Kit de Waal A Question and Answer Session with the author of "The Old Man and the Suit"
A. How did your years working in criminal and family law impact your writings and sensibility.
Working in that area of the law, with the most vulnerable people, I learnt that I was no different, that environment shapes you and can destroy you and that there are a million little forks in the road that lead us here or there. I also learnt that the worst criminal loves his mother, cries at Bambi, helps the old lady across the road. We as humans do monstrous things but we are not monsters. Not always
B. There is to be a very Eastern/ Russian European feel to your story, as if it comes from the
The tradition of Issac Babel, Chekhov, and Lamed Shapiro. What writers in this area do you, if any, see as formative in your sensibility.
I found Isaac Bashevik Singer many years ago and went through his works like a maniac. I’m not sure he ever wrote short stories but he was the master of the vignette within his novels. The gesture of the head, the watch placed on the table, the lack of a goodbye. He is superb. Chekov too managed to convey a whole world in a short story, a complete character by the way he buttoned his jacket.
."The Old Man and the Suit" takes place in a basement, with the only view people's feet as they walk. Is this meant to convey a sense of the underworld or of Orpheus?
I’d love to claim to be that clever but the truth is it happened in a basement because I was in Dublin and saw a long row of Georgian houses and the story came to me, almost fully formed. I’d had the tailor with me for about six months, sewing patiently on my shoulder and I hadn’t found a home for him. I knew he was Irish or Greek, I knew he had an apprentice, although I didn’t know it was his grandson.
.Please share with us a bit about the Costa Awards Experience.
Well it was surreal and fabulous in a ‘I’ll never get the chance to do this again,’ sort of way. There were celebrities there and lots ofwriters obviously, buckets of champagne and canapés and I walked away with second prize. Obviously, after I got the prize I can’t remember another things. Too much of the free booze no doubt.
1. Declan Kiberd in his book, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, said the
dominant theme of Modern Irish is that of the weak or missing father. Do you think Kiberd is right? How does this impact your work,if it does. In your story we have a father dead long ago and the grandfather dies.
That’s massively interesting to me. I haven’t read him but I can see what he means. I’m not sure I would confine that theme to Ireland however. There is something in literature generally about the orphaned child or the vulnerable child – and by child, I mean right from childhood to adulthood. It makes a good literature to have that kind of conflict and danger in a novel. But perhaps, he means in Ireland generally and not just in literature. I would have to think about that. I have that running through my own family somewhat.
2. how and when did you begin to write?
I began to write seriously in the year 2000. I’ve always written scraps of things, poems (very, very bad ones that had to rhyme) and lyrics for songs but in 2000 I adopted a little boy who was very unwell. I already had adopted a daughter and the combination was hard work. I had to have something for me, that gave me a sense of myself and that could be done at home when they were both in bed. Writing was it. I remembered how much I loved it and I was an am a voracious reader and I remember thinking ‘Madame Bovary,’ that’s the best book I know. I wonder if I could ….
3. Who are some of your favorite contemporary short story writers. What classic writers do you find your self drawn to reread. If a neophyte short story writer were to ask you who to read, what might you suggest?
My confession is that don’t read enough short stories. One book I read recently which is a collection of shorts in a novel, ‘The Spinning Heart,’ by Donal Ryan was just so perfect. I had had a similar idea and dismissed it as unworkable or unpopular and here he was, making a whole out of little wholes. It’s a work of art.
I know this will sound too familiar but I read ‘The Dubliners’ over and over. Actually, that’s not true. I listen to them. I discovered audio books when the children were small because I could be ironing andwatching them while they and I could listen to something great. The audio version of The Dubliners is read by some of the best Irish actors (Jim Norton, Patrick McCabe, Sinead Cusack) and there is something about hearing it in the right tongue with the inflection of the city that brings the stories alive. There are little pauses and coughs that are stories in themselves.
I also read Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert, of course. They wrote some of the first short stories I came across and made me fall in love.
4. Frank O'Connor in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story said short stories seem to be about marginalized people, the lonely, those with with little voice in society. Do you think he is on to something illuminating about the format? Why is there so much loneliness in the Irish short story?
Ah, what a question. I think once you have a marginalized person ie a person who wants something, needs something, can’t get something, then you have a story. I do think there are national traits and Irish story telling is definitely one. I think class comes into it as well. Whereas the educated middle classes and gentry would have read alone, a lot of stories used to be told around a fire or a drink or over a fence by poor people who maybe couldn’t read or certainly couldn’t afford a book. What stories would they tell? Stories about themselves, often with a joke, more often with a tragedy but they were stories they could relate to and were, of course, about being marginalized. Poverty is one of the most excluding and destructive ills.
5. I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish Weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers.? I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on tropical island, for example. Jean Rhys wrote beautifully of the wonders of Dominica but not until she moved to London. I find it hard to imagine your story being set in one of the beautiful islands of the Phillipines, my home, as people don't work in basements.
Two things come to mind about this. The first is that our view of great literature is a Eurocentric one. We have had these great works – and they truly are great – laid open for us, explored and expounded and told ‘These are the great novels.’ We have been told this by great Western scholars because they talk about our lives here in the west, in the temperate zones. We read what we know. We know the drawing rooms of Copenhagen and Vienna, we know the slums of Poland, weknow the dirty backstreets of London. And our heroes speak our language. I think there is a lot of unexplored and unacknowledged literature in the tropics much of which is third world where literacy rates are lower, where there is more poverty and hardship, lives we don’t know and traditions we don’t understand or appreciate. These countries are full of ‘the other’ and it’s more of a stretch to find this literature, translate it, distribute it, study it, laud it. And of course much of the literature or storytelling is ‘oral’ – passed from generation to generation and not written down as we expect literature to be.
Secondly, I also used to think that great stories were honed out of bleak rock. And in my mind the tropics were just too beautiful to produce the necessary angst. Of course, this is rubbish. I used to ask my father about the West Indies, what it was like and what he did as a boy and it sounded blissful, white sands, fishing off a rock, lying under a palm tree, fruit from the bush. It sounded like paradise and I could never work out why he stayed in England. Of course, poverty - again- drove him away from home and the fear of poverty kept him here. There is a different sort of grimness and ugliness perhaps in the tropics as far as setting goes (the shanties and townships) and then we are after all human and fall in love with the wrong person, covetanother man’s goat, ruin our business wherever we are. This the stuff of literature, the human condition and it’s the same in Guatamala as it is in Berlin.
6. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there." In general how do you feel Ireland's extensive mythology impacts the literature?
I don’t believe in fairies, I’m afraid. Nor ghosts, nor the afterlife. I think we have the here and now and make the best of it. I do believe in make-believe and how powerful that can be and I believe that there are definitely forces we cannot see although I wouldn’t give them a shape and a personality – or size.
7. Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?
Yes. I think we are as a people welded to the land and to our history and we are emotional and outspoken about it. And when I say land I mean the soil and rock not just the culture and the people and the buildings.
I often think about this. I have a certain feeling when I’m in Ireland, a feeling about being at home although I wasn’t born there and didn’t even visit until I was about ten years old. I would love someone to put me to sleep and wake me up in a field and say, ‘Keep your eyes closed. Where are you?’ I have spent a lot of time in France andHolland and some in Norway and I wonder, would I be able to tell that I was in Ireland then? Would something speak to my heart to tell me I was home?
8. When you write, do you picture and audience or do you just write?
I have no audience other than the most savage critic who says ‘If this isn’t good, I’m leaving.’
9. Assuming this applies to you, how do you get past creative "dry spells", periods when you have a hard time coming up with ideas or when things seem futile?
I don’t really suffer from creative blocks, it’s more lack of confidence or doubt that I’m any good. That will cramp the fingers for me.
11. What are the last three novels you read? Last three movies? doyou have any favorite TV shows?
I last read:-
‘Good Behaviour’ by Molly Keane although that was a re-read so I’m not sure it counts.
‘Accordion Crimes’ by Annie Proulx. Fascinatingly grim.
‘Apaloosa’ by Robert B. Parker, a true Western.
My last three movies:-
‘Lady Caroline Lamb’ with Sarah Miles – made in the Seventies. Not bad.
‘Brief Encounter’ directed by David Lean which needs no introduction and which I watch at least one a year.
’12 Years a Slave’, directed by Steve McQueen which I found tough going.
In January I also became addicted to ‘Breaking Bad’. I watched 80 hours of it in one month. If someone would have told me that I had a spare 80 hours in any 30 day period I would have scoffed. I was regularly going to bed red-eyed at four in the morning wondering about my next fix.
12. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons.” I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by Spanish or American Rulers.. How has the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, shaped Irish literature? In America it seems somehow the best short stories writers like Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers, all writers admired by Irish authors, had their sensibilites shaped by the defeat of the south in the American Civil War.
I think there’s something that comes out of pain that is difficult to quantify. It’s almost as though you need to have your heart broken to know about love, as though you need to lose something to get some perspective on life. It takes guts to say ‘Look what we did, how we were overcome, how we failed,’. I see a triumph in that. I love it, it makes me strangely proud. I love the broken bits of this existence, theoff-centre and neglected.
13. If you could live any where in the past for six months, or forever, and be rich and safe, where would you pick and why?
I would live by the sea or the ocean. I don’t necessarily want to dipmy toe in the water but I have to be able to see it. It would be warm in the day, warm enough to sit outside but cold at night, cold enough for a fire. It would have to be in a town or just outside – I need people – but I have no neighbours. I don’t care about the country particularly if it’s only for six months. Probably not Italy or Greece. Not sure why.
14. when out of Ireland, besides family and friends, what do you miss most? What are you glad to be away from for a while?
I don’t live in Ireland but when I’m not there believe it or not I miss the accent and the turn of phrase and the Irish outlook, the one-liner. I’m always glad to be away from the rain.
16. A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most referenced poets by Irish writers last year was Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse. If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet? (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.). Some of this may just be a story about a poet with a stablemarriage, a job and no substance issues may seem dull compared to wilder lives.
There’s something here about dying at the height of creativity or fame or productivity. Look at Diana Princess of Wales or Marilyn Monroe. They died at their most beautiful and mysterious. They never had to dally with plastic surgery, fading looks, uselessness. James Dean too. They all died when they were still interesting to us, still giving ussomething to think about as though there was more to come. That piques our interest in them and we can imagine lives of fabulousness for them because they aren’t around to disappoint us.
I also believe that a poet or an artist does not need to lead a chaotic life to be great but that the artistic and creative mind which is often uncompromising and driven can leave chaos in its wake. Very few artists lead a 9 – 5 life and change the beds every Monday.
17. Please explain to total outsiders like me how important government grants to writers are to Irish literature? who decided who gets a grant?
I can only speak about the UK I’m afraid as I’m not up-to-date on the Irish grants. What I know generally about funding for the arts is that it’s never been more crucial to invest in it. There is a value to literature and the other arts for us now and for generations to come. We cannot be constantly referring back to Joyce and Beckett – we need to invest in contemporary heroes.
18. Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you haveshare your experiences a bit please.
I did an MA in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes with James Hawes & Carole Angier. There has been much made recently about whether or not you can teach creative writing. Hanif Kureshi, himself a Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston, has made some controversial remarks about it. I’ve thought about this long and hard and come to the conclusion that you can teach creative writing – just like you can teach cookery or carpentry. You can’t teach flair and talent. What I discovered is that the creative writing workshop or BA or MA says to you ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Stop doing that,’. So you stop all your bad habits and you peel and shave away at your writing until …What is left has to be good. It has to be your talent and your voice. If you peel everything away and there is nothing underneath, you are not a writer.
19. What other branch of the arts influences your writing or do you use to inform your writing.
I do a lot of driving so I always have music on in the car and I specifically put playlists together for particular short stories or novels. I have one now called ‘Number 3’ because it is for my third novel and the one, please God, that will get published. It’s called The Scarlet Emperor and it’s about a boy growing up in care.
20. Not long ago I was sent several very hostile messages from Irish writers demanding to know why I had posted on the works of other writers and not them. Some suggested I had been influenced by some sort of shadowy group to ignore their work. I was informed there is a small elite group who decides who gets reviewed, published or receives grants and it was also suggested they had sent me negative feedback on writers I should ignore. What in the Irish literary scene is behind this?
There is no-one more insecure than an artist or a writer. I have some great friends who are writers and we talk sometimes about going into a book shop and seeing our books in forgotten corners or not there at all, of being overlooked for literary festivals or blogs or local events. We all think we have something to say that is wise and unique. Otherwise we wouldn’t write. It’s like being at a party and having every back turned to you. I don’t think there is anything sinister but I do think there are writers who are flavor of the month, well connected and in the know and then there are those of us are on the fringes, dancing in the corner or smoking in the garden.
21. Do you think poets and short story writers have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers? One of the characters in Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, set in Mexico city and centering on poets, says that the main reason poets, nearly all male in Bolano'sbook, read at work shops is to meet the way disproportional number of women who come to them in search of a tortured soul to nourish. isthis just stupid?
Hmm I don’t think it is stupid unfortunately but it is rather sexist and trite. I have just read about Lady Caroline Lamb’s infatuation with Lord Byron. She and, it seems, half of London society, were in love with a rather vain and heartless man on the basis of his poetry. He was a genuine bastard to his women but they couldn't see past his ability to woo them with the tortured soul on the page.
I think the responsibility of the author is the tell the truth. If that means they are talking about contemporary social issues or historic ones then so be it. I think there are very few stories that don’t tell us something about social values and society and if we tell the truth we will inevitably be saying something political, something about the way we see the world and want to change it.
22. Tell us a bit about your non-academic non literary work experience please
Tell us something about your educational background, please.
I left home at sixteen after an argument with my father and lead a life dissolution and excess. It was juvenile and great. No harm done. But I came to at twenty one and thought ‘Alright, I’ve had enough drugs and drink, what else is on offer?’ So I found books. I read hundreds and I mean that and loved it. I also got a job with the Divorce Registry, filing people’s Divorce Petitions in the right drawer. The blue copy in the big cabinet, the yellow copy in the small one…. You get the picture. Mind numbing. The I moved to the Prosecution Service and hey presto the world became technicolour.
My latest job was editing training manuals for social workers and the judiciary. I love it. I use a completely different part of the brain than for my creative work and it also hones that skill.
23. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers? Or is this a myth?
I don’t think it is a myth. But the answer is beyond me.
24. Quick Pick Questions
.tablets or laptops?
Laptops although I am completely ‘Mac’d’ out. I have the lot, iPad, iPhone, iMac and Macbook air. Overkill.
.E readers or traditional books?
Both have their place, like theatre and television.
.Synge or Beckett?
.Cats or dogs?
Cats although I do like the Kerry Blue Terrier
.best city to inspire a writer- Paris, London, Dublin, or?
Any of the above. I write a lot in London but wouldn’t say no to any city environment. I like the nearest of people.
.Walt Whitman or Willam Butler Yeats?
Can I have both?
.RTE or BBC?
BBC or HBO.
.Would you rather witness opening night for Waiting for Godot, King Lear, Playboy of the Western World or Ubo Roi?
Waiting for Godot.
25. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.
I definitely think Irish Travellers should be a distinct ethnic group. To be a distinct ethnic group, in my opinion, you have to have a culture, language, rites and rituals, and identity which separates you from the majority and Irish Travellers and gypsies generally qualify on those counts. There is a lot of discrimination against that particular ethnic group which people feel is okay – not sure why. Is it because they are not black? I speak as the daughter of a black man and an Irish woman so I know what discrimination looks like, what it feels like on the other end and how destructive it is to both parties – the giver and the receiver. My own grandmother from Wexford used to call us tinkers if we misbehaved. It’s the thin end of the wedge.
26. Death, natural and otherwise is a central factor in the Irish short story and it seems to me to play a bigger factor in the Irish short story than other cultures-can you talk about this a bit, please . Certainly death figures largely in your story.
I’ve been running from the death theme all my life. I don’t know what it is about the Irish short story and death but it’s definitely a recurring theme. For me, death figures in a lot of my stories and if it isn’t death is a big loss of some other kind. Of course, it’s an easy catalyst for change as far as writing tools are concerned but beyond that it allows a writer to explore the depths of a character.
I also grew up the notion of my own impending and imminent death. My mother converted from Catholicism to being a Jehovah’s Witness and I was told, over and ever over, that I wouldn’t grow up, that I would never see twenty, never be an old woman. I would either die atGod’s hands at Armageddon (around 1975 or thereabouts) or I would be swept into paradise where no-one ever ages. That’s slow death by another name. So death is close to me, I’ve been waiting for it since I was fifteen and I do wish I could get over it.
27. How important is social media in the development of the career of writers? Do you have your own web page and if so why? Do you think it is good business savvy to post free samples of your work online? Do you have other stories online.
I’m not sure social media is that important in building a career but I’m not up to date with it all – if it helps you to connect with the outside world that’s great. I have a Wordpress blog called The White Pagewhich gives snippets of stuff for other writers, mostly about the craft. I update it about once a month and I have about two followers – my sisters. I do it for me and because sometimes, I think there might be someone listening.
28. I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection). It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey. Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American. What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?.
I too read Strumpet City recently – I loved it. I also read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore in which we see the destructive influence of alcohol. There’s no getting away from it in Irish literature and again I don’t know why. Certainly, the American novelists write about it, I can think of several, but the Irish have the theme distilled, if you pardon the pun.
29. related to question above, recently Guiness sponsored a creative writing program and set up a grant system for writers and artist. A number of my Irish Facebook friends said they would repudiate a grant from Guiness and art festivals and programs should refuse their sponsorship. This was in part because of the perceived terrible socialcost of alcoholism on Irish families. It was also stated that Guiness was trying to get people to see drinking as associated with creativity. Would you refuse a grant from Guiness? Are their sponsorship efforts insidious? When I facetiously suggested I would take on the burden of these malicious grants, I was taken to task as an outsider who needs to mind his own business.
I would take the Guinness pound and run with it. If they are trying to put something back and give an artist a helping hand then I say good. There have been no shortage of big corporations who have built their wealth on the back of the common man to his detriment. My father comes from a line of slaves who cut sugar cane and picked cotton. Tate & Lyle (the sugar company) who made millions have opened galleries and sponsored many prizes and artists with the money made from the savage treatment of black men and women (and I should also say Irish and Spanish). The more they spend on that, the better as far as I am concerned.
To expect them to acknowledge their part is wishful thinking – unfortunately. Perhaps one day they will make proper reparation but for not, if they put a few quid back in the kitty (or should I say chasm) then it’s a start.
30. Reading Paul's response to one of my questions, I thought of a new question I wanted to ask.
I was reading your answers again. I think there is one sort of big difference between the reader and the writer. As you know, true reading is not passive but involves a creative process.
Looking at this quote from question 1 " That observation makes me pause. If I'm honest, I didn't know it was a dominant theme. I operate in such a bubble when I write and analyse the content very rarely. My writing bears no conscious relation to the world of writing, no matter how obvious the connections are to others. In this pause you've brought I have to say the theme impacts on my work greatly".
Readers do read within a tradition, seeing works as part of a great conversation, part of a hopefully ever deeper culture, writers see themselves as starting from ground zero, without a conscious relation to a tradition. Also readers or especially reviewers, I am not a reviewer- I just post stuff- put a limit on a writers work when they talk about it or find meaning in it, thus breaking the writes sense of pure creation. A writer might well truthfully say, "I just write", but you cannot really just read.
Is there a built in divide between writers and readers? Is this is what the resistance to interpretation is at least in part about?
Such an interesting question.
I think of writer's as architects, constructing something not only for themselves to enjoy - and that must be part of it - but for others to appreciate, for someone else to have a variety of responses - right from 'that looks beautiful to the eye' right the way through to 'I see what you've done here' and 'I understand.'
I think there must be a divide because writers can never come to their own work without expectation and intent whereas as a reader, you open the book and wait to be entertained. You give yourself up to the writing and the world that's being constructed and it's often a surprising one, that's the joy of it.
Nevertheless, as a writer, if you don't love what you've done and what you're doing, it's unlikely anyone else will like it.
As for interpretation, I know with my writing, readers have found themes and ideas I never intended or at least was never fully aware of. It makes me seem a far wiser person than am I so I'm unlikely to disabuse anyone of the notion but honestly, I personally just try and write the story. If it's true, it will inevitably resonate with someone.
You can learn more about Kit here
Best and thanks
Kit de Waal was born in Birmingham of Irish and French Caribbean parents. She worked in criminal and family law for fifteen years and now writes flash fiction, short stories and longer form prose. She is published in various anthologies (Fish Prize 2011 & 2012; ‘The Sea in Birmingham’ 2013; ‘Final Chapters’ 2013’) and works as an editor of non-fiction. She came second in the Costa Short Story Prize 2014 with ‘The Old Man & The Suit’. She is currently working on a novel ‘The Scarlet Emperor’.
I have previously posted on her wonderful short story, "The Old Man and the Suit"
My post on the story contains a link to to it
My great thanks to Kit de Waal for these very well considered responses. I hope to read her novel soon.
I hope to publish some of her work shortly.