Like many of us, I first fell in love with Kit de Waal’s writing through her debut novel My Name is Leon, a touching coming of age novel about brothers, race, found family and community. Kit’s most recent book Without Warning and Only Sometimes is a reflection on her own childhood, growing up in Birmingham in the 1960s with an Irish mother and a Caribbean father — two parents who were each looking for paradise outside of their own home. Her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness who believed the world was going to end in 1975, there was often not enough food in the house to feed everyone, and it was hard to predict what was going to happen from one day to the next. It is a heart-warming, sometimes painful, and often funny memoir. I caught up with Kit to have a chat.
Jen: Without Warning and Only Sometimes is such a wonderfully apt title for this book. I love how the snapshot, episodic nature of the text highlights how varied and unpredictable your childhood often felt. I was going to say that writing a memoir can be daunting, in the sense of being vulnerable, and because you’re writing about people who exist in real life. In light of that, how did you approach writing this particular book? Were there any rules or boundaries that you set for yourself during the writing and editing process?
Kit: I think as a writer you must always be vulnerable whatever you’re writing. Vulnerability is where the truth lives and if you pull your punches or don’t really go there, I think the reader knows it – knows you’re trying to conceal something or at best that you can’t, for whatever reason, tell the truth. That’s true of fiction but a lot more important when it comes to a memoir. I was adamant that I did want to tell the truth, but of course, it’s only my truth and there were four other people present for most of my childhood, so I had to make sure that they would also read the truth on the page.
I had two rules. Don’t punch down and don’t try to settle scores. So, even the stuff I write about being a Jehovah’s Witness (an organisation which I believe does a lot of damage) was tempered by the fact that so many of the Witnesses I grew up with are lovely people and I had and have no desire to belittle them or be unkind. As far as boundaries go, the memoir was bound by time in that I wanted it to end when I was 22 and began reading. Quite frankly, after that, I did what many people did: got a job, started a relationship, started a family, tended my garden. It’s simply not that interesting!
Jen: Until reading this book, I had no idea that Kit wasn’t your first name! I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about how you got this nickname?
Kit: I was about eight, I think, and was playing with my sister in our bedroom, jumping from bed to bed (there were three of them in the room), and then on to a little coffee table on casters. Suddenly I fell and bit through my tongue. I was rushed to hospital and had to have it sewn back on – it was half off. I talked with a lisp for quite a while after that and when I asked my sister to give me a kiss I said “kith” instead and somehow it stuck. It wasn’t all misery though; I could only eat ice-cream for ages. Absolute bliss.
Jen: Painful and delicious! It’s often said that every time we write a book we learn something about writing that we hadn’t unlocked before. What did writing Without Warning… teach you?
Kit: It wasn’t so much during the writing of the book as the reading of the audiobook, when I had to speak in my father’s voice and accent. There are a couple of passages when he is completely exasperated with his life – mid-40s, married to a woman with mental health issues, a father of five, unfulfilled – when I thought “Blimey, no wonder you were absent.” He was always around and yet completely emotionally unavailable, and I think reading the book [aloud] I had a much better sense of why he swallowed down everything he felt – it was just to get through the days. And then when he went home to St. Kitts and found everything changed and that he no longer belonged there, I also felt more compassion for him than I ever had before.
Jen: Looking back like that must be both healing and disorientating. I’m also rather fascinated by how and why we store memories. I was recently reading Ariel Henley’s memoir A Face For Picasso where she was recounting surgeries she’d had as a child, and she was perplexed to find that certain medical notes were completely at odds with her memories of them. Did you have any such revelations or reflections when writing Without Warning…?
Kit: I was already the custodian of the family memories. For some reason, I can remember dates and names and people and events and colours and places much better than my brother and sisters, so the challenge for me was leaving things out rather than getting any help with remembering. My older brother Conrad did tell me about our grandmother, Black Nana and his remembrances of her which were very, very at odds about what I knew. He spoke about seeing her in St. Kitts when he was a child and said how warm and kind she was to him. Really? I never knew that.
Jen: Interesting! Equally, did talking to family members unearth new things for you? And did you revisit photographs and items from your past that you found helpful in the writing process?
Kit: At the front of the book there are several family photos. I think sometimes we only really remember events because of photos, especially because it was such a big deal in the ’60s and ’70s to have photos developed. First of all, you had to have a camera (expensive), then you had to buy film (expensive) and then you would eke out each photo, taking only one of each event and having no idea what it would look like when it was developed. So, it could take you six months to have a whole roll finished. Then you took it to Boots to be developed (expensive) and you had to wait at least a week before you got them back. Then, of course, you would find half of them were blurred or no good but there would be a few that would make you laugh or remember and bring the event to life. Photos from the past – those kind – are very precious to us, they come from such a different time in all sorts of ways.
Jen: Very true. As well as these childhood memories, we often accept traditions that are part of our lives from a young age, even if they are bizarre (believing in a tooth fairy, setting fire to a Christmas pudding etc). However, growing up in a household without Christmas, birthdays, and celebrations in general must have meant that as an adult there were many things that you encountered for the first time that seemed stranger than fiction. Which of these new-to-you traditions did you find most bizarre, and which ones have you since embraced yourself?
Kit: Bread sauce. I mean, come on! It was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard of. We never had a Christmas but even I knew about turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, so as soon as I could make it myself I decided to ask everyone what to do and people told me about bread sauce. I cannot understand who came up with the idea of a sauce made from old bread in the first place.
As soon as I had children, I remember going mad for vintage Christmas decorations and would scour shops for them. I spent a fortune, and the tree could barely support the weight. Now that they’ve left home, I’ve reverted to my own version of Christmas, which is hardly Christmas at all. I buy it all ready-made from the supermarket and my tree is a twig with lights. Without childhood memories I think a lot of those traditions lose their magic and it’s much easier to see them through cold eyes.
Jen: (Whispers) Don’t hate me but I love bread sauce, ha. However, we do have something in common in that we both love audiobooks. Like you, I adore them for both accessibility and joy. What was it like hearing Lenny Henry bring your debut novel My Name is Leon to life in audiobook form?
Kit: I chose Lenny Henry specially for the audiobook, so it was an absolute joy hearing him read it. I went to the studio to actually watch him record it and we spoke about the story and his response to it which was wonderful. It was then that he said he was interested in making it into a film which has finally been done. He did such a good job!
Jen: I watched it last week (readers can find it on BBC iPlayer); it’s so well done! Following on from Lenny’s audiobook, how did you find the process of recording your own audiobook for Without Warning…? Was it another means of revisiting and reliving, as I’m sure the writing itself was? And did any part of it surprise you?
Kit: The audiobook was great to record apart from the fact that there were a couple of instances when I broke down laughing and we had to take a break. Even when I came back into the studio it was very hard to get past reading about my brother having to wear lederhosen for a whole summer for no reason whatsoever other than my mother’s madness. I kept seeing him, nine years old, sweating to death in thick green leather shorts with an embroidered bib, the look on his face of shame, exhaustion and bewilderment. Laughing now all over again.
Jen: Ha! Lastly, can you please recommend some of your favourite audiobooks to us?
Kit: The best audiobook I’ve ever listened to is Old Filth by Jane Gardem narrated by Bill Wallace (a character actor who was in Blackadder, amongst other things). It’s not so much a reading as a performance – nuanced, clever, tender and an absolute joy to listen to. There are another two books in the trilogy which are just as good but the first one remains my favourite.
For memoir it’s hard to beat Gabriel Byrne’s two books that he reads himself as only he could with all the accents and pathos and brilliance.
For humour, I would suggest anything by David Sedaris particularly Me Talk Pretty One Day or any of his lectures.
Interview by Jen Campbell.
Photographs by Tami Aftab.
Without Warning & Only Sometimes by Kit de Waal is published by Tinder Press, out now.
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