Monday 11 April 2016

A Conversation with Kit de Waal

Kit De Waal spent fifteen years in criminal and family law before becoming a writer. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and longer form prose. She is published in various anthologies and works as an editor of non-fiction. 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. BBC Radio 4 broadcast her story ‘Adrift at the Athena’, which was commissioned for the anthology, A Midlands Odyssey by Nine Arches Press.

In December, 2014, after a six way bidding auction, Viking secured rights to publish her debut novel, My Name Is Leon, Venetia Butterfield, Publishing Director of Viking, said ‘My Name is Leon is a truly extraordinary novel; heart-wrenching and powerful, its characters leap off the page. I’m thrilled to be publishing a major new talent.’

After securing the book deal with Penguin, de Waal used some of her advance to set up a creative writing scholarship to try to improve working-class representation in the arts. The award is designed to help some of the most marginalised people in society gain access to creative writing opportunities. 

Kit was born in Birmingham to an Irish mother, who was a foster carer, and an African-Caribbean father. Her personal and professional experience of foster care and the adoption system helped to shape, My Name is Leon. “I was brought up like that, I’m mixed race, I have adopted children, I’ve trained social workers. In 1981 I was living in Handsworth in Birmingham, where the riots were happening at the end of my road,” she says.

Set during the race riots of the 1980s, My Name is Leon tells the story of Leon, a half-black nine year-old boy who struggles to make sense of his changing world. After his mother suffers a mental breakdown, Leon and his baby brother, Jake, are sent into foster care. Jake—who is white—is soon adopted, and Leon is left wondering why his home life has fallen apart. Meanwhile, at the local allotments racial tensions spark between the gardeners. When life at his new home becomes too much for Leon to bear, he sets out to find Jake and his mother but comes face-to-face with the ugly realities of inequality and injustice instead. Amid the chaos, Leon and those around him learn that love and tolerance can often be found in the most unlikely places.

‘Beautiful and heartbreaking – I cried buckets of tears for Leon and his family’ (Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love.)

My Name is Leon is Kit’s first novel. She lives in Leamington Spa with her two children.

A full review can be read here.

We’d like to thank Kit for taking part in A Conversation… and wish her all the very best with the forthcoming novel which we are sure will be a huge hit.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

When I was fifteen I wrote for my Careers Essay that I wanted to be a journalist. I was quickly told that I should play it safe and be a secretary so I put away any idea of writing for a very long time. I can’t honestly say it bothered me, not writing. I was getting married, divorced, doing an interesting job, having children, living my life. But around 45 the desire to write came back with a vengeance and I began to take it seriously. I blame Gustave Flaubert or more specifically Madame Bovary. It was the first book that made me want to ‘do that thing’ where you get under someone’s skin. Why I thought I could be like Flaubert I don’t know but anyway, I wrote a couple of thrillers, did an MA in Creative Writing and then wrote My Name is Leon. All in about 10 years.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

My role as a writer is primarily, I think, to entertain. If you ask someone to sit down with your book for maybe five or 6 hours, you have an obligation to not bore or disgust them. You are taking their money, they deserve to be entertained and/or moved, informed, educated, amused – you get the picture. I don’t think writers should be self-indulgent unless they are writing for themselves and never intend to sell a book. After the entertainment bit, I believe a writer should tell the truth; that is be true to their vision, the characters and if you are writing about a group of people of any vulnerability make sure you represent them compassionately, honestly and with integrity.

What I like most about writing is the sheer scope and scale of the world or worlds we can inhabit. With two sentences I can be in a field in Ireland in 1965 or on Mars in 2075. Creation, I suppose is what I like, having a job that has no bounds other than one’s own talent.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

My goodness, yes, all the time although dislike is probably not the right word. I have created several characters who are seriously flawed and who do bad things. I think you have to find the love in your character. Most people, and our characters are people, are loved by their mother, by a partner or brother and sister. What is it that those people love about a villain or a gangster or a murderer? Find that thing and it is difficult to truly hate one of your own creations.

Last year, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

It would be extremely difficult for me NOT to write what is termed ‘diverse’ characters. My own background is one of difference; Irish mother, Caribbean father, born in the 60’s when mixed marriages were unheard of. I was brought up in straightened circumstances, a Jehovah’s Witness and one of five children. I have two adopted children of a different heritage to my own and I come from inner city Birmingham. So my writing reflects who I am and not any attempt to incorporate ‘diversity’ into my world. For My Name is Leon I did absolutely no research although there are many characters in the book from different backgrounds and some of the issues people would call ‘marginal.’ I call it real.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I would write by the sea. I honestly don’t mind which sea as long as there was an expanse of it, black or blue or grey, wild or tame but wide and breathing. I would like a modernist home, built into the rock of a cliff with floor to ceiling windows, underfloor heating AND a woodburning stove (preferably Danish), a desk facing the ocean/sea/body of water, no curtains and an endless supply of tea. Cake every other day to avoid greed and tight jeans. I would like to walk down on to the beach in the morning wrapped up in a beautiful cashmere duffle coat and a scarf and hat, leather boots that lace to mid-calf and calf-skin gloves. I would walk and think and return home full of ideas and whole sentences that have written themselves by the water.

Why? No idea. I was born in Birmingham about as far from the sea as is possible in England. Maybe that’s the answer.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

I wish I had written The Remains of the Day because it’s perfect.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

For every hour that you write, spend two hours reading. There is so much good stuff out there. There is always something to learn. Find a book you love, even one you have read a few times and unpick it. Take it apart and find out how the writer did the thing that moves you. Break it down chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence. Find the mechanisms and devices – they will be there – and see if you can imitate them or write your own versions. Those things are the stuff of craft and every artist has to know their craft. Every artist, carpenter, painter, chef, practices and practices as an apprentice, learning from the master and then one day they start on their own creations wielding the tools of the craft.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

My novel My Name is Leon will be published on June 2nd and I’m currently working on my second novel which I should finish in the next few months. Exciting times!

My Name is Leon, is published by Viking, and due for release 2nd June 2016.
You can follow Kit on Twitter: @KitdeWaal

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