Kate Atkinson has been relatively reticent as a public figure since the media circus that followed her auspicious debut in 1995. Nevertheless, Jill Kronstadt, whose feature piece on Atkinson can be read here, has curated here some highlights from interviews over the years, along with favorite passages from Atkinson’s novels.
“I was born in ’51, so in a way I just missed [the blitz]. And I think they do say it’s the period of history you just miss that becomes the one that interests you most, isn’t it? …So I read a lot of firsthand accounts and was impressed really by the stoicism. I think of all the words I would use for how people behaved it would be stoic. You know, you have to peel away layers of propaganda because there was an immense amount of propaganda in Britain in the second world war which was deemed necessary to keep morale up. So you have to sort of see through that to how people were really feeling and behaving.”
-2013 interview on NPR
“I don’t really consider the reader too much when I’m writing…I just take a backward step in saying ‘Would this make sense if I didn’t know what I was writing?’ You’ve got to remember that it’s fiction, and it’s a novel, and you are making it up… And you’re even allowed to make up things that maybe should be facts…I think it was Rose Tremain who was on the radio and the interviewer asked her “Oh, you must do so much research,” and she said—I’m sure it’s her, I don’t think I’m misquoting her—that for every fact she researched, she made one up. And I think that it’s such a good rule of thumb!
He had made a vow, a private promise to the world in the long dark watches of the night, that if he did survive then in the great afterward he would always try to be kind, to live a good quiet life. Like Candide, he would cultivate his garden. Quietly. And that would be his redemption. Even if he could only add a feather to the balance it would be some kind of repayment or being spared. When it was all over and the reckoning fell due, it may be that he would be in need of that feather.
– from A God in Ruins
“I’m quite a ruthless author. The only time I felt really bad about killing a character was in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, when the dog was sent to war and was killed. That broke my heart. That says more about me—that I’m more affected by dogs than people. I’m a masochistic, sadistic kind of author, I think.”
Teddy was gone by nightfall. Ursula knew the moment he died, she felt it inside her. She heard just one wretched moan from Sylvie and even though he was just a little boy it was as though something weighty had gone from her side and Ursula was alone in the bed. She could hear Sylvie’s choking sobs, an awful noise, as if someone had hacked off one of her limbs.
Every breath squeezed the custard stuff in her lungs. The world was fading and she began to have a stirring sense of anticipation, as if it were Christmas or her birthday, and then the black bat night approached and enfolded her in his wings. One last breath and then no more. She held out a hand to Teddy, forgetting that he wasn’t there anymore.
-from Life after Life
I putter about, then I start writing. I’m better in the morning. I’ll always begin by reading what I’ve written the previous day. That eases me into it so when I start writing new, I’m following on from something I’ve written. I even do that when I’ve written a lot of the novel. I’ll still quite possibly go back to the first page when I start my writing day. I hate doing a huge rewrite at the end of a book, so by the time I’m done with a novel I’ve pretty much already done the rewrite. I do a lot of frittering around and wasting time. It takes me a while to get engaged with a book. But when I’m really locked in, I’d be happy to go to jail and be in solitary confinement. I just want to get it done. I can do 12-hour days. I don’t want to think about grocery shopping or what I’m going to wear or talk to anyone. There are three phases: Messing about at the beginning, which is very important. I rewrite and rewrite until I’ve got the feel of it. And then the middle is very fretful because I’m convinced I can’t get it to work. And then the last third is great: Shut the door. I know what I’m doing.
-interview at Goodreads
‘I don’t like porridge,’ Patricia ventures to Bunty. This is the first time she’s tried this direct approach over porridge, usually she just turns it over and over with a spoon until it’s too late to eat it.
‘Pardon me?’ Bunty says, the words dropping like icicles on the linoleum of the kitchen floor (our mother’s not really a morning person).
‘I don’t like porridge,’ Patricia says, looking more doubtful now.
As fast as a snake, Bunty hisses back, ‘Well I don’t like children, so that’s too bad for you, isn’t it?’ She’s joking, of course. Isn’t she?
“One of the things I have on my list, before I die, is to try and write something about happiness, and have happy people. What would that be like? I don’t know!… Well, contentment is possible, in life and in fiction, but happiness? Happiness is a madness. I mean, happily ever after? What’s that? What would that be like? That would be like a cartoon.”
-interview in Chatelaine
“I think about death a lot, I really do, because I can’t believe I won’t exist. It’s the ego isn’t it? I feel that I should retreat into a better form of Zen Buddhism than this kind of ego-dominated thing. But I don’t know, I mean, I want to come back as a tree but I suspect that it’s just not going to happen, is it? I did feel when my mother died if anyone was going to haunt me it would be her. And she hasn’t, so I think it is possibly the end.”
-2013 interview with NPR
“I always say that I was very influenced by the writers I studied from my doctorate, which were the postmodernist story writers of the ’60s. They were very playful. They messed around with narrative and had a good time. I found it interesting because they were so different from the traditional English novel. As a writer, I think you do stand on the shoulders of giants. Any person who wrote a good play or poem before you is part of what you write. You do need to be aware of what makes good writing. Everything that I have ever read has been my inspiration.”
-interview at Goodreads
They roared towards the farmouse and Teddy looked for the farmer’s daughter but could see no sign of her. He felt a chill. She was always there. He could see the flat fields in the dusk, the bare brown earth, the darkening horizon. The farmouse. The farmyard. They banked and began to circle, stacking and gathering themselves before heading for the coast, and as F-Fox’s wing dipped to port he caught sight of her. She was gazing up at them, waving blindly, waving at them all. They were safe. He waved back, although he knew she couldn’t see him.
…They reached the first turning point near Charleroi and not long after that the slaughter began.
…Teddy saw a Lancaster erupt in sheets of white flame and drop on to a Halifax below it. Both went cartwheeling down to earth together, gigantic pinwheels of fire. Teddy could see what must be a Pathfinder spooling down to earth, its read and green marker flares exploding prettily as it hit the ground. He had never been a witness to this much carnage. Aircraft went down in the distance usually, stars flaring and dying. Crews simply disappeared, they weren’t there in the morning for their bacon and eggs, you didn’t give too much thought to how they disappeared. The horror and terror of those last moments was hidden. Now they were inescapable.
-from A God in Ruins
Click here to read Jill Kronstadt’s feature piece on Kate Atkinson.
Author photo credit: Euan Miles