The Costa Award-winning author Kate Atkinson returns with her new novel Transcription (Bond Street Books). This time she takes us back to a time of spies, espionage and MI5 during the later years of the Second World War. When Juliet Armstrong was first recruited as an 18-year-old to monitor British fascist sympathizers, she would never know that her past would eventually catch up with her in later civilian life, as one war gives way to the Cold War era. Here, Atkinson shares books from across her life that have influenced her over the years.
What did you read as a child?
The classics – The Wind in the Willows, E. Nesbit (The Railway Children, Five Children and It and so on,) Richmal Crompton (Just William – and all the William books, just the funniest books ever), Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, What Katy Did, George MacDonald’s books (I love George MacDonald, he makes magic seem possible). And all the fairy stories. Fairy stories, out of everything, I think, helped to fire up my imagination. Children’s literature is full of possibilities that don’t exist in the “real” world (grinning cats, talking animals, flying carpets, you name it) and although it’s disappointing (an understatement) when you grow up and realize these things don’t exist, I think they’re very important when you’re a child. They widen the mind.
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I was an only child and only children are invariably voracious readers, and in a time before social media or much in the way of television, what else was there to do? I taught myself to read when I was 4 from M.E. Gagg’s Ladybird book Puppies and Kittens (similar to Ruby in my own book Behind the Scenes at the Museum). I remember exactly where I was (at the dining table, in front of a coal fire, after tea) when I suddenly realized that the illustrated letters pinned to the wall in my nursery class (A is for Apple, B is for Ball and so on) could actually be used to create something so much greater than their elements. And that’s what alchemy is, I suppose.
What did you read in primary school?
Funnily enough I don’t remember anything much I read in primary school apart from Heidi which I loved, mainly for the descriptions of food. I still remember her bread and toasted cheese. I’ve always liked food in books, What Katy Did in School had amazing hampers she was sent from home and the hot buttered toast that Toad ate in The Wind in the Willows when he was incarcerated. Maybe I just like food.
What did you read in university?
Everything. From Proust to the Mabinogion, from Lewis Carroll to Ovid and everything in between. Although I’d read a lot of “everything” before I got to university anyway. I was reading things as a teenager that I didn’t understand (Sartre as a 14-year-old! Madness). And I did Latin and Greek at school so I’d read Homer and Virgil (or at least I’d made poor translations of them). My advice to would-be writers is always read everything that’s ever been written, it doesn’t matter if – like me – you forget it all subsequently. We stand on the shoulders of giants. And also how can you know if your own writing is worth anything if you haven’t read all the good stuff?
I did a degree in English literature so we did all the classics, 18th-, 19th-, 20th-century novels, all of which I loved and still love. Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, a lot of poetry. I used to really enjoy the analytic element of studying literature. Reading a text is easy, taking it to bits and putting it back together again to appreciate it better is more challenging.
I went on to study for a doctorate (famously failed at the [oral exam]) on “The Postmodern American Short Story in its Historical Context” (I know). I was looking at writers such as Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, Ronald Sukenick, that no one in Britain was reading. They were innovative writers (and funny) and didn’t play by the rules of writing. That had great appeal for me – it’s why I’ve always liked Lewis Carroll so much. In your own writing you are free to do whatever you want without boundaries. Of course that doesn’t mean that anyone will necessarily like it but the omnipotence, the creation of your own, world is a heady thing.
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What have you read as an adult?
Oh, lord, I’ve been an adult for a long time, you can’t expect me to remember! I still love Austen and Henry James, and I’ve been rereading Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Taylor recently but really I read so much less now than when I was younger. I have discovered the joy of non-fiction though, that takes up most of my reading time.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve just finished the new Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls, which I loved, it’s the retelling of the Trojan Wars seen through the eyes of the women. Very visceral. And in the post this morning there was an 1898 copy of What Maisie Knew by Henry James – a publication gift from my agent – and I remembered all over again how much I love that book.