Tag Archives: Kate Atkinson

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 3

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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

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

Jackson Brodie & Me

Life After Life

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Jackson Brodie and Me

Unfortunately I don’t have the time to write my thoughts on the four brilliant Kate Atkinson books featuring her private investigator, Jackson Brodie, so I thought I’d write about him instead trying to keep to my “10 sentences or less” rule!  His back story and antics are the central feature of all four books, so at the end of this rambling brain dump you should have a better idea of how his character complements the plot of each volume and helps bring the stories off the page.

Jackson Brodie; former soldier and police officer, private investigator of marital and other every day misdemeanors is an enigma to himself and this is what makes him so attractive to a reader like me.  He is a character full of contradictions.  He is tender, yet grumpy; he has a keen sense of social justice, yet makes some dubious decisions; he is able to sniff out the bad eggs, yet often doesn’t see personal trouble coming.  He can be irritatingly dim in that respect.  Jackson goes about his investigation of the sometimes gruesome, sometimes odd crimes with an unwilling intensity that only someone brilliant at what they do can.    For all these contradictions and especially the mastery with which he begrudgingly plies his trade, he is utterly adorable.  I want to mother him and sleep with him at the same time – an odd situation mirroring the paradox of the character.

Although I am writing this primarily about Atkinson’s main character, I wouldn’t want you to think these are books without substance, self-indulgently developing Brodie into the swoontastic anti-hero he is, because that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The world Jackson inhabits is real and vivid on the page, the cases intricately developed and, unlike other crime fiction, the stories are often wrapped up through chance connection or coincidence  – sound cliché? It isn’t.  So my advice is, go seek out these books as an alternative to run-of-the-mill crime fiction and I dare you not to fall in love with Jackson Brodie.

I’m writing this ahead of attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival where I will be seeing Kate Atkinson talk about her newest book A God in Ruins

p.s. I broke the 10 sentence rule with this one – but only just!

Other Kate Atkinson stuff

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

imgres-3Last night I watched the second half of Out of Sight, having not been able to stay up to watch it the other night.  It is a great film and testament to Elmore Leonard’s ability to write cinematic stories.  It was all down hill for Jennifer Lopez after this film, she has never done anything since to match it, whereas George Clooney has gone from strength to strength.  The soundtrack also does it for me.  The original score by David Holmes is beautiful.  There is a scene where Foley and Karen meet in a hotel bar and talk about fate and what might have happened had they met under different circumstances.  Foley says:

It’s like seeing someone for the first time… like you could be passing on the street, and you look at each other and for a few seconds… there’s this kind of a recognition… like you both know something. The next moment, the person’s gone, and it’s too late to do anything about it. And you always remember it, because it was there, and you let it go, and you think to yourself, “What if I had stopped? If I had said something?”

I’m really interested in that notion of fate, I love a story where one decision, one action can affect the course of your life.  Ian McEwan does this sort of thing really well; what if Robbie had destroyed the letter to Cecilia in Atonement?  And then there is the age-old philosophical question; what if you could live your life over and over until you got it right and maybe undo your mistakes?

Kate Atkinson explores this question in Life After Life (at last, you’re all thinking, she’s got to the point!!).  Ursula Todd dies moments after being born on a snowy night in 1910.  She immediately tries her life again with a small change in circumstances and manages to survive a little longer.  The early chapters are short as Ursula negotiates her way through several failed attempts to stay alive.  Each death results in a small change, sometimes she learns and tweaks things she has influence over to stay alive for a little longer, sometimes circumstances around her are different that lead to her survival.  As she grows older the chapters are longer, she shows caution, but is sometimes also willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of changing things next time around.  It takes her some time to get past certain obstacles and find a route to adulthood but as she says “practice makes perfect.”  She negotiates her lives through different husbands and different countries, learning and changing small elements.

As a little girl she has fearful moments and worries about things in her day-to-day life, she has a funny feeling that she remembers things before they have happened.  Her mother sends her to a psychiatrist who talks to her about reincarnation but I was never really sure Ursula knew what was happening to her on a conscious level or whether her subconscious was acting as a guide to alter small things to get a different result.

That would have been quite a different life, perhaps a better one.  Of course, there was no way of knowing these things.

There is a moment where she feels exhausted, as though she were 100 years old, and she may well have lived for 100 years at that point.  As the book progresses it seems as though her conscious self understands more of what her subconscious is telling her and she begins to plan how things will end up and how she can change things for next time.  She comes to accept her fate.

Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the good and the bad equally.  Death is just one more thing to be embraced.

I’ve enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s writing for many years.  I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet back to back.  More recently I’ve been amused by the exploits of Jackson Brodie.  There is a charm and underlying wit to her writing which is repeated in Life After Life.  But what makes this book as exciting to read as her early work is the sensitive way she’s dealt with this grand theme of fate.  Although Atkinson works in the classic “what would you do if you could go back in time” act, which might be a turn off for some, she tackles this theme with everyday, sometimes unremarkable events, that could occur in all of our lives.  Using ideas all readers can relate to, renders the scenario more believable than had Ursula tried to change the course of history every time she was reborn.

Atkinson is also daring with the structure.  It is a brave writer who rewrites whole scenes with only small changes knowing that the writing and story is good enough to keep the reader’s attention.  I love these rewritten scenes, watching out for the alternative actions, some of which are so subtle and nuanced it requires attention.  It is the sort of book that leaves you thinking about life and the decisions you make.  I spent days wondering which of my own decisions, if different, might have changed the course of my history.  It was a joy to read and has been lovely to discuss with other readers and bloggers, it’s felt like being part of an important publishing event.  Life After Life has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.  The shortlist is announced on Tuesday and I’m positive she will be on it.

Thanks to Alex in Leeds for sending me her review copy as part of her Literary Blog Hop

Reading Manifesto 2013

I had two personal, non-book related resolutions in mind for 2013 but only a few hours into the New Year one of them is already on hold.  The resolution was simply to run more, especially off-road.  However, this goal was scuppered on Boxing Day.  Mr FH, his brother and I challenged ourselves to a woodland 10k run and while trying to keep up with them I fell quite spectacularly leaving me covered in mud and mush with a painful foot and ankle ligament injury and a very sore coccyx! I’m lucky my ankle isn’t fractured, but I can’t run for a while, but oh my, it is painful.  I’m not entirely sure this is what Haruki Murakami was referring to when he said “pain is inevitable” in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  Anyhow.

The other personal resolution is to find a job; a proper one that pays real money and everything…!  This March I will have been a full-time mother for 10 years, it’s about time I got myself back into the real economy somehow, but what to do?  I don’t want a job like I had before with all the corporate nonsense that went with it – so ideas anyone?

When it comes to reading I have a few thoughts about 2013.  I want to stretch myself, but not be completely unrealistic about what I aim to achieve.  Reading, after all, is a pleasurable hobby and not something that has to be endured.  I’m a slow reader compared to other bloggers (I read somewhere the other day about a blogger who read 180 books last year, puts my 45 between Feb and Dec 2012 to shame), but I want to enjoy what I read and I don’t want to feel obliged to read something because it is the current favourite.  At the same time I want to be able to take part in discussions on popular books, so I need to find that perfect balance.   Also, I need to take care not to overspend on books.  So here goes:

Sourcing Books in 2013

Check out the two pictures I’ve added below of a couple of my downstairs bookshelves (ignoring the gnome sat at the top, an addition for my garden once it’s been landscaped and a present from my MIL).

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I don’t even “see” the books on these shelves anymore and there are larger shelves upstairs heaving under the weight of unread books.  I had a really good look at the titles recently and found so many great books I didn’t know we owned or had forgotten we had.  I came across 3/4 of David Peace’s Red Riding quartet.  Having mentioned we were missing the 1st one, Mr FH came home with it the next day from the Oxfam shop.  I’ve only ever seen the BBC adaptation, but want to give them a go, despite Mr FH’s warning about how harsh they are.  We’ve got a couple of Jon McGregor books I’ve never looked at. We have almost a full complement of Haruki Murakami and Cormac McCarthy but I’ve barely scratched the surface.  IMG_3684There’s at least three Kate Atkinson books I’ve meant to read for a while, plus one by Louise Welsh.

You get the picture…I want to read stuff I already own.  There will be times when I have to or want to read something I don’t already have so will borrow from the library or buy it second-hand.  I almost always refuse to buy hardback books, they are far too expensive, but there will be times when I have to buy a brand new book, then I will try to use my local book shop.  Or, if I’m really lucky, maybe a couple of small publishing houses might send me the odd book to read!

I am still stubbornly resisting an e-reader.  I think one of those will only make my problem of unread books much worse.  Nothing wrong with the printed version, it’s worked fine for years.

Variety

I noticed last year how few books I read by women and challenged myself to read more.  I still only managed to read seven post 1950 titles by women.  This year I want the male/female split to be a bit more even, so I need to make a concerted effort on that front.

At the back-end of 2012 I got a lot of pleasure from reading translated fiction, so I want to try to introduce a few more non-english titles to my bedside table this year and maybe review one a month.

Challenges

I don’t want to get too hung up on joining loads of shared reading/blogging events, but they are a great way of getting to know other bloggers and reading something different.  I am already committed to “January in Japan” (more on that to come soon), and will take part in German Literature Month again later in the year.  Of course, joining these blogging events will help with introducing more variety into my reading material.

Reading around my area

Last year I started a little series on my blog called “Reading Around my Area“. Primarily, I wanted to look at how authors who lived local to me used the landscape in their work or how it may have influenced them or inspired them.  It became a bit less focused than that.  I only featured one writer last year, Arthur Conan Doyle but I’ve already promised to feature Aldous Huxley next and then I’ll see if I can manage to write about anyone else.  It takes quite a bit of research and reading, but is really rewarding, making me feel a little more knowledgable about my local area.

That’s it then, nothing earth-shattering or mind-blowing and of course most of it is subject to me fulfilling my personal resolution of finding a job, because once/if that happens I suspect reading won’t suffer but blogging might.  I’ll have to wait and see what this year brings.

Thanks to everyone who regularly visits and continues to read my drivel and sometimes even comment on it.  I look forward to bumping into you again on these pages and hearing your thoughts on books and reading.  Happy 2013!