A Reading List By The Author Who Swapped Criminal Law For Writing

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.

Welcome to It’s Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who’s reading what.

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The Trick to Time author Kit de Waal didn’t start reading until she was in her 20s. She read blindly. "Nobody told me what postmodern meant, nobody told me who or what influenced whom, and nobody told me what to think," she recalls. "The whole world was before me and I went where I wanted, chose books at random and read into the seam of life. It was wonderful and I can never repeat it. I know too much," de Waal explains.

Before she started writing, de Waal worked in criminal and family law for 15 years, an experience she says helped make her a better writer. "I would sit with a defendant and try and make a story out of his life and his reasons for committing the crime: if I could find something human about him or her, if I could give the court a reason, then maybe the sentence would be shorter, maybe people would understand," says de Waal.

Her debut novel, My Name is Leon, was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2017. Born in Birmingham to an Irish mother and Caribbean father, de Waal writes about characters who live on the fringes of society and would like to see more working class voices in literature and publishing. Last year she edited the journal Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers, a collection of narratives written in celebration, not apology, of the working class experience. The anthology includes established authors such as Malorie Blackman and Louise Doughty but also unknown voices to whom de Waal was keen to give a platform. "These are writers who have been working hard on their craft for many years but haven’t been able to get published because of their class, lack of contacts or because they live outside of London and the industry excludes them," she explains.

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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.

Her latest novel, Becoming Dinah, is in response to Moby Dick and is her first foray into the world of YA (young adult) literature. The novel strips Moby Dick’s monomaniacal protagonist Captain Ahab of his power, transferring it to a teenage girl who is intent on escaping her past and the weird commune she grew up in.

We visited de Waal at home in the West Midlands to find out which books make her cry, the reason she listens to audiobooks and why you should arrange a visit to her favourite bookshops as soon as possible…

What are you reading right now?

I’m rereading Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon. I was supposed to do an event with him but I was ill so missed out on what I thought would be a brilliant conversation between Didier and myself. The book is about his difficult relationship with class and his family. He says right at the beginning that coming out as a gay man in the '80s was easier than coming out as working class. I would have loved to have discussed this with him. The book is heartfelt, sad and unusual so I’m rereading it to better understand.

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Are there any other books you’ve read more than once?

A few: City of Bohane, The Old Man and the Sea, The Heart of the Matter, Jane Eyre. I wrote a short story, The Old Man & The Suit, as an homage to The Old Man and the Sea after listening to Donald Sutherland narrate it as an audiobook. I listened to it maybe 20 times just to get the music of the language and the sentence structure right, then wrote my story straight after. It was amazing how easily it flowed.

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.

Who taught you to read?

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My mother, who was very overworked and very uneducated. She would have been an artist if she’d lived a different life. I remember her letting us sit and draw rather than tidy up. She taught us to read but only in the sense that she let us read, encouraged us to read, encouraged us to do what we wanted hence the house was always untidy. The first reading I remember was something from the bible, which I have since read several times.

You didn’t read fiction until you were 22 – can you describe the experience of discovering that world later on?

I was ready to read and that’s the difference.

How do you choose what to read next?

I get sent loads of books so I pick something off the pile. I also read a lot of audiobooks on recommendation.

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Do you have a favourite bookshop?

Warwick Books or Kenilworth Books, I love them both equally. With Warwick Books I literally tweet my order and they tell me when the book has arrived – what a service! And in Kenilworth Books there is some terrible person that bakes cakes and biscuits so if you hover by the till you can usually eat your own body weight in fudge before you get your change.

Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?

The Spinning Heart, The Secret Scripture and The First Bad Man. I would recommend these books because they are all so well written and tell us something about the human condition.

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
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Which books make you cry?

I rarely cry but The Remains of the Day did it, A Manual for Heartache too. Both books have something similar, even though one is fiction and one is a sort of self-help book. They reach in to that vulnerable part of you that yearns, the frightened bit where you worry about the future, about being alone, about it all being too much. In The Remains of the Day you see it unfold and are unable to stop it. In A Manual for Heartache it’s telling you what to do when it happens.

When and where do you like to read?

Audiobooks are my thing for travelling, they’re a brilliant way to not get stressed by traffic or delays. I read anywhere and everywhere. I don’t have a particular spot in my home although my study is perfect, full of light and books, with a view of my tiny garden.

Where do you like to write?

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In my study. I usually write creatively at night when the world is quiet. If I’m editing or writing nonfiction it’s different; that could be daytime writing when I have more of an administrative brain. My creative brain only comes on when it’s dark.

Did you read any books that influenced The Trick to Time?

No but everything I have ever read is in there somewhere.

How do you organise your books at home? Do you have a system?

Colour, size – anything but alphabetically!

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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.

What do you use as a bookmark?

I don’t. I’m a corner-folder but audiobooks do it for you automatically so you can’t get lost.

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Have you ever belonged to a book club?

Yes, I set one up on my street and it’s still going. I don’t go as often as I should and we don’t always discuss the book in any event. We are very different people, very different backgrounds but it works because of that. We also listen to TED talks and discuss ideas of the day so it’s more a culture club than book club.

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.

You’ve always been vocal about the lack of diversity in publishing. Do you think it’s improved since you first spoke out about it?

I definitely think things have improved. We have a way to go but it all starts with a conversation, a long, long, deep and honest conversation.

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Kit’s Reading List

Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink

The Trick to Time is out now in paperback. Becoming Dinah is published on 11th July.

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