My Name is Leon (Viking, £12.99/Audible, £23.99) is the heart-rending story of nine-year-old Leon, who is separated in the care system from his baby brother Jake, is the debut novel from Kit de Waal. Here she calls for more working class stories in literature.
My Name Is Leon tells the story of two brothers separated by the care system. What inspired your interest in this subject?
I’ve worked in adoption for a number of years and also spent many years working in criminal law. I saw the damaging effects of the care system and how it can affect people many years after they have left it. I also saw how good people – foster carers and social workers – struggled to make it work for children but often the system itself was against them. I also wanted to write what I know and about a time that I knew well – the 1980s. It made the research time almost non-existent.
How has your professional background helped shape the characters in the novel?
I think my background has enabled me to be understanding, sympathetic and fair to some characters that would be described as “damaged” or “difficult”. I have seen how the effects of a hard life of abuse have shaped people into who they are and how everyone has a story, a background, a context for who they are, so the characters in My Name Is Leon reflect my belief that good people do bad things, that there is an inherent good in most people and that people are always trying to find peace and happiness.
The separation of siblings continues to happen in the care system. What needs to happen for this to stop being the case?
There needs to be more family support and early intervention. When that support doesn’t work (and that can often be the case) then there needs to be a range of care options available for children. Sometimes it is right that children are separated – perhaps there have been issues of abuse between siblings or other family dynamics that make separation the right decision – but every effort should be made for contact between siblings to be maintained, maybe with supervision, so that children grow up with a sense of who they are and where they come from. It must also be said that sometimes children need and want a new start and that should also be respected.
You started writing later in life. How did that come about?
I had come to a point in my life when I wanted to try something new. I had never been ambitious really but as soon as I started writing I realised I had found the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
You have previously published a number of short stories but this is your first novel. How different is your writing process for each format?
The short story is containable. It’s something you can read in less than an hour usually and although the writing takes much longer, for me the writing of a short story feels manageable. Novels feel like a much bigger undertaking. You can get lost in a novel – literally not knowing where you are going and what you are trying to say – and quickly get out of your depth. Fortunately, I’m a plotter. I plan the novel well in advance and also make sure that I break it down into smaller bits until I have the whole thing in my grasp.
You used your advance for My Name Is Leon to set up a writing scholarship. Can you tell us about this?
I left home at 16. I eventually went to university at the age of 51. I wanted someone else to have that experience, someone who would never had had the idea that they could study something they loved for two years with all the fees paid, with the travel paid, the books given to them, a laptop and all the other bits and pieces. I suppose I wanted to make someone’s dream come true, if only in a small way. The scholarship won’t solve the world’s problems but it might make a difference to someone who never thought that good things would happen to them. I’m hoping that it’s something that I can repeat in another couple of years.
Why do we need to see more working class stories in literature?
So many reasons. Mostly because we should value our stories and our life experiences, whatever they are. The experience of being working class is a rich experience. Life is often hard and a struggle but the wisdom and intelligence in the working classes is often undervalued, overlooked, unappreciated – there is so much unacknowledged talent. But there is a difference between working class stories and working class writers. Working class stories I believe are best told by the people that live those lives but that is not to say that working class writers should only tell working class stories. Real equality is when working class writers can write about anything they like – an alien invasion, a nineteenth century courtesan, a medieval war. All we need is the space, the time to do it – oh yes, and some way to pay the bills!