Kate Atkinson on writing: A good day is when you’ve written a good sentence

Why We Wrote This

Kate Atkinson doesn’t shy away from confronting evil, but her stories aren’t in its thrall. She’s more interested in the search for truth.

Euan Myles/Courtesy of Little, Brown and Co.
Kate Atkinson

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In Kate Atkinson’s mysteries – as well as her novels set during World War II (“Life After Life,” “A God in Ruins,” “Transcription”) – the focus is on intimate inner lives. That includes the bad guys. In her new mystery “Big Sky,” she explores the growing conscience of a human trafficking accomplice while still holding him accountable for his actions. As for her detective Jackson Brodie? The stoic Yorkshireman “understands his role in life is to protect the innocent,” she says.

What are the characteristics that make Jackson “the last good man standing”? “I understand that kind of harsh poverty that is in his background, and the tragedy as well. And so I think a lot of his background is my father’s, whereas his actual character is probably closer to mine, in a way,” she says. “I try not to use him as a mouthpiece because that would be too tempting.”

Unlike most serial detectives, Jackson Brodie doesn’t always save the day. He doesn’t always get the girl. And in “Big Sky,” Kate Atkinson’s fifth book to feature Jackson, he isn’t even the main character. 

“He’s just, in many ways, the thread that pulls the story through,” admits the author, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. “He might have been sidelined a bit much in this book. I may need to bring him back a bit, give him a more central role.”

In Ms. Atkinson’s often-humorous mysteries – as well as her novels set during World War II (“Life After Life,” “A God in Ruins,” “Transcription”) – the focus is on intimate inner lives. That includes the bad guys. In “Big Sky,” she explores the growing conscience of a human trafficking accomplice while still holding him accountable for his actions. As for Jackson? The stoic Yorkshireman “understands his role in life is to protect the innocent,” she says.

The Monitor asked Ms. Atkinson about World War II, themes in her work, and more.

Many writers depict crimes in lurid detail. But you don’t. Why?

It’s about the emotion behind it, and that’s the thing that you have to capture. Often it’s when something’s offstage that you feel it the most. There’s no point in relaying butchery if you’re not going to get some kind of emotion out of it. So, yeah, I’m not terribly interested in writing about gory detail, I have to say. Or fights!

In “Big Sky,” Jackson Brodie remains a country music enthusiast. Are you a fan, too? 

I’ve been listening to country music for about the last 40 years. I like things that tell a story. I really like Miranda Lambert, actually; she is my current favorite.

Jason Isaacs played Jackson in the BBC television adaptations. Has he influenced how you now imagine the character in your books?

I am on very good terms with Jason, and I think he does a great job on the audio books, and he did a great job as Jackson. But he’s not my Jackson, although he likes to think he is. I do not see Jason’s face when I’m writing Jackson and that’s a good thing, for me anyway. I’m sure a lot of people who watch the series now see that face, but that’s fine. 

What are the characteristics that make Jackson “the last good man standing”?

I understand that kind of harsh poverty that is in his background, and the tragedy as well. And so I think a lot of his background is my father’s, whereas his actual character is probably closer to mine, in a way. I try not to use him as a mouthpiece because that would be too tempting. But he does tend to reflect my thoughts about Brexit, for example, and Yorkshire.

But you don’t get much more political than that. Why? 

Well I don’t think it’s the job of a novelist to be political. To be polemical, rather. Because then it becomes boring and you may as well write a newspaper article. I think that the duty of all art, in a way, is not to be didactic but to entertain. But it’s not my job to tell people what I believe politically. I think it’s a personal thing. 

Do you see a connective thematic thread running through your work?

A lot of it is about truth. Particularly in “A God In Ruins” and “Life After Life,” it was about understanding one’s self and what that means in one’s place in the world. In “Transcription,” too, I suppose. Whereas with crime novels, it’s more about the truth of your character.

A recurring theme in your work, especially “Big Sky” and “A God in Ruins,” is one of generational differences. Why? 

I think my generation, and a couple of generations below me, we have been taught a lot more history. And so you see things more in context, and I think Jackson’s very aware of that. His history is no longer relevant because it’s incomprehensible. 

I had really quite a lot of letters after “A God in Ruins” was published from the grown-up children of bomber crew. It was very emotional. They were saying, “I understand now why my father was like he was,” or “I understand now what he went through.” And in a way fiction is an opportunity to re-create something in a way that communicates, I think. That generation in the Second World War, they didn’t want to talk about the war. It was over. It was done. And I think we have to go back now and unpick those experiences if we want to understand them. 

You wrote a trio of books mainly set in Britain during World War II. What sparked your fascination with that era?

Out of all the wars, in a way, the Second World War was unique. I mean all wars are the same; they all end up with people being killed. I think the Second World War was something that cannot be replicated just because of the technological advances. That’s the last time that very ordinary people were put into very extraordinary circumstances. Although I feel I missed it and even though we did have a very good war, I hope that you never have to go through that.

Like the character Rhoda in “Big Sky,” you once worked in a hotel. Did you enjoy the people-watching?

I was too young to appreciate how many people were passing through my hands, who they were. I used to work with old people as well, later on, and that was interesting because they always had a story to tell that no one else wanted to listen to. I’ve always liked jobs where I can steal people’s lives, basically. Writers are the ultimate voyeurs and the ultimate vultures as well. You know, you’re always looking for a good story. 

On a good day of writing, do you ever marvel at the flow of ideas?

I always remember listening to Anne Fine on the radio; she was a children’s author. She said, “A good day is when you’ve written a good sentence.” And I have held to that mantra ever since.

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