I pop out of the room to find a socket to charge Kit de Waal’s phone, and return to find her excited. “You really remind me of a friend of mine.” she grins. “She's a very well-known screenwriter called Abi Morgan. You've got the same voice, the same look….”
Having met me just two minutes ago, I’m struck by how readily she reels off the similarities, and soon learn that de Waal is an avid people-watcher. She tells me that, as a child, on Saturday mornings when her brothers and sisters had gone to the pictures, she “used to stand in the front room and watch through the windows, like a nutter. Just watching buses go past, people go past. That stillness and quietness and that opportunity to observe - I remember it being fantastic. Better than the cinema.”
But though an early fondness for observation might seem a typical writer’s trait, de Waal explains that, growing up in seventies Birmingham, she never imagined becoming an author.
“I was born into a - well, I wouldn't even say working class, I think we were an under-class community; an immigrant community - Irish, African, Caribbean. There was a sense of what was a job, and what was pissing about: Band, artist, writer: pissing about. Bus driver, nurse, secretary: job. Those were very much the thoughts I had about it.”
You sense that the working class characters in My Name is Leon and The Trick to Time might agree; that there is a certain amount of shared perspective between the author and her characters. Certainly the experiences of Leon and his family were partially informed by de Waal’s experience working in family law and on adoption panels. But what is The Trick to Time about?
“It's about a person's journey; about Mona navigating grief throughout her life. The loss of her mother, which happens at the beginning of the book, the loss of her father, which happens much later…. It's really about how she, very particularly, finds creative ways of living with what happens to her. Also, by finding her own way of living with grief and trauma, she finds ways of helping other people. And every time she helps someone, she helps herself.”
Crucially, Mona also loses a child, who is stillborn. That notion of loss and the struggle to make sense of it, particularly in the context of a parent-child relationships, seems to be a strong link between de Waal’s books. Is this a theme she consciously finds herself drawn to?
“Obviously it must be. I don't ever consciously think about that, a parent and child relationship. When I was telling [the book’s editor] Venetia about The Trick to Time, I said: ‘It’s completely different, nothing like Leon’. Now I can see there are similarities, but I never intended that.”
You can see why de Waal would have described The Trick to Time as a very different sort of book. In My Name is Leon, we see events entirely through the eyes of a nine-year-old, mixed-race boy caught up in a confusing adult world that he doesn’t yet fully understand. By contrast, The Trick to Time’s heroine is Mona, an Irish dollmaker. She is a single woman without a family, but with several close friendships, and we join her as she approaches her sixtieth birthday, reflects on her past and present life, and ponders what she wants for her future.
But that child’s-eye viewpoint is there in Mona’s memories of her early childhood, particularly as she recalls fleeing to the beach to avoid spending time with her mother, whose sickly appearance disturbed her. Unaware that her mother is dying, the young Mona can’t understand why her father is so insistent that the two spend time together. This sense of being confused by the adult world is something de Waal evokes with real skill, and it’s an aspect of childhood that she remembers clearly.
My earliest memory, from when I was four or five, is of coming in from the garden and seeing my mum crying at the sink [...] I do remember that sense of puzzlement and not understanding the adult world.
“My earliest memory, from when I was four or five, is of coming in from the garden and seeing my mum crying at the sink. I thought she was crying because she was washing up - obviously the worst job in the world. I said, "I can help if you want, mum." And she said, "Go outside and play." I didn't understand. Now, as an adult, I have many times cried washing up, about things that are nothing to do with the washing up! So yeah, I do remember that sense of puzzlement and not understanding the adult world.”
A similar sense of powerless bewilderment is felt by adults who find their own otherwise ordinary lives turned upside down by major events beyond their control. Like My Name is Leon, The Trick to Time is set in Birmingham, where de Waal herself grew up. This time it’s the seventies, but again her characters - a young Irish immigrant couple - are unwittingly caught up in a major tragedy marked by racial tension.
As Leon’s story took him stumbling headlong into the 1981 Handsworth riots, Mona and her husband William are separated by the chaos and anti-irish sentiment that ensues in the wake of 1974’s Birmingham pub bombings, which de Waal herself recalls.
“I remember the day after the bombings. I didn't know what had happened until I got to school, when people were talking about the Irish. It was ‘the IRA, the dirty IRA, the terrible IRA, the horrible IRA’. That somehow went from being the IRA to being the Irish, and I'm half-Irish. I can remember that sense of, ‘this doesn't exactly feel very nice’. That's what I wanted to capture, that sense of this completely innocent person - and the community generally - being caught up in anti-Irish sentiment.”
It’s amid this tension, in a hospital struggling to cope with the influx of wounded people, that Mona gives birth to the couple’s stillborn baby, while William is missing somewhere in the city.
“I've always been interested in the notion of ordinary people on the edge of a big event,” says de Waal. “In any terrible tragedy you have the hero who did this, and that person who died or that person who fell under the bus or that person who was blown up. And across town somewhere, on that same day, there's someone dealing with a really private grief that's bigger, to them, than 9/11. On the day 9/11 happened, there was a baby born somewhere, there was somebody's father dying, there was someone who lost their child to cancer. That fascinates me, that you can have this private thing going on that is devastating to you, while the world looks at something else.”
The creative ways people find to live with these losses is another topic that absorbs her. Like Leon tending his tiny plants at the allotments after his baby brother is taken from him, Mona pours the love she would have lavished on her child into the dolls she designs and dresses and ships across the world, and into the method she invents to help other bereaved mothers come to terms with their own grief. In the process, she regains some sense of control and peace. Does de Waal believe that creativity and recovery are, in some way, linked together in humans’ wiring?
“I really do. I think, when words aren't enough - when, if someone said to you, "What's wrong?" You wouldn't even have the language or the ability to answer - that doing something with your hands can help; can articulate it, even if it only articulates it to you, in a way that words fail. Words are very, very insufficient.”
They seem to be particularly insufficient for William, who, unlike Mona, all but disintegrates following the events of that night. His own father, also, is too emotionally fragile to help, and so it’s Mona and her husband’s two aunts that pick up the pieces in the wake of the tragedy. This is a book in which women are anything but sentimental and delicate.
“Yes. I can't stand fey women that fall apart. I know women do, obviously, and there would be no judgment on someone who fell apart. Mona falls apart after the stillbirth, but then she gets on with it. My experiences of women in my background, and my friendships, are of strong women who have terrible things happen to them, who go: ‘This is absolutely terrible and I've still got to get the kids to school’…. The falling apart definitely goes on, but it's inside, maybe it's to your friends. It’s managed.”
I ask if there’s an element of this that’s class-related, too?
“Well, bad things happen to rich people and it hurts the same, but you might say, ‘I'm going to go on holiday, I really need a holiday to get away from this.’ Or at least, while I'm falling apart, the bills are being paid. I might get a part-time nanny to come and help me with the children, while I grieve the child that I lost. There's certain things that money can buy that might make the practicalities of grieving just a little more manageable.”
There’s certainly a need to understand these differences of experience, and that’s something de Waal is tackling in her campaigning work as much her writing. She recently presented a Radio 4 documentary called Where are all the working class writers?, is the driving force behind crowdfunded anthology Common People, a collection of writing by authors from working class backgrounds, and used some of her advance for My Name is Leon to fund a scholarship to Birkbeck University’s MA in Creative Writing for a writer who couldn’t otherwise fund their studies. I ask what makes her so passionate about the need to include more working class stories and voices in fiction:
“Why would you not want to understand other people, understand different experiences? The people that serve you your coffee, that clean your house, that clean the toilets in your office - they have a rich, full life. They cry, they desire, they love, they have dreams, they laugh, they miss people.
“I think we should all experience, as close as possible, the full range of experiences of other people. We should try and understand them, try and see them, and just know that they exist.”