Interview by Rupert Dastur
Over the last few months, I’ve spoken to a range of authors and professionals about the state of the publishing industry, with a particular focus on the encouragement of diverse voices, as well as frank considerations about the implementation of inclusive policies and ideas.
One of the most enlightening conversations I had was in March with the author Kit de Waal who has just published her book The Trick to Time. What I’ve particularly admired about Kit’s approach is that she follows words with actions. Two examples of this are the funding she provides for a creative writing scholarship at Birkbeck University and, more recently, the launch of Common People, an anthology of memoirs by working class writers. Below you’ll find our conversation which explores all these matters, offers a vision for the publishing scene in the UK and gives some excellent writing advice to anyone looking to launch their own literary careers.
It’s great to be able to talk to you and congratulations on your success with the anthology, Common People, over on Unbound. I thought we could begin with talking about the background to the anthology: the motivations behind it and its relation and reflection of the publishing industry as a whole.
In one of the first interviews I ever gave in The Guardian, some time in 2015, I mentioned that one of the issues that concerned me was the representation of working class writers. The interview seemed to catch the attention of people and was followed by an article for the Scottish Herald, an essay in Know Your Place (Dead Ink Books) about working class writers, and later a documentary for Radio 4. In the documentary, I asked where all the working class writers are and why working class people are always represented the same way in books: living in a tower block, addicted to heroin and so on. We don’t see other stories.
The anthology came out of these conversations and I was approached by New Writing North and Unbound to do this anthology in the style of The Good Immigrant (edited by Nikesh Shukla). I decided to do things a little differently, in that I asked well know writers if they would donate a free memoir piece and allow us to link it to an unpublished working class writer. We had a tremendous response from people and now have seventeen published writers giving short memoir stories of up to 3,000 words –different stories from those we often hear about the working class – celebratory stories that give an alternative texture to the whole trope that comes out so often: how terrible life was before the job, the house, learning to be middle class…
Do you think the difficulty for working class writers in the publishing world stems from the gatekeepers of the literary establishment, or is there more at play – are there hurdles to do with expectations and confidence that also need to be addressed?
I think it’s a really complex issue – first of all if you go back to the beginning – it may be that working class writers are working, so they are putting bread on the table, meaning there’s not much time to write. Most don’t have time or the money to, say, take a year off and publish their novel, or even just to go to a writers’ group. Lack of money can have a detrimental effect on time.
But let’s say you do have time – even then, you may not have any models of writers – you might not think it’s part of your community, or you may think your community is more involved in poetry. You might ask yourself who will be interested in my story? I don’t see my story in the books at the moment, so why now?
If you get over that mental barrier and say yes, I’m determined to write and get published, I don’t care if there are no readers, that I have no time, I’m still going to go for it – even then, you have to get an agent. And they’re all in London.
99.9 percent of agents and all of the big publishing houses are in London, with only small ones elsewhere. So then you might have to London, get into the network, learn the system, learn how to do things.
And then, if you get an agent (which really is difficult), they then have to sell it to someone at a publishing house who will probably be upper-middle class. And is this person going to be interested in your life, the subject matter? And if they’re not? How is your confidence going to be affected? You’ll start asking questions – do you feel like you’ve got the right accent, clothes, and attitude to survive in that environment?
The problem also comes from the industry’s perception about what they want to put on the shelves and who reads. They think a middle class woman, over thirty, with time on her hands. The kind of person they imagine probably wants to read another book about Anne Boleyn. And so they put these books on the shelves.
But they, the publishers, don’t know who isn’t reading, the people who haven’t thought about reading because the books they would read, stories that speak to them, aren’t there yet. It’s a chicken and egg situation. It’s a really difficult one to tackle and that’s why it needs to be approached on so many fronts.
To really address this issue, I think it needs to start with the publishing industry. They need to be aware of what stories are coming out of the working class, they shouldn’t expect to see the same familiar stories, and they need to be welcoming, to think about our language, our attitudes, what we want to see on the shelves.
This refers to agents as well. It’s not enough for an agent to say yeah come down to the office on Wednesday at 3pm. What happens if you have children and live in Doncaster? And what if you do make it, only for that agent to say Yeah, we loved your book, but it’s not for us. That’s your afternoon gone, that’s work time, that’s a sixty quid rails fare. Agents need to start considering who they’re talking to, to be aware and respectful of that. To consider options like Skype. They need to start being more open, to ask the right questions, have the right heart, the right approach, the right attitude, and to think more creatively about what can be done with books, even if they aren’t quite right.
Now, there are lots of people doing this, good people. But it could be better.
It sounds like it’s a problem of pigeon-holing, yet my concern is that if agents acknowledge these different groups and different stories, we could end up with even more labelling, with publishers saying things like these are our working class writers. I worry this creates more division and also feel that writing, regardless of the writer, genre, audience – stands out because, fundamentally, it’s good writing. I know we can debate what comprises good writing, but that’s another matter.
I agree with that.
Although I so also accept that in creating categories, it in some ways forces the issue. But it can also make it more tense. For example, some have reduced entry fees for certain writers and communities. This can be encouraging, but people who aren’t in those groups may say they’re struggling to make ends meet etc. While that’s not necessarily the correct response – you have to be aware of people’s environments – it does bring into question the complexities of identity within the publishing sphere.
Yes. it’s an absolute minefield.
You might not be working class, but have absolutely no money. There are loads of people that aren’t working class, including members of the gentry who are absolutely broke. There are also lots of people who are white and not in a minority, but they’re having a hard time – maybe they’re depressed or have caring responsibilities or are lonely, but there’s no convenient label for them, they just don’t fit into those categories. I have sympathy for those people who don’t have a box to tick, but who wake up and think my life is still shit. I really have sympathy with that view.
I also think that we have to consider that intersectionality, in which lots of marginalised groups converge: black, disabled, working class, and gay for example – four ways in which your life is difficult and that also needs addressing.
When I set up the scholarship for a Creative Writing degree at Birkbeck, I wanted it to be for a marginalise person, but I didn’t want it to be a tick-box exercise, and so in the eligibility criteria I wrote that you had to be form a ‘marginalised or disadvantaged’ community (not background), and I included a a long list of what that might mean (including carers, people with health issues, people with criminal records). But I also stated that if you are marginalised and we haven’t included you or community, then all you had to do was write a statement letting us know. We don’t know about all the ways that people, struggle, that make them feel disadvantaged or that we don’t have a label or a word for. It’s a shame that we can’t just say ‘marginalised and disadvantaged’ and instead have to use specific categories, these four or five tick-boxes that we have. I don’t have an answer, but we should try to use more all-embracing terms if we can.
That’s a great point and one I hope might be taken on board by the industry more widely.
What are the best ways for London-centric organisations to reach out to those areas where people may not know other writers or be part of a reading or writing group, for example?
The best way is to use the people who do have contacts in these communities. The writing development agencies have good contacts. Talk to these organisations and ask about those people who are serious about writing. There will be people who have written a manuscript, had some writing success, and be working towards publication… agents and editors can and should reach those people. In the North East there is New Writing North, funded by the Arts Council to support writers from up there.
These London organisations should reach out and ask these writers to send their manuscripts – they should be proactive.
There’s Literature Works that’s the south east, New Writing South, and Writing West Midlands. It’s easy to reach out to them. That’s an email.
But that’s reaching out to only some writers. There are others that won’t be known by the development agencies – they’ll part of a small local group, or just be writing at home doing their quiet thing. Those people are harder to reach. But. But none of the big five publishing houses have a branch outside of the M25. So of course it’s much harder to reach these people. And also much harder for these people to reach them.
The first big publishing house that sets something up outside the M25 will be seen and they’ll be applauded. They’ll be inundated with work.
The other thing is that all of this is a slow process of exposure, outreach, having the right attitude, contacting universities that put on publishing days, turning up and contacting writing groups, small presses… It’s about having a better relationship with the rest of the country. It’s about doing more than just saying send me your stuff. It’s about actively finding it, asking where is the work that people want to read. It’s about asking where the other stories are in the world – and wanting to find them. It might take some work, but they’re there.
Rather than the vindictive agent or publisher or gatekeeper who is barring certain people from literary success, I wonder if it is really a matter of due consideration and need for simply raising awareness and ensuring that this awareness leads to meaningful action and change.
Totally – yes. No one is sitting there thinking I hate working class writers. We all gravitate towards people who think like us – we do that – we gravitate – because we have something in common with them. People similar to us feed our soul and are easily accessible to us.
Few people purposefully make life difficult for themselves. Everyone is busy and trying to be successful and thinking how to do their best work. They’re doing all this and maybe not giving enough thought to other people out there. They’re not purposefully excluding them – just not considering them. Even during this talk, for example, there must be people I haven’t even mentioned: rural people…
Lots of ways people are left out because they’re not present in the mind, not because anyone is driving them out. So really it’s a matter of saying have you thoughts about so-and-so, not: you need to go to a brainwashing school to see what a prejudiced prick you are.
We need a more gentle approach, more educational. But sometimes the industry does need a kick up the arse! Because it can be a case of laziness and structure that can cause these things. It can be something that happens over many, many years – all the houses being in London for example, that happened over decades. It’s no one person’s fault. But it still needs to be changed.
Finding different stories, broad audiences, a range of writers… It’s something I think about a lot, especially in short fiction. I’ve noticed that the demographic, particularly for some events, tends towards female, middle aged, white. I don’t know about middle class, but the cost of some tickets suggests a degree of disposable income… It makes me wonder: how do you encourage attendance and involvement from people from all over the place? How to ensure everyone feels welcome? I went to the Asian Writer Festival in London last year and it was filled with BAME readers and writers and it was great to see. But conversely, I was one of only a handful of white people. It seems to me that there are these groups, these communities of readers and writers, but there’s not necessarily enough dialogue between them. I wish there was more of that.
There are prizes for black writers and different groups trying to celebrate their own communities and that’s good. But more dialogue between them would be great. But as you said about London – I’m lucky to be able to go quite a lot – you’re right, it’s the same demographic. And it’s expensive.
There are plenty of writers outside London – they go where they can get a job, or where they’re invited. There needs to be more vibrancy in the publishing world outside London (that goes for everything in the arts) and appreciation of the many people which live outside it.
75% of the country’s population doesn’t live within the M25 – if there was one centre that celebrated writing that was an alternative to London – let’s say Manchester which already has a kickass reputation, that would be a start to the solution. You have to start somewhere. In presenting the country with an alternative, a focus or centre outside the capital, it would open up opportunities for many more people.
What can you say about the influence of New Writing North. I’ve heard and seen great things.
They are doing a great job. They manage the specific Working Class Library in Manchester and NWN are very proactive and inclusive. They are a help to lots of small presses – there’s now the northern fictional alliance –five or six small presses coming together as an alternative to the big five… There really are moves afoot. It’s important to see these focal points rise up as an alternative to London.
Do you think schools and the family have a role to play in all this? I wonder of there’s an element of confidence and self-belief in all this too?
Yes, but it’s also the industry itself. You can’t start early enough in terms of reading and writing, and while there’s very little money in it for the great majority of writers, it should still be considered a viable option.
Also important is this question of representation: you can’t be too young to see representation in books as a child. The industry needs to publish children’s books that represent their lives – they need to see, read, think my life is on a shelf, in a book, and I want to write one of those.
It’s about them taking responsibility and ensuring that everyone has a place at the table.
Turning, briefly to the anthology, do you intend for it to have an impact on fiction and the publishing world – how it sees working class writers and their narratives?
Yes, they’ll be beautifully written and the crossovers between creative non-fiction and fiction are many. In many ways, you’re trying to do the same thing; memoir has all the ingredient of a short story: a beginning, a turn, conflict, and perhaps resolution. So, although we didn’t choose fiction because we wanted the book to have the same theme running throughout (if we’d chosen fiction we’d have had a mish-mash of genres) and so the only unifying principle was that the piece had to be memoir. But yes, the stories should share similarities with fiction pieces and reflect alternative ways of looking at the working class life and the way those stories are told.
Are there any other thoughts you would like to share – perhaps for those looking to launch their writing careers?
I’d like to mention the role of short stories.
It’s easier to get a short story out there. To get a novel published is so expensive and risky, whereas a short story is easier to finish and to see in print – this will help build your confidence. I would always encourage a budding writer build a profile as a short story writer. Publishing houses do like it if you have that – if you can say that you have short stories published in magazines and journals, you’re demonstrating that someone else has made a positive, objective decision about your work. It will give the publisher or agent a confidence boost in you and reduce the sense that you’re a gamble.
If you’re thinking about a career as a novelist, short stories can also help you hone your craft and your profile.
On that last point, thinking about your profile and social media, things like Twitter and Facebook can be appealing to publisher. More than that though, there is a real community of writers online. Lots of people don’t live in cites – there are writing communities that are virtual and I would encourage people to join development agencies and follow other writers on Twitter and elsewhere. There are some great people out there who are supportive; People you’ve never met. Friendships are made and support is given by 99.9% of the time. We, other writers, all want others to succeed too. We aren’t selfish. Writers aren’t generally selfish.
Lastly, would you say you’re you optimistic about the future?
Yes, cautiously optimistic – a lot of things continue to happen – there are lots of noises – more needs to happen, but attitudes are changing and I’m seeing commitments and action taking place. But it is like an ocean liner – things aren’t going to happen in minutes – it can take several miles before you see the ship turning; it’s a really slow steer into different waters. But for me there’s a perceptible change in attitude and this is starting to be reflected in the people getting published.
Thank you, Kit, for speaking with me. It’s been a pleasure.
Kit de Waal was born in Birmingham to an Irish mother, who was a childminder and foster carer and a Caribbean father. She worked for fifteen years in criminal and family law, was a magistrate for several years and sits on adoption panels. She used to advise Social Services on the care of foster children, and has written training manuals on adoption, foster care and judgecraft for members of the judiciary. Her writing has received numerous awards including the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize 2014 and 2015 and the SI Leeds Literary Reader’s Choice Prize 2014 and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. My Name is Leon, her first novel was published in 2016 and her second novel, The Trick to Time, was published in March this year.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
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