In her new novel, Kate Atkin­son draws in­spi­ra­tion from the se­cret tran­scripts of a bank clerk turned war spy

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By ERICA WAG­NER

Erica Wag­ner on Kate Atkin­son’s spy thriller

It isn’t quite be­hind the scenes at the mu­seum, but close enough. Kate Atkin­son has come down from York to meet with me, and we are cosied up in the Mem­bers’ Room of the Bri­tish Mu­seum, chat­ting over good cof­fee and fluffy scones. We’re here to talk about her 10th novel, Tran­scrip­tion – the third book she has set largely dur­ing the pe­riod of World War II, fol­low­ing on from the mar­vel­lous Life Af­ter Life and A God in Ru­ins. Tran­scrip­tion is the story of Juliet Arm­strong, re­cruited in the early days of the war by the Se­cret Ser­vice; 10 years later, in 1950, she’s work­ing for the BBC, mak­ing pro­grammes for chil­dren. But then it turns out that her wartime life is not as buried in the past as she would have liked to be­lieve; she must come to terms with the con­se­quences of her youth­ful ide­al­ism. It’s a grip­ping, yet slip­pery book, and Juliet, an or­phan adrift at the be­gin­ning of the war, ripe to be snatched into the arms of a cause, is one of Atkin­son’s most mem­o­rable pro­tag­o­nists. That’s say­ing some­thing of the woman who cre­ated Jack­son Brodie, the hero of the stun­ning se­ries of crime nov­els that be­gan with Case His­to­ries.

De­spite the con­fi­dence that shines through ev­ery page of Tran­scrip­tion, she in­sists: ‘His­tor­i­cal fic­tion ties me up in knots!’ The knots come ‘be­cause I want to be truth­ful. And it’s in the na­ture of fic­tion, of course, not to be truth­ful – so you have to find a truth that works’. She found Tran­scrip­tion trick­ier to be­gin than Life Af­ter Life or A God in Ru­ins be­cause this novel was sparked by a true story, which she dis­cov­ered when the Na­tional Ar­chives re­leased wartime pa­pers about the es­pi­onage ac­tiv­i­ties of a bank clerk known by the alias ‘Jack King’, whose work was spy­ing on fifth colum­nists in the very early days of World War II. King posed as a Gestapo agent to get close to them.

‘This is an amaz­ing story,’ Atkin­son says; though she felt it was too tied to real events to work into a novel. But when King met with his un­sus­pect­ing tar­gets, their en­coun­ters were recorded by hid­den mi­cro­phones – and even­tu­ally tran­scribed. ‘When the Na­tional Ar­chives made all the tran­scripts avail­able, that was my light-bulb mo­ment. My way into this story was the peo­ple who are com­pletely anony­mous. Peo­ple like that are the per­fect ves­sels for open­ing up the rest of the story. Once I’d re­alised that the tran­scripts them­selves were the key, the rest sorted it­self out.’ It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into her work­ing method: a his­tor­i­cal novel can’t be too true. As she writes in her Au­thor’s Note: ‘Roughly speak­ing, for ev­ery­thing that could be con­sid­ered a his­tor­i­cal fact in this book, I made some­thing up – and I’d like to think that a lot of the time read­ers won’t be able to tell the dif­fer­ence.’

It is the feel­ing of truth, the truth of a time of peril, that she con­jures so well. Why this fas­ci­na­tion with World War II? She is care­ful to note that in the sec­tions of the book set in 1940, the war had hardly be­gun; the killing, she says, hadn’t started to bite. Rather, it was a pe­riod of para­noia. ‘Peo­ple were look­ing for the en­emy within. They were hugely sus­pi­cious, but in a very nar­row-minded way. Pa­tri­o­tism hadn’t kicked in, like it did dur­ing the Blitz. I liked ex­plor­ing that am­bi­gu­ity. And with the de­ci­sion of whether to go to war: I can imag­ine it would be quite like Brexit, with half the peo­ple go­ing, “Yeah, OK,” and half go­ing, “Don’t be silly.”’

But the war looms hugely in our na­tional imag­i­na­tion. ‘We’ve never let it go,’ she says. ‘We’ve hung onto it in our col­lec­tive minds. It’s so sim­ple to look at the cliché, “We were at our finest” – but we did func­tion as a na­tion in a way that we just don’t in all sorts of ways now. And we wouldn’t, if we were put un­der threat. It worked, in part, be­cause we were a pretty com­pli­ant pop­u­la­tion. Peo­ple got up at some un­earthly hour and went to work at some rot­ten job and came home. We don’t have that any­more. And peo­ple were very trust­ing. Now you con­stantly ques­tion, you don’t know what’s true and what’s not.’ But she won­ders if that fas­ci­na­tion with the war years will it­self fade away. ‘I speak to my grand­chil­dren,’ she says, ‘and the war is noth­ing to them. It’s some­thing they have to do in his­tory class. They have ab­so­lutely no per­sonal con­nec­tion to it. They don’t have that sense that I do, that my daugh­ters’ gen­er­a­tion does.’

It’s a strik­ing thought, how far World War II is mov­ing be­yond mem­ory: but Kate Atkin­son’s re­mark­able work keeps it alive. ‘Tran­scrip­tion’ by Kate Atkin­son (£20, Dou­ble­day) is pub­lished on 6 Septem­ber.

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