It is hard for me to restrain superlatives and hyperbole when describing Kate Atkinson's fiction. Allow me to quote some fellow readers and critics instead, from Kevin Maynard of Time Out who described Atkinson's Whitbread Award-winning debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum as "so raucously funny and casually beautiful that it's easy to forget how precise the language is." The London Review of Books adds that she "delivers [her] jokes and tragedies as efficiently as Dickens once delivered his, though Atkinson has a game plan more sophisticated than Dickens's."
Many readers were introduced to Atkinson via her fifth novel, Case Histories, which helped make her a break-out success in America. Sometimes categorized as a crime novel, Case Histories does indeed begin with a series of deaths or disappearances, which are subsequently investigated by Jackson Brodie, a rattled, unkempt PI who practices his French while on stakeout. Less a detective story than a touching exploration of grief and interconnectedness, it is populated by a band of curious and dysfunctional misfits who are saved from implausibility by being rendered fully three-dimensional. Jackson won the hearts of many readers, and he returns in her follow-up, One Good Turn. Set against the backdrop of the Comedy Festival in Atkinson's own Edinburgh, One Good Turn exhibits Atkinson's unique voice: psychologically astute, wickedly funny, and relentlessly imaginative.
Georgie: Your work seems to have provoked many attempts at categorization, and I have read it variously described as an "anti-Family Saga novel," magical realism, tragi-comedy, and, regarding the last two novels in particular, crime fiction. What do you think about such attempts to categorize?
Atkinson: They annoy me. It is slightly more of an American thing than a British thing, but not that much. The French don't go there; they don't have any kind of genre they want to put you in. People like to put you in a box because then it is easier to market you, to read you, to know what they are getting. I don't mind being called a crime novelist because I like crime novels, but the one I resent more than anything is magical realism, which is a particular bÃªte noir of mine, because it is always used in a slightly pejorative way. A bit like "women's fiction" — if someone uses it there's an undercurrent there. And I just have to say "define magical realism," because fiction is fiction — it is not real. It's as if there is some kind of uber-realism that serious novelists will write, but if you write magical realism you are going into the land of fantasy and, of course, that's not quite kosher.
Georgie: I've never considered magical realism to have pejorative connotations, although I have always connected it with authors I don't like to read, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Atkinson: The prime example, of course! There can be something very twee about it, and it can stray into fantasy — fantasy with a capital F.
Georgie: Now you are really getting pejorative.
Atkinson: Yes, very! I was talking to Nancy Pearl yesterday, and she gave me my genre, for which I'm absolutely grateful. She said, "You write comedies of manners," which I think is just perfect. That does say it all, because you can have crime within a comedy of manners, and you can have romance within one too.
Georgie: I would agree. I just read Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother and I described it just the same way, as a comedy of manners. Speaking of genres, I've interviewed several crime writers, and Denise Mina said she set out to be a crime writer, whereas Ian Rankin says he did not, and was surprised when his first book was categorized as such.
Atkinson: Really? That surprises me, actually.
Georgie: You seem to have garnered the reputation by winning the Whitbread Award to always be shelved in literature, despite your last two books featuring a detective protagonist.
Atkinson: That is true. Particularly here in the United States, where I have been "reborn" as a crime novelist, I am still shelved under literary fiction. Which is... well, I was going to say it is kind of handy, but again, I don't have anything against being seen as a crime novelist, except that I don't see myself as a crime novelist. In Britain, where I haven't been reborn, where I am still me, I feel I still have the same readers, and I don't think my readers are suddenly saying, "Oh my god, now she's writing crime!" They are just buying a Kate Atkinson "comedy of manners" that has a bit more gore in it than usual.
Atkinson: My agent actually told me that One Good Turn wasn't put on the longlist for the Booker because it was regarded as genre fiction, and I just thought, "Oh, for heaven's sake!" It is so elitist! To me, it's like Gertrude Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose" — well, I say a book is a book is a book. There are good books, bad books, mediocre books. Why is it necessary to say it's not any good because it is a crime novel, a romance, or whatever? Jane Austen wrote romance for heaven's sake. Dickens wrote crime novels.
Georgie: Dostoyevsky as well.
Atkinson: Exactly. I think it is for the sake of the people who do it, so they can say, "Oh, look at us, we're clever, we're intellectuals, we don't read populism." There is a great movement against populism in Britain, I think, although ironically, by its nature, it is still incredibly popular! In France, they don't have that; they regard cartoons as being as valuable as opera. It is a much more inclusive attitude towards culture which I think would be really healthy for us to adopt, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Georgie: I interviewed Julian Barnes a while ago, and he referred to awards as "posh bingo."
Atkinson: Isn't he a sweetie-pie? That is excellent! And while obviously you can't say "This is the best book," I admit I almost routinely wonder, "What on earth did they give it to that book for?" when they are giving out British literary awards. Quite often you'll be at a prize-giving in a room where everyone is whispering "Well, I thought it was rubbish..." But no one actually speaks out about it. It is all to do with who the judges are — although it is probably quite hard to get people to be judges. Judges are either there so they can say they were a Booker judge, or they're there because nobody else would do it. Again, whoever they are, it goes back to that image of being an intellectual, being the one who can tell what is good and what is worthy. I could give the judges several reasons why some of the books that win are not good books.
I think in some ways it goes back to the fact that we don't do critical analysis anymore. People don't read books like they were studying them. I mean, I don't read a book that way either, but I think that perhaps if you are on a very large prize-giving jury you should pay attention to what makes a great novel — structure, imagery, the holistic form of a great novel. There are very few prizewinning novels that have won major prizes in the last ten years about which I can say, "That's a classic novel. That will be around for the next fifty years." I think Hollinghurst's Line of Beauty has a feel of a classic. It feels very Jamesian — perhaps that is it. I love that book.
Georgie: I read in an interview that you said your daughter helped you invent a character — the "appalling Simon" from a story in Not the End of the World. How do you go about inventing a character? Do you discuss many characters with your family or friends?
Atkinson:Yes, "appalling Simon"! Let's see — my daughter is about twenty-five now, and when I was writing the story she was about twenty, and while I was writing the story I was constantly going to her to check things: "What do you think Simon would be listening to? What do you think Simon would say here?" And at one point she was completely fed up and turned to me and said, "I am a twenty-year-old woman, and he is a fourteen-year-old boy — why do you think I would know?"
In fact, at the end of the story Simon goes to university, and even though I don't name it, he goes to Sterling University, which was where my daughter was studying at the time. And whenever you would drive around the campus you would see Simons. Simons everywhere! These ugly, slacker boys who at the age of seventeen had left school and gone to university — and they were all ugly. I'd never seen so many ugly boys in my life. There wasn't a good looking one on the whole campus, and I thought, he has to come to Sterling because this is the place that the Simons find their home. I have a later story that I wrote for a breast cancer charity, and in it Simon's mother becomes the mother of God. It is set in Edinburgh, and Simon ends up being the half-brother to Christ. He has graduated by now, and is working for one of the big insurance agencies doing data-processing. I love Simon!
Georgie: When you mentioned him in that interview, you said he was one of the only characters that stuck with you. But now it seems Jackson Brodie has, too.
Atkinson: Right, because Case Histories was so easy to write, which happens very rarely and it happened very quickly, and so I thought, I'll just carry on. I have got the voice in my head, and so forth. However, as I started, it didn't feel right so I put it aside and went off and wrote something else. It still had that pull, though, and I thought it would benefit from the structure I now had in mind — that of a seeking figure — but I wanted it to be different.
Case Histories has three separate strands that have their genesis thirty-five years ago, their back stories are old, and Jackson is a major figure in working out what has happened. This time I wanted him to be one of several characters, and I wanted him to be disempowered so that he becomes a criminal — and a victim, actually — and he doesn't have that heroic status. I also wanted the other characters to be as important, for me anyhow. I wanted the feel of it to be very different, because Case Histories is very sad, and I didn't want to write two sad books in a row. I didn't want to write "Case Histories II," because everyone always wants the same thing again. Everyone wanted "Behind the Scenes of the Museum II." In fact I had an email just the other day, quite an aggressive email, saying "When are you going to write 'Behind the Scenes of the Museum II,' and why aren't you writing it now? I don't like everything you have written since." So I find everyone wants the same, and I won't give them the same, obviously because it is not satisfying to me.
With One Good Turn I wanted something with a much tighter time-frame, something much more contemporary and finally, much more playful. I mean, there's a high body count in it, and death itself is treated seriously, but I wanted a different feel.
Georgie: But you always have a high death count. Even in the first chapter of Behind the Scenes, we're being warned that Gillian is not long for this world.
Atkinson: Yes — and this harks back to my earlier point. There is always death in my books, but introduce a detective and suddenly I'm a crime writer. There is a detective in Emotionally Weird, in fact. However, I am beginning to feel — I think because I spent another year writing the same thing I was writing when I put it down last time! — the power of three is calling and I think I'll do a third Jackson. I'll have a trilogy, and that will be more satisfying and more balanced — from everyone's point of view. And then I can say, Okay, that is done. I'm moving on and doing something different and let's just remember I don't always write these books. Now I'm trying to work out how to approach the third one differently. I had lots of ideas, but it depends how you work them in to get the ambience of the novel.
Georgie: These two are very different novels structurally.
Atkinson: Yes. I need to go back to something that feels different with Jackson in it. I'm quite looking forward to going home and knuckling down and writing it. It's one of the few benefits of traveling around the country, in that you do remember, "Oh yes, that's right — I am a writer! I'm not supposed to be talking all the time. I'm meant to be sitting in a dark room at home writing!"
Georgie: Does the travel allow you to catch up on your reading also?
Atkinson: Yes, it does. I'm reading something called A Complicated Kindness — a Canadian book about a Mennonite girl — which is a great book. I'm really enjoying it. I asked Nancy Pearl if she could recommend a couple of books, and this was one of them. You read and discard a lot on tour, but it is great to discover something like this.
Georgie: How much does the difference between writing in first person and third person narrative feel to you?
Atkinson: The first few books of mine were in first person. They do have third person narratives in them, so they are not exclusively first. However, I had really had enough of first person by the time I had done with the third book. I thought I never want to write in the first person again, and I never want to write in the present tense again.
It was one of the many reasons I wrote a collection of stories at that point, because I wanted to break that voice and get away from it, as well as explore other voices. With stories you can get away with more, and move around, try things on. I discovered the internal monologue in the stories, which I had never written in. My earlier works can sometimes look like internal monologue, but they are not, they are first person narratives. With internal monologue I decided Ah, that's the way I want to go. Because I had written some other stories that are sometimes fantastical — in fact, some might call them "magical realism" — and after that I wanted to write some fiction that was realistic (well, fiction is never realistic, but what passes for realism in fiction). I wanted to write them in different interior monologues so you have different points of view. Once I got the hang of it I found it very liberating, because once you know that character and you want to write them, you just step into their head and think like they think and you write it down, so you can be very fluid and very fluent. I had really enjoyed that — and if I do do a third Jackson Brodie, I will probably continue to use that.
And then after that, I want to do something different. I am working on a proper omniscient narrator, so then it will be different. I'm thinking maybe by then I'll be ready to return to a first person narrator! But yes, you kind of wear out a narrative in a way; you explore every way of using the form, and have to do something different. But to come back to one after some time will be interesting. I am certainly not ready to write something in the first person yet, but I think it will be interesting to return to it. To me, that is part of the interesting thing about writing — working out how you are going to present it. I do love characters, but narrative voice is really intriguing.
Georgie: I agree — it can really take possession of the book. Your lovely editor, Reagan Arthur, gave me a galley of a new one she has been working on by Joshua Ferris called Then We Came to the End. Have you seen that?
Atkinson: No, I haven't.
Atkinson: First person plural narrative. Or the Queen's Narrative.
Georgie: I like that!
Atkinson: Hmmm — "we..." Is that annoying?
Georgie: I find it admirable in a way, as it would be bloody hard to keep up, but admittedly I'm only halfway through this one and it might become wearing. It is about an office environment, in some ways reminiscent of the television shows The Office although more quiet and psychological, less slapstick. I thought The Virgin Suicides was immaculate though — brilliantly done.
Atkinson: Oh, yes. I've never thought of using that voice because obviously I have never needed that voice, but I think you have to need something in particular for that voice. Obviously, The Virgin Suicides is a great vehicle for that.
Georgie: And it is nice and slim. I think it can be hard to sustain, and difficult for the reader.
Atkinson: I'm trying to think if there is another novel in that voice, but I can't think of one. I, we, you...
Georgie: "You" is an interesting one. I feel like I have read something with that voice, but I think it was a short story.
Atkinson: It would have to be short.
Georgie: Yes, you'd start looking over your shoulder or freaking out.
I gave a copy of Behind the Scenes of the Museum to my mother, who is an editor. She loved it (of course), but said she read it straight through and then immediately turned around and read it again. She said she wanted to figure out how you did it. I'm not going to give away exactly what "it" is, for those people who have yet to read it, but I also wonder how you did it — is there a way of explaining it without giving anything away?
Atkinson: Ah yes, the secret! Ruby knows she's lost something.
Georgie: Did you know that at the outset?
Atkinson: I knew she had lost something, and I knew it was something incredibly important, and she didn't know what it was. That was motivated by... well, Ruby is really my default voice. Although Ruby's story is not my story, I am Ruby in some ways — maybe not her character, but the nearest voice to me. People who knew me and then read Behind the Scenes said "That's you; that is like listening to you." I haven't written in that voice since, and when we were just talking now about revisiting a voice I thought how interesting it would be to revisit that voice.
So yes, she had always lost something, because I used to always feel like I had lost something. I used to wake up in the middle of the night in a state of fright thinking Oh — where is it? But then I'd think, What is it? That would happen quite a bit, but in a way, it was exorcised by this book. I'd love to go into years of therapy and find out exactly what it is I have lost, but that is for another time, I suppose. I used to worry that I would grow old and die and never know what it is that I lost, but now I think, Oh well, I'll die and never know what it is, who cares?
Georgie: Perhaps it is a sled called Rosebud?
Atkinson: Yes! I do think perhaps at the point of dying I shall remember and will go, "Oh, is that what it was? God almighty, that's not much." But actually, I didn't know what it was in this book until the end of the book either. Right up to the end. The thing that it was that she lost was the nearest thing to self that I could think of. Because for me, losing the self is the terror — becoming senile or not existing, that I don't exist. I have a very narcissistic take, and not a very zen take, but I can't believe I won't exist at some point. Oh well, I didn't exist before I was born, so I guess I'll go back into that state; it's not even a fear, it's just How can that be? Anyhow, this was the closest objective correlative to that. And for anyone who hasn't read the book and finds this unbelievably vague — well good!
Georgie: I can't believe my reaction to that part of the book, where it is revealed — I just utterly collapsed on myself. I was devastated.
Atkinson: I think most people don't expect that that is what it is until the end, and that is because I didn't know. I did go back and put in tiny clues and pointers.
Georgie: Your writing trajectory seems to be that you have started with younger characters (your first novel is narrated by a fetus for the first chapter or so), and as they have progressed, it seems that the characters are getting older along with your own life experiences. Did that come naturally? I'm thinking of Garcia Marquez and Roth, to name a couple, who have examined looking at age as they age.
Atkinson: In one way I'm just writing my way through my life, although I am playing a game of catch-up. Some writers do this but they are starting off younger. People are always saying how old I was when I wrote my first novel. But yes, some people who start writing in college have a longer trajectory — there is the college novel, the "I've just fallen in love" novel, the divorce novel, the "what life is like with children" novel. I didn't do that because I started writing after I'd done all of that, and besides I write fiction, so I didn't want to write about my life. However, I did want to write about the stage of life. For example, in One Good Turn, there is a fifty-nine-year old woman, and I'm fifty-four, and I felt a great identification with her. So yes, as my novels have progressed my characters have gotten older. Although I still seem to be fixated on fourteen-year-old boys, don't I? They keep cropping up!
Georgie: You are the mother of daughters, aren't you?
Atkinson: Yes, but I have closely questioned mothers of fourteen-year-old sons. [Laughs] I was thinking on the plane just the other day, though, that I need to revisit a younger character at some point soon. The book that I keep writing and then stopping and starting again — which I really hope is not something I am going to keep doing until I die — has a four-year-old child in it, with a guy in his late thirties and their relationship, so that is something I need to get back to and explore.
Georgie: I don't have children, and sometimes I find it hard to believe that they have strong enough personalities at that age. I can't even remember my own, though I am sure I had one.
Atkinson: It is hard to imagine sometimes, isn't it? Louise, in One Good Turn, doesn't really like children, although she loves her own, and I kind of feel that way as well. I look at small children and sort of think "Um, yeah...?" Then again, because I have had my own children I do know the overwhelming ferocity of love you have for your children, the knowledge that I would sacrifice myself in a heartbeat for them. But I do understand that for someone else, that child doesn't really have the same pull.
I always find it a terrible thing, though, when people say "When you have children you'll understand," because for one thing, they might not be able to have children, or want to have children. I try never to say that to someone about that, or any experience really, because you could say that about being dead, or being gay, or whatever it is that you may never feel. I don't say it, but it is interesting that you don't understand it unless you have had your own children. It makes sense all of sudden, and you think "Oh, that is why they like that child so much."
Georgie: Even when they are horrible fourteen-year-old boys?
Georgie: Speaking of children, I hope this isn't going to sound insulting to your characterization skills, but I feel like Patricia (Case Histories) and Sylvia (Behind the Scenes), and then Julia (Case Histories) and Gillian (Behind the Scenes) have some marked similarities. Are they drawn from members of your family perhaps?
Atkinson: They do, don't they? No, I don't have any siblings. I only noticed those similarities once I had written the books. I thought, Oh, that Sylvia and Patricia, they have a lot in common, they'd get along well. Actually, they wouldn't get along at all, would they? And Julia and Gillian would hate each other. But they are the girls they would have become if they had the chance to grow up. I mean, Gillian hardly got a a chance to grow up at all. I have known girls like Sylvia and Patricia; they are almost uncategorizable, but they were always unpopular and eccentric, and they always had some weird shtick going on — religion or something — and were deeply alienated. It is like they are born as adolescents — moody adolescents. It isn't as if the family has ever done anything to make them like that; they are just born like that.
Georgie: I have read that reading Alice in Wonderland and the Brothers Grimm as a child was a strong influence on you. Now that many authors are moving into writing young adult or middle readers — from Terry Pratchett to Isabel Allende — have you ever thought about doing that? Do ever think of writing for a younger audience?
Atkinson: No, not really, because i think it is the most difficult audience to write for, and I don't think I have the confidence I could strike that note. It would be interesting to try, and it is not that I wouldn't like to do it; I just really don't know that I could. I suppose you would have to think about the things you liked at that age and what note they hit, but then I think kids are kind of different now. Before I really wrote, when I was young, I did think that I would like to write something along the lines of a fairy tale for the modern child — something highly imaginative — but that was the closest I ever came, when I was young. If I did do it, though, and took it to the realms of the fantastical, I could see it being a great liberation of the imagination.
Georgie: What do you think of the Harry Potter phenomenon?
Atkinson: I'm not drawn to Harry Potter. I think, without being insulting, that Rowling has fallen lucky. I think there are other people doing equal work and that there is nothing so amazing about it that it should have had such amazing success — it seems disproportionate. I think that it is interesting, in the way that huge successful books are interesting. For example, The Da Vinci Code had to have been bought by people who don't read, because otherwise the figures don't add up. And you have to wonder, how did they do that? How do you crossover to those that don't read — the same way Potter crossed over to the children who don't read?
Georgie: I have heard that Philip Roth once said, "When a writer is born into a family, that's the end of that family."
Atkinson: I love that!
Georgie: Would you agree? Do you think your experiences are drawn from your family?
Atkinson: I do try not to. There are a couple of instances in Behind the Scenes. They are not actually family, but people I knew as a child. I worry that they have read it and it is clearly them, and I try not to think about that too much. But I do try not to write about my family, and yet they all think they are in there anyway. Often they will notice something and think I have written about them when it is something we have done, or witnessed, or been a part of, and it is not as though I have put them in there. They do have a certain wariness sometimes that whatever they say or do around me is just going to end up in a book. So I try and just make it things that have happened rather than actual people.
I have used other people's stories, of course. Years ago I worked a lot with old people and they were people who had a story to tell, the story of their life. There was no one to write it down; no one was going to use it. I mean, I have never taken a person's life and written it down, but there have been things that I have used. I feel like a bit of a voyeur sometimes. Whenever someone who's not a writer tells me something, and it interests me, I always ask if I can use it, because if they are not a writer they are not going to be able to use it. And that is a terrible waste of an experience. Of course you can never do that to other writers! But I do think it is always a shame when there are these terrific things that don't get recorded, don't get written about, because that person is not a writer. In a way, you are rescuing experiences constantly — other people's experiences, your own experiences, the imaginative experience — it is a rescue operation.
I had the inimitable pleasure of meeting Ms. Atkinson on October 26, 2006, just before her reading at Powell's on Burnside.
Books mentioned in this post