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An Interview With Kate Atkinson, Author of Started Early, Took My Dog

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I don’t know how you rate Stephen King as a critic, but I’ve always thought he’s often pretty much on the money when recommending other authors, and I’ve thought that ever since he rated Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories “not just the best novel I’ve read this year, but the best mystery of the decade.” That was back in 2004, when she first started writing about her policeman-turned-private investigator Jackson Brodie. Since then she has written three more novels featuring him, and the latest – Started Early, Took My Dog.

I checked her out and quickly became an instant convert, praising her in this piece for her book When Will There Be Good News?, for, among other things, taking several seemingly unrelated story lines and finding ways to tie them together. 

One of my favorite lines from that book was this: “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.” And I noticed that line was – appropriately – also uttered in her new book, appropriate because for at least the first half of the book it’s unclear how storylines and major characters are going to intersect. It’s normal in mysteries to not know who the bad guy is but to not even know why the novelist is focusing on the characters she is, well, that takes the mystery term to a whole different level.. and that’s what Atkinson does in this book, taking this genre to a new high.

King and I are not, of course, the only ones impressed with Atkinson. For example, at Amazon there’s an interview between fan Lee Child, a master in his own right, and Atkinson

And now the interview:

Scott: What was your goal with this book? Put another way what is your goal with each book?

Thanks for your questions, herewith my responses, tapped out inefficiently on my iPad in a hotel room –

I don’t have goals when writing books, apart from getting to the end. I have rather vague ideas about how I want things to feel, I’m big on ambience.  I have a title, a beginning and a probable ending and go from there. Writing for me is quite a plastic form, a kind of mental sculpture, although that sound weird.  It acquires its character and its depth as it goes along.

I saw on your web page that Jackson Brodie is coming to TV. How do you feel about your words being turned into something visual? How involved will you be in the adaptation?

TV well, it’s been a long time in the making so I’ve got used to the idea. The test for me will be when I get to write another book with Jackson Brodie after having now seen flesh put on his bones, but very attractive flesh, as it were, in the form of Jason Isaacs.  I’ve been more involved than has been good for me probably.  Also they have filmed in my home town and I know quite a lot of cast and crew  – my son-in-law is the transport captain – so that’s been quite odd as well.  I think for the second series I’ll try and be a little more hands on to keep the scripts in good order.

You have received much praise, including by Stephen King, not to mention several awards. What have been your high points and low points in your literary career?

I don’t think I’ve really had low points as such although I get irritated with reviewers and critics (sorry!) because I don’t like reviewing per se just because I think everyone should keep their opinions to themselves! That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? I’m 60 this year and I’ve become very hard line, like Gloria in One Good Turn.  The cult of the individual is killing us. I think Twitter signals the death of western civilisation but people have been saying that since Demosthenes.

My highest point was the first thing I won, a short story competition in a women’s magazine in the Eighties.  It was the first time I’d had my writing validated, and the first thing I’d ever shown anyone else.

What do you consider the genre you write on? I ask because I noticed in this interview  that it sounded like you’re not crazy about being put in the crime genre.

You’re right, I don’t like being put in a genre, but it seems to be a big talking point for people. They can label me if they want, as long as I don’t label myself.  When I’m writing a book I’m writing a book and I try not to think about anything else.  I don’t read reviews any more (see 3) so I’m not really concerned with what they’re saying, I’ve been much much happier since I stopped reading them (you’re always waiting for that ‘but’).  It’s my advice to any writer.

What are you working on next? More Jackson Brodie novels or are you indeed taking a break from him?

Yes, I am indeed taking a break from Jackson, although he’s not dead, merely parked somewhere. Paris, I suspect.  I’m working on a book about the Second World War, although I have nearly 40,000 words and am only in 1926 so I suspect I’m in for the long haul.  It’s one of a pair of books about the war. It’s a subject that’s always fascinated me, as, born in ’51, I’ve always felt I just missed it.  There’s a little murder mystery in it as well though, difficult to write without one…

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Scott Butki

    How cool is this? The publishers of this book have asked permission to include this interview in the paperback edition of the book. I said yes, of course, provided I get a few extra copies for bragging rights.

  • Elan Durham

    I am just in the last leg of Started Early, Took My Dog, and am impressed with how Atkinson has folded in all these different plot threads and characters which seem to become inextricable, one from the other. She has also made me laugh more than a few times throughout the book, which is a huge relief … To find someone who combines intelligence, wit, and beauty in a wholly unique book is unusual. She’s of the moment and good, really good.

  • Scott Butki

    Yes she is – you can see why i’m praising her so? I think the last few books of hers are all quite good. Sometimes a bit bleak but sometimes life is bleak, right? i’m curious what the tv episodes will be like. thanks for the comments, Elan.

  • scott butki

    It was a very cool feeling a few hours ago to hold in my hands at the bookstore the paperback version of this book which contains both the entirity of this interview in the reading discussion in the back of it but that it contains a link to my newsvine page. The publisher is sending me a few copies of it just in time for me to give a few out for Christmas. Anyway very cool – first time i’ve had an interview included in a book.