“Believe in Your Story” and other Writing Advice from author Kit de Waal

By DeAnn Bell

February 19th 2018 and I was waiting in my office at Bangor University to go down and see Kit de Waal do a reading and interview with Lisa Blower for Y Llachan reading series. Kit’s author bio according to Penguin Books website includes the following information:

Kit de Waal, born to an Irish mother and Caribbean father, was brought up among the Irish community of Birmingham in the 60's and 70's. Her debut novel My Name Is Leon was an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, long-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award for 2017.

In 2016 I had seen her read from her then debuting novel My Name is Leon at the annual NAWE conference. Her approach was fiery as she shared anecdotes about skulking around a supermarket hunched down trying to imagine what it looked like from a 9 year-old boy’s point of view. In addition to a method-acting style of writing, Kit had been candid about her surprise at what political angles American publishers were trying to prescribe to her book in the form of suggested book club questions. Two years and a lot of awards later, her name is now closely associated with the term Working Class Writer and I was anxious to see what changes the time had made in her approach to writing and her flat resistance to having that writing pigeonholed by identity politics.

I winced as she began her talk with issues of authenticity and of representation in Working Class writing because I am suspicious of the standardization these terms imply. How can you authenticate a marginalised experience without resorting to stereotypes? Authenticity and representation both require a stabilization of experience and identity borders so that one can clearly decide who is in and who is out. When applied to characters in writing this often results in a display of stereotypical behaviour so that representation or authenticity can be recognized. Thankfully my disappointment was short lived. Kit immediately backed up a step declaring that although she was pleased that marginalized writers were able to write and publish through Working Class fiction that writers should write what they loved first. She joked that attempting to write for political labels or political representation just tended to piss people off. That a writer’s first duty was to write the story they believed in regardless of genre or politics.

According to Kit My Name is Leon was never meant to be representational and the label of Working Class Writing had been applied to it retrospectively. She was pleased because the classification had enabled her to set up a scholarship for underrepresented writers to help them get a foot in the door. She said that although university had never been a dream of hers until she decided that she wanted to write making the choice to study available to more people was important to opening up and changing the literary scene.  

Moving on to her technical writing choices Kit said My Name is Leon started out being a 3000 word short story written for her MA class and that the original title for the piece was The Scarlet Emperor. Leon didn’t work as a short story because the container was wrong, according to Kit. Putting a short story idea into a novel means there is a lot of prose paunch, likewise putting a novel idea into a short story resulted in a confusing complexity and sickening richness. Leon’s story needed room to breathe. Connecting novel writing to her exceptional Flash Fiction work, she told us that she normally writes twice what she needs and then cuts the story into shape. She called discovering the story hiding in the middle of “rubbish” writing the turning point in the development of a piece.

My Name is Leon is the third novel she has written but when asked if she would publish the other two in 2016 she said they were not worth reading. Tonight she followed up on that saying that both her first two novels had been pantsed. (If you’ve been following, we talked about plotting vs pantsing in an earlier blog.) Both of her unsuccessful novels involved sitting down with a blank screen and just writing. Recognizing the weaknesses in that approach, and in writing from outside her own experience, for her third novel she worked with what she knew and planned with a spreadsheet that she worked continuously on for three months until she felt she knew every part of the story. Acknowledging that for some writers this method killed the organic movement of a piece, she said that for herself, knowing where she was going freed her to be more creative with characterization and setting.

Although her writing is not meant to be autobiographical, Kit admits to being more comfortable writing from the landscape of her own experience. Start with what you know and then research from there, she advised. Be in the story because the best way of writing is to be there. Her second novel is called The Trick to Time which finds Kit’s protagonist engaging with issues of Irish identity in 1970’s Birmingham, the landscape of her childhood. The Trick to Time will be available on March 29th 2018 through Penguin Books. 


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