Kit de Waal: ‘Writing’s very solitary – you do it because you want to find readers’ | Food

When Kit de Waal’s first novel, My Name is Leon, was published to proper acclaim three years ago, she happened to mention in an interview how few writers from her kind of background there were in Britain. That comment was – like the ongoing debate about the absence of working-class voices in film and theatre – seized upon by commentators and De Waal quickly found herself presented in the literary pages as the authentic voice of working-class Britain. She grew up in Birmingham, one of five children of an Irish child-minder mum and a Caribbean bus-driver dad. She subsequently worked for many years in criminal and family law, latterly as a magistrate and as an advisor to social services on adoption; she was 51 when she took time out to do a creative writing MA and 55 when My Name is Leon was published.

De Waal has used her new platform to become a visible and irrepressible advocate for wider access to the publishing world for both writers and readers. She gave some of her publisher’s advance for that first book to establish a full annual scholarship on the creative writing course at Birkbeck College for a writer from a low-income background. And after her second novel, The Trick to Time, was published last year she was invited to lead a project to discover new working-class voices, in conjunction with regional arts agencies, for an anthology and support programme.

It is the publication of this book, Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers, that is the occasion for our lunch. And, this being Britain, and because we are in Balthazar, a restaurant in Covent Garden where an attentive waiter comes to ask us if we would care for a glass of champagne while we look at the menu (we reflexively say we wouldn’t), we are inevitably forced first to do a snap appraisal of each other’s exact level of class traitordom.

Before we’ve really sat down, De Waal has deftly established that I come from a significantly posher part of Birmingham than her and that I have a suspiciously “neutral accent”; while I have noted that she left her home city 22 years ago to live in Royal Leamington Spa, though she still says: “I live in Leamington, but I’m from Birmingham.” I see she has come in clutching several West End shopping bags and note the labels. She meanwhile trumps comprehensively my mumbled “first in family to go to university” with “left school – and home – at 16”. We both despise ourselves for doing this – we are in our 50s, after all, when will it stop? – but obviously accept it as our solemn English birthright.

As we examine the menu, I warn her that whatever profound insight she may be moved to utter in the next hour or so, a small proportion of readers of this column will obviously be most exercised by the unconscionable cost of her starter – in the way that Jess Phillips MP recently apparently “betrayed” her party and her class by dressing up to be on a magazine cover. She goes, smartly, for the hard-to-argue-with onion soup, and fish pie to follow. I opt for scallops (“They’ll have you for that,” she murmurs) and steak frites. She has chosen to come here, she insists, only because her publisher brought her here a couple of times. We push the boat out with a small carafe of Cotes du Rhone.





Onion soup gratinée, £9; fish pie, £19.50; broccoli £5; americano £3, baked scallops, £24; steak frites, £27.50; flat white, £3, Carafe of Cotes du Rhone, £21; bottle of sparkling water, £4



Kit: Onion soup gratinée, £9; fish pie, £19.50; broccoli £5; americano £3

Tim: Baked scallops, £24; steak frites, £27.50; flat white, £3

They shared: Carafe of Cotes du Rhone, £21; bottle of sparkling water, £4 Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Inevitably, De Waal faced some of those ingrained issues of judging authenticity when she was first invited to put her anthology together. She was plagued by those voices that police social media for any hint of hypocrisy. The collection was originally planned to be mainly fiction, but then the question arose: “How will we know if the voices are for real?” They decided to ask for memoir, because you can’t fake it so easily. Even so, De Waal says, “My God, I had hundreds of emails or tweets saying, you know, ‘My dad worked on the factory floor but then he later moved into management, but my mum was still a cleaner – does that count?’” The result, which features established writers such as Malorie Blackman and Stuart Maconie alongside many unknowns, could risk, when read in sequence, very occasionally feeling like Monty Python’s Yorkshireman sketch. But, individually, the storytelling and writing, particularly from those writers seeing their words in print for the first time, is invariably accomplished and compelling, and often funny and true.

De Waal remembers well how that first opportunity feels. “Writing can be a very solitary, disheartening activity,” she says. “To many it looks like a vanity thing. It’s not well paid. You do it because you want to find readers.” Her first recognition as a writer, in her late 40s, after much rejection, was when she got an honorary mention for a 300-word piece of “flash fiction” that she submitted to a prize in the west of Ireland. The prize was an invitation to read the work in public. She immediately booked a flight and hotel in west Cork. “Any writer wants to get to that point where someone other than your mum or your sister says it’s good,” she says.

There has been a recent narrowing of the opportunities for aspiring writers and artists from the toughest backgrounds to experience that feeling. We can both just about remember the time when housing was cheap and university education was free, and dole money readily available, when you could potentially find the space to work for nothing for a while and compete with those funded by family trusts. That’s long gone. Publishing, and the creative industries, threaten to become something of a closed shop for the middle classes once more. One result of that is that whole swathes of experience – the world of minimum-wage work, for example – are absent from fiction. De Waal suggests she has several friends in that situation, at the precarious margins, and notes how what they really have lost is any choice. “No choice of housing. Or what to eat, or what to do for a job. Their whole existence is taken up with managing that day’s crisis and there is nothing else they can think about.” She does not believe the solution lies in social mobility – raising one or two lucky or brilliant individuals from an impoverished group – but about giving that whole existence some stability again: decent housing, long-term rents, a regular wage and a bit of space to breathe.

De Waal’s fictional voice began rooted in such marginal lives. My Name is Leon is told from the point of view of a child taken into care in Birmingham in the 1970s and 80s and living through the Handsworth riots, which she herself recalls happening at the end of her own road. By the time she got to that voice, she had exhausted other possibilities. Her first effort was a screenplay about a Norwegian gangster. She then wrote two novels considered by publishers too literary to be page-turners and too literary to be thrillers. Leon was her last shot, she says, “so thank God it worked out”. It proved that oldest writer’s adage, write what you know. “I have two adopted children. I’ve worked with social workers. I felt I had to do justice to the subject, if nothing else.” The honesty provides the book’s great heart. “Nearly every time I’ve talked about it someone has come up to me,” she says, “and said, ‘I was in care, thank you for capturing it so well.’”

One result of her late success is that she is that rare thing, a writer who genuinely loves the process of writing. She is about to embark on a new book and can’t wait. “I have the main character and all I want to do is go and sit with him and talk to him all the time. It’s like being in love,” she says. The other result of her good fortune is her sense of responsibility to open up a space for others to follow her. “I’m not a saint or anything,” she says, “far from it. But I feel more comfortable with all this kind of thing” – she gestures around buzzing Balthazar – “if I try to change that quite narrow group of gatekeepers saying ‘only this is viable’. I would never say ‘prioritise working class writers only’,” she says, “but let’s at least see who is out there, both as writers and as readers.”
Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers is published on 1 May (Unbound, £9.99). Kit de Waal presents the Common People Anthology at the South Bank, London SE1, on 1 May

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