She turned time inside out in 'Life After Life' and made crime fiction feel utterly new in 'Case Histories.' Now Kate Atkinson, takes on WWII espionage.

By Leah Greenblatt
September 27, 2018 at 03:12 PM EDT
Euan Myles

It’s almost 5 p.m. at the Savoy Hotel’s clubby, plushly carpeted American Bar in London, and masters-of-the-universe types are just settling into their first three-figure whiskeys of the evening. The whole place smells like orchids and olives and old-world money; even the waiters wear white dinner jackets. But no one looks twice at the pretty small-boned woman in the corner, sitting neatly to the side with her silvery bob and simple button-down.

If they don’t recognize Kate Atkinson — best-selling author, Costa Book Award winner, Member of the Order of the British Empire — she doesn’t seem to mind. In her latest novel, passing unnoticed isn’t just a virtue, it’s a necessity. Centered on Juliet Armstrong, a young woman recruited into a secretarial job in 1940 England that turns out to be a cover for anti-fascist espionage, Transcription isn’t the York-born novelist’s first dip into the Second World War. But it’s hardly a retread, either: “I felt in a sense that I’d already done the two big themes, the Blitz and the bombing campaign,” Atkinson says of acclaimed past outings, including Life After Life and A God in Ruins. “And so this is prewar, or the Phony War, as we call it here, when there was a lot of paranoia and suspicion. Who was the enemy? What do they look like, and what are they doing? Are they all spies?”

As her Juliet is drawn further into the world of homegrown Nazi sympathizers, she learns to pass through various strata of British society — and use her innate gift for self-invention to fool both her marks and, possibly, the reader. “Really early on I thought, ‘Well, I know she’s a liar, almost a pathological one,'” Atkinson says. “Because I do know some myself, and I’m constantly wanting to challenge them…. Of course when I started writing the book, truth was still considered an absolute in the world,” she adds wryly. “And by the time I finished, it had become a relative thing.”

Little, Brown and Company

Though Transcription was inspired by a real (male) member of MI5, Atkinson switched her focus to the fictional Juliet in part to free herself from settled history, and also to single out the ordinary citizens, many of them women — “Or girls, weren’t they all called girls in the war?” — whose names were never publicly added to the list of those who fought; “all these people recruited to do quite interesting things, who were told ‘Oh, that’s all over now, goodbye,’ and then had to go back to the banality of normal life.”

But don’t qualify what Atkinson writes as women’s fiction, please. “What does that even mean?” she asks. “In itself, that phrase is completely denigratory. Women read everything.” Including her lauded Jackson Brodie series, a brilliantly literate riff on the detective novel anchored by a gruff, melancholic investigator. She’s thinking of coming back to him in future work, she says — and other beloved characters too, like the Todd family, last seen in Ruins. “I would love to revisit them, but I can’t work out how,” she admits. “I’d write them every day if I could. I’d like to do it as a soap opera, basically, so every day you can tune in to the Todd family at Fox Corner for half an hour.”

Does Atkinson really have the time or the inclination for all that at this point in her career? “I’m 66, so I figure I’ve got 20 years before I lose it,” she says with a laugh. “And I have so many ideas. I could sell ideas. Really! Come to me. If that diminishes, well, I’ll stop. But this is the path I’m on. This is what I do.”