Unlike most successful novelists who can thrive no matter what reviewers say, Kate Atkinson admits to reading what they write about her. And why not? The notices for her most recent novel, Life After Life, have been nothing but good, hailing it as a “major achievement” that has elevated an author best known for high-class detective fiction onto a new plateau of literary accomplishment.
But Atkinson says she was taken aback when one admirer described the work as “experimental fiction.”
“I thought, ‘What on earth is experimental about it?’” she says, still chipper on her third interview of the day at 10 in the morning. “Maybe Finnegans Wake is experimental. But you haven’t read enough books if you think this is experimental fiction.”
She has a point: Atkinson is a master of the classic form, able to spin perfectly rounded, beginning-middle-end, page-turning narratives with ease. Life After Life proves yet again her facility with good old-fashioned story.
But there is the fact that this novel has several different beginnings, matched to an equal number of middles and endings, with its heroine living many parallel lives that she learns to negotiate with the aid of a persistent sense of déjà vu. Not content with mastering the well-wrought urn, Atkinson decided with her latest novel to pick up a bunch and juggle them.
But there’s nothing unusual about that, Atkinson insists. “All fiction is experimental, basically,” she says. What distinguishes Life is that it is so free.
“The great thing about fiction is that you’re allowed to invent,” she says. “People might not read stories about men turning into dragons, but you can satisfy your need to write them. It’s allowed.” But too few writers “really exercise that creative freedom,” she adds. And when they do, it’s called experimental.
If nothing else, Life was a gamble for Atkinson, who has built her readership mainly on the back of a classic tough-guy detective, Jackson Brodie, hero of four previous novels. But it has paid off, partly with the help of a major social-media publicity campaign and has finally put Atkinson at the top of the U.S. bestseller lists.
Pre-orders pushed the book to the No. 2 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and a week later it is sticking at No. 3. “That’s big for me in the States,” Atkinson says. “Normally I might make a debut at 18 and drop out.”
That success came not from repeating the formula that made her famous, but by boldly abandoning it. Like most modern crime writers, Atkinson did her best with Jackson Brodie to stretch the bounds of the genre. But breaking them was impossible.
“As soon as I put a detective in a book, that was it. It was a crime novel. There’s no way around that,” she says. The limits became frustrating. “I thought, ‘I am confined by this. No matter how much I try to break those bounds I’m still confined by expectation in that particular genre.’”
More prosaically, she got bored. “I go through these phases where I think, ‘Oh, I’ve had enough of that,’” Atkinson says. Her first stories and novels, most notably the award-winning Behind the Scenes at the Museum, were classified as “magic realism.” Dispensing with that – “not bored but kind of written up” – she invented the meticulously realistic world of Jackson Brodie.
Which led her back to the intricately fantastic multiple worlds of Ursula Todd, heroine of her latest novel, which some have characterized as “science fiction.” But it is equally historical fiction, focusing in dramatic detail on the 1940 London Blitz.
Thus the “broad church” of Atkinson’s fiction. Everything fits.
About herself, Atkinson volunteers only the narrowest of views. Now in her 60s, she lives in suburban Edinburgh near her two daughters and two grandchildren, plays no part in the literary life of that city or London, writes in a darkened room in her pyjamas, declines to be photographed and “would rather stick pins in my eyes than tweet.”
“I don’t understand that need to share,” she adds. “To me the one thing you have is your own thoughts, your own life, your own family, and I don’t know why people want everyone to know everything about all of that. To me it’s incredibly uninteresting. And that’s said as a novelist, who finds people fascinating.”
She does have a Facebook page, which she has never visited. “I don’t know what they [her publishers] put on there,” she says. And much to Atkinson’s amusement, detective Jackson Brodie – not her – has taken to tweeting.
What she does do is write. “I do feel that time-at-my-back thing, which is why I tend to write a lot,” she says. “I’ve done everything else, now I’m quite focused. It’s writing or it’s family.”
Atkinson reckons she has five more novels inside her waiting to get out, beginning with a companion to Life that will focus on another member of the Todd family. But typically, she promises it will be “a different kind of book,” with none of the fantastical elements of its predecessor.
And with a proviso: “I do retain the right to completely change my mind.”
The more she does that, the better she gets.