No one writes quite like Kate Atkinson. Hilary Mantel has described her writing as "inexhaustibly ingenious" and across nine novels, beginning with her award-winning 1995 début Behind the Scenes at the Museum, plus a collection of short stories, her ability to create characters that the reader cares deeply about and involve them in an engrossing plot combined with heart-wrenching emotion and sharp humour—often on the same page—is unrivalled.
Perched on the edge of a sofa in a London member’s club, Atkinson, elegant and chatty, tells me about the time she tried to write differently. "I thought, I’m going to write a serious story, there’s going to be no light and shade, it’s just going to be very straightforward. And I couldn’t do it! I just could not write absolutely, completely seriously," she says, in mock outrage, laughing. "It was a bit of a shock."
Transcription is Atkinson’s 10th novel, and her third to be set against the backdrop of the Second World War, following Life After Life (2013) and A God in Ruins (2015), both of which scooped the Costa Novel Award in their respective years. It follows Juliet Armstrong, just 18 years old at the start of the Second World War, who is surprised to be recruited to MI5. Juliet is then singled out for a special operation, which turns out to involve listening to and transcribing the conversations that take place in a Pimlico flat between Godfrey Toby, an M15 officer posing as a Gestapo agent, and a fifth column: a motley and deeply unpleasant collection of British Fascists and Nazi sympathisers who believe they are reporting valuable information straight to the Third Reich.
The spark for Atkinson’s novel came from one of the periodic releases of information from M15 to the National Archives. "Jack King" (real name Eric Roberts) was a British agent in deep cover who posed as a member of the Gestapo in order to infiltrate Fascist circles and conducted meetings in a flat off the Edgeware Road. Atkinson read "masses and masses of transcripts of the recordings of conversations he had with his informers" but realised that, as fascinating as she found Jack King/Eric Roberts, "I was much more interested in the girl who was doing the typing. It’s war work, it’s women’s work, but what would her feelings about it be? So that was my starting point."
In the novel, Juliet finds the work both alarming, "the willingness of seemingly ordinary people to bring any scrap of information if they thought it would help the enemy’s cause", as well as tedious as the informants mumble, interrupt and talk over each other. Atkinson observes: "It’s interesting because you are basically taking something ‘true’, which is people speaking, although they themselves are being duplicitous because they are supporting the enemy. At the same time as you are typing something that’s ‘true’, you have to make up bits of it in order for it to make sense."
The very slippery nature of truth is the central theme of the novel. Transcription moves back and forth in time, from 1940 to 1950 when Juliet is working as a producer within the Schools department at BBC Radio, the war seemingly long over for her. But then she glimpses Godfrey Toby on the street and he fails to acknowledge her, claiming she has confused him with somebody else. Before long people she knew during the war seem, curiously, to be popping up all over the place. What can they want with Juliet? The differing time frames reveal to the reader that Juliet, once so naïve, has become wryly cynical. Something has happened over the course of those 10 years and, as with all Atkinson’s novels, there is a mystery at the heart of the story.
Transcription is, she says, a novel about ambivalence and ambiguity. "It’s about not really knowing what’s happening; not just as a reader but as a character in the book. For nothing to be explained clearly right through the book, right to the end. Godfrey Toby is a master of obfuscation; I wanted this book to be about that kind of fog. I did want the reader to get to the end and go, ‘What?!’"
It is, as one would expect, expertly plotted. Atkinson reveals that the most difficult thing was juggling the two time frames: "You have no idea how many times I changed around [the chapters set in] 1940 and 1950, and chopped them up, then made them longer again, just trying to get that balance," she says. "I spent a lot of time kneeling with the manuscript on the floor, moving a chapter here and a chapter there and thinking, ‘Does that work better’?"
"I do like characters a lot and I think quite a lot of writers really aren’t that interested in their characters, and you can tell. It’s quite an old-fashioned thing in some ways, I love characters—if I had to sacrifice anything whether it was plot or structure or theme or characters then I’d hang on to characters."
The appeal of setting a novel during the Second World War is partly the wealth of material to be mined, reckons Atkinson, and she is planning at least one more war novel. "People had transformative experiences and horrendous experiences, and all authors like horrendous experiences. There was very much a heightened awareness of everything that you can tap into. We’ve not experienced that, and I think collectively and individually there’s a sense that we sort of miss the fact that we’ve not experienced that. Not the war itself, but just living through something utterly unique."
Writing historical fiction has its specific challenges though. For every historical fact in the novel, she made something up although she suspects she will get letters pointing out "things that aren’t true". It’s a balance, she says, between honouring history, "because it often involves a lot of people dying", and using it for your own ends. "And in the end every author uses everything for their own ends." What is more important for her is conjuring up the feeling and the atmosphere of the time. After the publication of A God in Ruins, which relates the life of Second World War bomber pilot Teddy Todd, touchingly she received letters from the grown-up children of bomber pilots telling her that they now understood what it must have been like.
As her career spans over 20 years, I wonder if the way she writes novels has changed over time? "I spent more time worrying then. Now I don’t worry because I think, ‘Well I’ve done 10 novels, surely I can do another one’. I am much more conscious of the actual sentence construction and of internal rhythms, and of making the prose more meaningful." The sentences she writes now are more carefully wrought, she says: "Now it’s much more [me] looking at a sentence and thinking, ‘Is that the best sentence I can write?’"
Fans of her crime series featuring Jackson Brodie (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News?, Started Early, Took My Dog) will be delighted to learn that the former police detective will return in the not too distant future. Unlike many authors who write in different genres, Atkinson never thought about writing crime novels under another name. "What is really lovely about my readers is that I have taken them with me through the whole gamut of crime and war and everything and I’ve still got the same Behind the Scenes fans who are still reading," she says. "I think that’s astonishing actually, I’m amazed."
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