Interview with Kate Atkinson

Posted by Goodreads on April 2, 2013
English author Kate Atkinson took a break from her best-selling private-eye series to write a stand-alone novel with a grand scope. This new historical opus, Life After Life, begins on February 11, 1910, with the birth of Ursula Todd. Atkinson's levelheaded heroine only lives a few days before being born again on the next page; and the reincarnated character keeps dying and being reborn, each time achieving a later stage in the life cycle. In her many lives Ursula is thrust into the havoc of 20th-century Europe: the flu pandemic of 1918, the harrowing London Blitz, and a pivotal meeting with the Führer himself. Dire consequences radiate from ordinary moments—a broken arm or a kiss rebuffed have unthinkable effects. Edinburgh-based Atkinson chatted with Goodreads about what makes her ruthless as an author and when she simply must take to her bed to write.

GR: Why write the many lives of one character? How did you begin with this idea?

KA: For a long time I've wanted to write a parallel-lives narrative. I still don't think I'm finished with that as a construct. I wanted to explore "what if," the bifurcating path. That's been in the cards for me for a long time. I wanted to write a book about the Blitz particularly—I didn't think I'd write 250 pages of prewar. I wasn't planning to spend a lot of time in 1910 until I started. Initially it was going to be almost entirely about the London Blitz, because I felt I had a bigger war novel to write. But this one I wanted to be incredibly specific and close up. It expanded immediately into something different. Then I thought, "Oh, well. This would fit."

Ursula has to come back again and again in order to know what she wants to do. She can't just be a woman who decided in 1933 that she wants to kill Hitler, because she wouldn't know. She has to know the future. So at that point I thought it would fit in well with this novel I've wanted to write for a long time. The two came together in a serendipitous moment that I can't really remember. You really can't ever remember the point of origin of a book, I don't think. It's a hazy soup of things.

GR: Ursula experiences World War II as a young woman. You've mentioned that since you were born in 1951, you just missed it. How did your generation experience the memory of the war?

KA: I don't think we thought about it at all. If you were a boy, you would have all those Commando Comics where the Germans were always the enemy. It was ever-present, but not present. I had three uncles, and one served in the Navy, one in the Army, and one in the Air Force. My grandfather went through the whole First World War with nothing more than losing a finger, but he was killed by a stray bomb in the Second World War, so he's listed as a war dead. The war had a big impact on my family. It was there, but people didn't talk about it. I don't think people do, because after the war, it was so hard. We were bankrupt. There was no money. There was nothing. When I was born in 1951, many things were still on the ration. It was very hard for Britain to recover from the war. People didn't want to think about it. You were aware it happened, and you were aware of a lot of the facts and details because there were an enormous amount of war movies—stiff-upper-lip war movies. They were ever-present in my childhood. You got the fictionalized account growing up as a child of my generation. Not the real account.

GR: Readers relive the moment of Ursula's birth again and again. What led you to choose February 1910 as her start point?

KA: That's a good question. I worked backward from how old I wanted her to be. I wanted it to be before the First World War, because I wanted to create that idyllic, bucolic pre-First World War Forsterian kind of feeling. That's not necessarily how things were, but I wanted to feel that period. I'm quite attracted to that period. It's an idyllic upper-middle-class English vision. February, I needed the snow...I don't like January. I kind of got became very important to me, because it was my anchor. I always had to get back to [February].

GR: Ursula has sneaking suspicions as a child. Did you toy with different ways to let her in on what was happening to her?

KA: I felt I couldn't ever reveal it to her; it had to remain very abstract. There is never a point at which she goes, "Aha! I know what is happening here. I'm being born again and again and again." Because it would be so manipulative and breaking that fourth wall too much. I did think I would have to come to terms with that later in the book. I had planned a revelation for her when she suddenly thinks, "Right, that's it." But when I did it, I still left it very ambivalent, because I felt that it would be kind of clunky. It is left rather vague, but I think you understand—in the way that she understands as well.

GR: Is there a certain moment in history you'd like the power to change?

KA: Oh, gosh. I'd go right back to the beginning. Like [Ursula] says, "Where did it all go wrong?" I'd go back to the beginning and say no more communities larger than 100 people as a hard-and-fast rule. Because apparently 100 people is the optimum number that people can live together well. It's an ape community, but it's a small village. After that, we get this urban alienation. Would I go back? I don't know. There are too many to choose just one. It would be dangerous to choose one because it's like treading on a butterfly. As you go back into prehistory, you don't know what else you'll set in motion.

GR: Goodreads member Pump Daddy wonders if you are "obsessed with coincidence and accident."

KA: I'm not obsessed...someone was talking about coincidences in novels with my last [Jackson Brodie] book and they said, "It's entirely based on coincidence." And another said, "Yes, but without coincidence there would be no fiction." I think that's true. So many novels rely on that as a device, otherwise things would never happen. In narrative we need coincidence. I think life likes to throw up a lot of coincidence all the time; it's a normal thing almost. I do manufacture an enormous amount of coincidence in fiction. It's true.

GR: Goodreads member Callum says, "I'd like to ask Kate if it hurt her to keep killing Ursula; it's a fabulous plot device, but it strikes me as somewhat masochistic. I've never had my heart broken so much as I did reading Life After Life."

KA: I like to hear that. There is no end to the novel in my mind. There is an infinite number of "Snow" chapters and attempts on her part. She was never going to die forever. I'm quite a ruthless author. The only time I felt really bad about killing a character was in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, when the dog was sent to war and was killed. That broke my heart. That says more about me—that I'm more affected by dogs than people. I'm a masochistic, sadistic kind of author, I think.

GR: Goodreads member Jamie Osborn says, "One of my favorite things about Kate Atkinson's writing is that even though the reader generally knows how all of the loose ends have tied up, she does not always provide that closure to all the characters. I think too many fiction authors feel like everything has to be tied up in a bow at the end. I have wondered if this is something she consciously does for the story to be more realistic?"

KA: That's a good question. I am a person who would like to tie everything up at the end with a big bow to finish it, but there is another part of me that just won't do it. The more books I write, the more open-ended I tend to leave things. In a couple of the Jackson books it's left very unsatisfactory for the reader. I have a lot of readers going, "What happened to Courtney?" I love endings. Kind of symphonic endings, where it ends and ends and ends. I try not to do the tie-it-up-in-a-bow thing. I try to leave something that's not answered, or more abstract. In a way that's more satisfying, because it leaves it open to the reader. For me, too, because I don't know what happens beyond the text. It is conscious because my instinct is to close everything down, and I do fight that. I hope successfully.

GR: Goodreads member Sarah asks, "Do you think that the process of writing the detective series has affected or informed your writing style significantly?"

KA: No, not Jackson. Every time I write a book, I learn more about writing, and I'm more confident about writing on the whole. So I don't think Jackson particularly, but the more you write, the more you evolve as a writer, I suppose. I don't think I could write like I wrote before Jackson. It was a very conscious watershed to leave those three novels behind and do something different. And then you move on from there and do something different again. I go through blocks, and I was very aware with Started Early that I couldn't do another Jackson—that was the end of that. Crime novels are very hard because you have to plot so intricately. Life After Life looks complicated, but actually to write, it was much easier because I knew there was a rhythm I was following.

GR: Many, many fans wrote in to ask whether you'll write another Jackson Brodie novel.

KA: Not for a while. I'm Jacksoned out. He's gone on a long holiday. I need to shake off the TV series. We're about to shoot the second series. It has all become so TV-like in my mind. Jackson looks like Jason [Isaacs]. I need to move away from that. I think there will be another Jackson; it just won't be yet. It may be the way that Christie wrote Poirot's Last Case. I think there may be a "Jackson's Last Case." Because I'm 61, I'm bound to have finite number of books in me. I have thought in a morbid way, "What do I really want to write before I die. Let's make sure I get that one done." And [Jackson] is rather low down on the list, I'm afraid.

There is a companion novel to Life After Life. It's sort of Teddy's story [Ursula's younger brother]—but Teddy's story is slightly more boring than Ursula's. I can now, in my head, fly a Halifax bomber back from a raid on Berlin—I've been doing a lot of reading. But whether that's the book or not, I don't know. I'm a bit up-in-the-air about what I'm doing next.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

KA: Have a cup of coffee. I putter about, then I start writing. I'm better in the morning. I'll always begin by reading what I've written the previous day. That eases me into it so when I start writing new, I'm following on from something I've written. I even do that when I've written a lot of the novel. I'll still quite possibly go back to the first page when I start my writing day. I hate doing a huge rewrite at the end of a book, so by the time I'm done with a novel I've pretty much already done the rewrite. I do a lot of frittering around and wasting time. It takes me a while to get engaged with a book. But when I'm really locked in, I'd be happy to go to jail and be in solitary confinement. I just want to get it done. I can do 12-hour days. I don't want to think about grocery shopping or what I'm going to wear or talk to anyone. There are three phases: Messing about at the beginning, which is very important. I rewrite and rewrite until I've got the feel of it. And then the middle is very fretful because I'm convinced I can't get it to work. And then the last third is great: Shut the door. I know what I'm doing.

I work at home, so I'll move around to different rooms to alleviate the boredom. [laughs] Being in the same place has an odd effect on your brain. When I'm in the really fretful stage, then I either go away somewhere or I take to my bed. Rather like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or something! If I put headphones on and ignore everything in bed, that is remarkably good at focusing. But that doesn't last long; it's unhealthy to take your work to bed. Although Proust wrote in bed, didn't he? In a cork-lined room. I understand that.

GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?

KA: I always say that I was very influenced by the writers I studied from my doctorate, which were the postmodernist story writers of the '60s. They were very playful. They messed around with narrative and had a good time. I found it interesting because they were so different from the traditional English novel. As a writer, I think you do stand on the shoulders of giants. Any person who wrote a good play or poem before you is part of what you write. You do need to be aware of what makes good writing. Everything that I have ever read has been my inspiration.

GR: What are you reading now?

KA: I have just finished Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which I think is going to be my favorite book of 2013.

Comments Showing 1-37 of 37 (37 new)

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message 1: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Feltham Thanks for a terrific interview! Can't wait to read this new novel.

message 2: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Mcdonald Sounds amazing.

message 3: by Jenny (new)

Jenny Twist I just finished Life After Life. I immediately wanted to read it again, but am exercising great restraint and saving it for my holidays.
Another great book. I've bought, read and loved everything you have ever written.
Thank you for all the pleasure you have given me.
Jenny Twist

message 4: by K (new)

K I've not read any Atkinson works and know from this interview that I wouldn't like her books."In a couple of the Jackson books it's left very unsatisfactory for the reader." What's the point then? Why read something that the author already knows the reader won't like?

message 5: by Leslie (new)

Leslie What a wonderful interview. I'm so looking forward to the new book!

message 6: by Tove (new)

Tove I read this book before it was published (my friend is an editor ).
It is "GOOD" but a little confusing,until you find out what is going on. Very well written. It is my first "Atkinson" book and definitely not the last.

message 7: by Madalyn (new)

Madalyn Morgan Wonderful interview. Life After Life sounds exactly like the type of novel I love. I've read several of Kate Atkinson's books, and enjoyed them all.

message 8: by Kemi (new)

Kemi I will like to read Life After Life. the topic or theme call one attention. please can i get the book on line.thanks.

message 9: by Nick (new)

Nick Wharton I have read all KA's previous books. This is different but just as excellently written, and a really good read. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.

message 10: by Elena (new)

Elena Ghirvu călin I wish to all the readers from all world only happyness. I read now a very good novel, Lost morning

message 11: by Helen (new)

Helen King Really looking forward to reading this - I'm a big Kate Atkinson fan!

message 12: by Hanan (new)

Hanan Khalaf Life After Life sounds terrific. I would very much like to read it. It sure combines fiction with historic events which is most interesting.

message 13: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Sainsbury I am certainly going to read this new Atkinson book. It sounds really fascinating. As a comment to K, how can you possibly tell from an interview that you won't like an author's work? Give at least her first two books a try and then progress if you should happen to like them!

message 14: by De (new)

De Shields I love all of Kate Atkinson's work. Just when I think I want to go back and re-read one of them, I've found I've lent them to a fellow book lover and can't remember who so I get it from the library. Also like to experience them as audio books. Listened (re-read) Started Early Took My Dog recently and fell in love with Jackson all over again.

Just got Life and Life and am looking forward to jumping in.

message 15: by Mary (new)

Mary A brilliant novel, Kate Atkinson's best work so far.

message 16: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Ann Interesting interview and the book looks like a winner!

message 17: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Cohen I'm a huge fan of Kate Atkinson's. What a great interview. I can't wait to read this one...

message 18: by Pyarmo (new)

Pyarmo i think that really good one to read !!!!

message 19: by David (new)

David Corbett Comment from K. Ms.Atkinson will continue to write great stuff that you WILL NOT READ. Do not waste space with your nonsense. David

message 20: by Alison (new)

Alison Campbell Can't wait to read Life After Life:))

message 21: by Pius (new)

Pius Ndububa You're simply the best and
I can't wait to read that novel

message 22: by Pius (new)

Pius Ndububa I really love your interview
Really you Mrs Kate.

message 23: by David (new)

David Huntley As someone who actually endured the blitz during the war and suffered rationing, it's inspiring to know someone like Kate is able to bring it to life for other people. I am bringing my own historical post WWII spy thriller to life and it's incredibly satisfying. She's right about rationing, I got married in 1955 and meat was still on ration.

message 24: by Palani (new)

Palani Good work. where can I get this book in India.

message 25: by Palani (new)

Palani Palani wrote: "Good work. where can I get this book in India."

message 26: by Aadil (new)

Aadil Phamboo thanks for sharing...

message 27: by Harvin (new)

Harvin Edmund I think I'm tired of waiting to read it.

message 28: by Karena (new)

Karena This was a great book. My first Kate Atkinson so now I have to backtrack and read her previous works.

message 29: by Kathryn (new)

Kathryn White The book sounds fascinating! I love the idea of parallel universes and lives.

Thanks for doing the interview.


The Mission Of The Brightest Angel by Kathryn V. White

message 30: by Nuwagira (new)

Nuwagira Sam waiting to read the novel. it is a great interview

message 31: by Veronica (new)

Veronica K: what a shame to dismiss a writer you haven't read. You are missing out on an excellent writer. She says it's "unsatisfactory", but what she means is that she leaves her endings open-ended: the reader has to imagine what could have happened next. It's a strength, not a weakness, in my opinion.

I've just finished Life After Life -- it is a challenging read! So if you want to read some of her work, I'd start with one of her others. I loved Behind the Scenes at the Museum, her first novel, and it's still my favourite. Or try one of the Jackson novels, which are more conventional.

message 32: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Winrock she's had me since "Case Histories".

message 33: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Cohen Me, too!

message 34: by EKINE (new)

EKINE  Bayo Praise Thank for the interview and what i gain in it show that when the book is i will benefits greatly from than God bless you

message 35: by Daniel K (last edited Apr 24, 2013 05:58AM) (new)

Daniel K Daniel wrote: "Beautiful interview, looking forward to it.Thanks GR I'm new to this site and really loving my experience here. God bless you"

message 36: by EKINE (new)

EKINE  Bayo Praise Where are we now on the return of greaful leader

message 37: by Rosemary (new)

Rosemary Morris I hoped I would enjoy Life After Life. Unfortunately, I put the novel aside after reading under a third of it. It's a clever novel but I didn't care about the main character and the story did not grip me. Deep, deep sigh.Life After Life

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