A sunny, warm but windy day in Bolton. Outside, people
were sat watching an talking on the steps but the town hall. Just round the
back is the beautiful old Central Library with the newly refurbished combined
museum just about to be opened on the asaturday after.
Bolton Libraries must have been delighted to get someone
of the stature of Kate Atkinson. She’s been doing big bookshops and big cities
otherwise in her tour, and been all over local and national radio and podcasts and book reviews. It turned out
that she'd spent all that morning doing local radio interviews.
I can see why she came to Bolton though. It's a beautiful library and the auditorium can fit 150. In addition, tickets
to attend were free and, not just that, but a free coffee and biscuit at the
beginning. And it was clear people were using that money to saved to buy books. Choosing a seat at the back of the big semi-circular auditorium, I
got chatting to a local bookseller who was looking on somewhat remorsefully at
Waterstones doing a roaring trade in selling hardbacks.
Over 100 came for the difficult lunchtime weekday slot,
never the best, in the beautiful meeting room at Bolton Central Library. Others
had booked but not turned up (always a challenge with free events) but so many
booked it didn't matter. The audience was what one would expect: audience 90% female and largely retired. I'd
recommend attend a weekday author visit to anyone approaching 50; Its a great
way to feel young again.
"I'd recommend attend a weekday author visit to anyone approaching 50; Its a great way to feel young again."
After a short intro from librarian Mel Graaf, which raised a laugh,
it was over to Alison Barrow from Transworld who interviewed Kate Atkinson on
her new book "Transcription" about espionage in the phoney war period
at World War Two. "Sounds good doesn't it?" Said Kate in a happy
voice which set the tone for what came after.
The author read a selection from the book. It was a Good
audience, smiling and laughing at asides, such as observing that the lead
character "is a pathological liar".
Then the questions came. Did Kate want to write a war
"I didn't want to write a war story but because I
wanted to write this story, I had to. They don't know there's six years ahead
of attrition. People are paranoid at the time which fits in well as the book is
about paranoia and suspicion. MI5 are concentrating on mopping up the fifth
column of Fascists, whose membership ran a very large gamut from the working
class to the aristocracy.
She then apologised (no need) saying she’d be doing local radio all morning and so if she repeated
herself to let her know.
Kate used the National Archives to research story. It
turns out that MI5 make periodical releases to NA when they're no longer
sensitive and, seventy years after the events, they've recently released who one
of the key characters in the book - Jack King = actually was, including
transcriptions of his conversations. He infiltrated fascist circles and was known socially to
them. It's amazing to think that a bank clerk working for secret agency
infiltrating fascists. Someone who looks so normal but whose work led to a
whole web of people being revealed.
"It's amazing to think that a bank clerk working for secret agency infiltrating fascists. Someone who looks so normal but whose work led to a whole web of people being revealed."
There was some fun for a minute as the microphones were
swapped due to a few people not being able to hear and the comment that "Kate
is a writer, not a sound technician".
So, how much was made up? The plot and the characters are
fictional but the background facts are facts. “ I then forget what I've made
up: I can't remember what is real and what is not, which is quite
There’s a lot about identity and deception in the book. You
never find out with some people who they are. It's a book about ambivalence but
not enough that readers throw down the book in disgust.
“If I knew everything that was going to happen I’d be
bored” say Kate. “One things come out of another, always. I'm the early days I
though one had to plan novels but the second I start typing it changes
completely. It's only then that I understand what I'm writing. I like to have
structure, a clear skeleton then you put the flesh on. I can't write without a
title. I need to know that, how it begins and how it ends. And almost without
fail I do get where I want to go at the end of writing.”
"If I knew everything that was going to happen I’d be bored”
I don't have the fear of a blank page because if you have
the title then you don't have a blank page. The title bears little relation to
the actual story but my thoughts unconsciously congregate around the title. I
want to write a book with that title and when I finish it, I realise why I
called it that.
For example, the book “Started Early Took My Dog”. Well,
that means, the protagonist had to have a dog and an unlikely liking for Emily
Dickinson, where the quote comes from originally. Therefore the book almost
starts to write itself. On the subject of canines “Every book has a dog in it but
I don't actually have a dog, of which more later.” One audience got very
excited about what dog Kate should get. “A dog would be very important to dog
owners and so should appear more in stories.
Characters in Transcription are quite isolated. This is
deliberate. In the war, people left family, especially young women. Not
isolated ... But liberated. Starting anew. Most of them had a whale of a time
socially. Start of a huge shift of attitude about women.
"She sometimes catches herself thinking “What Would Gloria Think Of That?”
Individual characters are a big thing with Kate. Is she
had to pick a favourite, then it'd be Teddy from Life after Life. Or Gloria in A
God In Ruins. Or all of the dogs, especially Lilly in this current book. She
went on to say that some characters just stayed with her. She sometimes catches
herself thinking “What Would Gloria Think Of That?”.
She used to be offended when everyone thought Museum was
autobiographical. “No, I'm a writer. But now I think that all of it came from
my head so it must all be me, one way or another. Especially if you live inside
a head of the character, you can see the similarity. But I'm not putting across
a message or as a sounding board for my own opinions. “
“I think I would make an excellent spy. But in reality
I'm not very good at keeping secrets. If I had my time again, I'd do something
secret, Mi5 or GCHQ ... And be in charge of things. “
"I think I would make an excellent spy. But in reality I'm not very good at keeping secrets"
When would you travel back in time was asked. To the war
as it was a time of heightened living, was the answer. But only with a guarantee that
I would come back. Imagine going back to Shakespeare’s time? No, there'd be no
tea or good lighting or laundry.
After 50 minutes, the audience were given the opportunity
to ask questions. And of course one of the first was about how Kate writes. She
writes mostly chronologically. She reads the beginning every day as that makes her
remember why she’s writing that book.
Some book ideas last forever with no book actually
happening. She’s been planning a book on
the Antarctic for years and years. Kate is (a very young looking) 66 and frets
some of her ideas will never get around to being written. Maybe if she lives to
150 and then get it all done.
“If I gather enough thoughts then I write it. The next
two books I'm planning are relatively recent ideas. One is an exhibition I saw,
one is an idea that just came to e. I've been putting together a book of short
stories forever. Writing the book you want to write is the gift you give yourself.”
"Characters are often described as breeds of dogs in Kate’s books. What dog are you was the cheeky questions: “I'd like to be a dog I'm planning to get - a border collie"
Characters are often described as breeds of dogs in Kate’s
books. What dog are you was the cheeky question? “I'd like to be a dog I'm planning to get - a
border collie. Because they're more intelligent than me, or my best bet in that
Did you always want to write? “No. I was a reader. I was
an only child so started reading at three. Did a degree and doctorate at
English, and then failed at it. I was bereft. I treated academic writing as a
creative thing. Then I started writing creatively almost immediately. I got rid
of all the biographical crud in shoot stories. First story I ever wrote won a
women's magazine award, which gave me permission to do more. Studying gave me
the time to read so much. A winding reading base is the basis of writing.”
What are your favourite writers? She was most influenced
by her reading when she was a child. Real classics like Lewis Carroll and
Nesbit. There was not this vast library of children's books then like there are
And now for I think what may be news to many. Her next
one will be a Jackson Brodie one. Not sure she should have said that by the
look of her publicist.
And, then, all too soon, it was time for book signing. 35
books were sold at £20 per time. Not too shabby. Kate showed tremendous
patience signing so many books, laughing and thanking everyone.