Life After Life: An Interview With Kate Atkinson
And darkness fell.
For once, she was going to be on time, so she left the office a full half hour early and grabbed the cab that had stopped right in front of her building. But she'd miscalculated, and at 12:30--when she was supposed to be inside the publisher's office interviewing a famous, favorite author--she was stuck in midtown traffic with a dying cell phone.
And darkness fell.
OK, so the above is a hamhanded attempt to imitate the main trope in Kate Atkinson's fantastic Life After Life, in which a rather ordinary British woman is born, dies, is born and lives again several times throughout the twentieth century. In far less capable hands (see above) such a setup would seem gimmicky at best, or at least just tiresome. But Life After Life has received uniformly excellent reviews, been a best book of the month and currently hovers around No. 37 on our bestsellers list precisely because it is neither; instead it is smart, funny, and a little odd, much like its creator.
By the time we meet, Kate Atkinson, indeed sitting in her publisher's office, has been on tour for a few weeks and has spent plenty of time talking about what her book means. And yet, though she has surely been asked these questions many times, she has a meandering, very British way of making it seem as if she's just discovering the answers as she goes along.
When I refer, for instance, to Life After Life as a "literary do-over," a term that has been in the press already, she says until this week she hadn't heard that expression; "we don't have it in England," she says. And besides, she doesn't think our heroine, Ursula, is having "do overs" because the locution suggests Ursula is aware of what's happening and that she has a choice. "From my point of view, as the constructor of this narrative, I see what happens to Ursula as character changing. Things happen to her, and she accrues layers," Atkinson says.
In fact, to Atkinson, who has written eight books, including the beloved Behind the Scenes at the Museum and a literary mystery series involving a detective named Jackson Brodie, Life After Life, despite its unusual conceit, was actually more straightforward and easier to write.
"I really enjoyed writing this book, much more than I usually enjoy writing. I felt a huge emotional engagement with it," she says, particularly with the parts about WWII. "I feel I have a very British emotional relationship with the Blitz," she says. What does that mean? I ask. "That's what we English do," she says. "We have a very emotional relationship with the Blitz. We see it as a period at which we were at our lowest and at our best."
She admits that she usually frets (her word) a lot during the writing process, especially when a book is heavy on plotting. But this novel, for all its twist and turns, was more linear, she says. "For me, the structure was simple, not like writing a crime novel at all," she laughs. "Writing the last book, Started Early, Took My Dog, drove me mad; it's knotty, four different narratives that need to go like this," she demonstrates, knitting her hands together. "[With Ursula] I knew she was born, going to die, be born, die."
Yet, much as she loves Ursula--her own (and many readers') favorite in a cast of beloved characters--Atkinson says Life After Life is really not about a single person at all so much as it is about the war itself.
"I've always wanted to write a book about the war. It sounds very cold, but as a novelist, I knew how much mileage narrative mileage there is in it." And, as many reviewers have noted, some of its most inventive, interesting scenes involve Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun, with whom Atkinson says she became "obsessed" during the researching of the novel.
"She's fascinating in the way that she's not fascinating. There's nothing extraordinary about her; she was completely ordinary. She loved makeup and posing for photos. She loved her body, she swam she skied. She was this healthy Bavarian female who was ready to get married and be fecund and have children. Instead, she was with someone who never showed any public demonstration of affection or even acknowledgement. But she was clearly obsessed with him in a kind of erotomania way. Women, so many German women, shared the same erotomania for him, weeping and shouting after him."
But if her depiction of the war is dramatic, it is also worrisome, in terms of how Life After Life will be received, especially in Germany, where Atkinson will soon be touring. "I'm a little worried," she says, "about being asked questions there because the book is about fighting the war, and about patriotism... The German publishers love the book so I'm taking that as a basis, but... I suppose it will either do really well or really badly."
Here, of course, there's no question about its future. In the top 100 Amazon bestsellers almost from the day it appeared, Life After Life is by any definition Atkinson's breakthrough, the title that will make her--has already made her--as famous and successful here as she has long been in the UK.
"When I finished this book, I thought: 'I'll never write a book as good as this,'" she says, with a mix of pride and modesty and anxiety that has become, in this hourlong conversation, characteristic. "I do think it's my best book."
Virtual armies of passionate readers will agree.