Kit de Waal Q&A: “Maybe young women will save the day”

The novelist talks Mhairi Black, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg, and a lifetime of watching Coronation Street.

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Kit de Waal was born in Birmingham in 1960 to an Irish mother and a Caribbean father. Just three days after winning a publishing deal for her first book, “My Name is Leon” (2016), she began setting up a creative writing fellowship to improve working-class representation in the arts.

What’s your earliest memory?

Watching my mother cry at the kitchen sink. I had been playing in the garden and came inside for something. I must have been four, maybe five, short enough to be under her elbow that I watched moving to and fro as she washed dishes.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Cary Grant. He was impossibly good-looking, serious, playful and unattainable. Now my heroes are my children, who both had a very difficult start in life but who have grown into lovely adults, knowing that some of their issues will follow them for the rest of their lives. There’s bravery in knowing that and carrying on with a joyful spirit.

What book last changed your thinking?

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession. It’s about the most profound things: kindness, ordinary people. I loved it because it made me think differently about what books can be and what life is like.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Mhairi Black always speaks from her heart. I admire Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her frankness and for succeeding against the odds. Greta Thunberg is destined to do great things. Maybe young women will save the day.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Rafael Nadal.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to live in the near future, in a wooden clapboard house with a view of the sea, where some clever scientist has found the secret of teleportation so I never have to take another Virgin train again.

What TV show could you not live without?

Coronation Street. I have watched it on and off all my life, applauding and lauding all the strong female characters, the gossip and the humour.

Who would paint your portrait?

Ella Berthoud. She’s already started.

What’s your theme tune?

“That’s the Way of the World” by Earth, Wind & Fire. I discovered this track in 1975, at my most impressionable. For my 50th birthday I went to see them live and they played it, I felt, for me.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Everything will work better if you unplug it for a while. Including you.”

What’s currently bugging you?

My inability to go to the gym. 

What single thing would make your life better?

Going to the gym.

When were you happiest?

I am very, very happy right now.

In another life, what job would you have?

I would have had a job that took me to the beach every day, just to hear the waves.  Maybe I’d be a conchologist, someone who studies shells. (I had to look that up.)

Are we all doomed?

Only if we let it happen. 

Kit de Waal is a judge for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award; the longlist is announced on 23 June. Her young adult novel “Becoming Dinah”, part of the Bellatrix series, is published by Hachette Children's Books on 11 July

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news