Atkinson signing books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (August 2007)
20 December 1951 |
York, England, United Kingdom
|Alma mater||University of Dundee|
I don't want to spoil the magic, but it's a very curious thing that honestly baffles me. It's the nearest we'll ever get to playing God, to suddenly produce these fully formed creatures. It is a bit odd. Other aspects you work out more – you rework sentences, you rework imagery. But not characters.
I spent four years doing a doctorate in postmodern American literature. I can recognize it when I see it.
I can't imagine what it would be like to write in a relaxed state. I'm going to be writing some stories for my own interest. I want to experiment with different things and see if I can approach writing with much less control and in a better psychological state. It will be like breaking out of a straitjacket.
I've always loved mysteries, the something there that you didn't know, and with 'Case Histories' I just decide to make that more up-front.
When I started 'Case Histories,' the characters were all going to Antarctica on a cruise. The first part was called 'Embarkation.' It was supposed to be about everyone preparing to embark on the cruise, but it mushroomed into an entire book.
Not being published would be great. When I say that to other writers they look at me as if I'm totally insane.
Everyone said, 'Well, you're very old for a first novel,' and I said, 'How do you write when you haven't lived? How do you write when you have no experience? How do you write straight out of university?'
Probably not needing to be published would give me more time to think about a book.
The great thing about writing compared to life is getting to tie things up.
Alternate history fascinates me, as it fascinates all novelists, because 'What if?' is the big thing.
I had a novel in the back of my mind when I won an Ian St James story competition in 1993. At the award ceremony an agent asked me if I was writing a novel. I showed her four or five chapters of what would become 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' and to my surprise she auctioned them off.
'Feminism' is such an incredibly awkward word for us these days, isn't it? Not to be feminist would be bizarre, wouldn't it?
The cult of the individual is killing us. I think Twitter signals the death of western civilisation, but people have been saying that since Demosthenes.
The legacy of the fairy story in my brain is that everything will work out. In fiction it would be very hard for me, as a writer, to give a bad ending to a good character, or give a good ending to a bad character. That's probably not a very postmodern thing to say.
It was failing part of my Ph.D. that led me into novel-writing. By then I was 29, had remarried and had a second baby. It struck me that I'd lost my path in life and I felt frustrated. That's when I started to write.
Certainly I had a really terrible time with 'Emotionally Weird.' When I finished it, I thought, 'I can't write any more.'
When I'm writing, my neural pathways get blocked. I can't read. I can barely hold a conversation without forgetting words and names. I wish I could wear the same clothes and eat the same food each day.
Writing for me is quite a plastic form, a kind of mental sculpture, although that sounds weird. It acquires its character and its depth as it goes along.
I think you have to learn for yourself how to write. I'm slightly mystified by creative writing courses – God love them – because I can't understand how you can explain a process that I find so baffling.
Ethics are not necessarily to do with being law-abiding. I am very interested in the moral path, doing the right thing.
I find the past so fascinating. Photographs are strange, almost surreal, almost here yet gone. I slip into thinking what the past must have been like and I enjoy creating that ambience and atmosphere – 1730 to around 1870 is the most interesting period.
Like many writers, I started by writing short stories. I needed to learn how to write and stories are the most practical way to do this, and less soul-destroying than working your way through a lengthy novel and then discovering it's rubbish.
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.
My highest point was the first thing I won, a short story competition in a women's magazine in the Eighties. It was the first time I'd had my writing validated, and the first thing I'd ever shown anyone else.
It's been said that the men in my books have been absent, or weak, or creepy.
I usually start writing a novel that I then abandon. When I say abandon, I don't think any writer ever abandons anything that they regard as even a half-good sentence. So you recycle. I mean, I can hang on to a sentence for several years and then put it into a book that's completely different from the one it started in.
Because I've a track record of talking about books I never write, in Australia they think I'm about to write a book about Jane Austen. Something I said at some festival.
But I, you know, if I could choose a period to go back to, I think I would like to live through the Blitz. 'Cause you do read so many accounts of people saying they're living their lives at such an intense pitch that it was a completely different way of living.
Life is a very orderly thing, but in fiction there is a huge liberation and freedom. I can do what I like. There's nothing that says I can't write a page of full stops. There is no 'should' involved, although you wouldn't know that from literary reviews and critics.
A novel and its writer are inseparable: you are your books. A play's not like that at all. 'Abandonment's not mine – it's everyone's. I wanted it to be a co-operative thing because I was tired of that anal control that I have over novels.
Without siblings you get quite a skewed vision of yourself and of the world. I always felt I didn't understand how it worked. I remember feeling quite lonely.
I was an only child and grew up in York where my parents ran a surgical supplies shop. When I say I wish I had brothers and sisters, friends say it's not what it's cracked up to be, but I think it must be good to have someone who knew you from the beginning.
My father was an autodidact. It wasn't a middle-class house. Shopkeepers are aspirant. He paid for me to go to private school. He was denied an education – he had a horrible childhood. He got a place at a grammar school and wasn't allowed to go.
My work is not my life. I started writing quite late, I didn't have that 'writing is everything, my art is all.' You have to be able to recognise the difference between the two.
I need to be very isolated to write, and unfortunately isolation is often quite difficult to find. My ideal writing environment would be a country house hotel in the middle of nowhere, with full room service.
Fairy tales opened up a door into my imagination – they don't conform to the reality that's around you as a child. I started reading when I was three and read everything, but I wanted to be an actress.
Because I write fiction, I don't write autobiography, and to me they are very different things. The first-person narrative is a very intimate thing, but you are not addressing other people as 'I' – you are inhabiting that 'I.'
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 don't have goals when writing books, apart from getting to the end. I have rather vague ideas about how I want things to feel, I'm big on ambience. I have a title, a beginning and a probable ending and go from there.