Kate Atkinson Tells Book Club How She Crafts Characters At All Life Stages

Kate Atkinson Tells Book Club How She Crafts Characters At All Life Stages

4:24pm Jun 16, 2015
Kate Atkinson says she never sees her characters at just one stage of their lives. Just as we are constantly thinking about the past, present and future in real life, she constructs her characters in the same way.
Kate Atkinson says she never sees her characters at just one stage of their lives. Just as we are constantly thinking about the past, present and future in real life, she constructs her characters in the same way.
Euan Myles / Courtesy Hachette Book Group

Welcome to the second session of the Morning Edition Reads book club! Here's how it works: A well-known writer will pick a book he or she loved. We'll all read it. Then, you'll send us your questions about the book. About a month later, we'll reconvene to talk about the book with the author and the writer who picked it.


Our Morning Edition book club reconvenes with Kate Atkinson's best-selling novel A God in Ruins. The book was recommended by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. Atkinson tells the story of a British World War II pilot and his family — tracing many generations from their idyllic country house, Fox Corner.

We first meet the main character, Teddy, in a previous book Life After Life. He's aimless until he becomes a wartime pilot. After the bombing campaign, Teddy finds that he doesn't know how to spend the long decades that lie ahead.

"For me, Teddy's heroism is that he survived and he carried on," Atkinson tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "His heroism is almost after the war."

Atkinson talks with Shapiro about how she keeps so many characters straight in her head while she writes, and also answers questions submitted by listeners.


Interview Highlights

On the way American readers and British readers might relate to World War II differently

When America came into the war we had already been in the war ... so these fliers, for example, had been flying a lot longer. ... We have the view that the Americans came in very shiny and new and they were constantly seducing our women and giving gum and Hershey bars away. And so there was still this lingering feeling ... there was a sense of intimate threat — that at any moment we could be invaded and that would be it.

And I think that gives a completely different focus to the British wartime experience, that it was just a constant threat. And also to be bombed every night for 57 days or something in the blitz.

On the way she structured the novel, jumping forward and backward in time

It's not the first time I've written like that. I think as human beings we don't just live in this moment, but the whole of our lives we're dragging with us — aren't we — and we're constantly thinking about the past and what it was like and what we were like as children and what our parents were like. So I think in a novel it's more pointed, you kind of go, "Oh, now they're talking about 80 years in the future or something," but I think that is how we think.

On how she keeps track of so many time lines and characters as she writes

I have no chart. I hold everything in my head while I'm writing and then I tend to forget everything. Sometimes readers get really annoyed with me because they'll ask me questions about previous books and I'll be talking about characters they love and I'll be sitting there really blankly thinking, "Who is that? I don't know." So it's very intense while I'm writing and it's this huge relief when I stop because then I can clear my head of so much stuff.

On why she wanted to return to some of the characters from Life After Life

I always intended to. So, right from when I started Life After Life, I knew I was going to write A God in Ruins which is why Teddy doesn't really appear very much on the page in Life After Life because I knew he had his own book. I mean you don't have to have read Life After Life to read A God in Ruins but I think it gives it a whole different layer. ... I would love to just keep writing them as kind of a soap opera almost.

On being able to see the same person at many different phases of life — child, parent, grandparent

I always feel very touched by old men and I just, it's so sad the way they're dismissed by younger people because they just cannot see that whole rich life that's been lived, and they cannot see that a little old man who's hobbling along the street [was] once a baby, he was once a little boy, he was once an incredibly active person and I find that very poignant and I think in this book especially its very much at the forefront of my thinking.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Your attention please - our MORNING EDITION book club now reconvenes. We're featuring Kate Atkinson's best-selling novel, "A God In Ruins." The book was recommended by the novelist Gillian Flynn, author of "Gone Girl."

GILLIAN FLYNN: I just love any book by Kate Atkinson. I think she's one of our great writers writing in English today. She just has this incredible empathy that even the characters that are sort of designed to drive you slightly insane, you get to burrow underneath the skin and find out what's really driving them and the insecurities and the secrets.

INSKEEP: "A God In Ruins" tells the story of a British pilot in World War II, as well as his family. It leaps around in time, tracing the life of that family on their estate called Fox Corner. We invited you to submit questions to the author. And Kate Atkinson joined NPR's Ari Shapiro to discuss her book.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We first meet the main character, Teddy, in a previous book, "Life After Life." He's aimless until he becomes a wartime pilot. After the bombing campaign, Teddy finds that he doesn't know how to spend the long decades that lie ahead. Here's the author, Kate Atkinson, reading from "A God In Ruins."

KATE ATKINSON: (Reading) The truth was there was nothing else he wanted to do - could do. Flying on bombing raids had become him, who he was. The only place he cared about was the inside of a Halifax - the smells of dirt and oil, of sour sweat, of rubber and metal and a tang of oxygen. He wanted to be deafened by the thunder of her engines. He needed to be drained of every thought by the cold, the noise and the equal amounts of boredom and adrenaline. He had believed once that he would be formed by the architecture of war, but now he realized he had been erased by it.

SHAPIRO: Some of the characters in the book refer to Teddy as a hero. But, inevitably, those passages are referring to experiences that when you read them, as in here, don't sound heroic at all.

ATKINSON: No. I think he - I think the heroism is climbing into the cockpit of that bomber because your chances of coming back are very slim. I think that's where the heroism of these boys was 'cause they were boys. They were average age of 22, and maybe that's why they could do it because younger men are so much more careless with their lives, we still don't understand. And also I think in a way for me Teddy's heroism is that he survived and he carried on. His heroism is almost after the war.

SHAPIRO: You know, I moved to London about a year-and-a-half ago and realized that I think British people and American people relate to World War II very differently.

ATKINSON: I think so, I think so.

SHAPIRO: If you buy a house in London today and they will still point out bomb damage. How do you see the difference between the way American readers and British people might relate to this war you describe?

ATKINSON: It's a very different experience, say, from the point of view of the bombers, I think, because, you know, when America came into the war we'd already been in the war - what - two - two-and-a-half years. And so these flyers, for example, had been flying a lot longer and felt - I think we have the view that the Americans came in very shiny and new and, you know, they were constantly seducing our women and giving gum and Hershey bars away. And so there was this - there's still this lingering feeling I suspect. But I think there was a sense of intimate threat that at any moment we could be invaded and that would be it. And I think that gives a completely different focus to the British wartime experience, that it was just a constant threat and also to be bombed, you know, every night for 57 days or something in The Blitz.

SHAPIRO: A lot of the reader questions about this book relate to structure. You cover almost a century in this novel, jumping forwards and backwards in time. Somebody who is a grandfather on one page is a child on the very next page. Why did you decide to structure the book that way?

ATKINSON: I - it's not the first time I've written like that. I think as human beings we don't just live in this moment, but the whole of our lives we're dragging with us, aren't we? And we're constantly thinking about the past and what it was like and what we were like as children and what our parents were like. So I think in a novel it's more pointed. You kind of go, oh, now they're talking about '80s in the future or something, but I think that is how we think.

SHAPIRO: We have a question from a reader named Kim van Alkemade (ph). And let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM VAN ALKEMADE: How do you keep track of all those multiple timelines while you're writing? Do you have a great big chart on your wall?

ATKINSON: I have no chart. I hold everything in my head while I'm writing and then I tend to forget everything, so that sometimes readers get really annoyed with me 'cause they'll ask me questions about previous books and I'll be talking about characters they love and I'll be sitting there very blankly thinking who is that? I don't know.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ATKINSON: So it's very intense while I'm writing and there's this huge relief when I stop because then I can clear my head of so much stuff.

SHAPIRO: So in "Life After Life" you explore some of the same characters and events that this book, "A God In Ruins," visits. Why did you want to return to those?

ATKINSON: I always intended to. So right from when I started "Life After Life" I knew that I was going to write "A God In Ruins," which is why Teddy doesn't really appear very much on the page in "Life After Life" 'cause I knew he had his own book. I mean, you don't have to have read "Life After Life" to read "A God In Ruins," but I think it gives it a whole different layer, I think.

SHAPIRO: One of our readers said he so much enjoyed spending these last two books with this family. He wonders whether there will be another one.

ATKINSON: I would love to just keep writing them as a kind of a soap opera almost, just every day...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) It's a little more substantial than a soap opera.

ATKINSON: Perhaps more - well, I do love Fox Corner. Maybe I love Fox Corner more than I love the Todd family. But I don't see it - I mean, you know, never say never.

SHAPIRO: Do you find that as a more experienced writer you are more able to view the same character as a parent, a grandparent, a child? I find it very difficult to see my parents as anything other than parents, to see my friends' children as anything other than children. But in this book, and others, you see the same person in many, many different phases of their life - all of them credibly.

ATKINSON: You're not old enough (laughter) that's the problem. I think - I always feel very touched by old men and I just - it's so sad the way they're dismissed by younger people because they just cannot see that whole rich life that's been lived. And they cannot see that a little old man who's hobbling along the street is once a baby. He was once a little boy. He was once an incredibly active person. And I find that very poignant. And I think, in this book particularly, it's very much at the forefront of my thinking.

SHAPIRO: Now, many of the listener questions that we received were about the very ending of this book, which has a twist that we're not going to give away. But because people want to know about it, we're going to continue this conversation online. So if you've read the book, or if you just don't mind spoilers, come find us at NPR.org and the conversation will continue there. Kate Atkinson, thanks so much for joining us.

ATKINSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She started that conversation with NPR's Ari Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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