20 May 2013

Life Goes On: Kate Atkinson

On Saturday night Mum and I headed to Aotea Centre to see Kate Atkinson being interviewed as part of the annual Writers Festival.

I've been a fan since I was 'forced' to read 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' for a University English course. Mum, and Dad actually, joined the fandom thanks to the character of Jackson Brodie (though I've lent Mum some of her other books to expand her 'palate').

We arrived on time for the 7:15pm start, only to realise that it was a GA event - the usher turned as away from the stalls as they were all full! Thankfully there was a large TV screen showing the interview, so we didn't miss anything.

The session started with Kate reading a passage from her latest book 'Life After Life', which Mum and I haven't read yet (I was waiting for the paperback, but I don't think I can wait anymore!). It's always a treat hearing an author read their own work. 

The interview was interesting and engaging. Kate gave full answers, some of which were serious, others that illustrated her personal quirks and beliefs.

A line of questioning lead Kate to say that she doesn't like to use the word "creative" at all:

"I don't like the word. It reminds me of 'creative writing' and I don't like creative writing classes. I just sort of feel that learning to be a writer is really really hard and you have to do it on your own. And I don't think anyone can really help you to write. That doesn't mean you can't go to creative writing classes, it's just that I think learning to write is a very isolated individual thing."

This led to the interviewer, who I should mention was Australian writer, broadcaster and interviewer Ramona Koval, asking about the learning process and whether writers or prospective writers should listen to critics:

"No, I don't think that's helpful actually. I think you have to read everything, it doesn't matter if you forget it. Nobody can teach you what your good writing is, you have to feel it. If you want to write, you have to learn to be your own best critic, I think.  Finding that inner critic who can say 'that is crap, that doesn't work' is the most important thing."

She definitely gave as a lot of insight into how she writes (when writing a book the story plays through her mind even when she is pretending to have conversations with loved ones - she needs to write until the book is finished and can't focus on anything else), why she writes what she does (she found a voice using Ruby (in 'Behind the Scenes...') and the shop in the book was based on the shop she grew up in), and her life before writing (didn't get her phD in the American Short Story due to politics between her tutor and the Professor/Marker, which made her extremely mad - writing was an outlet for her. She also wrote 2,200 word stories for women's magazines, was a chambermaid at a hotel, a cleaner...).

There are themes that run through her books, some themes run through multiple books, for example The Blitz. She explained that the Blitz had an impact on her as she was born just after it, so she grew up hearing stories - she researched the Blitz in great detail, especially for 'Life After Life' as, though she fictionalised events, she wanted to illustrate the full grimy horror of it (it wasn't all just 'Keep Calm and Carry On').

Another interesting point was about Objects - she likes to place objects in her books. For example, the hare in 'Life After Life' is based on the rabbit top of an antique rattle she has, but she changed it to a hare because "hares are always more magical".

The session ended with some audience questions. Kate kicked these off by repeating a question she had been asked by a 13 year old boy: "If you were stranded on a desert island, which member of your family would you eat first?"


Her reply? "I wouldn't eat any member of my family, but I would eat a stranger. Especially if they were dead first."

She was also asked if she was planning any more Jackson Brodie books: "He's on a cruise. A very long cruise." She did elaborate to say that she had needed a break from that series as she didn't want her 'voice' to get tired. However, she wondered if she'd write them differently after the break away (and having written 'Life After Life'); she'd like to do what Cristie did with 'Poirot's Last Case' and perhaps do 'Brodie's Last Case'

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