How did this book begin?
It’s always difficult to point to origin of a book—they’re kind of there in the back of your mind, very vaguely. I actually wanted to write a novel about what would have happened if Hitler had been kidnapped as a baby. The nugget of that idea is in the book. And it was sort of a nature/nurture argument, because both as the author and as the reader you would know very differently from the characters, so you’d always have this kind of dualism going on—Would he have been different or not?—but it then struck me as story and just remained this gem of an idea. And I wanted to write a book that was entirely set in the war, something very specific, rather than the whole war, to choose a very short period of time really, and those two ideas came together very well. I’d always meant it to be very focused on the Second World War, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to start in 1910, to get her born…I think that’s when the coming back again and again kicked in. And I was, on, oh, page 250 of the manuscript and still in the 1920s. I kept saying to people, “Yeah it’s a book about the war!” and then I’d think, it’s not a book about the war. I hadn’t realized how much I would get entangled in 1910-1939 as opposed to 1939-1945.
It allows you to explore two very different styles of description, doesn’t it, that romantic notion of the English countryside contrasting so sharply with the descriptions you face later on. And how did you decide where to start? That first moment where Ursula walks into the restaurant?
Oh, I always knew that. I always liked that at the beginning. It seemed a really interesting point, to be left at a point you don’t necessarily know: Maybe, she did kill Hitler. Because I wanted to instill in the book—which I suppose it means instill in the reader doesn’t it?—the idea that it never ends, obviously, and it is possible, one of these times, she is going to kill Hitler.
I love that. Was it hard to hold on to those threads and question “How would this have changed the course of…?”
Well, I’m only changing the course of her life, I’m not changing history. I think, I probably started off with the idea that I was changing history, but then realized I could only change her life.
Everybody else is impacted by it…
Ah, yes, but it’s more kind of a creation, because every time she comes back, and she leaves it differently, you are propelled farther into the future. I think the reason I got stuck in 1910 and 1920 so long is that I realized she had to go through the war before she knew she could kill Hitler. Because I started off thinking she knows she’s got to kill Hitler, and then I thought “Well, how does she know that?” I thought “She actually has to experience the war,” she had to actually go through that before she could, in one of her lives, kill Hitler. But then, it begins with the idea that it’s completely circular anyway. I hadn’t really realized this until I looked back on it. Every life she becomes stronger. Every life she acquires something. Every life she becomes more heroic. She’s never ready for it until she’s goes through the worst. So it is a case of, two steps forward, one step back for her all the time.
You reference Nietzsche, and in a sense, in Ursula learning through her lives, aren’t you asking the reader, How far would you go to make something inadvertent come good?”
There’s this sense that the public concept of justice and legality is different from the private one, and furthered, you have to forge your own system of ethics and that may be contrary to what other people would believe. So I think, as Ursula gets stronger, she realizes that the individual has responsibility. One theme in lots of things I write is it is up to an individual to decide what’s right and wrong, which goes against, obviously, our legal code, where it has to be the same for everyone. But you know, if someone killed your child, your instinct would be to kill them, there’s no doubt about that. So in a way, the legal code keeps us from a kind of savagery. On the other hand, that savagery is often ethically right, you know? For Ursula, she moves further and further away from what other people would do. But we talk about her learning , and changing—it was incredibly difficult to keep that vague enough so she doesn’t really understand what’s happening.
That idea gained momentum as the book went on.
It does, and she becomes more and more conscious.
And so does the reader.
Yes, and so does the reader. It’s still kept at bay, I think, and that was tricky! Because I don’t really consider the reader too much when I’m writing…I just take a backward step in saying “Would this make sense if I didn’t know what I was writing?”
How much time did you spend researching, and how long would you say the book was in the making?
I did a lot of reading over the course of a year, and then put it all to one side, because it’s easy to get obsessed by research. You’ve got to remember that it’s fiction, and it’s a novel, and you are making it up. And you’re even allowed to make up things that maybe should be facts—you have to be cautious because you’re dealing with something that really happened, it’s real life. I think it was Rose Tremain who was on the radio and the interviewer asked her “Oh, you must do so much research,” and she said—I’m sure it’s her, I don’t think I’m misquoting her—that for every fact she researched, she made one up. And I think that it’s such a good rule of thumb! So I haven’t made up facts, particularly, but you make up context, because you have to make up a story. Things do move away from that original research. You just don’t want to write a book that shows that you know how to fly a Halifax, because you need to get the feeling more than you need to get the fact.
Absolutely! I struggle with that even editing stories. I was working on something this morning and thought, “This woman is really interesting, why is she not coming across as interesting?’ You realize it’s because you’ve just written her resume rather than paint a picture of what it feels like to go into her house.
And I think because at the starting point you always have to be inside the character’s head. You have to be inside Ursula’s head in 1923 before you can feel what 1923 feels like to Ursula, you know what I mean? I think that’s the way I write anyway—that kind of stream of consciousness, internal monologue, it’s hard for me not to write. I like the past. I like the idea of recreating the ambiance of the past. I find that fascinating to do.
How do you explain the same thing over and over and have it still sound different every time?
I think if you read it like me, you kind of forget everything as you’re going along. Nothing’s repeated exactly, word for word, except for Mrs. Haddock at the beginning and near the end—that’s the only chapter that’s identical. I think, as a reader, that I thought I would quite like to be returning to something I’ve read, because I’m not holding it in my brain so strongly that I’m thinking “Oh God I’ve read this before.” It’s more like “Oh, right!” and I think it does that accretion thing where as time goes on, you begin to think “How is this going to be different, how is this going to be the same?” It feels safe almost. But at the same time it’s still quite dangerous because you don’t really know what’s going to happen. Structurally, it’s been interesting, both for the reader and for me.
Read Part 2 of our interview with Kate Atkinson next week!
This interview has been edited and condensed.