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Write On! Interviews: Turning The World Upside Down – A Conversation With Kit De Waal By Iole Dexter

Interview by Iole Dexter 

From dissing Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” as dated and elitist to shedding any shame attached to ‘only’ reading graphic novels or Mills And Boon books, Kit de Waal and I covered a lot of ground when we met over Zoom.

Kit is the award-winning author of the memoir Without Warning And Only Sometimes, an eloquent reflection on her early life, described as: A childhood of opposites and conflicting identities and: An astonishingly good evocation of the dream and reality of migration to post-war Birmingham. It’s being added to The Reading Agency’s ‘Quick Reads’ initiative this year, which will see a bite-size version donated to libraries for gifting to hospitals, prisons, care homes and shelters. She has also written novels, The Trick To Time, Becoming Dinah and the short story collection, Supporting Cast, which plucks out the background characters from her body of work and places them front and centre of the narrative. Then, of course, there is the phenomenal My Name Is Leon, her debut novel published by Penguin Random House after a six-way auction.

I go into our conversation knowing about the fully-funded ‘Kit de Waal Creative Writing Scholarship’ at Birkbeck University, which Kit set up using money from her advance. The fact she created this in order to support a budding writer from a low-income household or other marginalised background, to cover the fee for two years of part-time study, supply book vouchers and pay for a laptop, tells me as much about her as all her literary accomplishments. She’s prepared to do things differently, put her money where her mouth is – to turn the world upside down.

Leon, as she affectionately calls her novel, follows nine-year-old, mixed-race Leon on his quest to reunite with his white baby brother after they’re separated in foster care. It takes place in Birmingham in the 1980s, close to home both physically and emotionally for Kit who grew up in Moseley with her mother, an Irish foster carer and her father, a bus driver from St Kitts in the West Indies.

Kit’s experiences clearly informed the book, but also her life trajectory. After leaving home at 16, she became an advisor for Social Services, worked in criminal and family law and wrote training manuals on the foster care system. But she doesn’t believe in only writing what we directly know:

“I don’t know the shame of certain things but am able to write around shame and internal pain. We can translate one experience into another kind, giving us something to pull on which helps our writing come to life. I want to use the pain and trauma from my childhood to write about experiences beyond our own.” 

Throughout our conversation, Kit bestows amazing writing advice with a directness that refreshes and an empathy that reels me further into her world, reminding me it’s also mine.

Kit’s synopsis of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day is a fantastic example of this; even better is that it directly links to our previous issue theme of ‘Beginnings And Endings’. She tells me it has one of the best endings she’s ever read:

“It’s written with such restraint. No murder, no big events, it’s a collection of little events that when taken as a whole leave you wrung out at the end.”

The pier from the beginning of Ishiguro’s masterpiece (not hinting at its later importance), features at the end, too. The two characters meet 20 years later, and the protagonist realises he’s lost the woman he loves. When the lights turn on at the pier signalling nightfall, all they (and we) have left is what remains of the day.

Kit and I come back to this in our conversation about time, which starts off by comparing writing processes and the realisation that we both write in the small hours where no day remains at all. We then go on to talk about the difficulties working class writers face to make the time and headspace needed to create:

“Having the time to write is a luxury. One of the reasons so many people from my background come to writing later in life, is because there can be more financial freedom and time. You’re not working three jobs any more, raising a family, or undertaking caring responsibilities. 
And then there’s the impetus… You watch the years run by and think to yourself: ‘When am I going to do this thing?’
But don’t ever think you’re too old. My first book was published when I was 56. It’s never too late. I am 63 and consider myself mid-career. I’ll write until they remove the pen from my hand!” 

When I ask about how younger writers and those from disadvantaged backgrounds can go about buying time, Kit’s passion is uncontainable and infectiously inspiring. She references that time and space can be the same thing, with one laptop being shared between five family members and those who share a room with siblings, and so quiet time to themselves is a rarity. However, despite being vehemently aware of these difficulties, she remains hopeful:

“If we love something, if we really love something, we will find the time for it. It’s just about keeping ourselves together. Sometimes just having a shower is an accomplishment.”

Thinking back to working several jobs, while trying to write, I nod my head. It is all about being kind to yourself.

We move on to how this manifests in terms of publishing being the place where social change can and should happen; something Kit cares deeply about. She tells me that, despite the industry’s positive intent, it doesn’t yet seem equipped to do it. “Despite significant efforts, the system is still working against us.” And then she repeats three times in her brummie accent, the one Jamie Oliver told her never to lose, that: “It happens in London” – the ‘it’ being the publishing, and often the resources, too. When asked how we change this she reminds me:

“It’s not about who is writing. It’s about who the gatekeepers are. Publishing is a commercial business. Books that make it have a PR machine behind them. I know because I had it for Leon. It would be wonderful if we could see some minor books have that kind of attention. We also need to find more imaginative ways to connect readers to stories: graphic novels and podcasts about books, for example.”

Just two months ago, after years of yearning and a hard slog working in Europe’s largest bookshop, I finally got my first job in publishing. Speaking to Kit from this perspective and knowing how hard it can be to take that first step, I ask what I can do to change the system from the inside:

“If you exist and say, ‘Here I am,’ that is a challenge to the industry. You’re saying, ‘I’m going to have a go.’ Your existence is the resistance.”

Talking about doing what we can do, I turn to my own writing. Her advice for anyone struggling to write, whether it be time, money, or both, is to stay near to your work emotionally.

I love this, as it’s something we can genuinely all do. Just thinking about our characters pulls us into that metaphysical, emotional space, where the very best of our artistic work is created. Headspace is the only space we truly need. Kit explains:

“We don’t need a physical room. Just a mental one. Time and space are very similar things, which is why I hate Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own’ concept. For some of us, just having a pen of our own is an achievement.”

So how do we shift the paradigm; one Kit tells me has existed long before books were even printed?

We must help each other. We owe it to each other to help others succeed. There is an angle with which we look at the world, and that is you, your own individuality, your own experiences. You need to channel that into the words on the page… and stick to it.”

I realise Kit is referencing something important, not just in terms of the publishing industry as a whole, but how we, no matter how far away we are in terms of time or space from that central hub, can make ourselves heard:

“Voice is translating our individuality onto the page. The only thing any of us have is that we are us.”

It’s this authenticity, this absolute belief in what is right and how to make that vision happen that has made it possible for this writer from Birmingham to move her voice onto the page and into the hearts and minds of millions. Kit’s words have stayed with me, and I hear her voice as I write this. Thanks to her, my own voice feels louder than ever before. Here I am, having a go; my first steps towards turning the world upside down.


Connect with Kit on X and Instagram: @KitdeWaal


You can read issue 20 online here and find it in libraries and other outlets. Read previous editions of our magazines here.

You can hear great new ideas, creative work and writing tips on Write On! Audio. Find us on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. Type Pen to Print into your browser and look for our logo, or find us on


If you or someone you know has been affected by issues covered in our pages, please see the relevant link below for ​information, advice and support​:

If we love something, if we really love something, we will find the time for it. It’s just about keeping ourselves together. Sometimes just having a shower is an accomplishment.