I am crap at this business of posting regularly. It’s been over 2 weeks since I saw Kate Atkinson at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and I’ve still not managed to write-up her talk or anything else for that matter. Having said that, everything she talked about was so fascinating I don’t think it really matters how tardy I’ve been with getting this out.
Kate Atkinson has been an ever present feature of the last 20 years of my reading life. I have read all her novels in almost the sequence they were written, except this one. Whilst waiting for Atkinson to take to the stage, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. We chatted as festival goers do; what have you been to? what have you got coming up? I told her my “I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s books except this one” story, whereupon the man in front of me, clearly earwigging the conversation turned and said “oh you just must, it’s divine.” And I guess this is the thing with Kate Atkinson. She appeals to a broad range of readers, because life in her varied stories is recognisable. She writes about every day, ordinary observations with such vividness that it plays out in my head like a film in glorious technicolor. Her novels feature her trademark dry wit, always bringing a smirk to my face – they cheer me up. This was the first time I’d seen her talk and she was no less interesting in the flesh than on the page.
A God in Ruins is a companion book to Life After Life, featuring at its centre Ursula Todd’s brother, Teddy. Atkinson said she knew Teddy would have his own book. She was saving him for it. Asked about the timeframe of this new book, she told us the second world war is endlessly fascinating for British people, we can’t seem to leave it behind. She has always written about being English and this book is no different; it is really about gaining a sense of Englishness in a post war setting. The reign of Queen Elizabeth II, from her coronation to her golden jubilee, provides the framework for the book although this may not be immediately obvious to a reader. Atkinson said that when she wrote Life After Life she really inhabited the Second World War period and had done significant research, so when it came to A God in Ruins she already knew how her characters would behave, what they would say and how they would say it. She had been working with wartime vocabulary for a long time, so everything felt immediately familiar and she did minimal research.
Atkinson also talked about her writing process. Interestingly, she generally starts a book at the beginning and writes in sequence. She tends to write the first chapter over and over (sometimes only the opening paragraph) until it is right, then she will move on. As the book nears its conclusion, she tends to write almost constantly and her work flows more easily. She holds the whole book in her head, so she knows where she is at any one moment. Writing sequentially stops the temptation to write all the good bits first and leave the difficult stuff till last – which can only lead to disaster. She finds writing beginnings and endings simple, it’s the middle bits that cause her problems. My ignorance of the writing process became obvious to me when Atkinson was asked how long it had taken her to write the passage she read aloud (no longer than 4 pages). I thought, maybe a morning? It took her a week to get it perfect! She realises she has an odd attitude to editing and re-writing. She loves doing it and sees it as a process of constant improvement.
Having an authentic relationship with her characters is vital to her as a writer. She said “Characters require authenticity and the reader knows and can see when a writer fails at this relationship.” Her characters always appear to her fully formed and are immediately in her head in all their amazing roundness before she starts a new book. She is a writer who loves plot and structure, but character is everything to her and the driving force behind her work. She also said that all fiction is about fiction and identity. As readers we know we are reading a book, a work of fiction, so we want art, not reality; the skill is in making that art real.
Her final thoughts were on reading. She told us that when she writes, she never thinks about her readers in terms of what they may want. There are too many readers to satisfy them all. Her advice was “You have to be your own best reader first, if the book is good for me as a reader, then I am happy.” She added that she has spent most of her life reading. Reading is the best apprenticeship for any writer. In fact she said “If you want to write, you have to read everything ever written” I’d better crack on then!
Other Kate Atkinson stuff