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The Interview: Kate Atkinson on Transcription

Posted on 7th September 2018 by Martha Greengrass

A spy novel with a difference, Kate Atkinson's latest novel, Transcription, is a labyrinthine story of deception and identity, framed against the early years of the Second World War. In an exclusive interview for Waterstones, Atkinson discusses secrets and lies and telling a story that invites you to get lost in the fog.

‘How could you tell what anyone was in their heart? Really?’  So muses Juliet Armstrong, the eighteen-year-old typist-turned spy at the centre of Kate Atkinson’s brilliantly labyrinthine new novel, Transcription. It’s a question that bubbles under the surface of a novel that is, on the face of it, simply a delicious slice of wartime espionage. But this is Kate Atkinson and Transcription is also something else; something deeper and trickier and less easily defined. It’s a story about stories. A book that makes you think about truth-telling and lies, about strangers and friends, about what we keep from each other and what we keep from ourselves.

At first glance, we’re in familiar territory. Transcription returns Atkinson to the period that inspired her two previous works, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, but in tone and mood it is a novel apart. It is a story that reflects, Atkinson says, a very different stage of Britain’s wartime campaign.

‘I didn’t want it to be about war’, she insists. ‘As a period, it is just such a rich feeding ground for the vultures that writers are. But when this book starts we’re still fighting the Battle of France, we’re still on the continent; there’s no Dunkirk, there’s no Battle of Britain, there’s no long bombing war or attrition or anything like that. People can still eat really well and nobody’s saying, “ooh I managed to buy a torch today”, or anything like that! It doesn’t have that feel to it. I think it’s a very different mind-set, because it’s the time when the real paranoia set in. It’s when the fifth column was at work and the enemy was within rather that without. I thought that fitted really well with the idea of espionage. It’s such a niche subject - such a niche part of MI5 even - that I’m writing about that it’s almost like its own little contained world. It’s that small period in time when we had no idea what was going to happen.’

That mood of unpredictability, of possibility, carries through the pages of Transcription, as it lures Juliet - and the reader - ever-deeper into the shadows. Originally recruited into MI5 to work as a transcriber, Juliet’s job is to listen in on the conversations of fascist sympathisers, under the auspices of the inscrutable Godfrey Toby – ‘the Great Enigma’. Yet she soon finds herself groomed for a very different role as an infiltrator and agent. As her involvement deepens, so the reader finds themselves in a world where nothing and nobody is quite as they seem, least of all Juliet herself. 

Atkinson admits that the writing process itself took her down unexpected pathways too, as she found herself navigating the course between history and fiction. 

‘It’s a kind of Chinese whispers in a way,’ Atkinson considers. ‘It did give me pause for thought and I did get a bit tied up in knots when I began to write the book. I was reading a lot about MI5 in that period and I knew that I didn’t want to completely invent everything. It was still about something that happened, but I didn’t want it to be about the real thing or the real people. At the beginning it was just such a tricky balance; using real facts and real people and transforming them. So some real facts are in there, but even I have lost track of what I’ve made up. I felt I couldn’t really do that with, say, the bombing campaign, because that had to be really anchored in reality. Whereas I never thought that this novel was going to be anchored in reality. So once I’d established Juliet as a character - because she’s completely fictional - and once I knew that I wasn’t going to be writing about Eric Roberts or Maxwell Knight directly, I just felt that I was freed up to fictionalise.’ 

Atkinson toys with the relationship between fact and fiction throughout this novel. Embedded in the narrative are extracts of Juliet’s transcriptions, passages that are (by her own admission) a patchwork of reported speech, guesswork and outright invention. It is a device that allows plenty of free-rein for Atkinson’s narrative playfulness. 

‘I think originally, I thought that there were two possible routes I could have gone down,’ Atkinson explains, ‘and one would be where the transcriptions themselves were being used to falsify, so that Juliet is embedding false information for a reason. The other was that it wasn’t going to be about war and spying, but that what was going to be put into the transcriptions would be something that was effectively personal.  It didn’t become a big issue then that the transcriptions were falsified, it became part of that throwaway, casual attitude that, “oh well, we falsified that and we changed that”. It became part of that sense that - as we all know - you can falsify anything. There is no absolute truth.’

That sense of shifting ground is echoed in the shape and language of Transcription, which often feels like a palimpsest, with a reader moving through layers of bluff and double-bluff. The novel is peppered with Juliet’s beautifully barbed asides, reminding readers of just how great the chasm is between what a person thinks and what they say. It’s also a book that is, characteristically, peppered with quotes and half-remembered sayings; a reminder that even our thoughts are never entirely our own.

‘Thinking is a very private thing,’ Atkinson says. ‘Even when you say “I think”, you’ve changed it. I wanted the novel to feel like you were peeling back something and discovering there was always another layer. So you never, ever actually discover what the bottom layer is.

‘We quote all the time, we know how much comes from the Bible and Shakespeare, how many phrases come from there. I think the English language is amazing, it’s so elastic; we have so many different ways of saying things. I love that we have ten different words for things and they come from the Latin, Greek, Germanic, Viking...  Juliet likes language and she knows that language can be deceptive as well; she’s learned that early on. I suppose that’s part of lying isn’t it? Learning what language can do for you.’   

It’s an aspect of Atkinson’s writing that goes hand-in-hand with her own playful awareness as a writer of the ways identity is performed. In Atkinson’s hands, the parts of espionage that involve make-believe and play are brought to the fore. She draws out the parallels between stagecraft and spycraft; a grand game that’s brutally contrasted by lives that are shaped and ruined as the play runs its course. As Juliet says, ‘a bit of a lark, something from Buchan, or Erskine Childers, she had thought… But it wasn’t an adventure, was it?’   

‘The fourth wall isn’t there,’ Atkinson agrees, ‘because they are listening and watching. It’s a very attractive scenario. There’s something about the fact that you know something that someone else doesn’t know; you’re behind the mirror, you’re behind the looking glass, you can see what’s happening and they can’t.’ 

It’s an aspect that ties into Atkinson’s fascination with the fate of the real fascist sympathisers and the way that they were manipulated by MI5 into believing they were aiding the enemy. 

‘One of the most fascinating aspects of it for me is that they were never told,’ Atkinson says, ‘so they died thinking they’d helped the German war effort, they died thinking that Jack King/Eric Roberts was a Gestapo agent. [MI5] felt it was easier to contain them because they didn’t know what was going to happen and how people would react after the war and they went to their graves thinking they had been German spies.’

Yet Atkinson is clear that she doesn’t see Transcription as primarily a novel about espionage, but rather a book about people; their character, their motivation and, in particular, how much we can ever know about one another. 

‘There were ways in which I could have written the book really differently and it would have been more of a book about spying, but as I never set out to write a book about espionage I didn’t have that kind of intention. I wanted to write about identity and ambiguity and truth but they happened to coalesce very nicely around espionage. 

‘I wanted the reader to feel that they’re in that fog but not to the point that they get really furious with the book. I wanted the fog to work but not to the point that it was obscuring the novel. If you set out to write about ambivalence and ambiguity, you’re setting yourself a really tricky task because it’s not something you can easily form into narrative. As it got nearer the end, I wanted myself to be lost in the fog too; I wanted that sense of bafflement to be there. I often do that with characters and plot, I’m not going to consider that there’s a backstory there, I don’t know and you don’t know, we all don’t know. I’m not giving that information to myself.’

Despite its historicity, Transcription is a novel that asks very pertinent questions about truth and the role of fiction in addressing our perception of truth. 

‘We live in difficult times’, Atkinson agrees. ‘Having assumed that we understood what truth was, we now can see that we can be manipulated into quite different frames of mind and I think that’s very unsettling. You can be quite objective in a novel in a way. You’re not just saying “this is what I think”, you’re trying to organise things so that they reflect something. It may only be your state of mind or your view, but you are organising it into something that seems real, because a novel is real. It’s an object in the world so it has its own corporal reality and it comes from your mind which is also real - in a way that we don’t understand, but we believe we have a real mind - so there’s no reason why some of the most bizarre and outrageous things in the real world might seem less objectively true than the contents of the book. We have to legitimise fiction; all art has to be legitimised as truth.’

Atkinson’s stories are often about the story that exists between the lines and her novels depend as much about what is not said, as what is revealed. Transcription is a novel that repeatedly reminds readers that the relationship between truth and lies is much more than a simple dichotomy.  Atkinson is at her best in this novel when she interrogates the ways we protect and obscure our own truth and our own sense of selfhood. It is a concept that’s heralded in one of the book’s epigraphs, a quote from Winston Churchill that reads, ‘truth is so precious, she should always be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.’

‘It’s such an interesting quote’, Atkinson says, ‘I came across it by chance and I thought that’s such a brilliant quote for this book. There’s so much in this novel we don’t know. So I think it is about the reader deducing things. I’m a big Henry James fan and in his work – his short stories particularly – and also in Ernest Hemingway’s first book In Our Time, it’s all about what’s not said. It’s a really interesting trick to pull off in writing, to not say something, and I think it involves a lot of trust in your reader. I like that idea because people never say everything. It’s what’s kept back. In the case of this novel it’s what’s kept secret. Juliet thinks she’s not saying things but she’s so often far off the beam because of the things that, in turn, aren’t being said to her. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. I love that the reader is somewhere in the middle of that.’

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