I agree with… Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson “Everyone said [it] was an autobiographical novel, and I was very offended. It’s fiction, but there’s so much of my life and other people’s lives in it that it’s hard for me to defend that. I took a lot of the structure of my own family – the aunts, the uncles, the cousins – and lots of my memories of atmosphere. I think my best memories were always for atmosphere… I took it all and made it into something because, for me, fiction is about making the chaos in my head into objective external order.”
[interviewed by Melvyn Bragg on ‘The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts]

[photo: Euan Myles]

[photo: Euan Myles]

Since Kate Atkinson wrote her first novel in 1995, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, she has fielded questions about ‘the autobiographical novel’. All novelists will be familiar with the questions: Are you [add name of protagonist]? Did that happen to you? Etcetera. Odd questions really, when all novels must start from ideas that come from the author’s own life and experiences, somewhere, some time, to some degree. Perhaps it’s the sort of question that someone asks who hasn’t written a novel, almost as if there is something wrong with autobiographical elements in a novel.

Kate was born in York and her family ran a shop in the narrow medieval streets near York Minster, and as a child she was enchanted by York Castle Museum and Kirkgate, its reproduction Victorian street. So it was natural that this setting filled her imagination. The most common advice offered to novice writers is ‘write what you know’. So Kate did. And her first book won the Whitbread Book of the Year, so she must have done something right.
I know exactly what she means about writing fiction being a way of ordering the thoughts in her head. My head is so full of ‘stuff’ that I need to get it all out onto paper, most of which will never see the light of day in public! I’ve always felt an affinity with Kate, I was born 40 miles east of York and wasn’t used to novelists coming from rural Yorkshire.

To visit Kate’s website, click here.
Read this article in The Guardian about the origins of Atkinson’s first novel.
For more about York Castle Museum, click here.
Read my reviews of Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson 9-6-14

Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ by Kate Atkinson [UK: Black Swan]

If you agree with Kate Atkinson, perhaps you will agree with:-
Tracy Chevalier a painting ‘draws you in, but does not answer your questions’
Rachel Cusk – it takes a particular kind of courage to write memoir
Judi Denchgive your character a back story

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Re-working memories as fiction: I agree with Kate Atkinson http://wp.me/p5gEM4-12Z via @SandraDanby #amwriting


  1. I love Kate Atkinson’s writing, but I wasn’t familiar with this quote. I think one of the things that I love so much about her is how familiar her characters seem to me despite me being an American Midwesterner. For me, Behind the Scenes…. was so much about dysfunctional family dynamics.

    • I met Kate once, years ago, at a reading in London. She was lovely, she felt like a neighbour you’d have a cup of tea with, and I think that helps make all her readers feel a connection with her writing. SD

  2. One of the reasons I write historical fiction is to ‘get away’ from writing about myself, until one of my friends who read my novel said he could recognise me! I was shocked. Perhaps we can never get away from ourselves…or perhaps he was wrong!


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