'I wanted to write about a care system that didn’t care very much': Kit de Waal on My Name Is Leon

The novelist did not set out to write a political book, but a lived experience

I wrote My Name Is Leon with no expectation of it being published. After all, the first two novels I had written were rejected out of hand. They were crime-ish, underworld stories culled and fashioned from my many years of working in criminal law. But I was told they fell between “literary” and “genre” and I had no idea what that meant – and more importantly I didn’t know how to fix them. The disappointment was crushing. I often hear people tell authors who have had their work rejected to get on and write something else and just keep going. I disagree. If you’ve put your heart and soul into something and really think that this might be it, you should allow yourself some time to grieve. The loss is real. And sometimes things are unfixable. So, tuck into the ice-cream, rant against the world and just be bloody well sad about it.

My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal

I decided that if I clearly wasn’t going to write a bestseller, I had better write the thing I was scared of, the book about a young boy and about adoption. I didn’t set out to write a political book, I just wanted to write about a care system that didn’t care very much, about race and class and ordinary people. It had to be authentic and true and it had to respect the people for whom being in care isn’t a literary trope but a lived experience. I have two adopted children, I couldn’t afford to fail.

Yes, my sisters would read it. My brothers too. My mates definitely, and social workers maybe, and foster kids and prisoners. All in all, I might sell a couple of hundred copies. If all else failed, I would stick to short stories where I’d had some success.

When my agent told me that the book would go to auction, I had no idea what she meant. I didn’t realise that I would sit with loads of publishers while they told me how wonderful it was, how much they wanted me to sign with them, what they would do to bring the book to readers. Here was the other side of the coin, one I never thought would land the right way up for me.

Then there was a wait of over a year before My Name Is Leon was published, in 2016 . During that time I wrote another novel, The Trick to Time, in complete ignorance of what was to come. I didn’t know whether My Name Is Leon would be a hit or not, whether I would still sell those 200 copies, but I had all that time to write in anonymity, something I will never know again.

Kit de Waal’s latest novel, Supporting Cast, is published by Penguin (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Kit de Waal

The GuardianTramp

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