‘I don’t want to be confined by genre’
Ahead of the release of her highly anticipated new book, Transcription, Kate Atkinson tells Ella Dove about managing self-doubt and the fine line between fact and fiction
WHAT WAS THE STARTING POINT FOR YOUR NEW NOVEL, TRANSCRIPTION?
While writing A God In Ruins, I spent a lot of time pottering around The National Archives. I came across a newspaper article about a security services agent called Jack King, whose identity had been revealed after years spent masquerading as a Gestapo spy. He would hold meetings in a bugged room while, next door, someone – usually a woman – listened to and transcribed the conversations. I became fascinated by the idea of the anonymous girl next door, typing out these secretly recorded discussions.
HOW DID YOU TREAD THE TIGHTROPE BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION?
I don’t think of myself as someone who writes historical fiction because I don’t want to be confined by genre, although I can see that, in some ways,
I am. With Transcription, it was a fine line. There are whispers of reality in my characters, but ultimately I have no right to use real people in my books – I’d be horrified if anyone wrote about me!
YOUR PROTAGONIST, JULIET ARMSTRONG, IS A HEADSTRONG HEROINE IN A MALE-DOMINATED ERA. HOW IMPORTANT WAS IT TO YOU TO HAVE THAT STRONG FEMALE VOICE?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I knew Juliet was going to be a woman because all those early MI5 spies under spymaster Maxwell Knight were. He thought women were better at it because they were more devious than men, but could make themselves seem more innocent! Juliet is strong, funny and self-aware, but I realised quite early on that she’s also a liar. The book is all about masquerading and ambiguity; she’s the most flawed character I’ve ever written.
HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING CHARACTERS?
Generally, they come to me fully formed. It never works if I actively sit down to ‘invent’ them. However, even though I have a vivid image of each person, when I look back I realise I hardly ever describe any of them physically. I think it’s because I like to bring them to life from the inside out, by living in their heads.
DO YOU EVER EXPERIENCE WRITER’S BLOCK?
Without fail, about two-thirds of the way through a book, I’ll grind to a halt. I sit there frantically worrying about how to solve the book’s problems and whether I can pull it off. The way I combat it is to start all my writing days by reading as much as possible of what I’ve already written and rewriting bits as I go along. That way, I don’t feel like I’m starting from nowhere, so the writing flows more naturally. It’s become a crucial part of my routine. I always redraft the entire novel and then write the last page – it’s become my treat to myself. Then, I pop open the Champagne!
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
Whenever I’m writing one thing, other ideas quietly ferment in my head. Right now, I’m just polishing up my next book, which I started on the day I finished Transcription! If I stop when I complete a book, I find it really difficult to start up again. At the end of a novel, I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of energy, and I’ve taught myself to take advantage of that momentum.