‘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

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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.

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