On writing

Kit de Waal on the 'write what you know' trope

It's important for writers whose experiences aren't represented in literature to write what they know - but there are still universal truths to be found within the classics, says the My Name is Leon author

Kit de Waal, photo by Justine Stoddart

Even before I started writing seriously I remember hearing the phrase ‘write what you know’.  I think that can be a discouraging bit of advice. How many of us have fascinating lives that can bear the seven or eight hours it takes to read a book?  

I later heard a different version that says ‘write what you know to be true.’ That’s more like it. What we know to be true about people, or the world or having a broken heart or stealing from your Mum’s purse, now that’s different. We can transpose that true feeling into someone else in a different time and place and create an interesting narrative.

On another level, writing what we know is important and necessary especially if we come from a background that isn’t often represented in print. I was brought up on a diet of the classics, Brontë, Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare that certainly didn’t represent my life or background. But there’s space in this cannon for stories from a broader experience and for a broader readership. Recently, Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman and Anita and Me by Meera Syall have both appeared on the curriculum for A level English which is a step in the right direction I think.

That’s not to say there is nothing to learn from the classics. One of my favourite authors is Isaac Bashevis Singer, the master of the micro-tell; the gesture of the head, the watch placed on the table, the lack of a goodbye. He is superb. Chekhov too, who could convey a whole world in a short space, a complete character by the way he buttoned his jacket. As any writer will tell you, there are some books that can bear dissection over and over again. I heard someone say recently that a classic is a book that has finished saying what it’s got to say. I think that’s true. They contain universal truths that are as relevant today as they were when they were written, The Grapes of WrathNineteen Eighty-FourTo Kill a Mockingbird

Next to my bed I have a massive To Read pile. I’m halfway through Whatever You love by Louise Doughty from 2010 and I’ve just downloaded the audio version of Ulysses by James Joyce. It’s 27 hours 23 minutes. Is it worth spending that much time on a book written 110 years ago? What will it tell me? I’ll let you know.

Find out more about the author

My Name Is Leon

Kit de Waal



'Unforgettable, heartbreaking and uplifting - just read it' Daily Mail

'My debut of the year so far... heartbreaking and warm at the same time' Stylist

'Authentic and beautiful, urgent and honest, this novel does what only the best do: it quietly makes room in your heart' Chris Cleave, bestselling author of The Other Hand


A brother chosen. A brother left behind. And a family where you'd least expect to find one.

Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not.

As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile - like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.

Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how - just when we least expect it - we manage to find our way home.

'Powerful and gorgeously written... uplifting and full of hope' Good Housekeeping

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