If Kate Atkinson had her druthers, she’d have been an agent for MI5 or MI6. “I wish I’d just graduated from university and applied to the security services,” she tells me during a trans-Atlantic interview. “I think that would have been fascinating. Although I’m not terribly good at keeping secrets—I would have had to have learned that part—but I do like secrets. I like secrets in books, I like books where secrets are revealed. They make for really interesting, exciting reading, where there’s something you don’t know and then you do know it, and it’s been kept from you all that time. And I suppose that’s the kind of book I write because I like the sense of revelation, I like the big reveal. I’m not much good with books where not much happens.” Appropriately, Atkinson’s latest novel, Transcription, is full of lies, spies, and revelations, not even close to being a book where “not much happens,” where a cliff-hanger-chapter-ending—“‘Hum-drum’ was the very last word that could be used to describe the horror of what happened next”—induces a bone-deep chill and a shimmering reading thrill.
Atkinson’s novels have always been immersive. From her 1995 debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which, with 1997’s Human Croquet and 2000’s Emotionally Weird, traces a coming-of-age story, to the Jackson Brodie books in which an empathetic PI solves oddly-yet-fittingly-connected mysteries and her latest double-whammy of 2013’s Life After Life and 2015’s A God in Ruins—revisiting WWII through the lives of an English family—Atkinson’s authorial aim has stayed strong, exciting, and true. Her novels pulse with tantalizing details that impart an immediacy and intimacy while encapsulating an over-arching vision: she’s perfected the art of exposing the forest, the trees, and all other life forms in the vicinity, and does so with elegance, substance, and playful humor. Like William Boyd’s books, her novels hold myriad surprises and are both very funny and deadly serious; like Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, they are transformative, in terms of a reader’s experience as well as transforming the stories they are telling right up until the final pages.
In Transcription, a tale about a small cadre of British intelligence agents creating a false safe space for Fascist sympathizers, a constant stream of secrets drives the narrative: is anyone exactly who they say they are? The main protagonist, among a bevy of lovingly fleshed-out characters who may be moral or may be…not, is one Juliet Armstrong, conscripted into the Secret Service in London in 1940, soon after her mother’s death. Like many of Atkinson’s other protagonists, Juliet partly represents what it means to try to live one’s life as a good person in a world filled with ambiguity and ambivalence. And, like many an Atkinson protagonist, Juliet is nothing if not trenchantly observant: “Everything was interconnected, a great web that stretched across time and history. Forster might have said ‘Only connect’ but Juliet thought there was something to be said for cutting all those threads and disconnecting oneself.” Her work initially consists of transcribing the British Fascists’ conversations, and she thrives on the seemingly-innocent skulduggery of it all. But when someone suddenly dies, Juliet’s world is shaken.
“For Juliet, that death is the moment of realization,” Atkinson agrees, “because until then it’s just been a game. And I think for her that’s the moment she realizes what war means. People have been killed on the continent, but this is before Dunkirk, so it’s a time of huge paranoia in England rather than a time of actually fighting. Her work has been sort of a game for her, a masquerade really, and then suddenly, with this death, Juliet sees that everything has consequences. And it is on an individual basis because that’s the only way you can relate to it, isn’t it? She can’t think in terms of the whole continent’s going to going up in flames because she doesn’t know that—she can’t even think in terms of war yet—but it only takes the death of that one person to make her think of the morality of what she’s doing and what other people are doing. It’s a really pivotal moment for her. You make your own morality, I think: Jackson Brodie certainly works from that principle, that often it’s up to you, that you have to decide what’s the right thing and do it.”“I think what we’ve seen change most over the past few years, is our relationship to truth—it’s been made to be no longer absolute. We retain our own individual absolute truth, but truth as a concept has been thrown to the winds.”
The WWII-setting, of course, generates references to gaslighting, tribalism, and Hitler—“Hitler was collecting countries like stamps. How long before he had the full set?”—references that resonate in a distinct key post-2016 and post-Brexit referendum. “It’s funny,” notes Atkinson, “because I probably started writing this book three years ago, and things were still different then. Certainly, when I was writing about Hitler I was thinking about Trump, but only just. But things have changed a lot, and although everything said in the book is related to what was happening at the time, there’s a lot of similarities in terms of nationalism and fascism and this idea of sovereignty and the idea of the other. I think there was nothing new there, nothing new now in how people are thinking: people still hold to their beliefs, those tribalistic, narrow-minded ways. If you said to the British Fascists in 1934—or some Brits now—‘You don’t have sovereignty,’ then that’s the one thing they’re going to want, when the fact is that that thing may not even be lacking in their life. But,” she continues, “I think the thing that changed more for me was how I thought about truth: obviously truth is at the heart of this book because people aren’t being truthful—Juliet’s joyfully a liar, she’s a pathological liar in some ways, everyone is lying about who they are, where their allegiances are, what they’re doing. It’s a book of untruth upon untruth. I think what we’ve seen change most over the past few years, is our relationship to truth—it’s been made to be no longer absolute. We retain our own individual absolute truth, but truth as a concept has been thrown to the winds.”
Secrets and revelations aside, it’s the richness of Juliet’s inner life that gives the novel its soul. “I do write from inside people’s minds,” says Atkinson. “Once you stop saying, ‘Jennifer had blue eyes and worked in a bank and had a sister,’ once you stop doing that and you become Jennifer, and you’re Jennifer thinking that you have to go back to work after lunch and you wonder what your sister’s doing, then it changes completely. It’s more like putting on a role yourself—it has a more theatrical element to it—and you immediately start seeing the world through that character. Then you leave that character behind, another character comes on stage, and then if it’s one that you’ve already developed, it’s so easy to slip back into that person and not have to think about what they’re going to think about because you know, you just know in your bones, how that person behaves and thinks.”
Atkinson honed her storytelling craft through short stories. Her doctoral work explored the postmodern American short story; writers like Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, and Steve Katz gave her a refreshing sense of freedom. “They were saying that you can do anything, you can do what you want, you’re not hidebound by rules because who’s made up the rules? And that took me back to my childhood reading where I was really big fan of classic children’s books—they opened up the imagination so beautifully. If you think of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass—I mean, Lewis Carroll was not abiding by any rules! Think of Wind in the Willows: you can be animals, you can have magic, and it doesn’t seem ridiculous. My first readings were fairy stories so I love that transformative aspect of literature—people can even be dead for a while and be revived!” Really, Atkinson says, “What’s the point of fiction if it doesn’t allow the imagination full play?”
An only child, Atkinson read a lot. As an adult, she famously failed her doctoral defense which turned her way of thinking around. “I stopped being a reader. I didn’t read for a year after I failed my doctorate—I also had a new baby so that was probably part of it—and that was when I started writing. I don’t think if I’d carried on in the academic role I would have become a writer because I think my sense of creativity had gone into that kind of writing, that kind of thinking. Suddenly, it didn’t have an outlet and was screaming inside me, ‘What, what, what! What’re you going to do?!’ And that’s when I started writing, and I started by writing stories.” Because of her academic work, she was very conscious of what was good and what wasn’t: “I expunged all the biographical stuff—’Oh I’m so unhappy! Oh, I’m so miserable!’—and the first thing that I wrote which had nothing to do with me but had a plot and a beginning and an end, won a magazine short-story competition. And that probably made me even more happy than having children: that was the moment that somebody professional was telling me, ‘You’re a writer.’ It was such a moment of validation.”“What’s the point of fiction if it doesn’t allow the imagination full play?”
She began to write fiction for women’s magazines, storytelling within the 2250-word structure. “I really enjoyed writing those stories because I felt that one, I was learning something; two, I was good at it; and three, I was being paid for it. Those are all very important things.” She had started “messing about” with Behind the Scenes; an early piece of it was a runner-up in a writing competition, winning Atkinson an agent and a two-book deal: “Suddenly someone had paid me and I had to write it! And I had to write another one, too!” Behind the Scenes won the 1995 Whitbread (now the Costa Book Awards) First Novel and Book of the Year Awards, and Atkinson hasn’t looked back since.
Her next book is already finished, and she has “lots and lots and lots” of ideas for other ones: “I know what the one after the next one will be and I know what the one after that will be and I know what the one after that I would like to be.” She finds the endless simmering away of future books helpful rather than distracting. “It’s really good to have another one at the back of your mind when you’re writing. Your brain’s very busy when you’re writing but there’s enough space there, enough writing space, for it to be thinking about something else. I think of my brain as a separate entity to me—it’s still working away at something unconsciously, working in the background.” And she finds that once she has a title, she’s fine: “The title is an idea somehow so that when you do come to work on it you’re not just sitting down and thinking, ‘Oh, what am I going to write next?’ You’ve actually got something that’s been fizzing away and you think, ‘Yes, now! Now I can make something of it.’ When you don’t have that train of ideas backing up, then I think it must be the end of your career.”
With Atkinson’s packed books-to-be-written queue, there’s little chance of that. “I think that comes because the more books you write, the more at ease you become with the idea that you’ll be able to write,” she says. “There’s always a moment in the middle of the book where you think, ‘Uh oh, I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can pull this off.’ Because it is a question of pulling it off, really, making the jigsaw puzzle work. But I’m much more relaxed when I start a book now, or when I think about a book, or when I’m stuck in a book. I don’t panic, I just think, ‘Take it steady, it will unknot itself, it will make itself known to you.’”
And what of Death at the Sign of the Rook, a novel-in-progress she mentioned in an earlier interview? “It’s got a great beginning! I’ve written about the first twenty pages of it and it’s really good and I really like it but its time is not now. I plan it to be a Jackson Brodie book, and it is very much an homage to Agatha Christie, but I just want to immerse myself in that world and it doesn’t seem the right time. You know, I had forgotten about Death at the Sign of the Rook—thank you for reminding me, I can put it in the queue.”
But the future book she is most excited about stems from her early years. Atkinson plans a “big, big book—in my mind it’s a big book—about the beginning of the railways, because I come from a railway town, York, and I love trains. I used to live on the railway line as a child so I spent a great deal of that time waiving at trains and having people wave back at me, one of childhood’s great pleasures. It’s also a big, Victorian, semi-Gothic novel.” Atkinson pauses, but only briefly. “I really…I need to get on, don’t I?”
—Author photograph by Helen Clyne.