Interview with Kate Atkinson

Posted by Goodreads on September 6, 2018
The year is 1940, and Juliet Armstrong is on the trail of Nazi collaborators. Juliet isn't some high-living MI5 femme fatale; the protagonist of Transcription, a new novel by Kate Atkinson, is just an unworldly, if cynical, 18-year-old girl who writes up surveilled sessions between fascist sympathizers. But though she's a minor cog in the war effort among the secret agents and bureaucrats, she's soon pulled into bigger things—events that haunt her years later.

For Atkinson, Transcription is her third straight novel set during the war era, after the bestselling, Costa Award-winning Life After Life (2013) and its sequel, A God in Ruins (2015), which also won the Costa. She says she's fascinated by the time—"As a writer, there's so much material"—but wanted to write something more than a "war novel."

"I wanted it to be a shadowy type of war," says Atkinson, who's also known for her Jackson Brodie mystery novels, in a phone interview with Goodreads. "I also wanted it to have a different angle, where people didn't feel the fear, during the [pre-Blitz] Phoney War, before the real war began." Atkinson talked to Goodreads contributor Todd Leopold about her writing habits, the shifting nature of trust, and the kind of book she's always wanted to write. The interview has been edited and condensed.

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Goodreads: What gave you the idea for Transcription?

Kate Atkinson: I was researching A God in Ruins in the archives. While I was doing that, some documents were released and the identity of Jack King was revealed. [King was a quietly heroic, and long-mysterious, figure of the war era.] He turned out to be a bank clerk named Eric Roberts. I loved the idea of an anonymous clerk posing as a Gestapo agent. It was an incredible strain on him. His job was to sweep up fascist sympathizers. He was tasked with gathering them all up, and he was successful—he got all of them. I thought, "This is a novel"—spies, a bank clerk.

But I also didn't know how to write it. I didn't want to write about a real person. I saw the transcripts and knew there was a girl who typed all of them, and I thought—there's my story.

GR: Let's talk about that girl. Juliet is both hard-bitten and naive in 1940, ignorant about sex but willing to take on various personas and immerse herself in spycraft. Was she fully formed, or did her character evolve?

KA: All [my] characters come out fully formed. It's a miracle I don't understand. Juliet is cynical but knows nothing about human relationships. She's not exceptional. So many women are completely blind. They certainly were at that time. I'm very interested in character formation, and I never really talk about it. But they're just there. It helps if they have a name, but that's it.

They're not autonomous. I control them completely, so they're going to do whatever I want. It's not like they do things within the book that surprise me. The only thing I change in a character is if they're horrible, I soften their edges, because 100 percent evil characters don't interest me. But you're asking me to explain something I honestly can't understand. They don't have lives of their own. They're all mine. I am the evil puppet master.

GR: It's hard to ask questions about Transcription without revealing too much. Given all the twists and turns, how do you plan it out?

KA: I always have a title. It gets you over the problem with the blank page. Even if you don't understand the title, it gives you something you think of unconsciously.

I wanted trust to be a theme, but not to be in-your-face about it. I wanted something shifty and ambivalent. I wrote the first chapter long before I wrote the rest of the book. I wanted the mystery of that relationship. I had the image of fog for a long time. I find it handy to have a first page. It gives you the feeling—you know the atmosphere you want to create, and something you will leave behind on the last page. Of course, then you get to the thousands of words in the middle. It used to be like jelly in my mind, but I've gotten much better at storyboarding.

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GR: Did you know when shocking events would occur, or did they sneak up on you?

KA: I knew a third of the way through that someone would die, but I didn't know who. [When I figured it out], all of that tension had to be seeded back in. As I knew I was getting close, the more excited I got. Still, it's upsetting when it happens.

GR: You handle death with compassion, as you have in Life After Life and A God in Ruins. How do you write about grief and loss so effectively?

KA: In our minds people don't grow older, so it's very shocking to see them age. I have a friend who's obsessive about school reunions, and I'm constantly trying to bat them away. And she had a photograph from the last school reunion, and dear God, we looked terrible. If I think about them, I think about them at 11 years old. So that interim is always very shocking, and even more shocking if you hear somebody's died. I think of one boy I knew in primary school. For me he is always that ten-year-old. At a reunion, his wife came up to me and said he died last year. Nobody remembers him as a boy.

As a writer, I feel I'm the repository of everybody. It's sad when you think about it. But that's the job of fiction—to rescue people.

GR: What are you reading now?

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KA: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Circe by Madeline Miller, and Secret Pigeon Service by Gordon Corera. Pigeons played such an important role in the war. The first news of D-Day was brought by pigeon.

GR: I love your authorial asides and humor. What particular authors affected your sense of humor?

KA: It comes from childhood reading rather than now, because it takes a lot to make me laugh nowadays. The League of Gentlemen, which you've never heard of, Just William—the Richmal Crompton books—and Lewis Carroll. Edith Nesbit. That sense of humor is embedded in the writing, I think, and it's sometimes quite subtle. It's not someone jumping up and down going, "This is hilarious." It's something more subtle, so when you think it's funny, you realize it's something intimate between you and the author. That's a great skill.

These are period books as well, old before I read them, and I think that's something else I enjoyed as a child. These were authors writing in Edwardian times or Victorian times or the First World War. That was the actual time you entered into—the speech patterns, the way they dress. I found it really magical as a child because I really like atmosphere, historical atmosphere.

GR: Have you considered writing a children's book yourself?

KA: I would LOVE to write a children's book. I think they're the most difficult form of fiction. I don't think I'm capable of writing a children's book, but to me they're one of the great forms of literature.

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Byethebays (new)

Byethebays Goodreads, you're right about Atkinson writing about death and loss so compassionately. I think she's the best.

message 2: by J.R. (new)

J.R. This does sound interesting, and of course I'll want to read it. But, oh, I do wish she'd give us more Brodie. Please, Kate--more Jackson Brodie.

message 3: by Bhammond (new)

Bhammond Her books are really good but yes, we need more Jackson Brodie

message 4: by Michele (new)

Michele Yes, please, some more Jackson Brodie!

message 5: by Robert (new)

Robert Limb I loved Transcription on Radio 4

message 6: by Carole (new)

Carole I'm so looking forward to seeing Kate in Vancouver on Saturday. I work in the public library and whenever a patron asks for a recommendation, I always hand then Life after Life - my favourite book, and tell them to read anything Kate has written. As mentioned by many before me, more Jackson Brodie would be wonderful but would it continue from where the books left off or from the TV series?

message 7: by Anne (new)

Anne Hetherington I loved Life after Life and A God in Ruins, much more than the Brodie novels, so I am really looking forward to Transcription. In fact, I am planning to start an online book club and I am going to suggest Transcription for our next read!

message 8: by Leila (new)

Leila Goreil I can't wait for this book!

message 9: by Liz (new)

Liz Loved this book! But then, I’ve loved all her works. Highly recommend this.

message 10: by Jen (new)

Jen To the above readers hoping for a Jackson Brodie book....there is another one coming! I was lucky enough to see Kate Atkinson at the 92nd St. Y in NYC being interviewed Tuesday evening (9/25/18). She clearly stated that in the fall of '19, there will be another Jackson Brodie novel for those of us that have been waiting/hoping/praying all these years!!

message 11: by Elaine (new)

Elaine Petrusic I am looking forward to reading Transcription.

message 12: by David (new)

David Kross J.R. wrote: "This does sound interesting, and of course I'll want to read it. But, oh, I do wish she'd give us more Brodie. Please, Kate--more Jackson Brodie."


message 13: by Sharyle (new)

Sharyle Really enjoyed Transcription for the fine characterizations, the atmosphere of wartime London, and the plot.

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