get who is authentic, and who is bulls**ting and who is not very nice and who is a bully."
She draws strongly, too, on the life she knew when she was a child herself, in the unusual position of being a mixed-race child deeply embedded in the Irish immigrant community in Birmingham. Her grandparents had moved from Wexford with their nine children and settled in the city. But her grandmother was dismayed when Kit's mother took up with a Caribbean man. "She said, 'You're marrying a monkey,'" Kit remembers. "She wasn't pleased about it. She'd come over for a better life and she thought my mother was doing the opposite of that... I wouldn't say she disowned her, but she was not happy." It wasn't just her grandmother, the prevailing attitude was hostile. "We were spat at all the time. We lived in a very white area and my mum was spat at all the time by white people who saw her with a black child," Kit remembers. "There were no mixed-race people. That was a phenomenon in itself. My grandmother used to say, 'those poor children. They will not know who they are. They're neither one nor the other'."
Having come to writing late, Kit savours the process. "This is not the coal face. This is not the checkout at Aldi. This isn't a call centre," she says. "Jesus Christ, what a privilege, to sit down and whatever s**t is in my head, to write it down and get paid for it. I mean that's just… I love it anyway and I would do it anyway, whether I got paid or not. But the very idea that I could enjoy something and love something, and get paid for it, and have people tell me I'm great. I mean, come on… it doesn't get better than that. I've had some hard jobs, and I've had some hard times in my life and this is not one of them. This is just a joy."
Hear Kit de Waal in conversation with 'Sunday Independent' books editor Madeleine Keane at Listowel Writers' Week. Programme and details at writersweek.ie
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