Why our Book Club author thinks happiness is boring

In the second part of our interview, Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life, shares her thoughts on family dynamics and what she wants to do before she dies.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In Part 1 of the interview, the English author talks about the inspiration for her latest novel, her fascination with history, and how she decided to kill off Hitler. Read the Q&A here.

One of your themes is generational stories—families and their dynamics.

I don’t understand those dynamics. Every family is different. Or every family is unhappy, in their own way. Or, you can’t write about happy families. There’s no fictional mileage in happiness. I would very much like to write a book entirely about happy people, but you just can’t. It’d be impossible! One of the things I have on my list, before I die, is to try and write something about happiness, and have happy people. What would that be like? I don’t know!

I wonder if it’s more contentment, or something, that comes as a result of hardship.

Well, contentment is possible, in life and in fiction, but happiness? Happiness is a madness. I mean, happily ever after? What’s that? What would that be like? That would be like a cartoon.

Maybe it’s a children’s book that needs to not end in happily ever after—maybe that’s where you start with your writing a book about what real happiness is.

Someone just sent me a card, and it was one of those sort of jokey, feminist cards, and it’s a woman reading to her children: “…and then children, I didn’t marry him, and I drank and I danced and I bought clothes and I had a lovely time!” Ever after.

I’d like to think in one of her lives, that’s what Ursula does.

She’s very happy in one of her lives, somewhere. Happiness is plausible, but it’s not very interesting, I think. I’m an only child, and only children are very much “Why us?” Because when you’re in a family with siblings, bigger families, as an only child—I’m sure most only children feel the same—you are constantly astonished by the levels of aggression that occur between siblings, that sibling to-and-fro that goes on, which is probably both therapeutic and a fantastic learning experience. But as an outsider, as an only child, when you have no experience of that, it’s horrifying! My own two daughters are more than six years apart, so they didn’t have any of that sibling rivalry, so I haven’t even observed it. Possibly I see it more in my grandchildren, because they’re much closer in age. I think for me, it’s an exploration of how families work, because I don’t know how they work.

So families are ready-made units that allow you to explore each character through the interactions with other people?

Yes, and it’s handy. It’s not like thinking “Oh, I need a set of characters, let them all work in a bank.” It’s like where do you get characters? Families are really handy. And I had consciously not written about families as such in all the Jackson Brodie books. This was absolutely, yes, OK, this is definitely a book about family. But generally speaking, it’s all of those disasters that are happening to people and it’s not about being in a family. It’s a book about the war.

It’s the parts that resonate the most with each individual reader.

Yes, always.


This interview has been edited and condensed.


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