My first impression as I enter Charlotte Square Gardens, the location of the Edinburgh Book Festival, is how solid the marquees are. It’s hard to believe that this world of bookshops, cafés, and theatres, populated by authors and readers alike, exists only temporarily. In a few weeks time I will walk by the empty square where I once heard some of my favourite authors speak and wonder where that world disappeared to.
The first event that I attend at the Book Festival is a Meet the Author session with Kate Atkinson. A hush descends on the packed theatre when she walks in. She is introduced as a writer of novels with plots “fabulously intertwined in a way that only Kate Atkinson can make work.” This is why I love her books and I hope that today she will give us an insight into how she constructs such cleverly interwoven stories.
The static-like sound of rain pattering on the roof of the marquee provides a soft background percussion as Atkinson reads aloud from her most recent novel, When Will There Be Good News? I am struck by how humorous the narrative is. Atkinson’s intonation and well timed pauses garner the audience’s chuckles. When I read the novel myself, I took it very seriously. It’s surprising how differently two people can interpret the same piece of text: it’s only now when I hear the words spoken aloud in the author’s own voice that I recognise the comedic moments that were there all along. The section that Atkinson reads from contains my favourite description from the novel: “Her left eye was bloodshot as if a red star had exploded in her brain.” I scribbled it down in my notebook when I read it the first time as a reminder of how I should aspire to write.
After the reading, Atkinson discusses the novel with the light-heartedness of one who has let her creation go. It is in the domain of the readers now and she laughs as she confesses to have recently forgotten both the title of the book and the name of one of its protagonists.
When Will There Be Good News? is the third novel to feature ex private detective Jackson Brodie and the darkest of the three. The opening chapter is particularly harrowing and Atkinson explains that this is because it was important to her “to do some kind of justice to the horrible things.” And there are certainly plenty of horrible things plaguing the lives of the four main characters – from deaths to train crashes to book vandalising thugs. Coincidence brings the protagonists together and, in a final series of breathtaking plot twists, they manage to achieve some sort of hope for the future. “I love resolution,” Atkinson says. “I think of my endings as being symphonic.” That so many of the plot twists rely on coincidence has attracted criticism but Atkinson brushes this off saying, “This book is meant to be founded in coincidence. Without coincidence there is no fiction.”
The Jackson Brodie novels have been described as “literary detective” stories, although Atkinson herself shies away from genre classifications. “When I sit down to write, I’m writing a novel by me so I have to block out all thoughts of genre and what other people will think.” She points out that although the Jackson Brodie novels were viewed as a departure from literary fiction into the crime genre, all of her books have something in common: “There’s always a puzzle.”
The “puzzles” in an Atkinson novel are typically complex and she is famous for her intertwined plots. To keep track of the story as she is writing, Atkinson does not rely on charts or diagrams but instead prefers to regularly read through the manuscript-in-progress. “I very rarely get to the end of a book and do a big edit because I’ve been editing nearly every day. I don’t write in a very linear fashion. I think of it as a tapestry or weaving. I start at the beginning and go forward and back, forward and back.” Atkinson tells us that before she starts writing, “I always have the end and the title and those are the two things that really help. It’s a kind of optimism. If you think about the ending a lot, you believe you can get there.”
When asked about the characters in her novels, Atkinson begins: “People say the characters just spring into your mind, fully formed…” I hope privately that she is about to dispel this myth and tell us of the hard work that goes into creating such wonderfully realistic and flawed characters. Instead she continues, “And it’s true! The trick is making them work together.” At least she doesn’t claim that her characters speak to her and tell her what she should write. I’ve read so many interviews where authors admit to being bossed around by imaginary people that I’ve begun to worry that I won’t be able to write a novel until I start hearing voices in my head. It’s a relief to hear that Atkinson is firmly in control of her creations: “Your characters are your puppets. I enjoy manipulating them and making them do what I want.” Even Jackson Brodie is a “device” for binding together the multi-narrative, multi-character books that he features in, albeit in an ever-decreasing role.
“He’s been demoted with each book and spends most of the third one in a coma, which says something about my attitude to returning characters,” Atkinson laughs. But fans of the Yorkshire hard man will be happy to learn that she is writing a fourth book where Jackson Brodie comes back stronger than before to revisit his past. She speculates that it will be published in 2010.