“I didn’t set out at all to write a political book or social commentary, I just wanted to write a page-turner,” Kit de Waal says of her first novel, My Name is Leon (June), which Viking is billing as its biggest début publication since Elizabeth is Missing.
The novel tells the story of a mixed-race nine-year-old boy called Leon, who enters the care system when his mother is unable to look after him and his baby half-brother Jake, but it also offers the wider social commentary that de Waal speaks of.
The book is set in 1981, a year de Waal says she chose because, “I wanted to find a politically fractured time and it’s just one that I particularly remember. It was a weird year. There was the royal wedding, which was the biggest pomp and circumstance, and then another section of society—black people—were feeling completely disenfranchised. There was a lot of protest going on. I wanted Leon to be a mirror of those two worlds. Placing him in a politically unstable time magnifies his personal instability and vulnerability.”
Not long after Leon and Jake move in with a foster carer called Maureen, Jake is adopted. It is clear that he is adopted, and not Leon, because he is white. “Unfortunately that’s as true today as it was in 1981,” de Waal says, and she knows what she is talking about. As well as being the mother of two adopted children and having advised social workers and foster carers on working with mixed-race children, she is on an adoption panel and admits: “I’ve had to make the terrible decision of whether or not to split up siblings.”
This understanding of the care system is evident throughout the book, in which all the characters, from Leon’s depressed biological mother to his overworked social workers, are treated with compassion. De Waal explains: “It wasn’t a challenge to portray people sympathetically, because most people within that field are doing their best, though they haven’t got enough money or time or resources. I don’t feel I’m banging any drum, I’m just telling it as it is.”
De Waal says the desire to write fiction “crept up” on her. “When I adopted my second child he was quite ill, so I spent a lot of time at home looking after him. It was then I thought: ‘I wonder if I could?’ I must have been 45 when I first started to think about doing it and then I was 52 when I did a creative writing Masters at Oxford Brookes.”
The inspiration for Leon’s narrative came from another story she wrote—but did not publish—in which he appeared as an adult. “I thought, ‘What happened to that guy that made him who he is today? And his back story took over.” The book took around a year for her to write, though she had thought about the story for “about five years”. Three months after writing the book, Viking editor Venetia Butterfield bought it after a six-way auction and signed de Waal up for two more. Before that she had written short stories, winning awards including the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize. She “always wanted to write a novel”, but wasn’t sure she could. “I had written two books that didn’t get anywhere and I was scared of writing My Name is Leon because, having adopted, I felt such a responsibility.”
She compares going from writing short stories to writing a novel as “the difference between picking up a cushion and picking up a mattress”. Writing from the perspective of a young boy, however, came to her fairly easily. “I have a little boy and I remember being that age and being mixed-race . . . I remember that feeling of ‘I’m not black or white’ really well, and what it was to have different considerations to adults.” On a practical note, she says: “There were times when
I literally crouched down to look at the world from that level because it looks different from down there.” She also tried not to use words in the book that Leon would not know. “That was one of the challenges of writing his voice, to make sure it reflected his understanding.”
At the start of the book, Leon is portrayed as “a good boy” but there are moments where he lashes out and occasionally he steals: “It’s his frustration and the grief of losing his mother and brother. That light-fingeredness comes because things have been taken from him, and he wants to take something back.”
Leon’s powerlessness is heightened when Maureen falls sick and he is sent to stay with her sister, Sylvia. The disruption was a plot device and a reflection of reality for de Waal. “Very often in care, even that safety net of a lovely carer breaks down for whatever reason, so you have these double layers of vulnerability. I wanted Leon to experience that.” At Sylvia’s house, Leon finds a local allotment where he meets two men, Tufty and Mr Devlin, who make a big impression on him. “Part of the reason for introducing them was for the sake of the plot; you can’t just have a story about a boy hating his foster carers. But also, I wanted to illustrate the two sides of him, the white and the black. Meeting Tufty in particular is a development in terms of him becoming an adult black man in a difficult world.”
As tension ramps up in the book, Leon’s personal turmoil at the loss of his family collides with the political turmoil erupting around him. Did de Waal worry about the book being too sad? “I don’t think it’s sad. I think it’s real,” she says.
De Waal plans to resuscitate her original story, of Leon as an adult, at some point because“he has more to say”. “It’s a sequel of sorts but it’s completely different. Leon is 43 when you meet him again, so we will know what’s happened to him in the intervening years. I’m just plotting that now. It’s going to be great to write it because I feel like it really happened—he feels so real to me.”
On the subject of other projects, what of the creative writing scholarship de Waal funded last year for a writer from a low-income household or marginalised background? She explains: “I know that there’s a lot of talent out there and it doesn’t get an opportunity to develop very often. I wanted to do something that would give one person, or a few people, a real chance. We had the interviews yesterday and it was humbling. I only intended to do it for one year but, having seen the talent out there, there is no way I could just stop.”*
She is also in the process of editing her second novel, which is about a woman who makes dolls—“nothing at all like My Name is Leon”. It will be followed by a collection of short stories she “really can’t wait to write”, about some of the supporting characters from her two contracted novels.
De Waal is “desperately looking forward” to the publication of My Name is Leon. “It feels like a big deal, I don’t take it for granted.” Her agent has had “a few approaches” about optioning the novel for television, and she has been attending literary festivals in the run-up to the book’s release. She is “dreading” being reviewed, however, but she says: “I believe in my book. I know it’s accurate in terms of the social work and what happens. People could criticise the writing and there’s no answer to that, but in terms of the story, I’m quite confident that it makes sense—and it’s true.”
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 8th April 2016.
*The first recipient of the Kit de Waal scholarship has now been announced as Stephen Morrison-Burke.