Find out more about Kate's novels, her inspiration, writing process and how her characters are born and develop. New ‘Behind the Scenes’ Q&As will appear in this section over time so be sure to register for the newsletter to be notified when new updates are made.
If you've read Life After Life and would like to discover how the book came to be, read Kate's author note and list of sources. This does contain spoilers so if you haven't yet read the book, you may prefer to do so before reading on.
I was born at the end of 1951 and grew up feeling that had I just missed the Second World War, that something terrible and tremendous had occurred and I would never know it. Looking back this strikes me as odd for as a child I was never aware of those around me talking about it. It was almost as though it had never happened, for although my family experienced the war they rarely mentioned it. It’s only recently I’ve come to realize - and understand - that once it was over and people faced the grim reality of the peace, all they wanted to do was to forget – not just the destruction wrought on us but the greater destruction that we rained down on Europe. We had reduced Germany to rubble and we were not necessarily proud of that, nor of the endless moral compromise that war necessitates. People move on, history remains...
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Here's a video interview with Kate Atkinson, recorded to coincide with her Costa Novel Award 2013 win for Life After Life.
Q- The story One Good Turn unfolds20during the Edinburgh Festival - was this an intentional setting?
A- I set the book during the Edinburgh Festival because I needed a reason for Julia to come to Edinburgh, so it was very practical reason. The festival then opened up all sorts of opportunities in the book,20certainly for a much richer background and also to increase Jackson’s alienation. In the books he’s a stranger to Edinburgh and in One Good Turn he comes to it at a point in its annual life when it’s not really itself. I think the absurdity of a lot of the stuff he’s encountering makes it quite alienating for him.
Q- You use adages [sayings] quite a lot in your books. In this instance it’s 'one good turn deserves another '. How important are these for you as a writer? Are they are unifying part, something that pulls the book together?
A- I don’t know about using adages. I don’t think of myself as someone who uses adages particularly, except that they are part of a much bigger linguistic pattern. I do use proverbs and biblical language and I also use a lot of quotations from literature. I quote constantly from other sources and I try to make them a fairly seamless part of the text. I think it’s interesting to turn20to phrases and proverbs and adages that are very familiar and then to re-use them and look at them in a different way.
Q- You’ve said before that Gloria is the moral centre of One Good Turn. Whose morality is it: Gloria’s or Kate Atkinson’s?
A- I think one must always keep an ethical distance from your characters as a writer because readers will always identify you with your characters. I think it’s important you maintain a barrier and that you make it very clear that what you’re writing is not necessarily what you think.
Q- Right, so it’s Gloria’s morality. And would you still stand by that comment?
Q- And in your view Gloria is righteous?
A-I think Gloria is extremely righteous, and she is going to come back as an even more righteous person in a future book.
Q- There are lots of unlikely friendships in One Good Turn. Jackson becomes friendly with Martin, which is quite an unusual friendship, but the most extraordinary one is right at the heart of it, between Gloria and Tatiana. How do you make those unlikely friendships convincing for a reader?
A. The question that underpins that is: how do you make a character convincing? If you have a convincing character then whatever they do is also going to be convincing. So if you’ve built your characters to be realistic and the circumstances that bring them together have narrative believability, then there’s no reason why that relationship should lack credibility.
Q- And the characters are brought together through coincidences and circumstances?
Well I don’t think Martin and Jackson continue to have a friendship, so their relationships are mostly borne out of direct circumstance, yes. But Gloria and Tatiana continue20to do20so, even though in the book they part ways they will come back together as they are somehow magnetically drawn to each other.
Q- In this book we see a new Jackson Brodie. At the start he’s living in France, he’s a millionaire and he’s in a relationship with Julia. How did you work with his very different circumstances and make him as involving and engaging as in previous books?
A- Well,he’s still the same character. I think we see him in a different light because he’s become disengaged from normal life and because the money has given him opportunities. He’s fulfilled his dream of retiring to France and this seems to have left him slightly unanchored. He doesn’t have20his old, rather shabby life yet his new life hasn’t really given him whatever it is he needs to feel satisfied. He’s just been wandering around Europe a bit with Julia and there’s been no real solid basis to his life and he’s a character who needs that. So, when20we first meet him in One Good Turn he is a sort of flâneur [stroller], just wandering around the pavements of Edinburgh for no reason. I think that’s why he gets caught up in other people’s dramas, because it gives him something to do.
Q- The motif of the Russian dolls is a recurring one in One Good Turn. Was that a conscious thing to put those as emblems throughout?
A- I didn’t really think about that until I reached the end of the book when I noticed that I was using them slightly more structurally than thematically. I’d been to St Petersburg so was slightly obsessed with Matryoshka [Russian dolls] and had quite a few sets of my own. I think I simply gave Martin the Matryoshka to keep his memory stick in but towards the end I realised they worked quite well as an overall metaphor, especially because there is this whole thing about Russian prostitutes and Russian brides in the book. I don’t usually notice that’s what I’ve done in my books until I’ve got to the end so there’s obviously a lot of subconscious at work when you’re writing.
Q – Cambridge is the backdrop in this book. How important is location to you as a writer and why Cambridge for this book?
A – Cambridge was the location for Case Histories because originally the characters were going to go on an expedition to the Antarctic and Cambridge is the home of the Scott Polar Research Institute and I felt that there was a link there, especially as Julia and Amelia’s grandfather had been on an Antarctic mission. I thought it would be interesting to live in Cambridge for a couple of months and view it as an outsider, partly because I think Jackson was an outsider even though he’d lived there a long time. It makes me slightly neurotic setting books in towns that I don’t know well, I have to spend a lot of time on Google Earth and Google maps, checking things and rechecking things, because it seems very insulting to people who live in those places if you get everything wrong.
I think the duality of Cambridge, the division between town and gown is enormous and I wouldn’t have understood it if I hadn’t stayed there for a reasonable period of time. The same wasn’t true of Leeds, I spent my childhood a half an hour train journey away and still felt it in my bones somehow.
Q – There are three interweaving case histories20in this particular book. Do you take inspiration from real crime stories in any of your cases?
A – I do, but I think I tend to sit on them for years, and I also think that over time I have absorbed quite a few without even realising it and when they eventually appear in a book someone will say, ‘is that based on such and such?’ and20I think, oh, maybe it is and maybe my subconscious was picking up on that. When you reproduce something that’s partly real or based on something real you have to honour that fact and not exploit it, and I think that when you use a real crime in a crime novel you’re doing it because you’re fascinated by the psychology behind it. Because crime does fascinate people and we want to understand why people would do what they do and I think that maybe we also think, would I do that in those circumstances? Of course, in most cases, it’s the consequences of the act that prove to be most interesting.
Q – We first meet Jackson Brodie in Case Histories. He’s parked in a used sports car, chain20smoking and listening to Woman’s Hour. Not a hugely appealing portrait of him, initially. What or who inspired him and, given his unlikely early circumstances, what do you think contributes to his enduring appeal?
A – There was no one character that inspired him. I think once I’d decided to put a detective in that novel – which was a big decision for me, because I knew immediately it would be viewed as a crime novel and I didn’t really feel fit to write crime novels myself – I think I wanted him to be in the mould of all traditional male detectives. I did think about having a female detective but I wanted him to be that gumshoe figure who has a divorce in his background, an unhappy marriage, who’s got his shtick, those things he listens to, all the things he does… Because I suspect I knew I wanted ultimately to play around with the form and it’s much easier to play around with the form if you start off with, not a cliché exactly, but an archetype almost.20So I just composed a male figure, which is probably why I started with a car – it seemed as good a place as any.
The challenge for me was not to make a detective but to make a male character who was reasonably three-dimensional . And I think I worked from20the outside in. I always say that Jackson is really a woman because obviously he still has my sensibility in some ways, and I think that’s why he’s popular with women because they don’t realise he’s a woman in male disguise. That's why he has lots of male attributes and accoutrements and he’s good at fighting and he likes gadgets and all of those things, because I had to disguise the fact that really he’s me.
Q – In spite of the tragedies of the heart in the story, there’s an uplifting thread of humour throughout the novel. Do you feel that humour lifts the tragedy and are you conscious of the comedy in your writing?
A – I think that’s20just how I naturally write. In Case Histories there are grisly scenes, there are tragic scenes and there are sad scenes which are whole in themselves. They don’t have humour in them. So I think the humour is more a Shakespearian structure, where you have your tragic scenes and you20have your lightening scenes – the porter at the gate – but the two aren’t actually intermingled within the text as I think it would be impossible to write about the death of a child and have some sort of joke cracked in the middle of that. I think I intermingle the two modes all the time without thinking about it. I like writing both equally, but I can’t write just one.
Q – Lost children and the complexities of identity in all its guises are themes throughout much of your writing and very prominent in Case Histories. Would you agree with that? Is it about lost people searching for belonging?
A – I think, at a very deep level, I’m fascinated by losing identity and at the same time by people who are lost, but I never put those two things together really. I think identity is crucial to literature because I think that’s how we see life as well. We always have metaphors about life being a journey or a path and if we want to make sense of the structure of our own lives, we think of it in terms of coming into ourselves and of understanding our own identity, because that’s how we see maturity – as we become more and more mature we understand ourselves better. And so the loss of identity is such a core thing for human beings in a way that it couldn’t possibly be for any other animal in the animal kingdom. What makes us human is our sense of identity, even though it’s really just a neurological trick that’s being played on us. And I think more so now even, because we no longer have religion, so we don’t have a sense of our soul, all we have is this kind of ‘me, me, me’. We live in a society now that’s completely obsessed with the self in a way that we’ve never really seen before.
Lost children is something that does recur quite a lot throughout my books and it’s something I see as completely different because it’s so primitive and primeval as a theme – the idea of a child being missing from a family in one way or another is just something that I instinctively return to.