Kate Atkinson: 'One Good Turn'

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Prize-winning British author Kate Atkinson only began writing novels a decade ago, when she was in her forties. She talks about her new detective novel, One Good Turn, and how starting her career later in life has had an impact.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Kate Atkinson writes mysteries that cackle, purr, crackle and pop with surprise in turns of a phrase as much as twists of a plot. Her current novel, One Good Turn, begins with a simple fender bender that suddenly and inexplicably turns into a horrifying attack that befuddles as well as injures the victim, involves bystanders in surprising ways, and entangles a whole cast of characters that just seems to keep growing - a broken down comic, a prosperous crime novelist, a blonde Edinburgh police inspector. Kate Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Book of Year prize in 1995. She joins us from the studios of KUOY in Seattle. Ms. Atkinson, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. KATE ATKINSON (Author): Oh, it's my pleasure to be here.

SIMON: And an American reader has to irresistibly note - I hope I give away nothing by saying that there's a baseball bat that plays, a listener can guess, a very prominent role in the first scene. What's a baseball bat doing in Edinburgh?

Ms. ATKINSON: Oh, I think there's probably quite a few baseball bats being used for nefarious purposes in Edinburgh.

SIMON: I would like people to get an idea of your prose style, and there's a section we were talking about before. Maybe you could set us up for it please.

Ms. ATKINSON: Sure. This is just after the road rage incident, which has been witnessed by my favorite character in the book, I have to say, Gloria, who's a middle-aged woman who believes in rules and laws. And she is the moral center of the book, I think. She believes in good behavior.

Gloria hadn't really seen what had happened. By the time the rumor of it had rippled down the spine of the queue, she suspected it had become a Chinese whisper. Someone had been murdered. Queue-jumping probably, she said matter of factly to a twittery man standing next to her. Gloria was stoical in queues, irritated by people who complained and shuffled as if their impatience were in some way a mark of their individuality. Queuing was like life. You just shut up and goes on with it.

It seemed a shame she had been born just too late for the Second World War. She possessed exactly the kind of long-suffering spirit that wartime relied on. Stoicism was, in Gloria's opinion, a very underrated virtue in the modern world. She could understand why someone might want to kill a queue jumper. If it had been up to her, she would have summarily executed a great many people by now. People who drop litter in the street, for example; they would certainly think twice about the discarded sweet wrapper if it resulted in them being strung up from the nearest lamppost.

Gloria used to be opposed to capital punishment. She remembered during her too brief time at the university demonstrating against an execution in some far away country that she couldn't have placed on the map. But now her feelings tended to run in quite the opposite direction.

SIMON: Well, as you say, she is the moral center of the novel, isn't she?

Ms. ATKINSON: She is. She believes in good behavior and many, many of the characters in this book exemplify bad behavior.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to ask you about another character in your book, in a sense. It's Edinburgh itself. The Edinburgh you write about, it's a hip place. You write about the alternative theater companies that are in, you know, in underground garages and the alternative music scenes and that sort of thing.

Ms. ATKINSON: Well, Edinburgh is, necessarily being Scottish, it's a city of two halves because most of the year it's actually quite straight-laced and it retains that kind of slightly Calvinist edge, I think, and has a population of just under half a million. But in August that population more than doubles to over a million, because, you know, we have the biggest international arts festival in the world in August. It becomes a completely different city in August. So the book is set in August, so naturally it's not the everyday Edinburgh. Let's put it like that.

SIMON: I noticed the last line - the last line of the book, really, the acknowledgments, you acknowledge - you say the writer Ray Allen for graciously allowing me to steal a story from his life.

Ms. ATKINSON: Yeah.

SIMON: Was he bopped by a baseball bat once?

Ms. ATKINSON: No, not at all. He's a writer who wrote a comedy series for television called Some Mothers Do Have Them. When he told me the story about how he was trying very hard to write and people were always coming to his door - he lived on the Isle of White - and he'd got into the habit of putting on his hat and his coat and picking up a briefcase as he answered the door so he could just say I'm just popping out. And this is something I really understand, because I have been - I usually answer my front door with my phone in the hand so I can just say, oh, I'm just on the phone. And also when I'm on the phone I ring my own doorbell so that I can say I'm sorry I have to go, there's someone at the door. I'm deeply an anti-social person.

But anyway, there was this one time that Ray answered the door in his coat and hat with his briefcase and the guy he answered it to said, oh, you're going out. And he said, yes, I'm just going down to the ferry. And he said, well, I'll walk down to the ferry with you, Ray. And then he said, are you getting the ferry? And Ray said yes. So sure, I'll get on the ferry with you. And they went all the way to Portsmouth. And he still couldn't get rid of him and then he came back on the ferry. So in fact he spent the entire day with this man that he was trying to avoid. And I thought was somehow - that story particularly spoke to me. I felt it. I understood it.

SIMON: You came to writing novels, but you weren't in your 20s, let's put it that way.

Ms. ATKINSON: I know, and many people say to me, oh, you were so old when you were first published. I think...

SIMON: Well, I didn't say that all right.

Ms. ATKINSON: No, you didn't. You said it in a more polite way. I was 42 or 43 when I - my first novel was published, although I had been writing magazine fiction since my mid 30s. In a way I got a lot of things out of the way that - well, not out of the way, that's not a good way to put it. But I was married and divorced and had children and brought them up and all of those things that are very time-consuming, so that when I did come to write, in a way I had a clear passage. I didn't have, you know, the emotional turbulence, a lot of that that you go through in your 20s and 30s. I was on a much steadier keel, in a way, and I had more space to write.

I think often when you're in your 20s and you start to write, you sort of write you way through you life as you live it, whereas I kind of got to a stage where I was, I had a little bit more experience under my belt, I suppose. And I'm glad I started writing at that age. I think it gave me - you know, if you become successful, I think it's very important that you are surrounded by perfectly normal people who, you know, your friends who are absolutely impressed in no way by your success. I think it's very - oh, and your family, of course, who aren't impressed at all, so that you're very grounded. And I think that was very good.

SIMON: When you won the Whitbread a bit over 10 years ago, there was a lot of attention paid to it because you were not well known and a lot of people who were up for that prize were better known. And some of the British tabs, and not just the tabs, settled on one thing you had done in your life to describe you.

Ms. ATKINSON: Chambermaid.

SIMON: Yeah. Exactly.

Ms. ATKINSON: I did that as a student job. I don't know anyone who wasn't a chambermaid when they were a student. It's just that my publishers had asked me a list of jobs I'd done at some point and it just got into the system and then it had got out as a - it must have gone out in a press release, I suppose. So you know, they were obviously thinking, you know, unknown chambermaid makes good, you know, rags to riches kind of thing. And also I was kind of northern and an outsider, so I think they didn't know what to make of me. And I used to go around sort of petulantly going, I used to teach at university as well, but now I just couldn't care less.

SIMON: Did you learn a lot from doing different jobs that you use in your fiction now?

Ms. ATKINSON: Absolutely. Because I mean I did do those jobs. I worked with, you know, the poor people. I worked with a lot of old people. I saw all kinds of, you know, housing, for example, because I used to go into the housebound and the elderly and visit them and I had a visiting, ran a visiting service for people, because I used to be a cleaner as well. And I used to be a terrible vulture, really, because you'd meet an old lady of 80 or so who's lived her life. She has a whole story to tell and nobody who really wants to listen to it. So I used to - it was a two-way relationship. I wanted to listen to the stories and they wanted to tell them. And I think you learn - I learned so much about other people's experiences. And it was something that I thought was very sad, but I thought, you know, all of, you know, people's lives are a story in a way and they never get to write it down and they never get to tell it. And when they die it's gone. And in a way, although as a writer you're not rescuing particular people's stories, usually, you are somehow rescuing people's stories, because you're putting all of those experiences on the page and making something of them, I think. So it's not just your story. It's everybody's stories you have a kind of imperative to write about. So I was always, you know, the best listener.

SIMON: Ms. Atkinson, it's been wonderful talking to you. Thank you very much.

Ms. ATKINSON: Oh, it's been good fun talking to you. Thank you.

SIMON: Kate Atkinson, speaking with us from Seattle. Her new novel is One Good Turn.

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