Kate Atkinson: Behind the scenes

The Times

August 9, 2008


Kate Atkinson is unapologetically tricky. She is still aggrieved that the papers tried to unearth her two former husbands after she won the Whitbread Prize in 1996 for the novel she is still best known for, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She doesn’t understand why I want to write about her, decries the media, then admits to being a curious, gossipy person herself — and one with a subscription to Heat. And so we sit in a posh hotel eating frankly disgusting cakes, Atkinson determined not to reveal “my deepest, darkest secrets” and me, on a delirious sugar high, trying to get her to do precisely that.

One should probably tread carefully. Of the tabloid attention she got after winning the Whitbread, she says: “It made me want to kill. In fact several people are now dead. I have a huge amount of hatred, which is a very healthy thing to feel.”

Her prickliness — accessorised by warm laughter and conversational scattiness — may spring from first being dismissed by literary snobs as a parvenu. After Museum came bestsellers including Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird and Case Histories. Her latest, When Will There Be Good News?, is a crime-scented yarn featuring her gruff, taciturn and damaged detective, Jackson Brodie. It begins with an horrific murder in a field and combines the everyday and the grotesque, bloody murders and trips to the supermarket.

Brodie’s name just occurred to her, “although a friend’s daughter is called Brodie”. This is much in line with the way she works — not much pre-plotting, sit down, envelop yourself in plot and characters and write. She is an engaging stylist, equally adept at oiling the joints of the plot and creating spiky character portraits.

Poor Jackson: Atkinson has “gone off him a bit”. So he’s being rested until she plonks him in Paris for more mystery solving. “People think I don’t like men but I like men as much as I like women. I’d always avoided fully rounded male characters because I didn’t know a fully rounded male psyche, but then I decided that didn’t matter.”

Atkinson, who is in her mid-50s, claims not to write detective fiction although that’s the general direction her novels are moving in: the next one will feature two familiar female characters, Gloria and Louise, at a murder mystery weekend. “I do like secrets in books,” she says, digging into an oversweet pistachio thing. “There have always been mysteries in my books. I don’t give that much thought to my books actually. I’d rather talk about cake, or shoes or Posh” — by which she means, presumably, Victoria Beckham.

All right, let’s talk about cakes; she and I rhapsodise about Betty’s tea room in Harrogate and York. At a literary festival a woman complimented her on the shoes she was wearing, and the usual Q&A about plots and character degenerated into a fashion free-for-all. Today she is wearing a lovely scoop-necked green cardigan and surprises me when, without warn- ing, she produces from the cleft of her bosom a cloakroom ticket. She has a wonderful, wicked laugh and manner — quite unsuited for someone determined to be discreet and withholding.

“I was an only child and read a lot,” she says of growing up in York. “I read Just William, E. Nesbit — the greatest children’s writer.” She was “never” a happy child. “You can be a happy adult — I am — not a happy child, or a happy child and not a happy adult. I think I was probably just too solitary.”

Her parents ran a surgical supplies shop. “Even as a small child, I thought that was weird. The other shops sold fairly normal things like bread and clothes. We sold rubber sheeting.”

Atkinson lives in Edinburgh, near her 84-year-old mother, two daughters and grandchildren. “I like my own company,” she says. “I might have been a more sociable child had I had siblings. My father was very sociable, my mother less so.”

She went to universty in Dundee, where she married and almost became an academic, but her doctor- ate — on the American short story — was refused at its viva. Does she like living alone? “I don’t want to live with anyone. I’m having my garden done at the moment and the builders are trailing through the house, which is full of dust, as are my lungs. My whole being at the moment is crying, ‘Leave me alone, leave me alone’.”

Her new book, in its bloody opening pages, seems to directly reference cases such as the attack on Lin and Megan Russell that Josie Russell famously survived. Yes, she says, but the actual source was more the case of an attempted attack on a woman in a local park, and wondering how having a child with you makes you vulnerable; the attacker wanting to ruin this vision of bliss and togetherness that he doesn’t have.

Nothing violent has ever happened to her. But a friend’s sister was mur- dered in “ordinary” circumstances. In her fiction she interrogates the randomness of these horrendous intrusions into people’s lives. Is she a fearful person? “I didn’t used to think about walking home alone in the dark, but having children makes you cautious.” Does she fear death? “No, I fear annihilation. It isn’t a fear. It’s probably narcissism. I simply cannot believe I won’t exist.”

At 40 she was assailed by a year-long bout of agoraphobia. “I fought my way out of it,” she says. “No one can help you. I crawled to the library. I was determined not to have it. I don’t think it came from anywhere — it was very mysterious. There is obviously something deep, dark in my psyche that I have never accessed. I don’t care why it happened. But I did spend a long time thinking, ‘I’ve lost or forgotten something’. I’d wake up almost grasping it, then it would slip away. What could I have lost that was so powerful? Maybe the agoraphobia was triggered by that thing. The feeling of missing something no longer plagues me.”

Would she ever have therapy? “I did go to a psychiatrist but he was leaving the following week and then this ginger, rather squat Gestalt practitioner asked me what I’d like him to do, and I thought, ‘I don’t know!’” She laughs, then says very precisely: “Yes, I’d love to have three sessions a week of intensive psychotherapy where they delve deep. But I’d want [Donald] Winnicott himself, someone who’s cleverer and funnier than me who I thought was wonderful and would get to the heart of me. Therapy would go into corners of myself I hadn’t explored and expand my writ- ing.” Maybe it would wash you too clean? I suggest. “Or I find there’s nothing there,” she says.

Atkinson is utterly down on the idea of ever marrying or falling in love again. “I’ve gone beyond that. I am not one of those women trying to hold on to her youth with Botox. My life is so full, the idea of someone who expects something of me fills me with sheer horror.”

Atkinson says she doesn’t regret leaving academia. “If I had got my doctorate I wouldn’t have become a writer. Had I continued I would probably be studying something like passivity and activity in the language of Jane Austen. In fact, in my next book (What Would Jane Do?) that’s what the heroine will be studying — I am living vicariously through her. If you have something in you that’s creative and you’re not creating and not aware what you should do to create, then that’s my deep dark secret.” Well we got there in the end. “It was one of the major things in my early life — not getting outside what was inside.”

Writing structures “the chaos” of Atkinson’s mind. After Jane Austen might come a long-planned book on the Antarctic. Our last two minutes are spent, a little farcically, with me asking the name of her daughter who has children, her refusing to answer and relenting only after making me feel as if I’ve gone through her bins. Good luck to whoever Atkinson’s therapist turns out to be: the sessions will be tiring, but a riot.