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Tag: Genre

Kate Atkinson – sharing some tidbits from Capital Crime

One of the highlights of the Capital Crime festival for me was the conversation between Kate Atkinson and Jake Kerridge. I have been a fan of Kate Atkinson since ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’. I loved her literary fiction and was thrilled when she took a turn towards crime with the Jackson Brodie books. It was such a treat to have one of each this year, with ‘Transcription’ and the latest Jackson book, ‘Big Sky’. In case anyone would like the inside scoop on Ms Atkinson’s writing practice (I can’t seem to call her Kate) and what comes next, I made some notes…

Why the gap?

There’s been a few years between the first four Jackson Brodie books and this new one. Asked about this, Kate (I have to make myself use it because it’s shorter) said, ‘I never thought he’d gone; I’d just run out of steam’. She later referred to a concern about getting into ‘a Jackson rut’. She also suggested that she needed a gap after the TV series was made, so that she didn’t have the actor who played Brodie in her head when she wrote him.

So will there be more?

The first 30,000 words of the next Jackson Brodie is written, but the book is on the backburner, so we are going to have to wait. Apparently, it’s probably going to be the book after next. She talked about writing an homage to Agatha Christie’s ‘The Death at the Sign of the Rook’. She also said she’d thought Brodie would come back in Paris, so maybe that will come later – and that she really wanted to send him on a cruise ship. Lots to look forward to then.

What about Jackson?

‘If Jackson was a dog, he’d be a German Shepherd – or a Collie.’ Although it seems that lots of women tell Kate that they want to marry Jackson, she can’t imagine Jackson settled down – ‘he has to have that gunslinger attitude’.

Readers aren’t falling for Jackson’s looks, though. She pointed out that Jackson doesn’t have a physical persona in the books because she doesn’t tend to describe characters physically.

What about her move into the crime genre?

Kate said that she’d been wary of putting a detective into a novel because then it would be a detective novel. She said, ‘I try not to put myself into a genre because it effects how I write’. However, she says that she now embraces the crime genre quite happily.

What about coincidence?

I’ll just give you what she said about using coincidence in her plots: ‘a novel isn’t real life. You’re constructing something; it’s an artificial construct. There is something very satisfying about coincidence’.

What about the way she writes?

Apparently, Kate was trained as a secretary and learned to touch type when she was 18. She said, ‘I can’t think about a novel until I’m typing. Everything changes when I touch those keys’. She said that she doesn’t have much of a routine, although she is very self-disciplined.

I loved what she had to say about a metaphor for the way she writes. She rejected mosaic and said instead: ‘I think of writing as like a tapestry’. There’s a lot of interweaving and going back and mending. She likes to achieve a sense of texture and thinks that you have to do a lot of reworking to achieve that. ‘Transcription’, she said, was very, very character based, whereas ‘Life after Life’ was more about structure. (She considers ‘God in Ruins’ to be her best book ‘by miles’. She referred to it as ‘a very emotional book’.)

What does she enjoy most about writing?

Her immediate answer to this was: ‘I enjoy finishing a book’. (Hallelujah to that!) She said that she felt a sense of triumph.

She talked about good days being those when she felt like she’d written a good sentence – adding later that these came about every third day.

Taking a slightly broader perspective, she said that she really enjoyed creating characters and having that slightly God-like control over them. Earlier she’d referred to authors as being ‘the arch manipulator of everyone’s fate’, saying that this meant that you needed to keep your characters at arm’s length to enable you to do this.

I find it comforting that she finds it hard to get started again if she stops writing. Although this meant that she started ‘Big Sky’ the day after she finished ‘Transcription’, so then I felt like a pathetic failure. She’s currently writing short stories ‘to keep her hand in’.

What next?

Plans include a novel set in the sixties and another set in the 18th century. She said that she enjoyed bringing the past to life so that people could see that it was just the same as the present. ‘I have a lot of novels I want to write; I’m going to have to live for a long time,’ she said. I’d call that very good news.

Genre à la mode

 

Literary fiction gets up my nose. Not the books themselves, necessarily, though some of them do put up-yer-arse-ness above readability and a bloody good yarn to far too great a degree. I mean the idea of it and its elitism. ‘So whose bloodline can you claim? Austen? Conrad?’ … ‘Sorry? Weldon. Keyes.’ ‘Oh. You’ll be needing next door.’

Then there’s the fact that most people, whilst claiming it as their friend, don’t know what it is. I’ve heard publishing folk talk about the need to categorise books so they ‘know where to put them in a bookshop’. Really? I’ve bought all kinds of books off alphabetised shelves and tables of random picks, and my local Sally Army secondhand shop doesn’t even bother dividing the As from the Zs. It never stops me finding what I want. Academics say they know what it is – generally it’s the ‘good’ stuff. A friend who writes genre crime fiction was once asked, ‘Why don’t you write literary fiction instead? You’re good enough.’ I went there once and wrote an essay challenging the existence of a binary opposition between literary fiction and genre fiction. Let’s just say that it was not wholly successful and my theory was not well received. I like to think that the problem was that I didn’t find the right way to make my point, not that I was entirely wrong.

Agents, publishers, academics, the writing industry, seem to be obsessed with labelling books and writers. Writer as brand is where it’s at. I once worked in branding and was told by the very bright but very drug-addled Creative Director that what the label was mattered less than that it be stuck to, consistent. Fine for a toothpaste or a firm of accountants, but a writer?

And the labelling starts before the work is created. It’s marketing, baby, respond to customer need! Tell me what you’re writing? Is it literary fiction or genre? These were the most common questions I was asked during my writing MA. I don’t know! If it’s not deep and intellectual, unlikely to be short-listed for a booker, does that mean that it needs to fit into a pre-existing genre jacket? You find yourself shopping for a genre, checking what’s in fashion, what might suit you. Young, unmarried female protagonist – clearly the high heels and designer handbag of chicklit. She’s married with children – grab the Boden catalogue for slim fit jeans and a co-ordinating sweater to disguise the mummy-midriff. Someone dies in dodgy circumstances – crime – something black, purple nail varnish. Add a bit of horror – stick a hoody on.

What if I want to shake things up, create my own style? Did Dickens think: Ahh, I think I’ll write literary fiction, something Dickensian?

Fine. I accept that it helps to know who you want to read your book and to be able to say it’s a bit like X or Y to help readers to find it. But if you try to hard to write within a box you can create a monster. What would Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights have been like if she’d tried to write it for the YA market? All those sensitive souls who want to write literary fiction and end up writing something faux brow (thank CF) and unreadable. What if you want to mix things up?

What do I know? I’ve decided to write my story and create my own genre (with some help – thanks AB). It’s called ‘Mummycrime’. It’s a mix and subversion of mummylit and crime fiction (not detective fiction – that’s another genre, silly!), and it’s literate, not literary. I’m hoping that if I say this enough, by the time the novel is finished I will have willed my genre into existence – think Boden jeans with something boho from Camden Market and purple nails, probably Mac.