In a nod to the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s own life after lives, this sold out opening event is chaired by the festival’s very first director, Jenny Brown. She introduces Kate Atkinson, whose debut novel Behind The Scenes At The Museum won the 1995 Whitbread Prize, and who has since gone on to surprise and delight readers with her intricately plotted and beautifully observed writing.
Atkinson reads from the opening from her latest novel, Life After Life, a multi-layered journey through the majority of 20th century history accompanied by the reincarnated character of Ursula. The segment she reads focuses on one of her heroines early births, in the idyllic Edwardian country retreat of Fox Corner. It is full of Atkinson’s delightful characterisation and light touch humour, successfully setting the stage for her protagonist’s endless journeys to unfold.
“I would live in Fox Corner in a flash,” Atkinson says, discussing the atmosphere she recreates in her novel. The charming safeness of the family pile is a grounding for the novel’s more perilous scenes, including many set during the Blitz.
Atkinson has always been fascinated by that period of history. Being born ‘just after’ the war in 1951, it was something which always felt very real for her. She immersed herself in researching the period, always conscious of the fact it was living, very recent history. And, although she finds it ‘exciting’, she is very aware of the real horrors which occurred.
Discussing the novel’s unique structure, Atkinson reveals she has always had a fascination for alternative endings. The multiple lives and deaths of Ursula take this to a logical conclusion, and Atkinson jokes she was influenced mainly by Groundhog Day, then goes on to talk about her love of writing the final scenes, always aiming for a ‘crescendo of endings’ for her novels.
Talking about her popular Jackson Brodie series of crime novels, Atkinson admits “I am Jackson”, explaining in some way why the character has such a resonance with female fans. Writing crime was a ‘difficult’ experience when compared to plotting her other works, and whilst she was aware of the risk of being pigeon-holed within that particular genre, she didn’t write with any particular audience in mind — “I am,” she says, “my first reader — and my only reader.”
Kate Atkinson was in discussion with Jenny Brown at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 10 Aug