Kit de Waal’s debut novel My Name is Leon is shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award. We spoke to her about her journey to publication and her advice to aspiring authors.
What did you learn from the process of writing your debut?
I learned that I’m a planner and that the longer I take to think and ponder and plan and be in the world of the novel, the quicker the actual writing – pen on paper – time is. I learned that all the staring-out-of-the-window writing is very worthwhile.
Tell us about your journey to publication.
I wrote two fairly rubbish novels before My Name Is Leon. They fortunately never saw the light of the day. It’s only now that I can see that they were a type of apprenticeship where I learned not to have a cast of forty and three different time spans. At the time, realising that I had twice written 80,000 or more words that were never going to be published was very disheartening and it took a lot to stand back, look at them critically and realise that after all, they were not written in my voice nor with my heart.
What was the most difficult part of the journey to publication?
I think for all debut writers, unless you are very very lucky, the most difficult part of the journey to publication is to keep going in the face of rejection. Compared to some writers, I have been lucky in that the rejection didn’t last that long but even so, every agent that says ‘It’s not for me,’ makes you question your work, your ability, your subject matter and every authorial decision you’ve made. Multiply that by twenty or thirty and you realise that what you need most as a writer is resilience, energy and faith in yourself and your story. Those things will keep you going.
What advice would you give to writers looking to find a literary agent?
I would say do your research and make sure you send the right type of novel to the right agent but much more important than this is make sure that your work is the absolute best is can be before you even think about submitting it to anyone. Often we get tired of the endless revisions and stop even when we have a niggling thought that something isn’t right. If you don’t have absolute faith in your work, if you can spot the flaws, then someone else will too. Better to wait until you can say with pride and conviction ‘This is really good,’ than send it off too early and get rejected.
What was the best piece of advice you were given?
‘Be in the story’. Someone said this to me about reading my work aloud; if you are in the story rather than in the audience, it helps with nerves and diction and putting feeling into the text. But an extension of ‘being in the story’ is how much we inhabit the world we are writing about. If we are ‘in the story’ rather than obsessing about how the reader perceives it or whether it’s commercial enough or whether there are enough laughs or drama or whatever, then we create an authentic world with real characters and motivations. We aren’t playing to the crowd.
How did you celebrate the publication of your debut?
It took me a while, to be honest. I found it hard to believe it was real and was waiting for someone to re-read the book and say ‘Actually, we made a mistake.’ I did have a very lovely holiday in Barcelona with my son where I made good use of the 24 hour room service and poolside bar!
Was there anything that surprised you about having your debut novel published?
I was surprised that there were so many people involved in the process of publication; publicists, the artists, proofreaders and lots of other people who support you from day one. I literally thought someone ordered a jacket, wrapped it around the manuscript and put it on the three for two table in Waterstones. Embarrassing.
Tell us about your first author event.
I think it was fairly low key with a few other Penguin authors. I was introduced to some book bloggers who asked me all about Leon and for the first time really, I understood that people loved him and understood what I was trying to say.
How did it feel to see your book reviewed?
Gut churning beforehand obviously. I’ve read savage reviews or even worse, the ‘meh’ ones that don’t even inspire you to disagree. Fortunately, all the reviews have been good and even the ones that have taken issue with something (someone objected to all the swearing) haven’t perturbed me at all.
What are you working on now – and how different is the experience from writing your debut novel?
I am just finishing my second novel which has been an absolute joy. I continue to plan and plot – I don’t think I’ll ever be one of the writers that starts off with the blank page and takes off to an unknown destination. I still did the daydreaming thing and visited Ireland a couple of times to get the landscape right. I did more research this time about 1974 when some of the novel takes place but otherwise, the experience was more or less the same – writing late into the night, making a playlist of songs of the period, clipping bits of magazines and pictures from the web and making a montage of characters and places, revision, revision and revision. I suppose the difference is I’m writing full-time now and that is simply a dream come true.