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Wright to Writer: 'It'll all end up in a book one day'

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

Kit de Waal talks to Justin David about his debut novel, He's Done Ever So Well for Himself

First of all and most importantly, Justin, can you knit?

Ha. What a brilliant question. Yes, I can. Maybe not as well as I could when I was a child. I couldn’t knit a textured Argyle cable motif or anything like that but I can still motor through rows of knit and purl. In fact, I knitted the panel of red wool, which appears on the cover. Knitting is a metaphor that runs throughout the book.

Just like Jamie in the book, it was my grandmother, Betty, who taught me to knit. Some people in my family disapproved. Boys who liked to knit were sissies and the other kids at school made sure I knew it. Ironically, my dad used to help me when he wasn’t working at the lock factory. He had the mind of an engineer. He could just look at something, a clock, a motor car, a toaster and understand how it worked. Knitting was no different for him. He wasn’t a knitter, but while all the women were busy canting, Dad would cast on and cast off for me, or scoop up a dropped stitch without any effort at all.

All the characters in your novel are meticulously observed. Were you a ‘watcher’ as a child? Is that where you got your characters from?

Absolutely! I was really nosey. I still am. I’m fascinated by people’s idiosyncrasies - a dated hairdo, an interesting brooch, the way someone holds themselves. I could see someone and draw them on paper, later on. However, finding a character, for me, always started with the voice, the patterns people make with their sentences. It fascinates me. When I was a kid I was always getting into trouble for mimicking people. I’d get a clip round the ear for doing it. But it never stopped me. I’d listen to conversations and remember them as if memorising lines for a part in a play. Then I started sampling bits and pieces from life and used them here and there in the writing. My mother was always warning people, ‘Be careful what you say in front of him. It’ll all end up in a book one day. Bloody writers!’

I expect some people, especially family members, will want to see themselves in the work. My mother might say, ‘Oh, Gloria, that’s me that is,’ as if it’s a memoir. But it’s not. Each character is an amalgamation of different people I’ve met along the way. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t have a base in real life and there’s definitely more than just a sprinkling of my mother inside Gloria. But in another way she’s archetypal. If I took you to the Midlands, I could introduce you to a hundred Glorias, all with the same template hairdo. I prefer to think of the book as a mythologisation of my family and bits of our lives.

A street from Justin's hometown

Your book details your character’s move to London and how it changed his life. Did you have the same experience and if not, how was your own experience different?

Rocket and coriander! When I moved to London, I tasted fresh coriander for the first time. And I’d never tasted Thai food. Coming from Wolverhampton, (Willenhall, actually, but no one has ever heard of it) I didn’t even know gay bars existed (though I later discovered there’s a thriving gay scene in the West Midlands). London had gay people too. Arriving in the city felt like I’d been let out of prison. Around every corner there was a new experience and a new person to get to know. Not all of these experiences were positive and it took a while to acclimatise. The social mobility experienced by Jamie was similar for me. I didn’t have much money but suddenly, I was surrounded by actors and artists and musicians and travellers. Everyone I met had a story. Everything was more colourful.

With regard to your writing process, what was the most challenging part of writing the book? Was there a section that you found harder than others?

Making it all hang together was the hardest part. I didn’t sit down and write the book from start to finish. I’ll never write another one like this. It’s episodic. It’s flawed. But its flaws, I hope, are what make it fresh. If you see it as an album, chapter 7 has already been released as a single and in my eyes it’s definitely the interesting bonus track.

How do you think your working class background has informed your writing and novel?

I’ve never fitted in anywhere. When I was in London I was the misfit from a strange backwater. Whenever I went home to the Midlands I was accused of having newly acquired airs and graces. I couldn’t win. I quickly became a chameleon learning to change colour and lead a double life, like The Talented Mister Ripley.

I didn’t fit in at school either, and would have done anything to get out of that. But my home life was colourful. The men were at work most of the time so I was raised by women: women who never stopped talking. Home was matriarchal; it was full of gossip and drama and arguments and costume changes. One image that just won’t leave me is of my nan sitting in the kitchen under a portable salon style hair hood dryer telling us all who had died that week. Life was like one long episode of Coronation Street. It certainly wasn’t grim.

I’m so over this idea that this doesn’t make good fiction or that people don’t want to read working class stories. I think many big publishers go for an easy sell and have become conditioned into pumping out the feel good book. When I was young it was all Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale, Ken Loach, Willy Russell, Debbie Horsfield and Sue Townsend. You’ll note these are all TV writers. We watched an awful lot of telly. The box was full of working class drama. That has changed. Now, it’s all Downton Abbey, The Crown and Keeping up with the bleeding Kardashians and I don’t have any interest in any of it. How anyone can thing this is progress is beyond me.

Uncle Freddie played by Nathan Evans

The artwork in your novel is amazing. How did you come up with the ideas for the illustrations and photographs?

The photography has just always been there… as long as the writing. One feeds the other. Since I’m a photographer and a writer, it just seemed the right thing to do. It’s not fashionable is it… character portraits… I’ve not seen that anywhere except children’s literature. And in some ways I think the book does feel like a children’s book. Don’t let your kids read it though… too much fucking!

Have you planned a follow up?

It’s crossed my mind. But… no spoilers!

How do you think we can get more working class writers or writers from the margins into publication? How important is this to you?

This is the conversation of the moment isn’t it, across the arts. And I’m glad you’re one of the key people steering that conversation. But that conversation must be translated into action. We need to create as many opportunities as possible for people to first of all see themselves as writers, editors, publishers, from the bottom up. I don’t just want kids having empty dreams of being a novelist. I want a real opportunity for them to reach their goals. But those opportunities need to be created in schools, universities, writing groups, publishing houses, newspapers, and magazines. Working class people need to be welcomed into those roles… from the person who writes the book to the person who chooses what people read. And that is what our publishing company, Inkandescent, is all about.

He’s Done Ever So Well for Himself

by Justin David is OUT NOW

Justin David lives and works in East London. He studied Graphic Communication at the University of Northampton. His photos have appeared in magazines including: Beige, Time Out, Out There, Attitude, GT, QX, Pink Paper and Classical Music Magazine; his evolving collection, Night Work, has been exhibited in venues including Jackson’s Lane. After graduating from the MA Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, Justin’s novella, The Pharmacist, was published by SALT in 2014. He’s been a contributor to Polari literary salon at Southbank Centre and is a founder member of Leather Lane Writers.

Kit de Waal writes novels, short stories and flash fiction for which she has won numerous awards. Her debut novel, My Name is Leon the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Costa Debut Novel, the British Book Awards Debut and the Desmond Elliott Prize. In 2016, she founded the Kit de Waal Scholarship at Birkbeck University. Her monologue Imagine That was performed at The Old Vic as part of the celebration of 100 Years of Suffrage and her second novel, The Trick to Time is longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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