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Kate Atkinson on Writing Habits & Failing Her Ph.D.
Written by
Alison Luther
September 2018
Written by
Alison Luther
September 2018

Bestselling, award-winning author Kate Atkinson just debuted Transcription, her third straight novel set during the war era, after the bestselling Life After Life (published in 2013) and its sequel, A God in Ruins (published in 2015). She’s fascinated by the era, she says. “As a writer, there's so much material.”

On Becoming A Writer:

At age 21, Atkinson married a fellow student at Dundee University, and soon after had her first daughter. Around that same time, she embarked on getting her Ph.D.

"I thought doing a doctorate and having a baby would be a good combination. Actually, having a baby isn't a good combination with anything."

At the time, she retreated into herself; now, she regards it as the making of her.

"Your life is made by the failures in it, not the successes," she says. "And I wouldn't have become a writer without failing my doctorate."

This excerpt was originally published in The Guardian. Read the full interview here.

On Creating Characters:

Eighteen-year-old Juliet, the main character in Transcriptions, is a typist, spending her day transcribing the daily conversations of British Fascist sympathizers – before she knows it, she is sucked into the world of espionage… a decision that will follow her long after the war is over.

“All [my] characters come out fully formed. It's a miracle I don't understand. Juliet is cynical but knows nothing about human relationships. She's not exceptional. So many women are completely blind. They certainly were at that time. I'm very interested in character formation, and I never really talk about it. But they're just there. It helps if they have a name, but that's it.

They're not autonomous. I control them completely, so they're going to do whatever I want. It's not like they do things within the book that surprise me. The only thing I change in a character is if they're horrible, I soften their edges, because 100 percent evil characters don't interest me. But you're asking me to explain something I honestly can't understand. They don't have lives of their own. They're all mine. I am the evil puppet master.”

This excerpt was originally published in Good Reads. Read the full interview here.

On Keeping Track of Characters and Timelines:

“I have no chart. I hold everything in my head while I'm writing and then I tend to forget everything. Sometimes readers get really annoyed with me because they'll ask me questions about previous books and I'll be talking about characters they love and I'll be sitting there really blankly thinking, ‘Who is that? I don't know.’ So it's very intense while I'm writing and it's this huge relief when I stop because then I can clear my head of so much stuff.”

On Research:

“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!"

This excerpt was originally published on Chatelaine. Read the full interview here.

On Writing Habits:

Every writer has her routine - or aspirations for a routine that keeps her work fresh and flowing. Here is Atkinson's approach:

"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."

This excerpt was originally published in Good Reads. Read the full interview here.

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  • Chantal Walvoord

    I can't wait to read Transcription. This article is a great collection of quotations and insight into Atkinson's writing methods.